Kate Mosse, as successful as she is prolific, tells Sue Leonard about how she became a multi-million selling author and why she chose to leave France
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KATE MOSSE is prone to falling in love. Meeting her husband on a train, quite by chance, 10 years after their teenage romance petered out, she knew at once that he was the man for her.
And she fell so in love with the French town of Carcassonne, that’s she’s spent years writing about it, in the trilogy that started with Labyrinth, and has recently ended with Citadel.
There’s a lot of love in Citadel, which tells of wartime Carcassonne, and of the women who fought there in the Resistance. She writes of it eloquently. She writes well about violence too. And about the agony of living in constant fear.
“Those women lived the fear,” says Mosse. “They trusted nobody, and knew that at any moment they might hear that knock on the door. As I started to research, I realised that people got burnt out. If they weren’t betrayed or captured, the fear burnt them out.
“A lot has been written about plucky British or American people coming in to France, sorting it out, and leaving again,” she says, “but not about French people living there under occupation every day, and that’s totally different. Being active is easier than being occupied; of that I am certain.”
At 51, Mosse is tall, fair, and slim, and she fizzes with energy. Clearly used to the publicity trail, she talks about her novel so fluently, that to ask questions, I find myself interrupting her in mid-flow.
She’s keen on history, and Citadel has a second plotline set in the 4th century.
“I always have two timelines,” she says. “Labyrinth was set in the early 13th century and the modern day, and Sepulchre was the late 19th century and the modern day.”
Mosse has lived in Carcassonne off and on for the past 23 years, but she now lives in West Sussex full time, because her elderly mother, and mother-in-law, live with her and her husband there. “And until recently, our children who are 22 and 20 lived there as well,” she says.
What was it, though, about Carcassonne that so inspired her?
“It’s about being an outsider,” she says. “And about falling in love with a place where you have no other role. In Carcassonne I could be a writer. In West Sussex where I am rooted, and come from, I’m a wife, a daughter and a mother, and a local person who does things, so it’s hard to put the writer hat on in the midst of all that.”
Carcassonne is divided by the River Oude. On one side there’s the medieval city, and on the other the Bastide which is 14th century.
“When you’ve lived there for a while, you start to notice that the street signs in the Bastide have been renamed for Resistance fighters, and that their date of death is the same. It turned out that they’d been blown up with hand grenades that had been placed in their mouths to avoid identification, on August 19, 1944, just hours before the Germans fled. And amongst them, were two unknown women.
“Thanks to forensic science, the men have now been identified, but the women never were. So their husbands sisters and mothers never knew what had happened to them. I thought, ‘I don’t know who they are, but I can write an adventure story about who they might have been’.”
Marianne and Sandrine are sisters who feel compelled to be active for their country, rather than submit to the enemy. Also in their network are the plucky Suzanne, who is skilled at making bombs, and the more flamboyant Lucie, who at the start cares little for politics; drawn in only because her Jewish boyfriend Max, is sent to a camp. Then there’s Max’s sister, Liesl.
“Nobody knows how they’d react in those circumstances,” says Mosse. “We hope we’d be brave, but most of us have never been tested. And it’s not always the person who is the loudest or the strongest who comes through in the end.”
Not only is Citadel compulsive reading; it makes you live the fear along with the women. But such excellence is all one would expect, from this multi-million selling author of Labyrinth, which won the Richard and Judy Best Read in 2006, and was one of Waterstone’s top 100 novels of the past 25 years.
It’s startling to learn that Mosse almost became a fiddle player.
“I had a place at music college,” she says. “And I realised, just before I went, that I wasn’t good enough. I could have been a violinist in the last deck of the second violins, but that wouldn’t have suited me. So I went to Oxford and read English.”
After that, unsure of a career, she learned shorthand and typing, and presented herself at a secretarial agency. “And they sent me to a publishing agency as a temp.” Rising swiftly through the ranks of publishing, she was, eventually, offered a prime job, but, realising that would mean a lifetime in publishing, she wasn’t sure that she’d take it. Then a chance remark at a lunch changed her life. “I was pregnant with my second child, and was having lunch with Mark Lucas, an agent I liked very much but rarely did business with. I said, ‘it’s odd. The book I wanted to read when I was pregnant with Martha still isn’t available.’ I wanted to read about the emotions of pregnancy, not the medicine of the physicality of it.
“Mark said, ‘Why don’t you stop moaning about it and just write it.’ And I said, ‘Okay I will!’ It was a jokey conversation. But the next day Mark rang and said, ‘Virago would love to publish it.’ I said, ‘What? We were just kidding around,’ and he said, ‘well you have a contract.’ I interviewed 35 women and their partners and the book is now in its seventh edition and gets printed every year.”
After that, Mosse wrote a book about the Royal Opera Company as a Companion book for a BBC series. And an editor suggested that she might then like to write a novel. So she did. There were two before Labyrinth made her an overnight success.
Meanwhile, Mosse had set up the Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction. Why did she do that?
“It was inspired by the Booker Prize shortlist in 1991,” she says. “There were no women on the list, and the judges hadn’t noticed. Imagine the reaction if there’d been no men? It’s been criticised, but it’s about celebrating the best. It’s because women’s writing matters.”
Mosse is writing a play next, having already written two. How did it feel when, in 2005, Labyrinth hit the big time? “It felt utterly surreal. I can remember standing with my children in a big local supermarket, where they only take the top selling books. And I saw my book with a number one beside it. And I was thinking, ‘who would have thought it?’ I was in my mid-40s then and in middle age you really appreciate it. And Oh, the joy!”
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