Bestselling author Kate Mosse chats to Janine Marsh about her favourite places in France…
Kate Mosse is an international bestselling novelist, playwright and non-fiction writer. The author of eight 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-seven languages and published in more than forty countries. She is the Founder Director of the Women’s Prize for Fiction and a regular interviewer for theatre & fiction events. Kate divides her time between Chichester in West Sussex and Carcassonne in south-west France.
Many of Kate Mosse’s books feature France, so we thought we’d find out her favourite French places and ask how they’ve inspired her…
How does your love of France and some of the experiences you have translate into your books?
[JM] I remember reading that the great writer Victor Hugo visited a town called Montreuil-sur-Mer in northern France, he saw a tearful woman leave a church – and she became Fantine in Les Misérables!
Well, that’s a lovely question and it’s also a really lovely example because my son is played Marius in the UK & International tour of Les Mis! All my stories come from “place”, the landscape itself is a key character. It’s exactly like that Victor Hugo example of my being somewhere particular and seeing something startling…
It could be the way the shadow falls on the side of a church or a solitary tree set on its own in the middle of a field, so I’d start wondering where the rest of the wood went! Or an old stone shaped like a chair…
The Languedoc and the Loire
The landscape of Languedoc in the south west of France – Carcassonne in particular – is the landscape of my imagination. I first visited Carcassonne more than 30 years ago and fell head over heels in love. Now, as then, it feels like a magical place, a stage set. Everywhere, there are vibrant stories of the past being whispered in the landscape and just waiting to be told.
Carcassonne and Toulouse feature prominently in my Languedoc Trilogy, as well as my new series, The Burning Chambers. I suppose my Fantine moment was seeing all the roads in the heart of the Bastide (the 14th century town of Carcassonne, across the river from the City of Carcassonne) had been renamed for members of the Carcassonne Resistance who were executed on the same day in August 1944. Out of that, came the inspiration for Citadel, the third novel in my Languedoc Trilogy.
And I love Chartres, which is twinned with my home town of Chichester in Sussex. When I’m in Chartres, I have such a strong feeling of history and of the past. When I was writing my latest novel The City of Tears, which is set in the late 16th century against the backdrop of the French Wars of Religion, I had to train myself to forget the 13th century city I’d written about Labyrinth but imagine instead what life would have been like some three hundred and fifty years later. Novelists are nosy! Wherever I am, when I’m writing, I’m always snooping, always excavating the city beneath the city. I seek the untold stories, the stories of ordinary people, particular the women who are left out of the history books.
I prefer to explore on my own, quietly with a notebook and a map, standing alone in the shadows and letting the past fill my head. I find that the story, the plot, the characters and atmosphere come to me best in silence. I do a lot of my pre-site research at home, so that I already have the sense of the topography and architecture of the place I’m writing about, so by the time I visit, I’m feel I already know the city. This slower process helps me to bring a place to life. The research through archives, museums, libraries and books are an essential part of the preparation – readers deserve accurate and gripping real history – but then there’s what I think of as the “foot research” – walking, seeing the landscape, imagining the characters, that’s what brings a novel to life.
Sometimes I will have spent years visiting a place years before I even think of writing about it. All of my knowledge of Carcassonne comes from having spent some of every year there for the past 30 years or so. And the first time I ever went to France was to Chartres on a school orchestra exchange trip, so all of my memories of Chartres go back to being a 14 year old clutching her violin. But It wasn’t until I was writing Labyrinth in 2004 that I ever put those streets and that amazing cathedral down on paper. Novels, ideas, characters take a long time to brew …
Was there a point when writing Labyrinth, your first big blockbuster, you suddenly thought – I’m going to do this, a sort of a Eureka moment?
To start with, I fell in love with the place, then the history. We bought a tiny house in the shadow of the medieval city walls of Carcassonne in November 1989, when I was expecting our first child. For three months of my maternity leave with my daughter in 1990 we were based there and, two years later, we did the same thing when our son was born During these early years, I was always reading about the astonishing history of Carcassonne – particularly about the religious wars of the 13th century and a group of so-called heretical Christians, the Cathars, and I was hooked. Little by little, I started to realise that the images I had in my head were actually not scenes from history at all, but rather imagined characters set against the backdrop of the history I was coming to know so well. Then, in the late 1990s, we went to one of the key sites in the Cathar story, Montségur in the Pyrenees. It was March, the time of year in 1244 when the siege of the citadel came to an end, and some two hundred Cathars were brought down the mountain by the Catholic soldiers to be burned at the pyre.
As I climbed the mountain on my own – leaving my husband, mother-in-law and our children building a snowman beside the memorial to the Cathar martyrs at the foot of the mountain – I thought about how it was the key end point really of the Cathar Crusade, the moment at which the independence of the Midi came to an end. It was really cold and there was a heavy mist. And then suddenly I was up and through the cloud cover, where the sky above was an intense blue.
I climbed up perilously icy steps into the ruined castle, then right to the top of the battlements – there were no railings or barriers – and stood there looking out over the incredible beauty of the Pyrenees. Suddenly, I had a very clear image of a woman pulling a red cloak tight against the cold.
10 years later I was at home in Sussex, writing Labyrinth and that scene, set on that final day of the siege in Montségur in March 1244 and there she was, my lead character, Alaїs, standing on the wall. As I typed the description of her wrapping her red cloak around herself, I suddenly thought, “Oh,, it’s you. I met you 10 years ago, but I didn’t know who you were.” And that’s how novel writing works!
