The bestselling historical novelist has had a productive lockdown – reading 250 books and writing two, all while caring for her elderly mother-in-law
It was 10 years ago that Kate Mosse got the idea for her latest series of historical novels – and immediately tried to talk herself out of it. “I just thought: ‘Don’t do this, Kate – you know nothing about the French wars of religion, nothing about the 17th and 18th centuries. This whole history is obviously a minefield,” she recalls.
Despite those initial reservations, she eventually embarked on what would become a quartet of novels about the French Protestants known as the Huguenots, beginning in 16th-century Languedoc with The Burning Chambers (published in 2018) and following the diaspora across two continents and three centuries. It’s not as if she had much else on – only a few other books, a couple of plays, keeping the Women’s prize for fiction going, railing against Brexit and being a carer.
Even during the pandemic, she has been incredibly productive – the initial shock of it “felt like grief” she says, and she couldn’t concentrate on writing, so instead she read more than 250 golden age detective books. The City of Tears, the sequel to The Burning Chambers, should have been released in May last year and she would have spent much of 2020 promoting it; instead, she is now working on the third instalment of the series. And then she wrote another book, out later this year, about her role as a carer – first helping her mother look after her father, who had Parkinson’s and died in 2011, and now for her 90-year-old mother-in-law, Rosie. In order to protect Rosie, who lives with Mosse and her husband, Greg, the household has been virtually self-isolating since March.
Mosse’s move into historical fiction changed her life with the success of Labyrinth – a Holy Grail adventure story – in 2005, and the following two books in her Languedoc trilogy, so this return to the genre has felt exciting, she says. When her father was diagnosed, Mosse decided not to work on any research-heavy books that required long periods of travel, in order to support her parents – they also both lived with Mosse and her husband. “Sadly, my dad died in 2011 and then my ma died in 2014,” she says. “Then for a period of time, I could be back out, doing research, and it’s been a really lovely thing to have this huge project.”
It’s a cliche to draw parallels between historical fiction and modern life, yet the timing of Mosse’s novels has been striking. The Burning Chamber featured the persecution of the Huguenots in France and came out in 2018 during Europe’s refugee crisis. This second book has themes of what constitutes a heretical idea, free speech and an intensely polarised society. “You are either my friend or my enemy. Nothing in between,” says one character of the mood between Catholics and Huguenots and the silencing of moderate voices, but she could just as easily be talking about the latest Twitter spat. Does Mosse think we’re more polarised than ever? “It does seem like that,” she says, and points the finger at “social media, and this monstrous 24-hour news cycle that needs feeding”. The coronavirus pandemic doesn’t help. “It’s my very great hope that once the world returns to a different sort of normal, people will return to a more nuanced way of seeing things.” But, she admits with a small laugh, “I’m always optimistic.”
The Women’s Prize for fiction, which Mosse co-founded in 1996, has experienced its own social media firestorm, part of the ongoing battle over transgender issues. In October, the organisers announced: “In our terms and conditions, the word ‘woman’ equates to a cis woman, a transgender woman or anyone who is legally defined as a woman or of the female sex,” after the non-binary trans author Akwaeke Emezi publicly objected to being asked for information about their sex as defined “by law”. Emezi, who had been nominated for the award in 2019, said they would not let their future novels be entered.
“There’s always a lot of talk about these things,” Mosse says today, “and a desire for people to find ways to set a very wide group of women against other women. That’s how patriarchy works.” However, she insists: “We haven’t changed our rules – we’ve always followed the legal definition of ‘women’.”
Mosse, 59, set up the prize shortly before she started work on her first book, a non-fiction work about pregnancy (she was pregnant with her second child). She had been working for a publishing house and was about to be promoted to “a properly big job and I knew that was the moment to say: ‘Is what you want from your life – to run a publishing company? If not, this is the time to go.’ It was one of those take-a-deep-breath-and-jump moments.” It was daunting to give up her salary – her husband was training to be a teacher – and she says it was tough for a couple of years “but it was absolutely the right thing to do, because the more you have a permanent job, and you rely on all of that infrastructure, the harder it will ever be to step out and start writing”.
She wrote two non-fiction books, then two novels that were “not very good. They’re always described as ‘literary’, but what that actually means is they didn’t sell.” She laughs. “I’d got four books under my belt before I was an overnight success at the age of 45.” For Labyrinth, Mosse abandoned the idea of creating the kind of literary novels she loved to read and wrote something more like the adventure stories her father would read to her as a child – and she has now sold more than 8m books. She also credits Carcassonne, which she visited for the first time in 1989 and where she spends part of each year, for unlocking the storyteller in her (“It really felt like a physical reaction”). As a Francophile, she describes Brexit as “very depressing”.
This has been the longest period for more than three decades that Mosse hasn’t been to France, though she doesn’t expect anyone to feel sorry for her. Compared with so many people, she says, the last year has been “nothing to complain about”. Writing her book about caring (she was one of a number of novelists commissioned by the Wellcome Trust to write about issues of social or medical care) against the backdrop of lockdowns and a more intense focus on vulnerable people has been interesting, she says. “Everybody’s lives have become more contained and more domestic. People understand now about being at home all the time.” And the definition of carer has become broader in people’s minds. “As lots of people showed during the first lockdown, it can be anything from taking food round for people or walking somebody else’s dog, to being there 24 hours a day for somebody who is at the end of their life.”
The title of her book, An Extra Pair of Hands, is how she views her care roles, first for her mother in her widowhood, and now for Rosie, who has lived with Mosse and her husband for 25 years. She and her husband share her mother-in-law’s care, “in so far as no 90-year-old woman wants her son in the bathroom with her”. She describes Rosie, whom she has known since she was a teenager, as “a pal … a complete riot”. And, despite her innate positivity, she acknowledges that her circumstances mean she has it easier than many carers. “The gamechanger for most people is if they are caring for somebody with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, so the person may be lost to them, even if they are physically there. I’ve been very fortunate – my wonderful dad had Parkinson’s, my mum was herself until this day six years ago, and Granny Rosie uses a wheelchair and needs physical support, but is as sharp as a tack.” She and Greg have lots of nearby family support and she doesn’t add, though could, that she is in a fortunate financial position compared with the 600 people who give up paid work each day to look after someone. Nearly a quarter of adult carers are living in poverty, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s latest annual report.
“I do think it’s important to have positive experiences out there about caring as well as the much tougher ones,” says Mosse. “The language around ageing is often very negative … I spend a lot of my time with people in their 80s and 90s and they’re bloody brilliant company. I’ve always believed that it’s not your age that makes you a great companion, it’s who you are, what you’ve done and what you do.” What has she learned from caring? “I loved my parents, and I love Granny Rosie. I did feel that there was a lesson for me, which was if you are loved unconditionally, if you’re brought up seeing what it means to be cared for, then if the time comes for you, it’s much easier to step up.” At which point it’s time to go – not quite the hour for Mosse and her mother-in-law to share their daily early evening tipple, but almost.