The novelist and founder-director of the Women’s Prize for Fiction talks about finding inspiration in the landscape, and how women were written out of history
Interview by Anna Behrmann
Landscape is the most important character in my novels. When I was a child, I would walk with my parents on the Fishbourne marshes in Sussex, and I later walked there with my own children. Both there, and in the ancient woodlands of south-west France, I feel as if I can hear the echoes of all the people who’ve walked those paths before me and those who will tread in the same footsteps long after I’m gone. For me, the truth of our shared past is held within the land, the skyscape and the mountains. It links us emotionally to the people of 19th-century Sussex, or 16th-century Carcassonne.
The human heart does not change so very much. A parent at any given point in history will grieve just as much for a lost child. Fiction is about celebrating our shared humanity. If you can stand in the shoes of a girl from the 16th century and feel you know her, then you can stand in the shoes of a boy on the other side of the world today.
I grew up in a house where people were always coming and going. My parents both worked and did a great deal of voluntary work in the community, but still made all of our childhood friends welcome. When they died, on both occasions the church was filled with people remembering the cup of tea that my mum had made them, or when my dad picked them up when they got stuck in the middle of nowhere.
My parents taught me that if opportunities come your way, you should make the most of them, but also to use your voice to speak for others. It’s the regular things that make a difference, such as putting something in the foodbank every time you go shopping.
We launched the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 1996 to celebrate and honour women’s voices. Our aim was to put exceptional fiction by women into the hands of both men and women who would appreciate it. It’s interesting that, even after 23 successful years, I am still asked why it’s needed. It’s the idea that women have to continue justifying their place at the table.
The world seems less kind, less tolerant, less respectful of difference at the moment. That’s why it’s so vital to keep celebrating excellence and female voices. People need positivity and to hear wonderful women’s stories from all over the world.
All the heroes in my novels are women. There were purposeful and powerful women in all periods of history, but ordinary women are too often left out of the history books. When the Wars of Religion finally started in 1562, France had been at war, on and off, for a generation. So, who do we imagine were opening the shops, or gathering wood for the fire when the men were away? Once we accept that history is written about a tiny proportion of society and also written with an agenda, we can see the past more clearly.
As a novelist, I’m a sprinter. When I’m writing a first draft, I work eight to 10 hours a day, seven days a week. I start writing at about four in the morning and have a couple of very strong black coffees with sugar. If I get a few hours under my belt before anyone else in the house wakes up, I know that the day will go well.
My aunt was one of the founders of the Movement for the Ordination of Women in the Church of England. Her ordination in Chelmsford Cathedral, after many years of campaigning, was an amazing and moving occasion. There were eight women being ordained that day. The Bishop said: ‘Between them, these women have hundreds of years of service to the church.’ Making sure that everybody’s voices are heard, that everyone can contribute in the way they want to, benefits us all in the long run.
The paperback of Kate Mosse’s new novel, ‘The Burning Chambers’ (Mantle, £8.99) – the first in a quartet set against the backdrop of the Wars of Religion, covering 300 years and following two families, one Catholic and one Huguenot – is out on , the first in a planned series of four, follows a Catholic and Huguenot family during the Wars of Religion – is out on 7 March.