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An interview with author Kate Mosse

An interview with author Kate Mosse

During the recent Charroux Literary Festival we were delighted to meet international best-selling author Kate Mosse, and to discover how France has inspired some of her writing.

With her 2005 novel Labyrinth so far published in almost forty languages it’s perhaps unsurprising that in recent years Kate Mosse has added Seasoned Traveller to her impressive CV. As her readers know, France has proved to be particularly inspiring to her, so I was keen to learn more about the unlikely series of events which eventually sparked her obvious passion for the Languedoc region: “My family was from Chichester – still is, in fact. When I was doing A-Levels nobody spoke of careers, but more what you would enjoy learning about. I’d have loved to have read history, but for Oxford I would have needed a modern language, and I had Latin. I loved English, though, and thought how amazing it would be to go and study writers there.” Having done so she emerged armed with a BA, but it would be a long time before Kate would think of becoming a writer herself: “When I left Oxford I had no idea what I wanted to do but as my parents had seen to it that I’d had proper secretarial training, I went to a temping agency in London and was sent to a publishing company, who offered me a full-time job. Ten years later I got a very, very big job offer and asked myself whether I really wanted to be a publisher. I knew that if I said yes I’d be stuck, so I said ‘I’m off!’ and started writing.” 

But what, exactly? After years of experience working with authors, suddenly finding herself on the other side of the situation meant that Kate now faced the age-old dilemma of how to get started: “By then I had two small children and was having lunch with an agent friend, who is still my agent, and mentioned that when I was pregnant the book I really wanted to read – about how women really felt – wasn’t there. He said ‘Why don’t you stop moaning, and write it?’ So I said ‘I will.’, half-jokingly. The next day he called to say ‘I’ve got a contract with Virago for you to write this book’. It was completely unorthodox, but I just thought ‘I’d better write this book, then’.”

Becoming A Mother was published in 1993. It was followed two years later by The House: Behind The Scenes at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (to accompany the BBC documentary series) and two novels: Eskimo Kissing (1996) and Biotech Lane (1998). Clearly Kate was on her way, but is keenly aware of the element of chance which has repeatedly influenced her career: “As well as being passionate readers, lots of people at this festival are writing, and I always tell them that the only difference between them and me is that I’m published; we’re all writers. Luck plays a massive part in this sort of thing.”

It was certainly a factor in the success of Labyrinth: “I was the lucky person sitting in the chair when the music stops. I’d actually been working on the novel for ten years, and had handed over a first draft, when my son said ‘There’s this book I saw at the airport which sounds just up your street.’ It turned out to be The Da Vinci Code, which created an appetite for that sort of book. They’re actually not that similar beyond having Grail legends and being based partly in France, but it could have been the end of Labyrinth. Instead it was a real stroke of luck.”

The fortified town of Carcassonne inspired two subsequent titles, creating what is referred to as the Languedoc Trilogy: “Labyrinth took an enormous amount of time, from when we first went to Carcassonne in 1989 until the book was published in 2005, so when it was finished I thought that would be that. Then I realised that I wasn’t finished with the Languedoc, so I wrote Sepulchre (2007) – but it still felt like an itch. Then I wrote Winter Ghosts, based on a wonderful piece of history I came across while researching Labyrinth. At the time of Henri IV de Navarre five hundred bodies were found entombed in a cave outside Tarascon, in Ariège. The period, 1328, was wrong for Labyrinth but suddenly I thought ‘I know, I have the story for this.’ I realised that I’d been avoiding writing about the Second World War because there’s so much already written, but then I found a different story and a way into it. My books are connected by place, not any ongoing storyline or characters. It feels good to be planning a series of books from the outset, because I can do all the research and write faster. But with Sepulchre and Citadel (2013) while the understanding of the place was there I had to research everything else from scratch each time, so the gaps between them appearing were longer, which never helps in publishing.”

The labyrinth is among the most potent elements of medieval symbolism originally incorporated in great Gothic cathedrals like Chartres, Reims and even Poitiers. But does it retain a resonance for modern-day readers? “When I chose the title I was aware that we have them in Greece, Rome and Egypt, and of their link with Christianity, but I never found out why the explosion of labyrinths in the medieval period produced more of them in France than in the whole of the rest of Europe put together. As a novelist and amateur historian it made me wonder. Earlier editions of the book have a symbol which isn’t in fact a labyrinth but something my husband Greg and I came up with, and which he drew, but it turned out to arouse a lot of people’s curiosity.”
The research trail also took her to some of the Cathar fortresses: “As well as book research, I do a lot of physical research. In those early days, when there was less health and safety awareness, we’d ask if it was safe to visit with our two- and four year-olds and they’d say ‘Yes, of course.’ We’d suddenly find ourselves on a bare mountain, where the attitude was that if you fall off and die then it’s your fault. Some of our research was done with more fear than was helpful, but these are not comfortable places, and if you’re writing a scene set in Montségur under siege you do need to have been there – you can’t just do it from Google Earth!”

Kate’s passion for southern France is yet another result of mere chance: “When I was young my family had holidays in Brittany, and since Chichester is twinned with Chartres I’d been there too, on school trips. The main thing, though, was that Greg, who became my husband, had gone to Paris and risen to interpreter-level French at the Sorbonne. He moved back so that we could be together, but still had an emotional link with France. His mother had an estate agent friend whose agency was twinned with one in Carcassonne, and that’s the only reason we went there. It was pure serendipity – it could have been anywhere, but the moment I stepped off the train I just had the sense that I belonged here. Even though I knew nothing about it, there was a really powerful sense of connection. So we bought a tiny two-up, two-down house at the foot of the Château Comtal and over the years, when the children were little, we had a wonderful time there. It still feels old, and has the spirit of the mountains. Little by little, I realised that the story I’d been planning would be based in Carcassonne. We still have the house, but don’t have time to go there these days, so friends live in it.”

Which brings us neatly back to travel, and exploring France: “Some places are lovely but are silent to me as a writer. Toulouse is one of my favourite cities in the world, and feels like a writing place. At the moment I’m writing the screenplay for Winter Ghosts, which is set in Tarascon. I always thought it was a joy, but it never spoke to me until I went there in winter. Suddenly I realised that there would be a winter story. I don’t know La Rochelle yet, but I’ll be going there in October and I’ll know the instant I’m there. Obviously I write about other places, but I think France will remain central in some way or another because there’s something joyous about being an outsider. You make a place your own but you weren’t born into it, so you see it with different eyes. As a writer that’s very liberating to me.”

Words & Photo: Roger Moss

© Living Magazine. Published October 2015