Kate Mosse – historical novelist

Festival review by Bridget Osborne

September 2018

Cathy Rentzenbrink interviewing Kate Mosse at the Chiswick Book Festival 2018

Returning to Carcassonne

Labyrinth was Kate Mosse’s ‘break-through’ novel – a big fat book of archaeological mystery set concurrently in the Middle Ages and the present day in the South of France and England. Voted ‘Best Read of the Year’ in the 2006 in the British Book Awards and ranked number one best-seller in that year by the Guardian, it put her on the map and since then she’s gone on to write best-selling books set during the Great War (The Winter Ghosts) the Second World war (The Citadel) set in Nazi occupied France and a murder mystery set in Sussex in 1912 (The Taxidermist’s Daughter).

So why return to the French religious wars of Mediaeval times? Any why embark on a family saga of four books spanning three hundred years which will take eight years to write?

The Burning Chambers was sparked by a visit to South Africa for a book festival. As she drove from the airport towards Stellenbosch she noticed the main street of Franschhoek was called Huguenot St and all the wines of the Franschhoek valley bore French labels in an area where most European settlers were either Dutch or English. When she found the Huguenot museum and discovered the name of the family she’d written about in Labyrinth among the tiny handful of Huguenot families who’d emigrated to the Cape after revocation of the Edict of Nantes put an end to religious toleration in France, the die was cast. “Can I do this to myself?” The answer was an overpowering “Yess!” A desire to delve into the period again and immerse herself in the sheer joy of writing.

The Prologue is set in the Cape in 1862. Then she goes back 300 years to 1st March 1562 and beginning of the religious wars in France, with high born and powerful Huguenots and Catholics battling it out at court for power over the Prince Regent. “In France the wars of religion were about power and doctrine, almost never about faith” she says. There were eight or nine civil wars (historians disagree). Huguenots were only about 10% of the population but they made up the influential middle class.

“I’m not a historian, I’m a storyteller”

“I’m not a historian” she says, “I’m a story teller…” The story is of Minou and Piet is a love story. Minou is a Catholic girl and the daughter of a bookseller. Books were dangerous in those times and booksellers at the forefront of a battle for people’s minds and loyalty. The construct of having her go out to work in her father’s shop also gives Minou the opportunity to come across people from all walks of life and from very different backgrounds. Piet is a Huguenot engaged in dangerous business and they fall in love just as the Massacre of Vassy takes place and a period of religious civil wars kicks off.

Minou is also in danger personally, singled out by a heritage of which she knows nothing, but which unfolds during the book. Interviewer Cathy Rentzenbrink pointed out that JK Rowling had famously said she knew the last line of the last of the Harry Potter series before she started writing. Is that how Kate Mosse works? No.

“Minou gets a letter saying ‘She knows that you live’ and I’m thinking ‘Who the hell is she?’ I now have to find out!” she says she lets it flow in the first draft, posing questions and trying to answer them, “splurging it all out”. The writing begins with the second draft but “somewhere inside I do know the plot”.

With a Mediaeval thriller you know there’s going to be gruesome torture at some point. Kate says she really dislikes writing torture, but you have to have a bit of it. “I  want readers to think what would I do if that was me? You have to understand the real consequences of what might happen. What if Minou says the wrong thing? When the soldiers come and ask you to give up your Huguenot or your Jewish neighbours, you have to understand the potential consequences are not tiny.”

Kate and her husband have a house in Carcassonne where she says for about five days per month while writing. “Living in Carcassonne has made me the writer I am” she says. “The sense of history all around… I need to walk around and see where the sun falls at dusk, that kind of thing. You need to be there to research it … the research is the architecture. I have to have all of that in place before I can dream the characters”.

The Burning Chambers is a thriller, a real page turner and as you  breathe a sigh of relief that some of the characters you wanted to survive are still standing at the end of the book, she throws in a little hand grenade. They’re thinking of going to Paris to celebrate the royal wedding of the Catholic princess Margaret of Valois to the Protestant King Henri III of Navarre at the feast of St Bartholomew. “Saint Bartholomew’s Day?!!! We’re all thinking Nooooo! Don’t go!!!!!” she says, it being the date of the notorious St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre which lasted several weeks and ended up with many thousands of dead.

We’ll have to wait until 2020 to find out who survives the next round of blood-letting, when The City of Tears is published. But says Kate, rather ominously “You can’t keep characters alive just because you like them. In adventure fiction you serve the plot.” So if the plot requires it, they die!