Kate Mosse, whose new historical adventure is set during the French Wars of Religion, talks to Hannah Stephenson about returning to full-time writing after a long hiatus
Kate Mosse, the author whose historical and Gothic adventure sagas have sold in their millions and are translated into 37 languages, is back.
Over the last decade, a series of family matters – including looking after her parents – and other work commitments, have prevented the bestselling author from focusing totally on writing.
“A writer’s life ebbs and flows. It’s one of those jobs you can do until, as my mother-in-law Granny Rosie puts it, you drop off your perch,” she says brightly.
For some years, the family home was multi-generational, Mosse, 56, explains, before her father – who suffered from Parkinson’s – died in 2011, and her mother died suddenly in 2015.
“My parents were wonderful and so supportive of everything I did. And the only thing that will be very weird is that neither of them will be there in the audience on publication day. But I’m lucky to have my mother-in-law, husband and children, and wider family.”
I knew I could tell this story of feuding families over 300 years and a lost legacy – and off I went
Now, she brings us The Burning Chambers, the first in a series of pure historical fiction, which she reckons is going to take her around eight years to complete.
“I’m so excited and so nervous. My last big historical novel [Citadel] was back in 2012. Then I came across this story – and this is the first time ever I’ve been able to commit to writing a purely historical series of many books over 300 years of history. I feel like a baby starting again.”
The Burning Chambers is a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ saga of forbidden love during the French Wars of Religion, opening on Mosse’s literary home turf of Carcassonne, south-west France, where the story of a courageous Catholic woman and a passionate Huguenot begins. She anticipates at least three more novels in the series.
This first one is set in 16th century France, but the sequence of books will span 300 years to 1880s Cape Town, via 17th century Amsterdam, featuring issues as diverse as immigration, moral conflicts and religious persecution.
“All of my fiction is inspired by place. It’s about being somewhere and hearing those echoes in the landscape, and thinking of all the people in the past who might have lived there and what their lives might have been like.”
She was at a book festival in Franschhoek, near Cape Town in South Africa, when the idea took hold six years ago.
“As I drove into the town for the first time, I saw a sign in the road saying Languedoc, the same area I write about in south-west France. All the restaurants and hotels had French names. I wanted to know why this tiny corner of the world was French.
“I discovered that seven Huguenot families had escaped persecution, sailing there from Amsterdam in the 17th century, and had been given a farm and started to grow the vines which became the South African wine industry.
“From that moment, I had the idea of a Romeo and Juliet story; Protestants, Catholics, and I knew I could tell this story of feuding families over 300 years and a lost legacy – and off I went.”
Whereas other bestselling historical novelists – including Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel – tend to focus on real people in history, Mosse creates fictional protagonists against a factual backdrop.
“I’m a massive fan of both Hilary Mantel and Philippa Gregory – I think they’re utterly brilliant – but I’m not writing about kings and queens or the people who make decisions, I’m writing about ordinary people whose lives are turned upside down because of the decisions of others.”
Her main protagonist, Minou Joubert, is a strong woman who sticks up for herself, challenges authority and is principled, independent and loving.
“Female characters are important in all my books. The idea that I would not write strong female characters when I have only ever known strong women would be crazy, any more than I wouldn’t write gentle men.
“Stories of men always being tough and not being allowed to show their feelings and emotions and women’s stories always being about finding a husband just aren’t real life. We all know that both women and men are strong and vulnerable.”
In the light of the current furore about sexism in the workplace and the gender pay gap, Mosse, co-founder of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, feels the prize is more important than ever.
“The Women’s Prize matters an enormous amount, because it says ‘Look at this enormous range of women’s creative talents’. The prize is about celebration and honouring the best, which is just as important as looking at all the things that are difficult and bad, that we ought to be putting right.”
The eldest of three daughters of a solicitor and teacher, Mosse grew up around Chichester, West Sussex, and was penning stories and plays from an early age. Books were a part of everyday life.
An accomplished violinist and pianist, she won a place at music college, but at the last minute realised she was never going to be good enough to be a soloist, so went to Oxford University to read English.
After university, she worked as a secretary in a publishing company and was advised by an agent to write her own books.
Success was slow, though, and she wrote several non-fiction and fiction books before she hit the big time with Labyrinth in 2005, the first in her hugely successful Languedoc trilogy.
She is married to writer and creative writing teacher Greg, who took her name when they married. They have two grown-up children and divide their time between Chichester and Carcassonne.
“Greg is amazing. He’s a playwright himself and is one of the best encouragers of writers. We’ve always both worked and brought the children up together. We met when we were 15, went to different universities and then met up again.”
She’s already started The City of Tears, the next novel in the series, and is in conversation with several big television companies about possible adaptations of The Burning Chambers.
TV is a world she has already experienced. Labyrinth was made into a TV mini-series starring John Hurt and Vanessa Kirby (Mosse had a cameo role as a tour guide) and The Winter Ghosts is in production, while as a playwright, she has adapted The Taxidermist’s Daughter with her husband, to be staged next year.
“The great thing about TV and film is that they take your stories to a wider audience. But for me, the joy is someone sitting down on their own with a cup of coffee and a book, and not being able to put it down,” says Mosse.
“As a writer, that’s what I’m after – someone being so caught up in the story that time passes without them knowing it.”
• The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse is published by Mantle, priced £20. Available now.