The Wick - Kate Mosse The Wick - Kate Mosse
Monday Muse

Interview International bestselling author Kate Mosse

Kate Mosse
05 July 2021
Kate Mosse
05 July 2021
Summer holidays (when we can have them) mean reading, and for us that means Kate Mosse’s books. Best known for her multimillion-selling Languedoc Trilogy – which includes Labyrinth, Sepulchre and Citadel – Mosse is an award-winning novelist, non-fiction writer and playwright whose books have been translated into 38 languages and published in more than 40 countries.

She’s also an ardent supporter of other female creators (she was awarded an OBE in 2013 for services to literature and women), and the founder-director of the Women’s Prize for Fiction – the largest annual global celebration of women’s writing. In January earlier this year, Mosse also launched the global #WomanInHistory campaign to honour and celebrate the achievements of women throughout history and from every corner of the world.

She is currently working on a documentary inspired by #WomanInHistory, has recently published An Extra Pair of Hands (Profile Books, £12.99) – her account on finding herself as a carer to her mother-in-law and parents – and is working on the third novel in The Burning Chambers series, which will be ready for publication next year. Here she takes some time out of her very busy schedule to be this week’s Monday Muse.

THE WICK:   Talk us through your typical Monday. 

KATE MOSSE:   One of the things I love about my working life is that no day is the same, no week or month is the same. When I’m deep in the writing of a new book, there’s no difference between a Monday and any other day. I’ll have gone to bed early, have spent the night dreaming about my characters, then will be back at my desk at about 4am, ready to face the next chapter. You never really switch off and those early hours, before anyone else is awake, are my most creative time. I’ll have a cup of strong, sweet black coffee and, after an hour or two, another coffee and a piece of marmite toast (with lots of butter). Mid-morning, I’ll find time for a walk over the South Downs – dreaming and relaxation time that comes from being away from screens.

TW:   You’re an inspiration to many. What inspires you?

KM:   More than 30 years ago, we bought a tiny house in the shadow of the medieval city walls of Carcassonne. I fell in love with the romance of that corner of southwest France, with the history and the folklore, and started to hear what I think of as the, ‘whispering in the landscape’. Though I’d written four books before, I started to make notes for a novel set in the 13th century, a grail story telling the intertwined stories of two women. Labyrinth came out in 2005 and became an international bestseller. Filmed for Channel 4 by Ridley Scott – starring the great late John Hurt, Vanessa Kirby and Tom Felton – its utterly unexpected success made it possible to give up the ‘day job’ and become a full-time writer. Since then, I’ve published eight further novels and short story collections inspired by the landscape of Languedoc.

TW:   You have recently published a non-fiction book on care. What inspired you to write that story?

KM:   My very first book back in 1993 was about my experiences of being pregnant and becoming a mother so, in a way, An Extra Pair of Hands is a return to the earlier days. I’ve been, on and off, a carer for 12 years and living in a multi-generational household. There are 13 million unpaid carers in the UK, and I wanted to raise my voice in support of carers, many of whom who have little or no support, and we’ve been able to partner with charities including Parkinsons UK, Carers UK, Dementia Trust and the Wellcome Trust. It’s the most personal book I’ve written, and it was tough to revisit some of the darker times, but it’s also as a celebration of older people, of ageing and of care as an act of love.

TW:   In 1996, you co-founded the Women’s Prize for Fiction, what drove you to do this? 

KM:   Our aim was – and is still – to amplify, to honour and to celebrate women’s voices and women’s creativity. Back in the 1990s, although the majority of novels were authored by women and the vast majority of readers of fiction were women, fewer than 9 per cent of novels shortlisted for major literary awards were written by women. We wanted to change that and start a new prize, built on diversity of voice and experience, truly international (any woman writing fiction in English is eligible). Our dream was to use the razzamatazz and, yes, the controversy of setting up a prize focusing on women to fund a range of research, educational and charitable projects to help shift the dial. Celebrating excellence, accessibility, originality and imagination, the WPFF has now promoted hundreds and thousands of novels to millions of readers worldwide. We’ve worked with amazing readers, writers, sponsors and partners and, every year, the novels shortlisted for the prize hit the top of bestseller lists all over the world. Like everyone, we’ve had to adjust to the current landscape, so moved most of our activity online. Though it’s been a challenge, it’s enabled an even wider range of people to engage with the WPFF and helped promote our agenda of diversity and access. (The 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced on 8 September.)

