'I had never even wanted to be a writer'
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 The Orange Prize, which is being renamed the Women’s Prize for Fiction now the telecoms company has withdrawn its sponsorship after 17 years, has been one of the most important recognitions of female authors in the history of publishing.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.