Interview: March 10, 2006
March 10, 2006
Bookreporter.com's Carol Fitzgerald, Joe Hartlaub and Wiley Saichek interviewed Kate Mosse, author of ESKIMO KISSING, CRUCIFIX LANE and the newly released LABYRINTH. Mosse discusses how much of the novel's inspiration --- both in setting and plot --- stemmed from her love of the Southwest region of France and explains her intent to expand the parameters of a predominantly Christian myth to encompass all religions. She also describes her hands-on approach to research and shares details about future novels and projects.
Bookreporter.com: LABYRINTH is epic in length and in scope, spanning history while connecting the events of the past with the present. How long did it take for you to write LABYRINTH from your initial concept to final draft?
Kate Mosse: I started to hoard away impressions and images for LABYRINTH from the moment we first bought a house in Carcassonne some 17 years ago, even though I didn't realise it at the time. The turning point was when I visited the mountain in southwest France, Montsegur, in the foothills of the Pyrenees about 10 years ago. As I climbed the mountain in the snow, I suddenly had this image of a young medieval woman, on the morning of the fall of the citadel on 16 March 1244, standing on the walls. At that point, I realised that the idea I had for a grail novel set in Ancient Egypt was actually a novel set in medieval France! I had other projects and commitments, so I couldn't start writing straight away, but from the focused research, writing, planning and plotting, the novel has taken six years.
BRC: LABYRINTH was meticulously researched. How did you conduct your research? Did your research take LABYRINTH in directions that you did not anticipate? What can you share with readers about this?
KM: I adore physical research, so I spent many, many hours in southwest France (over the past 17 years) climbing the mountains, exploring the caves, walking from village to village to gauge distances, visiting cathedrals, churches, ruined chateaux, and so forth. All of it is designed to get myself under the skin of the landscape itself, which is a major character in LABYRINTH in its own right. I even had sword fighting lessons, just so I had a sense of what it felt like to hold a medieval fighting sword in my hand --- I was really bad at it and realised that, had I been in a battle, I would have been one of the first down!
I also did an enormous amount of research in libraries and online. There are many outstanding French historians who've published brilliant books on the history of the Cathars --- including Rene Nelli, Anne Brenon, Yves Rouquebert, Jean Duvernony and others --- so I am indebted to them. I also read everything and anything I could about medieval southwest France, books of theology, even books of military history (although I was enormously helped on this side of things by my now 13-year-old son!). There are many wonderful museums in the region --- the Chateau Comtal in the medieval city of Carcassonne, the Chateau at Foix, in the Ariège --- where I visited many times over the years to look at armour, weapons, clothes and so forth.
The key thing with research is that you don't know what you're looking for until you find it. Keeping an open mind, discovering things --- such as the fact the Inquisition was founded in southwest France in 1233 to get rid of the Cathars, rather than in Spain a century later as I had previously thought --- is what makes research for a novel so enjoyable.
BRC: You maintain a residence in Carcassonne, France, where a great deal of LABYRINTH is set. What drew you to this area, both as a place of residence and as a situs for LABYRINTH?
KM: It was chance we found ourselves in Carcassonne. My husband, who is a writer and translator, had lived in France for many years, so we decided to buy a little bolt hole so that we could divide our time between England and France. A friend of my wonderful mother-in-law had an estate agency business in Carcassonne, which is the only reason we looked there! But the moment I first stepped off the plane, I fell completely in love with the place. Although I knew nothing about Carcassonne or the region of southwest France known as the Languedoc, I felt immediately at home. It is a wonderful, wild landscape of mountains, huge skies, rivers and lakes. A knowledge of the medieval past and the wars that destroyed the area in the 13th century still cast their shadow over the present. I love the sense of always having one foot in the past when I'm there.
BRC: When did you first become interested in the Cathars?
KM: My interest came from my love for the region. I knew little about the Cathars when we first started visiting the Languedoc 17 years ago, other than the fact that they were a Christian sect, denounced as heretics by the Catholic Church, and against whom the first Crusade launched on Christian soil by the Church against fellow Christians had been preached in 1209. The more I discovered about them, the more interesting I found their beliefs, their way of life and their attitudes. Their story is a tragic one in that the Crusade was ultimately successful and, when the Cathar Church at Montsegur fell in March 1244, Catharism was all but wiped out as a force to be reckoned with in southwest France.
