The Friday Slot - Kate Mosse, author








It seems positively mean-spirited to describe Kate Mosse in the headline as simply 'author', when she does so many things. She was one of the founders of the Orange Prize (now the Women's Prize for Fiction), she founded the Chichester Writing festival and teaches creative writing at West Dean College, she has written and produced plays and of course, there are the huge international bestsellers - the first one, Labyrinth, in 2006, followed by Sepulchre and now this final volume in the trilogy, Citadel. She's also found time to write two non-fiction books, Becoming a Mother and Behind the Scenes at the Royal Opera House.

I've interviewed Kate in the past, and first came across her when I was in the audience for a tv interview she was conducting with Joyce Carol Oates. That was before she'd published her bestsellers although she had published a novel, Eskimo Kissing, by that point. I don't know if writers have any more insight into their interview subjects than anyone else - I'm a writer interviewing writers here after all - but watching Kate I was conscious that she had the right understanding that the interview required. Often, newspaper editors like interviewers to get 'personal' information from their subjects - I've never been good at that, and besides, it's not the personal I want to know about.  

Often, people want to know what the secret of an author's success is, hoping possibly to emulate it. Kate's 'secret' is not so secret, I think - it's down to sheer bloody hard work, making the best of her talent and keeping going. Her writing advice on her website reflects this aspect - it's practical, advising what works best in the time you've got and so on. In a time when so many writers are having a difficult time, she's an inspiring story of what is always possible. 


LM:  Your latest novel, Citadel, is the third in your series of historical, or 'timeslip', novels set in the Languedoc region of France. I wanted to ask first what you think of that favourite quote, 'the past is another country, they do things differently there.' Have you found it easier to set novels in a part of the world where you didn't grow up, that you didn't initially know well? When you write about the past, do you find yourself looking for things you recognise from today, or do you prefer what seems unknowable about the past, its difference from today? Has your research ever gotten in the way of the story, led you down paths you didn't want to go down?

KM: I love the L P Hartley quotation - the first line of his wonderful novel The GoBetween - but I don't really agree with him.  Although customs and context and expectations, are of course, different at different moments in history, I think human emotions remain really rather similar:  love, envy, passion (for a person or an idea), the desire for security and happiness, fear .... I believe that stories often echo stories that have gone before, I don't look for connections, I think they are there all the same.  There is also a quality of history in the Languedoc - the land itself - that seems to breathe a certain sort of connectivity between past and present. It is a place bristling with myth and legend, stories true and imagined, it's just a matter of listening.

And, yes, when I first started writing, the fact that Carcassonne and the Languedoc were new to me, was very important.  At home in Sussex, I was always a daughter, a mother, a wife, a friend, a neighbour, someone who had run the local theatre and grown up in Chichester.  In Carcassonne I could be, simply, a writer and walk the streets anonymously.  Very liberating.


LM: 'Citadel' focuses on the extraordinary bravery of two real-life unidentified female Resistance workers who were executed by the Nazis just before their withdrawal from the region. Do you feel that women during both world wars one and two have been given their full due? Do you deliberately shy away from domestic stories when you write women-led novels? Do you think women readers mostly want characters they can identify with, or ones they can admire? Do you find it easy or hard to identify with women from previous eras in history?

KM: It's a cliche to say that history is written by the victors, but - like most cliches - it is grounded in fact.  Women's different contributions are often overlooked or undervalued, sometimes because the women themselves don't wish to be lauded or celebrated, but also often because their work is not considered as important.  Much of history, in its traditional sense, focuses on the works of kings and generals and priests. When women are included, it is sometimes within a very narrow framework - women as mothers and wives, nurturers rather than active participants.   We see from our own experience that this is a partial, misleading, view, but nonetheless women still have to celebrate one another's achievements to ensure we are not consigned to the footnotes.

I don't write domestic stories because they don't interest me at all.  I'm interested in epic adventures, in the broad sweep of history against which individuals act.  I am driven by wanting to tell stories of action and momentum, rather than reflection, and to create strong and active female characters.  There are many excellent authors (men as well as women) who focus on the domestic.  I think all readers - women and men - sometimes want characters they can identify with, but more often just want characters they care about - no one keeps reading if they don't want to know what happens to a character, so it's the emotional engagement that is key.

LM: I've always been amazed how you fit in the many jobs you do! Has the fiction ever encroached too much on the other work you do, like the Orange prize (now the women's writing prize), or are you very disciplined about keeping it to a schedule? When you first started writing about Carcassone, was it purely a labour of love or did you sense the commercial potential in the location? Writers don't just have to be able to write - they have to spot a good story when they see one. Is that what happened to you when you first visited Carcassone? 

KM: What I try to do is to divide up my time sensibly.  I guard my writing time fiercely, but then always allow for the early part of the year to be dedicated to the Women's Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize). I am disciplined, in terms of working every day - seven days a week, 52 weeks a year - and trying to do one thing at a time.  Now, for example, I am spending a morning answering emails, so not writing and not talking about the Prize.  Tomorrow, I will be filming, but won't take a laptop to write with me. That's the key for me, doing one thing at a time and concentrating a hundred per cent on it.

And, yes, a labour of love. Or rather, not a labour of love so much as just enthusiasm, excitement at having an idea and working with hit.  Novels take a long time to plan and to get right, to edit and publish, so it has to come from a genuine desire to write the story and make it work.  The thought of commercial possibility (which might or might not come) is simply not enough to sustain years of work on a novel. Above all, it is fun.  Satisfying, challenging, enjoyable meeting readers and travelling - what job could be better than that ....

Comments

  1. That's an interesting interview, thank you. I really admire Kate, she's so intelligent and writerly and supportive of writing and writers. But I've not read any of her work, which is not good enough, so will put her at the top of my reading list for 2013.

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