Interview | Kate Mosse: Secrets of Storytelling

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Kate Mosse is a multi-million, number one bestselling author who writes historical fiction combined with crime, adventure, mystery, conflict and romance. She takes the reader back to France’s wars of religion and shares the untold stories of women who could have lived many centuries ago. After the publication of the very popular Languedoc trilogy — and two Gothic thrillers & plays — her success continued when the first book of her new series The Burning Chambers appeared in May 2019.

At the moment Kate lives in Amsterdam for a month. She is doing research for her new book The City of Tears, the second book in her new series. This story takes place in Amsterdam and it will be her first book in which the setting is completely focussed on a city instead of the natural landscape. When I visit Kate in her apartment, she says: I’ve always felt that a story has been waiting for me in Amsterdam. She shows a map of 16th century Amsterdam filled with waterways that have disappeared in the 21st century. Kate points at the sunlit windows of her apartment and says: Those beautiful buildings didn’t exist in the time of my stories. I must imagine Amsterdam without those buildings. Besides, the names of streets have changed as well. I discovered that the Dutch name of the area ‘Jordaan’ is rumoured to come from the French name for garden ‘Jardin’. The ‘Jordaan’ wasn’t a street in the time of my stories, but it was filled with grass like a garden and outside the city walls. Kate shares some other facts about 16th century Amsterdam that she will use for her new novel and I become curious about the extensive research that she does for her historical fiction. We start to discuss her many ways of doing research and storytelling.

Photo by Ruth Crafer

Can you describe your research process?
Though of course I am in the libraries and archives, my most inspiring research comes from my feet! I walk around in a place that inspires me and dream about the book for months. I create the architecture of the novel in my mind while walking. It’s like building a house. I try to forget about the present world and I try to imagine what the place looked like in the 16th and 17th century. When I first started writing novels, I was in Carcassonne. I heard whispers in the landscape of stories, voices and people that needed to be told. Their ghosts were all around.

After months of walking, dreaming and imagining the story starts to take shape. As soon as I am confident about the setting, place and the type of story I want to tell, then I start writing and hope for the characters to join me. I often discover ideas for my story by coincidence. When I went to the Amsterdam Museum, I saw the engraving above the door of the museum onto Kalverstraat and learnt the building used to be the city orphanage.  So then I started to create a story in which Huguenot children who had fled France might also have found shelter there in the 16th century.

How do your characters come into being and how do you make them real?
Though I work hard to research the dates and facts from history books and the archives, the characters only come alive when I start to imagine them living their lives, wearing clothes of the time, eating the food of the time, and so on. Art galleries are so helpful for this – there I might see a certain object like a shoe or a hat that a person used to wear many centuries ago. The women in my stories in particular come alive through things, as if I am watching them in the audience of a play. Once they are real for me, then of course my job is to make them real for the readers too.  Characters must be placed in their time by historical research as well and with attitudes appropriate to the times – a 16th century female character will not have the same perspective as a 21st century woman might have.  When I wrote the book Burning Chambers I constantly asked myself: ‘What would Minou (Kate’s lead character) think in the time that she was living?’

Do you have any favourite characters?
Not really — it’s about making the plot work, about what you need the characters to do. Having said that, there are characters (often smaller characters) who are fun to write! For example, Marie Galy in The Burning Chambers is a Carcassonnais girl who is frustrated with her lot in life, so she takes steps to improve her position. Another character that I loved is Madame Boussay, Minou’s aunt. When I started writing her role was so small, but after a while she just took over and became one of the most significant characters in the novel. Readers love her!

Do you relate to a specific character in your books?
Little tiny pieces of me are in all of them, but they are never me. For them to be real they must be distinct individuals.  I am always on the outside of my characters looking in, that helps them to be themselves.

How is feminism intertwined in your stories?
For me being a feminist means telling the truth about women’s experiences, and listening to real stories of girls and women. History is not only written by the victors, but also by those with agenda to justify their behaviour. So, often historians give the impression women were not active, that they only lived in a domestic setting, but common sense tells us this cannot be true. In the 16th and early 17th century big parts of Europe were at war. As a consequence, men were away for long periods of time and it fell to women to keep the towns, the businesses, the families going.  Also, ‘official’ history often focuses on only those people who are the very top of society – queens and kings generals, popes – whereas I want to tell the stories of the ordinary women and ordinary girls that so often are forgotten. I feel affection and sympathy for these girls and I want to write them back into history.

