Monday, 9 December 2013

In Conversation with Kate Mosse

By Gillian Hamer

When Labyrinth – the first book in The Languedoc Trilogy – became the best-selling title in the UK in 2006 and sat on the number one spot for over six months, author Kate Mosse hit the headlines. Labyrinth has now been published in an impressive thirty-eight countries, with television rights recently sold to world famous director, Ridley Scott.

More success with the remaining books in the trilogy – Sepulchre and Citadel – have cemented Mosse’s name as one of the country’s best-selling authors and catapulted her to international fame.

Writing since the publication of her debut novel, Eskimo Kissing, in 1996, Mosse has worked hard for her success. As well as her success with fiction novels and novellas, she has published two non-fiction books; written a theatre play; is co-founder and honorary director of the Women's (previously Orange) Prize for Fiction; twice named European Woman of Achievement for contribution to the arts; co-founder of the Chichester Writing Festival; a leading campaigner for literacy and reading in the UK … as well as a leading voice against library closures. And in October 2013, she received an OBE for her contribution to literature and services to women. An amazing tally, and that barely scratches the surface when you examine the tour of writing festivals, coaching assignments and publicity she is also required to undertake.

Her website is also a joy to behold, and testament not only to her passion for her own books, but also her keen interest in writing and writers. She has a workshop page and also a section giving advice to up-and-coming authors. She also allows readers to dig deep into her novels, with wonderful maps and tours of the worlds she creates.

It is a wonder this writer actually finds time to write. But write she does. This month sees the release of her eagerly awaited short story collection, The Mistletoe Bride and Other Haunting Tales.  Already getting excellent reviews in the press, The Mistletoe Bride sounds like perfect reading material for the dark winter nights ahead.

“Kate Mosse is also a master of the short form … Her ability to blur the lines between era is so fluid its testament to her writing … the ancient and modern ghostly tales of Mosse’s anthology left us fearful, but fulfilled.”

Words with Jam are hugely proud and excited to have chance to chat to Ms Mosse this month about location, characterisation and lots of important writerly things … Oh, and her pride at captaining the winning team on ‘Celebrity University Challenge!’

Location plays a strong central role in your books. What is it about a place or period that connects with you to give you the perfect setting for a novel or a story?

Stories are inspired by – and come out of – particular and unique landscapes. Integral, not simply a randomly chosen mise-en-scene  For me, it’s never a question of having an idea, then deciding where to set it, but rather that the nature of the terrain, the sky and seascapes, the mountains and ancient woods, give birth to a particular kind of people and, so, a particular kind of story. With The Mistletoe Bride, I went back to the landscape of my childhood – and where I live now – in Sussex.  With the Languedoc Trilogy, it came from our buying a little house there back in 1989.  From the first moment I set foot in Carcassonne I felt at home, felt that there were stories waiting to be told and that I could write them. For me, this interconnection between narrative, history and place is the spine around which I build a fiction.

I loved ‘The Labyrinth Walk’ section of your website and the photos of real-life locations you’ve used from around the medieval Cite of Carcassonne. Why do you give so much of yourself and your inspirations away to your reader?

Publishing is a perilous, not to say, fickle business.  Most novelists acknowledge that, up to a point, luck plays a big role in success.  Also, my experience is that most writers don’t take luck for granted and are generous, feel ‘but for the grace of God ….’, so try to support those who are just starting out.  So, by supporting emerging or developing writers, by sharing inspirations, sharing tips of the trade, sharing information about how I work, I hope it will provide help for other writers.  We all spend a great deal of time on the road now, talking at literary festivals, libraries and bookshops, so know how intrigued readers and new writers are in the realities of a writer’s working life.  Not everyone has the time, inclination, opportunity to attend bookshop events or literary festivals, so by posting some of this on the website, it broadens out the dialogue.

Any plans for a new location in the future, somewhere you would like to set a novel now you’ve come to the end of The Languedoc Trilogy?

My latest book – The Mistletoe Bride & Other Haunting Tales – is not only my first ever collection of short stories, but also is mostly inspired by the legends, folklore and landscape of Sussex –  my real home, as it were, rather than my adopted home of Carcassonne. It’s taken me fifteen years of writing to feel finally at home writing about the place I grew up, but from the reaction to the stories, it’s clear that it was a decision just waiting to be taken.

You spend a lot of time getting every detail of France and its history, culture and language perfect. In Citadel your attention to detail in the WWII period of Nazi occupation was a real lesson of how to achieve what every writer attempts. How do you approach research, and do you love or loathe?

