"I haven’t felt about a book the way I felt about Labyrinth—until now,” says Kate Mosse, brimming with anticipation ahead of her new historical saga coming from Mantle in May.
She is excited for good reason: The Burning Chambers is her first outing as an author of pure historical fiction and marks her return to full-time writing after a decade-long hiatus. In addition to her responsibilities as a carer for her father these past eight years, her time has been occupied as a tireless champion of other women writers, not least through the Women’s Prize for Fiction which she co–founded. It is no surprise, therefore, that she comes to our interview from the set of a BBC documentary about a little-known writer named Helen Waddell: a literary superstar of her day, in 1930s Belfast, whose star has since dipped under the radar.
The Burning Chambers series is the novelist’s most ambitious project to date, one she anticipates will occupy her for the next six to eight years across three to four books. Striving to bring the pace of her gothic novels to historical fiction, at its heart is a page-turning "Romeo and Juliet" story, a tale of forbidden love during the French Wars of Religion and of the lives of ordinary people just trying to get by. At its outset, you would be forgiven for thinking this is familiar territory for Mosse— it starts out on her literary home turf of Carcassonne—but the sequence of novels is a global epic, spread over 300 years. From 16th-century France to 1880s Cape Town, via 17th-century Amsterdam, the diaspora story wrestles with contemporary issues such as immigration and displacement caused by religious persecution. It also explores the moral conflicts of those who don’t believe in a choice between "goodies and baddies" yet in the end have no option but to choose.
Mosse says the inspiration for the tale felt like "a finger down the spine" six years ago. She was visiting the Franschhoek Literary Festival in South Africa and, during a walk she took between talks, was surprised to find the names of the restaurants around her were all French. The observation prompted her to "sneak off" to the local museum in pursuit of answers and on the way she passed two road signs: one read Huguenot Street and the other Languedoc—the name of her bestselling timeslip trilogy, set in south-west France.
"Even just saying it now makes me shiver!" says Mosse of subsequently discovering the connections between Labyrinth, Amsterdam and Franschhoek, where the book’s adaptation was filmed a few years later. "I thought, ‘You don’t know this period of history, you don’t know this part of the world.’ But it had got its hook into me."
Finding her voice
Mosse left Orion in 2015 after a decade—and some four million sales— for the opportunity to work with Maria Rejt, editor at Mantle, with whom she shares a 35-year history. The pair met on Mosse’s very first day as "a paid person in publishing", sharing an office in a tiny attic room in Bedford Square at Hodder & Stoughton, and they have remained close friends ever since. "I was the secretary—not very good—and she was the editorial assistant," recalls Mosse. "When I was first becoming a writer, I didn’t go to Maria because we were proper close friends and it might have gone terribly wrong. We didn’t want it to get in the way of our friendship. But when finally I was out of contract, I knew this series was going to be a massive commitment and, I hope, the most exciting publishing of my career. And I wanted it to be her. I wanted to put myself in her hands finally."
Mosse admits that she initially struggled to find her voice as a writer, self-deprecatingly describing her first novels as "really very poor indeed. It’s hilarious now . . . they didn’t sell at all, and not because they’re literary novels. They just weren’t very good!" she laughs.
Mosse never set out to be a writer but, at the urging of a friend (now her agent, Mark Lucas) struck out in non-fiction in 1993, writing the pregnancy book she herself wanted to read. However, following a publishing career that culminated in her being editorial director at Hutchinson, she says her first four titles—including her foray into fiction—"weren’t coming from [the heart]".
Then came Labyrinth: the bestselling book of 2006 which shifted 865,402 copies in that year through Nielsen Bookscan, and has gone on to sell 1.1 million copies to date. “It was like [Mosse claps the sides of her face and gasps theatrically], ‘Oh, I see. This is the sort of writer you’re supposed to be.’ And then I was scared, because it [my writing] mattered. Before that it was professional, I was doing my best work, as if I were writing an article or doing a speech. But it wasn’t ‘the thing’. When this happened [again] with The Burning Chambers—it felt like the first time again. That’s what’s been such a joy.”
At the centre of The Burning Chambers is Minou, a character Mosse describes as "a woman among equals", who does the things a girl of the time would do yet is prepared to challenge authority and stand up for herself and others. Warning against the "flattening out of history", Mosse remarks: "A clever, educated girl . . . Why would she not want the world for herself?
"All the [recent] feminist publishing is absolutely fantastic, but I suppose you could say I write what you call ‘soft feminism’, which is, ‘it just is’." Mosse’s aunt, one of the first female priests to be ordained in this country, is one such example of "soft" or "quiet feminism". "She would never have seen herself as a campaigning person, she just wanted to be allowed to be a priest," says Mosse. "It was one of the most moving things, and that has definitely fuelled The Burning Chambers, particularly as the story goes on."
An equal footing
Everything in Mosse’s working life has fundamentally been about championing a plurality of voices, from the breadth of meaningful characters in her books to drawing attention, through the Women’s Prize, to writers otherwise in danger of being overlooked. With sexism and diversity under the microscope, the prize, according to Mosse "maybe matters more now than it did 10 years ago". And she thinks it’s time the wider publishing world should step up its commitment to change. "For feminists of my generation, and who are also involved in discussions about gender and race, [change] has been slow and it should have been faster," she says.
"The reason it matters is not just fairness, it’s that everybody benefits. Everybody. There’s now a focus on it. And it’s up to publishers and the trade to accelerate that. It is publishers’ responsibility to go and seduce different types of writers and say: ‘You could be a novelist’."
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