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24 June 2020

Kate Mosse: ‘Throughout history, too many women’s voices have been left unheard or underheard’

Kate Mosse (c) Ruth Crafer
by Discoveries Author Interviews, Discoveries, Writing Tips

CBC and Curtis Brown are proud to be partnering with the Women’s Prize Trust and NatWest to launch Discoveries, a writing development programme that will offer aspiring female authors of all ages and backgrounds encouragement and support at the beginning of their creative journeys.

The Discoveries team talk books and writing advice with Kate Mosse, the Founder Director of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Kate is a number one international bestselling novelist, playwright and non-fiction writer. The author of six novels and short story collections – including the multimillion-selling Languedoc Trilogy (Labyrinth, Sepulchre and Citadel) and Gothic fiction The Winter Ghosts and The Taxidermist’s Daughter, which she is adapting for the stage – her books have been translated into thirty-eight languages and published in more than forty countries.

Tell us about the road to publication for your debut novel. 

I had a big advantage getting started, in that I had worked as a publisher for ten years before I started to write, so I understood the submissions process from the inside. My first two books were non-fiction (one about pregnancy – Becoming a Mother, 1993 – written while I was pregnant with my second child, and the other a BBC publication to accompany their television series on the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 1997). Out of that, an editor in a different publishing company got in touch and asked if I’d ever thought about writing fiction. I published two contemporary novels, but didn’t find my voice. It was only with Labyrinth, 2005that I became a novelist. What changed? It was a question of listening to my own voice, of writing from the heart rather than sitting with a very critical editing voice in my head. Listening to the ‘voices in the landscape’, as I think of it. One of the key aims of the Discoveries talent development programme is to get out information about the world of publishing to as wide a range of potential authors as possible – and actively engage with writers traditionally left out of the conversation – so that publishing opportunities are not limited to those who understand how the industry works or who have connections. The publishing industry has been slow in recognising the wealth of talent in the UK and, for too long, many brilliant British authors – especially black writers, writers of colour, working class writers and those living outside of London and the southeast – have not been given the opportunities and support their talent deserves. The wider the range of voices, the more readers benefit.

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-five years ago, and has anything changed since then? 

I’ve written and published very widely about the background to setting up the Prize: the struggle to set it up, the loud voices set against us, the accusations of sexism (yes, really!), the assertion that if ‘women were any good, they’d be shortlisted for the real prizes’ (also, yes really), the long road to funding, the challenges of starting a major literary institution from my tiny back bedroom in southeast London with two small children! It was exhausting and took many, many years. But, broadly speaking, it was the realisation that although, statistically speaking, female authors’ route to market was not a problem (though it was, and still remains much harder, for women of colour, for working class writers, for writers of regionality and working in certain genres), there was a clear problem in the honouring, valuing and celebrating of women’s work. At the point we launched the Prize in 1996, some sixty per cent of novels published in the UK were written by women but fewer than nine per cent of novels shortlisted for major literary prizes were by women. If you like, it was the persistence of that old idea that Literature with a capital L was written by white men and that every other voice was peripheral. Rather than storm the offices of the Booker and other literary prizes, we decided the most powerful way to change things. Prizes are crucial both in getting brilliant books to readers’ attentions but also in encouraging new writers to pick up their own pens – so we decided to set up a major and well rewarded prize that would, every year, honour and celebrate the very best fiction written in English by women from all over the world. It was deliberately international and deliberately diverse, in order to encourage a much broader range of fiction to be considered ‘Literature’ with a capital L! Our aim then – as now – was to put the classics of tomorrow into the hands of the readers of today. I’m very proud that thousands of novels – longlists, shortlists, winners, as well as all those in our expanding WPFF library – have been read, lent and borrowed by millions of readers all over the world.

What’s your favourite debut novel? 

I’m very wary about having ‘favourites’, because there are so many exceptional novels and often our choices change, as we change and age; a novel that blows your mind when you’re in your teens might not speak so powerfully when you read it in your fifties! Having said that, if I could only have two novels on my bookshelf, it would be Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Wuthering Heights, EB’s first and only novel, was published just a year before her death in 1848. It’s a work of brilliance, a novel that changes every time you read it: a story of race, a story of injustice, a story of obsession, a ghost story, a story of violence and, most of all, a story about the land, with one of the best final paragraphs in all of literature. Toni Morrisons’s The Bluest Eye – first published in 1970 and one of the most frequently banned books in America – is a searing, brilliant, breath-taking novel, a stunning examination of the consequences of the injustice of systematic corrosive and insidious racism. Set in 1941, it follows the turbulent and traumatic life of a Pecola, a young African-American girl growing up in Ohio in the years after the Depression. It should be on every school reading list the world over. 