BRC: In your note to readers in LABYRINTH, you indicated your goal of wanting to write a Holy Grail story that would be different from all other Holy Grail stories. What sparked your interest in this topic?
KM: I have always been interested in the fact that although the 'Holy' Grail is seen as one of the most symbolic and potent of Christian myths, Grail legends --- by which I mean the idea of something that confers either extended or everlasting life --- exist in most religions, most cultures and in most periods of history. It is a powerful archetypal idea that appeals to most people --- whoever they are, wherever they live, whatever their race, colour, creed, sex or background.
I was therefore keen to write a Grail story that removed the idea from Christianity alone and linked it to all religions --- and indeed none. In LABYRINTH, the Grail guardians can be male or female, of any faith, from any country. What matters is that they are good people and are dedicated to the idea of the Grail serving a purpose: namely, to enable an individual to live longer than his/her allotted span in order to bear witness. We all know that history is written by the victorious and that the truth is often the first casualty of war. In LABYRINTH, the responsibility of my Grail guardians is to enable those chosen to live in order to write, to speak the truth, to bear witness. They are entrusted with ensuring that history cannot be rewritten.
BRC: LABYRINTH is an ambitious work. What challenges did you encounter while writing it? Did you find it difficult to "reign in" your subject matter, given the tumultuousness of the early 13th Century? What in that time period did you find most attractive as a setting for a novel? Also, did you find it necessary to map out the Alice and Alais portions of the novel separately, or did you write the novel from beginning to end, alternating the characters and time period as you went along?
KM: My biggest challenge was, as you guess, keeping track of my material. LABYRINTH tells one story, divided between two heroines in different time periods: half is set in medieval France (1209 - 1244 AD) and half in contemporary Carcassonne. The action switches back and forward between the two time periods, which was often very complicated! Because, as a novelist, you don't know quite when you will need each clue, each piece of information. I wrote the story in the medieval time, then wrote the contemporary story, then put both sections together...and cut half of both!
It is also hard, especially when you have done years of research, to decide what to put in and what to leave out. Sometimes, as you say, you have to rein yourself in. The rule of thumb that works for me is that any piece of historical detail must serve a purpose. If research gets in the way of the plot, or jars with the characters, then you have to cut it. It's hard, but it is very important never to lose sight of the fact that you are writing a novel and not a work of history.
Modern-day Carcassonne positively vibrates with the spirit of the past. The Cité's medieval character is always present, so as a writer, it is more a question of listening to the place, listening to the echoes of history, and then situating your story, characters, and plot appropriately in the centre of the landscape about which you are writing. Anyone who has been to the walled city of Carcassonne will know exactly what I mean!
As for why I like the period, I've always adored adventure writing: lots of swashbuckling, lots of battles, lots of peril and jeopardy, but the goodies winning in the end. The medieval period has all of these characteristics --- and more --- and is therefore the perfect backdrop against which to write an action adventure thriller.
BRC: You drew many parallels, subtle and otherwise, between individuals of the past and present in LABYRINTH, particularly between Alais and Alice. Was Alais inspired by a historical figure? And do you believe in past or future lives?
KM: No, Alais is an imagined character...but she is the sort of young woman who could have lived in Carcassonne in 1209. Unlike most other parts of Europe at the time, the Languedoc was a more liberal place. Women had more rights than they did in, say, England --- for example, they could inherit property, work, control their own business and households.
The Cathars, who were the dominant religious group in the region, even had female priests --- unusual (in the UK, at least) even now! So I was careful to make Alais a plausible character, in terms of the mores of the time, but at the same time very much her own person. The Cathars believed in reincarnation so, within LABYRINTH, I wanted to set up parallels between our times and the 13th century, both in narrative and in individual characters. I am careful not to be prescriptive, though, since I want the reader to make up his or her own mind as to the true nature of the relationship between Alais and Alice, Guilhem and Will, Oriane and Marie-Cecile.
I do believe strongly, however, in the spirit of place. The idea that a place --- and indeed a set of characters --- can speak to people from different eras, in different ways, at different times. When you stand on Montsegur, it is impossible not to think of all those who have stood on this very spot before you --- and will again. This, for me I suppose, is as much a definition of reincarnation as anything more orthodox.
