'I had never even wanted to be a writer'
When Kate Mosse complained about the lack of good pregnancy books she ended up being asked to write one - the first step to becoming a bestseller
It is difficult to know where to begin when talking to Kate Mosse, bestselling novelist, cofounder of the prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction and outspoken ambassador for literacy.
Should one start with the books? Mosse is the author of the internationally popular Languedoc trilogy, which began with the fantasy time-slip novel Labyrinth and concludes with Citadel, which has been high in the fiction charts since its publication.
Or maybe our conversation should begin with the broader question of the status of women writers in the 21st century, an issue on which she has been a tireless commentator for almost 20 years.
At times Mosse seems so prolific in both areas of her professional life that you assume she must be two people, but, standing rail thin and impeccably attired at the end of a three-week publicity tour, Mosse is the type of person who is energised rather than exhausted by her various commitments, which dovetail neatly for her into a single obsession: a belief in the importance of literature.
In fact the two potential narratives of Mosse’s professional life can be traced back to the same point of origin: the first months of 1996, when the Orange Prize was launched “to celebrate writing by women” and Mosse’s first novel, Eskimo Kissing, was published. The timing of these two events was more coincidental than strategic. Mosse had been working in publishing since graduating from Oxford, and the Orange Prize had been in inception for nearly five years.
Mosse’s burgeoning career as a writer, on the other hand, was practically accidental. Having complained to an editor friend about the lack of good pregnancy books when she was expecting her first child, she found herself with a contract to write one, and a second book, on the Royal Opera House in London, followed. “But I found that what I was really interested in, in both those nonfiction books,” Mosse says, “was the people behind the stories I collected.”
Suddenly, she was a novelist “when I had never even wanted to be a writer. But the funny thing was when I told friends they weren’t at all surprised. They said, ‘Well, of course! You were always writing these dreadful plays,’ and apparently I used to make them be in them.
“I didn’t remember any of this, yet it must have been true. So I suppose you could say the story of myself is not 100 per cent accurate.”
It is not quite accurate either to look to Mosse’s first two novels, Eskimo Kissing and Crucifix Lane, for the seeds of the historical fantasies with which she would make her name. The books are out of print, and Mosse insists they will remain so.
“They didn’t sell very well, because they are not very good,” she says with the self-flagellating honesty that perhaps only a successful novelist can have. “And I think it would be unfair on people seeking out my early work, because my readers tend to have a certain expectation of the type of book I write, and they would only be disappointed. In those first two novels I was trying to write literary fiction, as that is what I loved to read, but I wasn’t yet comfortable in my own skin as a writer, and I was sitting on my own shoulder the whole time, trying to control the book from the outside.”
It wasn’t until she embraced the tradition of adventure novels that had shaped her as young reader, Mosse says, that she “learned my voice”. The result was the mammoth time-slip adventure Labyrinth, which was published in 2005. The book is set in Carcassonne, the French walled city where she owns a house, and it follows two parallel narratives that flip back and forth in time, as a contemporary archaeologist uncovers the esoteric secrets behind a 13th-century civil war. Labyrinth was followed two years later by Sepulchre, which maintained the double time structure and Mosse’s interest in the supernatural. The Languedoc-located series concludes with Citadel, which is set during the second World War and follows a female resistance fighter on the trail of a mysterious codex that connects present-day events to an ancient past.
Mosse defines the trilogy as adventure books, “although no one really thinks adventure novels exist any more . . . When I told my editor I was writing an adventure book, he said, ‘For God’s sake, don’t say that!’ But [the genre] did exist when I was growing up. I was the oldest of three sisters, so when my mum was doing the baby stuff my dad would read aloud to me, and he read what he liked: stories by Conrad and Haggard and Jules Verne, which were full of sex and violence, and completely inappropriate for a five-year-old, of course.”
What was so attractive for her as young listener, she explains, was the fact that “things were happening all the time, but underneath there was this serious moral landscape, and that’s what I wanted to write”. Mosse’s work, however, differs from those adventure classics in a significant way. Firstly, she is a female writer, and the genre she was schooled in was traditionally a male-authored one. Secondly, her heroes are women; indeed Mosse glibly summarises Citadel as “girls with guns”. In the books these two defining factors do not come across as a deliberately feminist intervention. “I write women because I am a woman,” she says, “and why not? When you are writing you are to some extent mapping your own life.”
But the relationship to Mosse’s pioneering work on behalf of women’s writing cannot be ignored. The Orange Prize, which is being renamed the Women’s Prize for Fiction now the telecoms company has withdrawn its sponsorship after 17 years, has been one of the most important recognitions of female authors in the history of publishing.
The prize was established as a response by a group of male and female writers and critics to the disparity between the ratio of important books published by women every year and the amount of critical attention they received. The fact was, Mosse said, “the leading literary prizes were dominated by men. There seemed to be a very narrow value judgment on literature, one that failed to notice the different types of books that were being written, and not just by women, but by black, Asian or indigenous authors. The point we wanted to make is that literary prizes are a really important way of introducing readers to new work, and if readers don’t hear about the work the books go out of print, so it was about legacy publishing as well as fairness.
“And it makes a real difference. The Bookseller published a list recently of the top 10 prize-winning novels, and I was very proud of the fact that, after Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, the next three were Orange Prize winners.”
The gender-specific prize drew considerably controversy when it was established, dismissed by critics, including female authors such as AS Byatt, as a “sexist prize”. And it remains contentious, with fresh debate every year as the shortlist is published.
Yet, while Mosse acknowledges that “great art is above gender,” she is adamant that the award is both valid and necessary. “If you look at the statistics, it is something like 9-10 per cent of winners in the history of the Booker were women; with the Nobel Prize for Literature there are only nine [female] winners in more than 100 years. And the fact is things don’t automatically improve if you leave them alone.”
This might well be the motto that the irrepressibly energetic Mosse lives by. She has been talking for 90 minutes and has another interview immediately after ours ends, but she seems undaunted. “This is the best part,” she insists, “meeting people, getting feedback, sharing ideas.” But part of her cannot wait to get back to her house in Carcassonne, and the writing.
Citadel is published by Orion
Old flame: 'My love letter to Carcasonne'
“Labyrinth took almost five years to write, between research and the actual writing. Sometimes people call my books historical fiction, but I didn’t want to just be writing from the past. In historical fiction you are where you are, whether that’s Rome in the 1st century BC or France in the middle of the first World War. But I wanted a contemporary voice, because I wanted to be able to say ‘my God! Look at that door!’ Whereas if I was writing a historical novel that is something I would have had to ignore, so in some ways [the trilogy] is my love letter to Carcassonne.”
Thrill seekers: Mosse's favourite adventure writers
H Rider Haggard: “He wrote a lot of rubbish, but She and King Solomon’s Mines are classics.”
Jules Verne: “Around the World in Eighty Days, of course, but even more so Journey to the Centre of the Earth.”
Wilbur Smith: “He is sold as a thriller-writer, but if there were a contemporary adventure genre, he would be there.”
Philip Pullman: “If there is an adventure genre, it probably belongs to children’s writers like Pullman and JK Rowling.”