Refugees are an important subject of your latest book The Burning Chambers.
Was this a conscious parallel with the contemporary refugee crisis, and are there messages in your historical fiction that we can apply to events today?
Historical fiction works best when it is set absolutely in the period of time in which it is set.  But, of course there are echoes of the refugee immigration in the 16th century in the world of the 21st century.  The Burning Chambers is inspired by the Huguenot Diaspora, those Protestants who fled France a few centuries ago to escape persecution and death. Readers, though, will bring the images of our modern lives to the words they are reading on the page. History is a pendulum and is always repeating itself. Most refugee crises in every century – have the same architecture in terms of the pattern of persecution, in terms of power and influence and attempting to demonise one group for their own gain.  I of course very much hope people enjoying learning the history, and the messages behind The Burning Chambers, but I am first and foremost a novelist.  My primary purpose is to write a story people will love to read, with characters people will care about.

How do you create excitement in your novels?
You can feel my own excitement in the words on the page. When I am engaged, I hope my readers will feel it too. Though I write historical fiction, I consciously write with the pace of a thriller. Action and suspense of the mystery genre keeps the novel moving fast, so the serious parts are still exciting even if there’s also a lot of historical detail. Furthermore, I pay attention to the way people read. Most people read for a short time each day, either in the morning or in the evening. That’s why I divide my books into short chapters that include cliffhangers.

Your great-granddad was born in Egypt and migrated to London. Does this influence the way you look at different cultures?
Knowing my family history made me curious about identity and the choice of identity. The main character Minou in the Burning Chambers is catholic. Her religion doesn’t define her identity until the war between Catholics and Huguenots starts. Then being catholic suddenly has to be her identity, whether she wants it or not. When the lovers Minou and Piet flee to Amsterdam in Book Two, they will find themselves without a clear identity anymore. They are refugees now, set adrift from their heritage and homeland.

Were you surrounded by literature and writing during your childhood?
There were always books in my family and going to the library was of high importance. My mum says that I was always writing, but I cannot remember this. However, I do remember that I was always creating plays with my dolls and soft toys! I never created domestic stories, but rather adventures. This is where the love of storytelling started.

I read that you love the Brontë sisters. How do they inspire you?
I am a big fan of Emily Brontë and Wuthering Heights is a novel I re-read regularly. I am inspired by the Brontë’s representation of landscape as a non-human force that does not care about people. Nature is amoral and the landscape is a character in itself. I am inspired by the 19th century American novelist Willa Cather as well, who write stories of families and outsiders against the backdrop of the vastness of the American Plains.

Your books are translated into multiple languages. The book Labyrinth, for example, has been translated into 37 languages. Do you think that people read your books in different ways in different languages?
I visit many countries on book tours, so I sometimes get a glimpse of the quality of the translations because of the different questions readers ask me! In Japan, the translation of the book Labyrinth seemed to be quite feminine, whereas the Dutch translation was very active! In Italy, I am mostly invited to thriller festivals and I am considered a more literary writer in France!  The key is that a good translation should capture the spirit of the book so that the intention of the story remains the same in every language.

How do you add joy in your serious books?
I think the joy is present as part of the joy of writing the book in the first place, it’s not something that needs to be added later. There is always happiness to be found in the world, even in the most awful periods of history — for example, even during war and diaspora, people still fall in love.  People’s everyday lives, the little pleasures and joys, carry on the same even in the darkest times.

What is the purpose of music and art in your stories?
In many periods of history, much of the music, the colour, light and art in people’s lives came from religion and religious buildings. History often tells about the evil deeds that were done – mostly by men – in the name of religion.  I also want to talk about the beauty of faith (as opposed to the rigid pronouncements of church leaders). In the sixteenth century, people’s hearts were moved by listening to a choir sing in a cathedral on Sunday or by looking at the beautiful sculptures on a bell tower, or the stained glass in the Nave. Then, as now, music and art can transform the greyest of days.

Finally, how do you approach writing the end of a story? Do you already know the ending when your start writing your book?
When I start writing, I know the kind of story I’m going to tell, but I don’t know completely how I’m going to achieve it or what the details of the story will be. With this series, I also have an overall vision for the four books: The Burning Chambers series ends with fire, the second book will end with water, the third book will end with air and the last book will end with land. Together, they form the four elements. But what each individual story will be, well I’m still figuring that out!


For more information on The Burning Chambers and Kate Mosse, visit Pan Macmillan.

Words by Thirza Osterhaus.

 

 

 

 

 


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