BRC: Do you have a professional/formal background in history, or have you just always had a fascination with this subject?
KM: Sadly not. I studied history to A' level standard, but then read English Literature at University. I have always been a passionate amateur historian, though, since I think that history is simply a collection of real or true narratives, as opposed to the fictional narratives of novels. The quotations I use at the beginning of LABYRINTH --- by writers more gifted than I --- sum it up perfectly!
BRC: Alice is a volunteer archaeologist. Have you participated in archaeological digs yourself?
KM: I have never worked on a dig myself, although I've always enjoyed poking about in caves and digging for treasure! However, my mother was a volunteer on archaeological digs at home in Sussex, England. A very important Roman palace was discovered in the village we lived in (in Fishbourne, West Sussex, in the 1960s), so I was used to people with dirty fingernails sitting at supper talking about fragments of pottery and mosaics. I was careful to make Alice a visitor to the site rather than an archaeologist, building on her natural curiosity rather than a professional skill.
BRC: Do you plan to continue exploring 13th century France for future work, or are there other periods of history you would like to explore going forward?
KM: My next novel, SEPULCHRE, is also set in southwest France, although a little further down in the southernmost tip of the Aude valley. It is set in modern times and the past, but this time it is fin-de-siècle France --- the period between 1885 and 1914, when the First World War started and changed the face of Europe forever.
In the same way that the Languedoc underwent extraordinary change in the early part of the 13th century, Carcassonne went from being a small, provincial capital to being a place of industry, wealth, architecture and tourism in the closing years of the 19th century.
Whereas LABYRINTH has the search for three missing books at the heart of it, SEPULCHRE has classical music at its centre --- one of the real life characters is the French composer Claude Debussy. And where LABYRINTH was the retelling of Grail legend and the symbol of the labyrinth, SEPULCHRE offers an alternative history as to the background of Tarot cards, set against a backdrop of the occult and arcane obsessions of late 19th century France.
I'm already well underway with the research and hope to have a first draft by the end of this year.
BRC: What authors have inspired you?
KM: Too many to mention --- but certainly including T S Eliot, Margaret Atwood, "Les Soeurs Bronte"(!), Maupassant, Anne Brenon, Iris Murdoch, Harper Lee, John Steinbeck, Adrienne Rich, Agatha Christie, M R James, Graham Greene, Andrea Levy, Sarah Waters, Philippa Gregory, Sue Grafton, Shakespeare (of course), W B Yeats, Rider Haggard, Jules Verne, Ngaio Marsh....
BRC: What authors, and genres, do you read for pleasure?
KM: As most writers, I'm an omnivore, so I read everything! However, for pure relaxation I read a lot of crime fiction (from classic crime such as Ian Rankin and Agatha Christie) to modern writers such as Jonathan Kellerman, Robert Crais, Harlen Coben, Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell. As the Co-Founder and Honorary Director of the Orange Prize for Fiction, which celebrates international fiction in English by women, I obviously am lucky enough to read most contemporary writing by women such as Andrea Levy, Ann Patchett, Anne Michaels, Ali Smith, Sarah Waters, Helen Dunmore, and Marilynne Robinson. This really is a golden age for outstanding writing by women, so the list could go on and on.
BRC: In your note to readers in LABYRINTH, you mentioned you had other projects and commitments when you first began to develop the idea for LABYRINTH. Is there anything you would like to share about these projects? Have you returned to these projects now that LABYRINTH has been published?
KM: Thanks to the incredibly hard work of my publishers and agents --- not to mention the wonderful and generous reaction of readers to LABYRINTH --- I've spent much of the last nine months on tour! I've enormously enjoyed the traveling and meeting readers in all sorts of countries (LABYRINTH has been sold in 32 countries for translation), but I'm looking forward to settling back at my desk to work on SEPULCHRE.
I continue to work with the Orange Prize for Fiction --- and Orange Award for New Writers, which we launched in 2005 --- and to take part in initiatives to promote reading and authors to as wide a range of potential readers as possible. I also continue to present for BBC television and radio, although I'm trying to scale back a little on these commitments for the next few months!