07 February 2007

Author Answers with Kate Mosse

This week's author hails from the other side of the pond, author and BBC4 broadcaster Kate Mosse. Mosse is most recently the author of Labyrinth, an NYT bestseller.

You can find out more about Mosse at her website.

WN: On your website, you have a quote, “I want the women to have the swords.” Where did this perspective come from and how did it influence the book?
MOSSE: I love traditional adventure stories, so I wanted to write something in that vein, but where the lead characters – the ones doing all the rushing about and saving people – were women as well as men. On a more serious note, I wanted my leading characters to be active, not passive. That went for the women and the men. Because that’s what makes, for me, a good story – the clash of active characters with conflicting motivations and desires. The ‘good’ ones – the ones we feel sympathy for – will try and achieve their goals with compromise and understanding. The ‘bad’ ones will attempt to force and tyrannize. There are, of course, ‘goodie’ women and ‘baddies’!

Then, of course, the fact that they fight with swords – not guns that can be used so impersonally – makes for a genuine physical struggle. In turn, that helps to create real human involvement in the story from the reader. That physical aspect was also mirrored in the snowy treks in the incredible Pyrenean mountains and the baking summer heat of the drought-struck plains.

WN: There are lots of stories involving legends about the Grail, from King Arthur to Indiana Jones. How did you approach using such an icon in your story?
MOSSE: Most important of all, my Grail isn’t a Christian grail. As part of my research for Labyrinth – which occupied my spare time for maybe 6 or 7 years – I discovered that there were several stories competing for ownership of the grail legend – and by no means all were to do with Christ. So I decided to take the idea back in time to Ancient Egypt. The interesting thing about that was that it then became fairly easy to explain why knowledge of the Grail was lost – because for over 1,500 years the ability to read hieroglyphs, the ancient writing of the pharaohs, was also lost.

I think that can be a really good way of working for a writer – take something you know and twist it, reinterpreted it. Maybe even your home town. What would it be like if Oshkosh experienced, say, a gold rush! Then take the story from there. How would it impact on the lives of the people who live around you? I think a massive story like that would bring out the drama that lurks beneath the surface.

WN: What was the writing process like from when you first had the idea for “Labyrinth” to finishing the story?
MOSSE: Really long! I had the idea, a clear sense of my lead character, ten years ago! Like many writers, I was not in a position to start writing straight away, so I read and researched and generally prepared the ground. I sat down at my computer in 2001 and between then and when the novel first published in the UK (July 2005), I wrote the book three times. I put down all my ideas in a first draft in more or less the right order. In the second draft I got a better balance between the different parts of the story and made the two plotlines – one set in the 13th century and one in the present day – weave in and out more effectively. I also did a lot of work with characterisation, making sure I was bringing my imagined people to life for the reader. After all, I had lived with them in my head for at least six years! In the final draft, I made about a million final judgments on things as varied as the colour of a character’s eyes to where to switch the action between the historical periods.

WN: What’s the best part of being a writer to you? What’s the most challenging part of writing for you?
MOSSE: The best part of writing is living in the imaginative world that you have created first and foremost for your own interest and pleasure. I love the feeling, in the middle of writing a book (as opposed to researching), of going to my computer when it’s still dark outside and my family is still sleeping, and stepping into a different place and time. It’s all about problem solving, about working things out, about celebrating when a good idea works out, but being prepared to let other things go when they turn out not to fit with the story.

Then the second great joy is finding that other people are willing to step inside and enjoy it too. That is a wonderful commitment of goodwill and generosity on the part of the reader – the willingness to say: ‘Okay, I believe you. Now tell me what happened.’ The number of letters and emails I’ve had since the book published – especially from America, where readers are so generous with their time and often put their thoughts to paper/email – is an unexpected bonus. The hardest part of being a writer is waiting to see if any of those good things will happen.

WN: What’s next for you as a writer?
MOSSE: I’m writing a new novel called Sepulchre. It’s set in southwest France in the shadow of the Pyrenees once more, but much later, towards the end of the 19th century. I’ve got a phenomenal amount of research for that too, much of it circling around the mystical Tarot pack of cards and the music of Debussy. It’s quite a chilling story. As I’ve been writing, it has turned into a ghost story, which has surprised me. I’m a great fan of traditional ghost stories – from the English Edwardian author M R James to Henry James’ masterpiece, The Turn of the Screw, but I’ve been surprised to find myself heading into these uncharted waters as a writer. I’m really enjoying myself, though.

WN: What is the best/most influential book you have ever read and why did it inspire you?
MOSSE: Apart from Shakespeare and the Bible, too many books to list! I read English at university, which was a great experience. Here are just a handful. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Milton’s epic poem poem Paradise Lost, Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird, T S Eliot’s The Four Quartets, Willa Cather’s My Antonia, S Rider Haggard’s 1880s novel She, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I think we all have different books that we value at different times. On a day to day level, I’m a big fan adventure and crime fiction and I have probably read my favourites two or three times each – I love the work of Steve Berry, Kathy Reichs, Michael Connolly, Sue Grafton, as well as the traditional English crime writers such as Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I work for the BBC in England one of the most amazing experiences of my life was interviewing Maya Angelou at a literary festival. A woman asked a question about a song or a lullaby and Ms Angelou started singing it along with the lady in the audience. She was incredible.

WN: What is your favorite word and why?
MOSSE: An interesting question! On a personal level, it’s home, because that’s where my husband and our two children are. Professionally, perhaps the word ‘then’. I teach creative writing with my husband, Greg, and he is always asking the students not to justify what they have said so far but what will happen next. If what you’ve already written doesn’t lead anywhere – if you’ve gone down a dead end – there’s no ‘then’. The only thing to do is go back and take another road. The word I most overuse is ‘odd’ ….

WN: What piece of advice helped you out the most as a writer?
MOSSE: To never give up! There’s a great saying, attributed to Picasso, when at the very end of his life, when he was the undisputed greatest living artists, he was asked why he still went to his studio everyday to work. His response (in Spanish, of course!) was this: ‘When inspiration arrives, I want it to find me working.’ As a writer, I’ve tried to live by that.

I’ve been very lucky to have wonderful editors and outstanding agents (both in America and in the UK – they are brothers!). In each of the 40 countries Labyrinth has been published in, they have allowed me to take my time, have not put me under pressure to work faster than I can. That’s the biggest opportunity a writer can have – time to finish properly, to do the best they are capable of with their story, before letting it go, seeing if it can fly, and moving on to the next thing.

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