One of the great joys of writing The Mistletoe Bride was being released from the strictures of large-scale research. It was very liberating to sit down at my computer and start writing, no detailed planning, no years-long build up, working on a small scale, if you like, rather than an epic scale.  The art of short story writing is in capturing a moment, an emotion, rather than having a responsibility to create an entire world.

Having said that, I love research and, for the Languedoc Trilogy, research provides the backbone of each of the three novels.  I enjoy everything, both physical and ‘book’ research – reading contemporary documents and newspapers, scouring libraries and museums, listening to the music of the period and looking at the art.  Most of all, I enjoy the ‘out and about’ research – climbing mountains, investigating the landscape.  Thorough research not only provides the hard, verifiable spine of the story, but more significantly, often gives rise to many of the key ideas – plot twists and turns, shifts of point-of-view, story development. As a final note, I love learning stuff! No novelist would choose to write a novel set in a period of history that doesn’t interest them personally, so it’s great to have the chance to flesh out basic information, deepen one’s understanding of things.

The period of research for Citadel was particularly long, because the evident and everyday consequences of WWII and the Occupation of Carcassonne are there as everyday reminders, whereas there is enough distance between the events I portray in Labyrinth, say, for there to be perspective.  Medieval history is not as raw, if you will. There is a danger, though, of course that a writer becomes in thrall to her research, that you become paralysed and unable to actually start writing. Research should provide the architecture, the structure, that then gives the writer the freedom to imagine.

What novel would you have liked to have written, and why?

Most novelists spend their time searching for our own and unique voices, so it would be counterproductive to look at someone else’s writing and wish we’d done it - that way madness lies. Comparing your work to that of others will always end in disappointment … there will always be writers who seem more elegant, more accomplished, more imaginative (provide any other adjective you can think of!) than you.  But … there are many novels I admire and love, novels which have stood the test of time, first amongst them Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte.

Characterisation is clearly central to you. If you could pass on your thoughts to an up-and-coming writer about the important of characterisation, what would you say?

A list of attributes or physical characteristics – either in your head or written on post-it notes – doesn’t make a three dimensional, plausible, flesh-and-blood character.  Characterisation isn’t about having blue eyes or brown (unless it is a key plot twist!), but rather who they are. So what matters is having a clear outline of a character and what you want from them before you start, then letting them start to take their first steps and come to life naturally and on their own. It’s what editors and agents call the ‘yellow sock’ rule – ie that an author knows her or his character so well, that if a reader asked what colour socks they were wearing (even if it’s utterly irrelevant and you never get to see the socks), the author would instinctively and immediately be able to snap back an answer without thinking about it because you knew the character so well ….

 You must have learnt a great deal about writing and publishing over your career. What words of wisdom would you impart to the next generation of writers?

Three tips.  First, to write!  Five minutes every day is better than no minutes every day.  Too many emerging writers talk about it, but don’t actually sit down and get on with it. Writing is hard, it takes time and the more of it you do, the more likely it is that you will be a good writer. It’s like doing your scales on the piano – until you’ve mastered the basics, you won’t be ready to write that novel you’ve always wanted to. Second, to read.  You won’t be a good writer unless you are a good reader. This means learning to read as a writer, not thinking about taste or whether or not you are enjoying a novel, but rather noticing how things are done, noticing what works on the page and what does not.         Finally, remember that the sort of person you are as a reader (ie someone who likes reading ghost stories, say, or literary fiction) isn’t necessarily the writer you are.  They are distinct and different.

You’ve obviously won so many awards, honours and accolades throughout your career. What, as a writer, have been your proudest moments and achievements?

It’s tempting to say I hope the best is yet to come.  But, one or two highlights so far – seeing Labyrinth in paperback sit at No 1 in the UK for six months (and for my children to be so proud of seeing the book everywhere); I’m very proud of Citadel – it was a long and emotionally draining book to write, but I feel that I did my absolute best with the material, that I didn’t let down my characters; it was rather wonderful to be awarded an OBE for services to literature and for services to women (because of the Women’s – formerly Orange – Prize). Oh, and (slightly tongue-in-cheek, this) being captain of the 2012 winning team of ‘Celebrity’ University Challenge …..

Finally, what are your plans for the future and what next do you have in the pipeline?

Writing The Mistletoe Bride was a pleasure from start to finish – and readers’ reactions and feedback have been wonderful – so it’s whetted my appetite for concentrating on shorter fiction – short novels and novellas rather than door stops - drawing on folklore and old fashioned ghost stories. From page to stage, I’m also working on a big play commission – about a slice of forgotten women’s history – which will be ready for 2015. I’m incredibly excited about that.

Kate Mosse, Sussex/September 2013


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