Kate Mosse: Best-selling author of historical mysteries

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on linkedin
Share on whatsapp
Share on email
Share on print

image-katemosse200Kate Mosse is the author of the bestselling book Labyrinth – a book about archaeology, love and mystery set in contemporary and medieval France. It's about Alais and Alice whose destinies are linked.

Kate has just completed Sepulchre – another book set in modern and medieval France, which links her characters Meredith Martin and Léonie Vernier.

Kate's books are described as well-researched absorbing historical mysteries with wonderful interlinking female characters.

Kate has also written a non fiction book in its sixth edition called Becoming a Mother and two other novels Crucifix Lane and Eskimo Kissing.

She is also the co founder of the Orange Prize for Fiction. This prize selects female authors from the Commonwealth each year and presents them with the Orange Prize for fiction.

Kate lives in the United Kingdom.

Click play to listen. Running time: 31.53

Sepulchre

Transcript

* Please note that these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie:
Thanks for joining us today, Kate.

Kate:
Hi. It's a pleasure.

Valerie:
Now, your books – there's so much of France in them. Why does France feature so heavily in your books?

Kate:
Well, I live part of the year in Carcassonne, in the southwest of France and my stories, which are good old-fashioned adventure stories, are completely inspired by that landscape. So if you like the landscape, it's like a stage set and then you start to want to put characters on it and make them walk about the place so the writing and the place is completely linked for me.

Valerie:
And that your last two books have been historical fiction. Why are you interested in that kind of genre?

Kate:
I love the idea that most of the things that we want to understand about today – about the present day – if you learn your history well enough and go back to the past, you can see the answers there. And so I like stories that are called time-slip novels that go backwards and forwards between two periods of time.

So in Labyrinth, it's 13th century France and modern France and in Sepulchre it's fantasy about France so the 1890s and the modern day. And it's really a way of saying this is the story of the past but you know what? Those people, they were like you and me. They might have worn different clothes, they might have had different expectations, they might have had different pressures upon them but actually they still feel the same things that we do.

And in my part of France, in the southwest, which is about near the border with Spain the history is everywhere. The modern day is lived in the shadow of the past. There's the buildings, the history, the books – everything sort of seems to exist in these two different places. So it was a natural thing to try to capture some of that in my novels.

Valerie:
Yeah, and with Labyrinth, 800 years separates your characters, Alaïs and Alice. What inspired this novel and why did you decide to have them interweave their stories in that way?

Kate:
Well, I think my medieval heroine, Alaïs, is about 17 when the story starts and it's set against the backdrop of the crusade against the southwest of France, which was launched in 2009 by the French king and the Catholic pope. And although it was fought in the name of God, it was – you'll not be surprised to hear this – actually, it's sort of an invasion, really.

It was about land, it was about wealth, it was about culture and it was a turning point in European history. And for me, I wanted to bring that history to life, this crusade against a particular group of Christians called the Cathars, who were wiped out in this crusade and it was the reason the Inquisition was founded all over the world – to get rid of the Cathars in 13th century France.

And so what I wanted to do was tell that period of history, which is so much a part of the character as of the part of France we live in. Alaïs lives in the Château Comtal in Carcassonne. I see that from my bedroom window every day I open the shutters.

So for me, it's bringing my adopted hometown to life. But the reason I have a modern component is because we live in the modern day and I wanted to bring in some of the excitement that I feel about history, about this period of history. But you cannot do that quite so much if you only write historical fiction.

And so my novels in the U.K., they're not called historical fiction; they're known as time-slip novels and they're known as adventure stories, if you like. I normally put in thriller – the thriller category rather than the historical fiction category because of the modern side of things, which very much works as a thriller.

And the idea is, really, that historic goes backwards and forwards in time and it's that the clues that are set in the historical period of Sepulchre and Labyrinth are unraveled and discovered in the modern day. And of course the modern heroines discover that the past is far from dead and buried and those secrets still have a bite in them.

Valerie:
Now I know that you obviously, because you live there, you live and breathe the setting but apart from that, do you do a great deal of research into that era?

