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Kate Mosse: 'We’re looking for potential, for original voices, for imagination...'

BY Discoveries
20th Oct 2021

CBC and Curtis Brown are proud to be partnering with the Women’s Prize Trust and Audible to run Discoveries, a writing development prize and programme, which offers practical support and encouragement to aspiring female novelists of all ages and backgrounds, from across the UK and Ireland.

This week the Discoveries team talk books and writing advice with Kate Mosse. Kateis the author of nine novels & short story collections, including the No 1 multimillion selling Languedoc Trilogy. Her latest bestselling historical adventure series includes The Burning Chambers and The City of Tears. She is also the founder of the Women's Prize for Fiction. Kate will chair the Discoveries 2022 judging panel – she will be joined by acclaimed authors Ayisha Malik and Irenosen Okojie, CBC’s founder and director Anna Davis, and Curtis Brown literary agent Lucy Morris.

When did you know you wanted to become an author?

I always hoped that books would be at the heart of my working life – I started as a secretary in a publishing company, then became an editorial assistant, then an editor. I only started writing because the book I wanted to read when I was pregnant wasn’t there …. My inspiration for my fiction comes from place and it was going to Carcassonne, in southwest France, that liberated my imagination – the ‘whispering in the landscape’, as I think of it.

The Women’s Prize for Fiction is one of the most respected and celebrated literary awards in the world. What led you to set up the prize twenty-six years ago, and has anything changed since then?

In 1991, there was a Booker Prize shortlist with no women on it. Now, that’s all right insofar as the judges must be free to choose the novels they most admire and think most fulfil the criteria of the prize, but the key thing was that nobody noticed. Can you imagine if there had been a shortlist with only women? Everyone would have howled or seen it as political. So, we did a little research and discovered that although some 60 per cent of novels published were authored by women, fewer than 9 per cent of novels ever shortlisted for major literary prizes were written by women: in other words, women’s writing was not being given the critical support, attention and honouring it deserved.

Rather than sit around complaining, instead we set up a prize that would celebrate and promote the very best fiction written by women in English from anywhere in the world – age no object, genre no object, country of birth or residence no object, just brilliant writing. Positive action, positive change is what gets things done and the rest, as they say, is … The key challenge now is to diversify publishing so that a far broader range of voices can be heard. Publishing has been slow to catch up with the world outside, but things are changing now and readers are benefiting from that.

The Women’s Prize Trust became a registered charity in 2018, and now runs programmes for aspiring writers – including Discoveries. Why do you think it is so important to support and empower unpublished women writers?

There has been, for too long, a rather narrow range of authors has had access to publishing and advice about publishing. The WPFF has always sought to amplify all women’s voices and to support new voices who might, in the past, have felt excluded from the traditional publishing networks. Discoveries is our commitment to every woman who feels she might have a story to tell and to encourage all writers, wherever they live, whatever their background, whatever their subject matter, to consider putting pen to paper (as it were). The broader the range of voices published, the more we all benefit.

You are currently writing The Burning Chambers quartet, a historical series that spans 300 years and is set against the backdrop of the French religious wars. What initially inspired you to write this epic series?

As always, my fiction is inspired by place. In this instance, being in Franschhoek in South Africa on a book tour in 2010 and learning of the history of a small band of Huguenot refugees, fleeing religious persecution in Europe, arriving there in 1688. Straight away, I wanted to discover what might have happened to make them give up everything, and all the things that could happen when they found themselves on the other side of the world. Unheard and underheard women’s stories are at the heart of my storytelling and I’m loving the research, as much as the writing. I have been blown away by readers’ responses to The Burning Chambers and The City of Tears, which is out in paperback in early 2022, and I’m now wrestling with the third in the sequence.

I’m also working on a big non-fiction book about women and history, how history is made and how (and why) women so easily are left out of the official record: the ‘book of myths’, as the great American poet and activist Adrienne Rich put it. That publishes in October 2022 and will be a celebration of incredible women from all cultures, from all periods of history – in other words, history with the women put back!

What tips do you have for writers about to embark on historical research for a novel?

Check and double check, never rely on just one source. If you are excavating women’s lives, then you will need to go to less traditional sources – like wills, letters written between mothers and daughters, say, or church records – because women’s lives are often less documented and the reality of women’s experiences has been overlooked and deemed as insignificant by generations of male historians.

What’s been your favourite book of 2021?

I couldn’t possibly name just one novel – for all the obvious reasons – although I highly recommend the 2020 and 2021 WPFF shortlists! In non-fiction, I loved Ann Patchett’s new book of essays These Precious Days and Amy Bloom’s extraordinary memoir about her husband’s assisted suicide, A Memoir of Love and Loss, is beautiful and thought-provoking.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

The mighty Miss Marple – she’s the most subversive, most overlooked, mischievous, clever and individual woman in crime fiction. I’m thrilled to be one of twelve writers who’ve been commissioned by the Agatha Christie Estate to write a new Miss Marple story for a collection publishing in September 2022.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors getting ready to submit to Discoveries 2022?

Read and read again before you submit. Make sure your 10,000 words really are the best you can do, and that you are proud of what you have written.

What will you be looking for from entrants when reading for Discoveries?

We’re looking for potential, for original voices, for imagination, for a story that sweeps you along and a great sense of place and atmosphere. Most of all, we’re looking for someone who has a voice of her own and who is passionate about the story she wants to write.

Find out more about Discoveries 2022 and how to enter.

Kate Mosse will be a panellist on our free upcoming How to Get Started Discoveries Webinar, to take place on 4 November, 7.00pm-8.30pm, featuring a panel of Curtis Brown agents, authors and Discoveries judges – find out more and sign up here.