“It’s up to all of us already in the industry to broaden opportunity and help encourage the writers of tomorrow.”

TW:   This year’s Prize marks the launch of Discoveries, a new platform to champion unpublished female writing talent. What do you hope this will achieve?

KM:   Publishing in general in the UK has been slow to reach out to diverse communities, and to support a wide range of potential authors from all sorts of backgrounds, different ethnicities, different kinds of writing, different ages. We wanted to reach beyond the London bubble to women from all over the country, and to communities that don’t necessarily think that writing is an option for them. Out of nearly 3,000 entries – 73 per cent from outside London – a longlist of 16 was chosen, then a shortlist of six and we announced our winner in June. Powered by Natwest and the literary agency Curtis Brown, every author will receive mentoring from a literary agent, free access to the writing courses and guidance on how to develop their careers. It’s up to all of us already in the industry to broaden opportunity and help encourage the writers of tomorrow. We’ll be announcing the 2022 competition on our website in September.

TW:   In January 2021, you launched #WomaninHistory. Tell us about why you started it.

KM:   It became obvious early on how easily and how quickly women’s contributions vanish from the history book. Even women who were hugely important and famous in their days – Mary Seacole, for example, or conservationist Rachel Carson – frequently find their achievements overlooked or, as in the case of the fossil hunter Mary Anning, misattributed to their male counterparts. (Even now, some 93 per cent of people contributing to Wikipedia are men, which influences who’s included and who is not.) In the grim days of the third lockdown in January I decided to launch a social media campaign to help put women back into history – one name at a time. Within days, I had thousands of entries from all over the world and it was wonderful seeing how people wanted to celebrate the best, to be positive and to be part of the project. We’re now finalising a television series inspired by the campaign and a history book, written with the women put back in, will be published in autumn 2022.

TW:   What exciting projects do you have coming up?

KM:   I have a short story for a wonderful collection – still top secret – then it’s onto my next non-fiction book and then the third novel in The Burning Chambers series, which is set in Tenerife and Cape Town and tells the story of a female pirate. In 2022, my first major play has been commissioned for Chichester Festival Theatre, part of CFT’s 60th anniversary series and the first-ever new play written by a woman performed on the main stage. It feels a huge honour as a ‘local girl’, but also a huge responsibility, so I’m working already with the director on staging and casting and how to flood the stage without fusing the lights.

TW:   What did lockdown teach you?

KM:   I don’t think the true cost – on people’s well-being, financial good health, mental good health, long-term social consequences – will be known for some time. There were things, though, that personally I valued, not least of all having more time with my grown-up children and their partners, which felt like a real gift; I walked and walked the South Downs and the Sussex coastline and had time to watch the seasons changing. I learnt that I need less noise, bustle and hustle than I’d realised; and that – despite the incompetence and veniality of certain politicians, who have let the UK down – most people have a strong community spirit and stepped up for their neighbours and families.

TW:   Desert Island quarantine: what one book, artwork and album do you take with you?

KM:   The collection of poems that means the most to me – that has been with me at every significant moment of personal growth or loss – is T S Eliot’s Four Quartets. His meditation on faith, love, landscape, writing, the human condition is beautiful, lyrical, consoling and I would never tire of reading. I have a first edition, given to me by the crew of my first television books series for BBC Four, which I treasure.

The artwork? Well, if Tate Britain would let me borrow it, I’d take one of John Martin’s extraordinary apocalyptic paintings. There are three – The Great Day of His Wrath (1851), The Plains of Heaven (1851) and The Last Judgement (1853) – and, if forced to choose, I’d take the last for the balance of light and dark. Very much inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost, they are powerful and vengeful works, but with incredible depth of emotion and vivid, starling colour.

The album is harder, because I listen to very different things to suit my changing, moods. If contemporary, it’d probably be David Bowie’s Station to Station, an album that kept me permanent company in my mournful teenage bedroom in the 1970s or possibly Janis Ian’s At Seventeen; for a classical choice, it would be Wagner’s mighty Parsifal – I think all of those huge emotions and thundering voices would be a good diversion on a desert island and help stave off loneliness.

TW:   Who is your ultimate Monday Muse?

KM:   I’m going to cheat and say all the women in the public eye, everywhere in the world, who – regardless of what is thrown at them – get up every Monday morning and carry on doing their best to make the world a better place.

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