Kate:
Yes. I research for years. 3, 4, 5 years before I write. Getting the history right is very important to me. I'm not an historian but I think if you decide to set things in real periods of history, you owe it to your reader to be telling them as it was, insofar as there are shades of interpretation but basically, you get it right, so absolutely.

So it's a mixture of, obviously, working in libraries, research, reading, documents of the day, 13th century or the 19th century. The 19th century, you have other things like literature. Sepulchre is a ghost story so I was reading a lot of 19th century ghost stories such as Maupassant, such as Henry James, such as Algernon Blackwood; all of the greats of that period of writing.

You also have music and art that you can look to. In the 13th century, you're much more reliant on church records in museums that are on particular subjects. But I also like to physical research. So in Sepulchre, for example, there's a duel scene so I went along to an ancient weapons expert. And he showed me dueling pistols. He showed me how to fire them, how the catch went back. With Alaïs in Labyrinth, she's very handy with her sword so I went to a fighting expert who does a lot of the fights for the big films that we've all seen Zorro and all of these things and said, “Can you show me how you would hold a battle sword? What's the weight of it? How you cut and thrust?”

I also, obviously, live and breathe the place but I go one step further so if I have one of my heroines or heroes walking from a village to another one, I've done that walk because I want to know, when I say it takes two hours and 20 minutes, that it does.

So I love the physical research as much as I like the book and the learning research. And then the internet I do use. It's really useful for verifying things or for looking, now you can go online to the new – a museum in New York that has lots of 19th century costumes in it and I can look at 25 different types of corsets online and I can choose a corset for my 19th century heroine to wear. So I can write, with great confidence, that it does come up at the front.

Now, in the old days you couldn't have done that; you would have had to be in the museum itself, or look in a book with pictures. So the internet is really good for that sort of stuff. It's very good for weather. I start Sepulchre in a graveyard in Paris on the 25th of March in 1891. I could check that it was raining that day because of the Internet. Which is incredible.

Valerie:
Thank God for the internet.

Kate:
Yeah, yeah. Absolute. But I never use it for real research because there's so much on the internet that's wrong. There's so much hearsay and gossip. There's so much that contradicts so the real historical research you do with proper academic history and libraries and museums and you do it yourself.

Valerie:
It sounds like you do an incredible amount of research because I've spoken to some writers who actually do the writing first and then fill in the gaps later. Do you think it's important for you to do it the other way around?

Kate:
For me, it's essential to do it the other way around because I write really fast-moving books. They are adventures or some people call them thrillers or whatever. And I don't want to have to stop in the middle of the narrative to go and check if a man in the 19th century would have a beard or be clean-shaven. I need to know that because if I were stopping to check details all the time, there'd be no pace in the book.

So for me, I do all of that research. I have thousands and thousands of words of research which will all be divided up in my file into clothes, food, customs and literature. So if I have Léonie sit down, curl up in a chair and pick up a copy of the latest novel by Flaubert, I need to know what was published then.

Valerie:
Oh, of course.

Kate:
I can't be checking it. So for me, that's how I do it. For other people, they're really happy writing a story and then finding what they need to know but I need to immerse myself in the world. And I know from my readers that that's one of the things – I think that's why I have a lot of male readers, that they like the detail and the real history in it.

And it's not just color, it's not just background – it's sharing real history and there's an imaginative story put on top of that real history, if you like.

Valerie:
Do you ever find yourself having to pull back on the history? Because I imagine you research so much stuff that it's tempting to put a lot of information which might not need to be there. Do you find you ever have to pull back on your knowledge?

Kate:
Absolutely. Absolutely. That's exactly how it is, that you must always remember in the end that it's a novel and when you hit a page – which editors always called an info drop, where the author has put 45 pages of information about Visigoth tombs in, because they know it. And you go, “Yep. Okay,” you've got to cut it.

But the truth is that the reader knows. The reader can tell if you know what you're talking about. So there might only be two sentences about a dress someone's wearing or the castle or the weapons in the battle but it's the depth that lies underneath that. The reader can always tell if an author has done his or her work properly; her research properly. So you do have to be tough with yourself and also, often, the editor will keep saying, “You need to get rid of this. Really there's just too much,” and you hang on and you hang on. Then, when you come to read the final draft you go, “Yeah.” As soon as a piece of research gets in the way of the story, as soon as you notice the research it's got to go.

