Author Talk: February 4, 2011
The co-founder and honorary director of the Orange Prize for fiction, British author Kate Mosse returns to the literary scene herself with THE WINTER GHOSTS, which tells the story of a traumatized World War I veteran who crosses paths with a mysterious woman in the Pyrenees mountains and unearths an almost-forgotten mystery --- and a past that is, perhaps, more haunted than his own. In this interview, Mosse reflects on the remote region of France that inspired her latest novel, elaborating on its ancient beauty and the tragic story she stumbled upon while researching another book. She also speculates on the differences between heroes and heroines, muses on the merits of ghost stories, and explains why she always keeps her eye on the present when writing about the past.
Question: The landscape and history of the French Pyrenees is a huge presence in the novel. Was it an inspiration?
Kate Mosse: THE WINTER GHOSTS is inspired by my love of the Languedoc, a region of France where we have had a house for the past twenty years. It is an ancient region, a mysterious region that carries within its rocks and plains the whole history of humankind. I do believe that the land holds the story of who we are and what has happened, and that in an area so beautiful, so epic, so varied as the south of west of France, there are a thousand tales to be told. Every time I’m there, I feel the presence of all those who have walked the same paths before me.
Although the village at the heart of THE WINTER GHOSTS is imagined, the key town of Tarascon, on the border with the principality of Andorra, is a place I have visited many times in the past 20 years. There, the clouds and mist seem to touch the earth and the Pyrenees are home to dark forests of birch and fir, extraordinary prehistoric caves and hidden, underground rivers. Many years before writing THE WINTER GHOSTS, when researching LABYRINTH I stumbled upon the tragic story of the last Cathars, some 500 men, women and children entombed inside the caves of Lombrives in 1328. Their bodies were not found for hundreds of years. This struck a chord with the awful numbers of soldiers who were lost in the First World War, but their bodies never identified or recovered. The idea of not knowing what had happened to someone you loved is so painful. From that, the story started to develop.
Q: THE WINTER GHOSTS is the first time you’ve written a book with a male protagonist. Your previous books, LABYRINTH and SEPULCHRE both featured female lead characters. Did you find writing a hero different from writing a heroine?
KM: All novelists aim to create real, imaginary characters, if I can say that. None of my characters, male or female, are me --- though some, such as Meredith in SEPULCHRE or Alais in LABYRINTH, do have emotions that I would own up to being my own. So, in one way, writing a male lead was no different from writing a 13th century girl or a 21st century American woman. Having said that, I was always conscious of how the perspective of a man in 1928 would differ from that of a woman. So, for example, when I was writing the scene with a car crash, I knew that I had to put in more hard fact about the car, the actual nuts and bolts of it, than I would if I was writing from a female perspective. It sounds trivial, but it’s about anchoring the character both in their own identity, but also in their own time and the sort of person they would be. Plausibility is important. Finally, it was actually rather liberating writing a male protagonist. I continually questioned myself about how Freddie would think, what he might feel, what he could do --- I took nothing for granted.
Q: THE WINTER GHOSTS, as the title suggests, is a mystery with a ghost story at its heart. What draws you to writing about the supernatural? Are ghost stories all meant to be frightening? Can they also be inspirational?
KM: For me, ghost stories always have a moral, a sense of loss, a sense of seeing the world differently and accepting that there’s a heck of a lot we don’t know or understand. This is why ghost fiction is very different from ‘horror’, when the shock value, the terror is essential. With ghost stories, there’s always a question at the heart of it --- are ghosts real, are they products of our imaginations or needs, or do they exist separately from us? It’s all about what the great American novelist, Edith Wharton, called ‘the thrill of the shudder.’
Q: The novel is largely about one man dealing with grief after the loss of his brother in World War I. What does the novel say about mourning, and about male grief in particular?
KM: In England, particularly in the countryside, where I live, it is impossible not to be brought up daily with the remembrance of the millions of men who died or who went missing during WW1. Every village has a memorial, lists of names of the young, middle aged and old men of the village who left, and never returned. Some 7 million men went missing. The First World War cast a shadow under which the next generation struggled. I started to think about how hard it must be to grieve and to mourn, when everyone around you is doing the same. There is a hierarchy of grief too --- by which I mean, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, are allowed to grieve more fully and more deeply than, perhaps, friends and siblings. For me, therefore, Freddie was suffering under a double burden, both of missing his brother and also not being allowed to show it. The English ‘stiff upper lip’ meant that many men in particular were simply not able to admit to being devastated by what had happened. From the letters I’ve read from servicemen, servicewomen and their families, I know that this issue is still very current today.
Q: The novel --- like your previous two --- brings together two different stories that take place centuries apart. What is it about this narrative structure that appeals to you?
KM: I love writing historical fiction, but I also like to have a contemporary perspective on the history. It’s important to stay within your period, so some of the facts and details of historical everyday life are hard to convey if you are writing solely within that time period. As soon as you have a modern eye on things, though, you can share the wonder and excitement of what you, as the author, have discovered about the past. It’s a way of reflecting the past through the prism of the present.
Q: THE WINTER GHOSTS is shorter than your two previous novels. Is storytelling in a shorter format more challenging or more pleasurable than long-form novels?
KM: It will sound rather fancy to say so, but actually books dictate their own length --- I don’t actively set out to write ‘long’ books (as in LABYRINTH or SEPULCHRE), or shorter novels as with THE WINTER GHOSTS. As a novelist, you need to have the courage to ‘listen’ to your own book, let it tell you how long it should be.
© Copyright 2011, Kate Mosse. All rights reserved.
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