If you could tell your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be? 

That writing is – and should be – hard work, that nothing arrives fully formed, that writing is about having the idea and sticking with it. There will be good writing days, and bad writing days, but unless you put something down on paper (for this read ‘computer screen’), you have nothing to work with. As Samuel Becket wrote: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ It’s all about stamina and not losing heart … About failing better!

Which book do you always recommend to others? 

Apart from Wuthering Heights, The Bluest Eye and all twenty-four previous WPF winners (obviously), I try to find out the kinds of books someone enjoys before recommending: some love historical fiction or crime, others domestic fiction or science fiction, some want something driven by plot and pace, others something where ideas and the beauty of language takes centre stage. Again, the aim of the WPF is to put a whole range of wonderful, thought-inspiring, imaginative, uplifting, challenging and beautiful novels in front of readers so they can make their choice.

How do you relax when you are not writing? 

Reading, walking the dog, trudging through the woods at dusk or through an unknown city before dawn, drinking wine with family and friends, theatre … Though, truthfully, writing can be relaxing too: those early days of a new book, when you’re still in love with the characters and subject and working on the first draft before the real hard work of editing begins, are wonderful, when everything seems possible.

What tips would you give to aspiring writers? 

Five minutes a day are better than no minutes. You might not yet have time to write that ‘big’ novel you’ve been planning for years, but everyone – whatever their responsibilities for working, caring, life – can find five minutes a day. Keep a pad and paper by the kettle or in the bathroom or by the side of your bed, or send text messages to yourself. Look at the world around you and write a description in your head. Look at people in the street and think of how you’d put them on the page with just three words. Like practising your scales on the piano or warming up before going for a run, it’s all about getting your writing muscles fit for purpose. Take the fear of facing a blank and empty screen by putting words on it – it doesn’t matter what – so that when you do have time to write, you’ll be match fit and ready to go. Most of all, dream and think big. It’s the imagination that counts, whatever your inspiration or subject matter.

Who is your favourite fictional hero/heroine? 

Agatha Christie’s mighty Miss Marple, one of the most subversive and inspiring women in literature!

Do you have any writing rituals – and can you tell us what they are? 

I’m a carer, so I start very early in the day. A strong and sweet cup of black coffee is essential, then Marmite toast when I stop for a break at 6am or so. Otherwise, no rituals. When I’m writing, I’m not myself really, but rather sitting inside my head. Oh, and a glass of something cold and white at the end of the writing day … If you work from home, it’s important to set the boundaries between the writing and the domestic day.

Is there a writer you think has been unjustly forgotten? 

Throughout history, too many women’s voices have been left unheard or underheard, their works allowed to go out of print. There are too many to list, but I’ll start with three: As well as historical fiction, I write Gothic thrillers, so I’d name Ann Radcliffe (who was a mega superstar in her day) and author of one of the very first Gothic bestsellers, The Mysteries of Udolpho, 1794. Phillis Wheatley, an enslaved woman, published the first ever book of poetry by an African-American woman in 1773. A genuine trailblazer, she’s an author who should appear on every school and university reading list; finally, the late 18th/early 19th-century playwright, poet and abolitionist, Hannah More. She was a powerful and important writer in her day, but today she is hardly remembered. When fashions change, it’s easy for women’s works to vanish from sight, which is another reason why we should all campaign to protect our brilliant UK library service. One of our aims when setting up the WPF was to make sure that exceptional female writers were not left behind, that their names should not be forgotten, that their works should be kept in print and on the bookshelves. The history of writing by women – particularly women of colour and working class writers – is too often about a lack of curation, about their work not being valued or respected, and there is a great deal of work still to do in excavating the past, going back into the archives and rediscovering writing by women, as the publishers Virago did in the 1970s and 1980s with their Modern Classics series.

Get your hands on a copy of Kate Mosse’s latest novel The Burning Chambers.

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