Valerie:
Now your first book, Eskimo Kissing, is about a twin's search for her adoptive parents after her sister has died. What made you write this book?

Kate:
The glib answer is that I was actually invited to write a novel, which God it's so annoying for people who are working but it was – I've written two non-fiction books and then a fiction editor had read them and said, “I know these are non-fiction but actually what you're doing is telling the story of real people. Have you ever thought about writing a novel?” And I thought, “Well, I'll have a go.”

And I was inspired to write that story because – and it's set in my hometown of Chichester. I have two sisters, both of whom I love very dearly. One of them is adopted and all the way through our childhood, we would play games on people because they – people would say the most incredibly crass things like, “Which is your real sister,” and stuff like this.

And we would always pretend it would be different ones of us in all of this but it meant that obviously I had quite a lot of feelings about the nature of blood versus the nature of inheritance versus the nature of nurture. The nature/nurture argument: are you who you are genetically or because of what people make you.

And of course, as a parent that it's a bit of both. But so that was where the story came from and I was just very interested in the idea of – the story is a girl they're happy to be adopted, these two girls. It's made no difference to them; they're quite proud about it but then one of the twins dies and a bombshell comes out of the blue which is the surviving twin discovers they weren't twins after all. So how does that change their relationship?

Valerie:
And so did you find that transition, to writing a novel, to writing fiction after writing non-fiction fairly easy and natural or quite difficult?

Kate:
Really difficult and they're not very good. I wrote two novels. I'm really proud of them – Eskimo Kissing and Crucifix Lane – because I worked hard on them and the basic story ideas were good. But I didn't find my writing voice until Labyrinth.

And so the thing that I say – I teach creating writing and I say to our students all the time is, “Remember this. It's a key piece of information. The person you are as a reader is not necessarily the person you are as a writer. So you might love chick lit but you might not be able that. Your gift might be for literary fiction. You might love crime fiction but your gift might be in historical romance.”

And so it takes everybody a time to find. So when I read – look back on I suppose, my first two novels – what I can see there is the product of having been a publisher and an editor. I can see someone looking for their writing voice but who hasn't quite found it and with Labyrinth and Sepulchre, I discovered, oddly, that my voice was big old-fashioned adventure stories. It was epic stories with beginning, middle, end; clear, moral landscape – big books based on history and research.

This is not the sort of books that I was particularly reading but that turns out to be where my skill lies. So that's the biggest piece of advice I ever did give to new writers: listen to your writing voice and it's not necessarily your reading voice.

Valerie:
Great. Now your non-fiction book, Becoming A Mother, is now in its sixth edition. What made you decide to write that in the first place?

Kate:
Well, I was pregnant and it's a book about being pregnant.

It was one of those very funny situations. I was just leaving publishing. I was having lunch with a friend who's a literary agent. I was just pregnant with my second child, who is now 15; my eldest is 18. And there were lots of brilliant pregnancy books about the medicine and the physical side of things but I hated being pregnant and I wanted a book that was about what other women felt – not what was happening to them physically, but what they felt about the experience of being pregnant.

And I, like many people, whenever I'm in any distress whatsoever, I turn to books. I feel there's going to be a book that will sort me out here and so I was amazed that two years after being pregnant first time, still the book I wanted didn't exist; it wasn't on the shelves. And I said this to this literary agent friend and he called my bluff. And he said, “Well, why don't you stop moaning and write it?” And then I thought, “Well, I will. Okay.” And that's how my writing career started.

Valerie:
Did you always know you wanted to write?

Kate:
No. No. Although people who have known me all of my life said that I was always writing, but it wasn't what I didn't have this burning desire to be a writer, no. Actually, I've come into that. I mean, that was why Labyrinth and Sepulchre are so significant to me and why it's such incredible luck that they've both been international bestsellers is that I didn't realise until I was sitting down to write Labyrinth. I almost leapt up from the computer in shock when I thought, “Oh my God, this is what I want to do.”

Valerie:
Wow. That was the turning point for you?

Kate:
Yeah. So book four was when I thought, “Oh my God, I do want to be a writer. How interesting.”

Valerie:
Gosh.

Kate:
Before that it had been like writing in the same way that I've done lots of things. I find it really fulfilling, it was really challenging, really exciting but I do a lot of broadcasting; I worked for the BBC but I don't want to be broadcaster. I just enjoyed doing that. But Labyrinth is different and so that's why it was so lucky that it became this big success and Sepulchre has followed in its shoes. So it doesn't always happen that way and I'm very grateful to the publishers that have supported me, have published me so well and have made it possible for me.

Valerie:
And so what are you working on now?

Kate:
I'm not working on anything at the moment because this trip to Australia is my 12th of 15 countries this year –

Valerie:
Wow.

Kate:
For Sepulchre. I'm published in – for Sepulchre and Labyrinth in 38 countries and I do want to support publishing outside of the U.K. because I think it's really important. I think that the U.K. is very bad about support writers in other parts of the world; is very bad about translation. And I feel it's important that, as an author, I go to the countries that are publishing me and make an effort for them because they are making an effort for me.

But it doesn't mean that you're in a very good place for sitting down and starting to think quietly. So when I'm back at my desk in the autumn for England, which will be the beginning of your summer, I guess, in October I've got ideas in the back of my mind. I'm not pushing them at the moment.

Once I'm there, I'll be sitting down. I'll start to be thinking. I'm pretty sure of where I'm going but until you sit down, sometimes the best idea, when you actually turn the spotlight on it, turns to dust in your hands.

Valerie:
Right.

Kate:
So you don't quite know whether it's going to work or not until you start to give it attention.

Valerie:
Will it be safe to say it will be a time-slip novel?

Kate:
I don't even know that. I mean, I think it will be and I think it will be the third one of the trilogy and set in France.

But it might not be.

Valerie:
Okay.

Kate:
Because the only way that you can keep going as a writer, particularly if you're like me and you write big books in length, you've got to really want to do it. You've got to be passionate about it.

Valerie:
Oh yes.

Kate:
If you're not 100% then it won't work. So it's that, really.

Valerie:
So your book Crucifix Lane is about Annie, who finds herself in the year 2008, in London, but then is thrown back to the year 1997. Now you wrote the book in 1998 so what was it like to imagine London in 2008 and what's it like now that 2008 is here?

Kate:
Well, I am so glad you've asked me that, actually, because the thing that is so interesting for me about Crucifix Lane, which, for me, is the least successful of my novels. Not least of all, I had a very close friend who was dying at the time and I can see that my mind was really not on something as trivial as writing a novel frankly.

But I can see, of course, it was a time-slip novel. It was where I was going to end up but without realising it at the time. It was very exciting to imagine the future. What is very odd is certain things are really quite accurate.

So for example, I do have a lot of focus on the problem of weather and environmental change, biotechnology and the fears that London will flood. Well, we are in that world now, so that's really interesting. I also have some of the old diseases coming back, like dengue fever and typhoid. This is also happening.

Other things that I thought would have gone further haven't really changed so much so I remember very clearly we have a microwave where you put food in it and it makes stuff hot really quickly. And I thought by 2008, we'd have the opposite – it was something that slowed down the molecules to make something cold. Well, that hasn't yet hit here – hit the High Street.

But it's very interesting looking back on that – that some of the issues – that I was not particularly involved in environmental movements. I didn't – and it wasn't a particular passion of mine but I'm interested now looking back that I did pick on those things. And I've been sitting watching Hurricane Gustav, Ike is coming in, look at those awful floods in northern India and those – the human tragedy there unfolding all to do with water and flooding. And that's really what Crucifix Lane is about.

Valerie:
So what also inspired you to co-found the Orange Prize for Fiction?

Kate:
Lots of people were involved in setting it up. I get the credit just because I'm the one with the dozens that does all the chat about it.

But there were lots of us involved – men and women involved. And it was a Booker short list in 1991 that had no women on it at all and it wasn't a question of let's all have a moan about this or say that it's not fair or that there must be quotas in prizes, because obviously that is absurd. But it was asking a very serious question about what is considered literature? And is it a matter of subject matter? Is it style? How can it be that in a year where 65% of the published novels were by women – none of them were deemed good enough to be on the Booker short list.

And out of that came a period of research which showed that, actually, although the majority of novels – something in the region of 62% of published novels in the U.K. – eligible for the big prizes were by women. Only 11% of books on the Booker short list were by women.

So it was clear that there was an issue. Nobody quite knew what it was and it wasn't silly and unfair, it – but there was an issue. And so we decided to found a prize that would celebrate international fiction by women and the international movement was very important because the Booker Prize is open to British and Commonwealth writers.

Now, a lot of people find that quite offensive in this day and age, the idea that the places you invaded, they get to be in the prizes but the others no? So there was a dual purpose. It was to celebrate international fiction and international writing by women.

And in the 13 years it's been going, it has been enormously wonderful to see the huge wealth of international writing by women in English that has now been published in the U.K. and the prize, in fact, was very much founded with the idea of getting fabulous books by women into the hands of male and female readers who'd appreciate them.

And that's the purpose of the prize. And every year, there'll be one or two people who will have a little bit of moan about it but that's the same with all prizes, frankly. And sometimes, it's presented as if “Oh the Orange Prize is terribly controversial.” It was when it was founded. Now, you'll get one or two people who will speak out and this will be seen as an enormous debate but it is always one or two people.

And it's not just me coming to Australia and saying, “Do you know, I'm not eligible for the Miles Franklin Award; therefore, I'm going to try to get it shut down.” I'm not Australian – there's no reason to not celebrate Australian writing because I'm not –

Valerie:
Sure.

Kate:
Because I'm not. We're all very proud of it and being in Australia at the moment, everywhere I go, Rose Tremain's The Road Home is on the tables in bookstores. That's this year's Orange winner. It was not here in May but the book's been out a year. So for me, that's enormously satisfying and you just – you just feel very pleased to have played a part in getting great writers a slightly bigger readership.

Valerie:
I think it's a wonderful idea.

Kate:
Thank you.

Valerie:
Now when you are writing, can you describe to us your typical working day so we can see what happens on the day-to-day basis for you?

Kate:
Well, yes, what happens – you put your finger on it earlier – is that I have a totally different life when I'm researching and preparing to write a novel from what the life I have when I'm actually writing.

So when I'm writing, I clear the deck completely. Apart from family, I'm not doing broadcasting, I don't do Orange Prize, I don't do any of my other commitments. And I write very intensely for maybe 10 hours a day, seven days a week.

Valerie:
10 hours!

Kate:
Yeah, no, I'm a real sprinter when I'm writing. I get – I need to immerse myself completely. And what I do is I get up really early, horrifyingly early and I start and I sit at my desk in the dark with a black coffee, lots of sugar, and I love to be writing – start writing every day while the house is still asleep, if that makes sense because then you don't get diverted by the day. You get a lot of work under your belt.

And so I'll write until everybody else gets up and then there'll be a bit of breakfast and kids off to school and college. Then, I'll write some more, then there'll be a bit of lunch, then I'll write a little bit into the afternoon but only until about 2:00 and then I'll stop. I'm really hopeless at writing in the afternoon. I just want to go to sleep. And I'll probably go for a swim or I'll walk with my dog – something physical because as any – anybody who's listening knows who's a writer as well, the – one of the biggest enemies to the amount that you can get done is physical stress – back stress.

Valerie:
Right. Right.

Kate:
Shoulder stress, typing away, writing away, whatever you do. And then when I'm getting near the end of the writing, I'll go back to it in the evening as well. But at the beginning, when I'm doing the first draft, it will very much be, that big chunk for the early – very early morning through the morning and to the early afternoon and then I'll stop.

Valerie:
Wow.

Kate:
And often I usually work in my pjamas. I get straight out of bed and go straight to my computer and I've been known to put a coat on over the pjamas and take the kids to school without actually still getting dressed because it's again – the minute you get dressed, you become a person in the world somehow, whereas when you're just at home. I start to look like a community patient. I slop around in pajamas, slippers and no makeup and rubbish hair and – but it's great because it means that you never become your public self and that keeps me rooted to the book.

Valerie:
And what kind of time period do you sustain this for, as in over a period of weeks or months or what?

Kate:
I suppose I do it in bursts. So the first draft, I would do maybe over a month. Then, I'll take a breather and have a bit of sleep and be a bit more normal and then the second draft and the final draft might be about six to eight weeks.

Valerie:
Right.

Kate:
But I'll write in between times; I'll do a chapter here, a chapter there. So I suppose the writing period, in all, lasts about seven to ten months but I'm not getting up at four every morning and writing for 10 hours a day every day of that seven months.

You have spurts and it's like climbing a mountain and it's a terrible cliché to use but you climb a mountain, then you have a plateau and you get your breath back and you regroup, then you go the next bit. So it's like that for me but I find it works better for me the process being really intense because my books are complex because of the time-slip element and having two different heroines to deal with or two different heroes who are women, as I often think of them.

And I suppose for me, that's all that – keeping that adrenaline going because the books that I write are driven by pace; they're not literary fiction where reflection and sentence-by-sentence is the priority. For me, it is the story, the characters, the pace of the book. You have to write quite fast because otherwise it goes saggy.

Valerie:
So after, potentially, years of research you have kind of a seven to ten month gestation period for the actual writing?

Kate:
Yeah.

Valerie:
Goodness. Sounds very intensive. Now and finally, what advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Kate:
Well, it's – this is going to sound ridiculous but the key piece of advice is: Write. Because we meet so many people – my husband and I on the courses we teach – who tell us all the reasons why they haven't yet got time to write.

Valerie:
Right.

Kate:
And we all know this; it is really true. But the biggest enemy of writing is being intimidated and being sure that you can only write if the time is right: if you've got long enough to write, if the light is coming in, you don't have any commitments for your family, all of these things. Five minutes a day is better than no minutes a day. Every word does not have to be perfect first time. It is not a divine thing. It is hard work, writing.

So what I say to people is a lot of people know they want to write but they're not quite sure what their story is or who their characters are but it's like going to the gym. You go to the gym every day and you get a little bit fitter, a little bit fitter, a little bit fitter and then you're ready to run that marathon. The same with writing. You get fit, match fit, if you like.

You do little things. You don't know what to write? Describe the room you're sitting in. Throw it in the bin; it doesn't matter. Everything you write does not have to be part of the great novel. So that's my biggest advice because there are so many people who've got great ideas; great stories but excuse themselves for not getting on with it. And it's true; you've got young children – really hard but it's better to stand in the kitchen and jot down three ways of describing the tea bags than not write.

So it – that's the key piece of information so that when your idea strikes you, a story comes to you, your characters come up to you and go, “Hi! Here I am. Write me a story,” you're ready to go. You're absolutely good to go.

Valerie:
Wonderful advice. And on that note, well, we especially love Labyrinth at the Sydney Writers' Centre and want to thank you for your time today, Kate.

Kate:
Thank you very much and I'm delighted to have talked to the Writers' Centre. I've heard such great things about it and I really hope next time I'm back promoting my new book – I'll be over for publication next time – that I'll be able to come and see something and do something with you.

Valerie:
That'd be great.

Kate:
Okay then.

Valerie:
Thanks.

Kate:
Thank you.

Browse posts by category
Browse posts by category

Courses starting soon

About us

The Australian Writers’ Centre offers courses in creative writing, freelance writing, business writing, blogging and much more. Our practical and industry-proven courses will help you gain confidence and meet your goals faster!

Contact us

Phone: (02) 9929 0088 Email: [email protected] Head office: Suite 3,
55 Lavender Street, Milsons Point NSW 2061

© 2021 Australian Writers' Centre | FAQs | Terms, conditions & privacy policy

GET OUR FREE WEEKLY NEWSLETTER – WITH WRITING TIPS, COMPETITIONS AND MORE! YES PLEASE!

Back to top ↑
×

Nice one! You've added this to your cart