This collision of place, history and inspiration happened again with The Burning Chambers. I was in the rue du Marché in the Bastide in Carcassonne and I suddenly imagined what it might have been like to walk down this same street in 1562, on a cold February morning. What if you were going to work in your father’s bookshop, like on every other day, without realising that the next day, 1st March 1562, a massacre would take place many hundreds of miles away, in a place you’d never heard of called Vassy, but it was something that would turn your life upside down and destroy France – a generation of civil war between Huguenots and Catholics. And out of that one thought, suddenly Minou Joubert, my main character, presented herself. And I felt, ok, now I’ve got to find out who you are and tell your story. It’s always that exhilarating moment at the start of a novel when one key person – usually a woman – stands in front of me and offers their hand. Then, off we go to discover the story together, but always against the backdrop of real history, of a real and amazing place.
I always have a blank piece of paper and a pen to jot down notes wherever I am. You never know what, as a writer, you might notice that will be the thing that sparks the next idea – someone on the bus tucking her hair behind her ears, a man weeping in the street, the child nearly running into the road. Although my plots are complicated and often intricate, I’m not a planner in the early stages of a book at all. I’d rather not control things too much, preferring to keep my eyes and ears open, being available to the characters, ideas and the stories that might come and find me. I’m a keen walker, because for me it’s the things that you haven’t gone looking for, but you just see out of the corner of your eye – that’s where the real stories come from. Keep your mind open and receptive. So much writing and imaging happens on the move!
Although my plots are complicated and often intricate, I’m not a planner in the early stages of a book at all. I’d rather not control things too much, preferring to keep my eyes and ears open, being available to the characters, ideas and the stories that might come and find me. I’m a keen walker, because for me it’s the things that you haven’t gone looking for, but you just see out of the corner of your eye – that’s where the real stories come from. Keep your mind open and receptive. So much writing and imaging happens on the move!
In Carcassonne when you want to take a break, is there somewhere you’d like to go?
For the past ten years, I’ve been a part time, and now a full time carer, so I am not able to be in Carcassonne as much as I’d like – it’s really not suitable for wheelchairs! But I still go at least four times a year and always launch the French editions of my novels there and often escort my Dutch, Spanish and German publishers and journalists too. La Cité itself has changed a lot over the years, there’s been a great deal of restoration and renovation. Though there are critics of Violet- le-Duc’s 19th century restoration, the fact is it wouldn’t be there at all without his work and that of others. I think it looks magnificent!
Within the medieval city, the Hotel de la Cité is wonderful, one of the great hotels of France. It was built in 1909 and all the great performers who came to perform in the open theatre within the walls, for example, Sarah Bernhardt, used to stay there. When I go in winter, rather than open up our little holiday house for a night, I always stay there. I love the wonderful wood panelled rooms, red leather chairs and views over the medieval city walls. Out of season, there are few tourists, much of the city is closed and it has a completely different atmosphere.
In the Bastide on the other side of the River Aude, I love Bar Felix in the main square, Place Carnot. It was the first café we ever sat in back in 1989 – in fact we had our wedding party diner there! Sitting outside under the plane trees with a glass of local rosé, an amazing salade de chèvre chaud and watching the market day shoppers is one of life’s great pleasures. There’s been an amazing restoration programme of the Bastide in recent years and it’s looking as good as I’ve ever seen it. Here’s the life of the real Carcassonne. Don’t forget to pop into the great Breithaupt bookshop while you’re there or wander up to the Canal du Midi at the top of the town to watch the barges pass through.
Toulouse – la Ville Rose – is one of my favourite cities in the world. I think it has absolutely everything. Incredible music, theatre, art galleries, the wonderful historic centre, the mighty river and the bridges. I love the rue du Taur, which I wrote about in The Burning Chambers and previously in my 2009 Gothic novel, The Winter Ghosts. I like the mix of grandeur and tiny little streets that lead out from the Place du Capitole and, of course, I love the story behind the places. The rue du Taur gets its name from the legend of Saint Saturnin being dragged by a bull to his death along this road in 250 AD when he refused to participate in a pagan ceremony. The Basilica Saint-Sernin stands at the end of the street, a beautiful memorial in stone to his martyrdom.
If you look up as you walk, above the modern day shop fronts, you’ll see evidence of the old city walls. When I was writing The Burning Chambers and walking in Toulouse, it was surprisingly easy to imagine the city in the 16th century – there are still so many signs of its past.
I could see where the gibbets once were, gates in the defence walls, and even the places used as jails by the Catholic Inquisitions.
And Paris – the city often features in your books, another favourite?
Yes, I love Paris too, though my heart belongs to the Midi. I met my husband when I was at school, but we went to different universities and our separate ways. Then, years later, we met again on a train when he was at that stage living in Paris. So it was wonderful to discover the city through the eyes of someone who lived there for several years.
One of my favourite parts is Beaumarchais and the area around Bastille. Quite a lot of the early sections of The City of Tears, the second in my The Burning Chambers Series, are set in Paris – not least of all the most notorious engagement of the French Wars of Religion, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Huguenots by the French Crown in August 1572 – so I spent a fair amount of time there when I was researching and writing last year. It astonished me to realise how tiny Paris was in the 16th century and suddenly the history made sense – how, as the alarm bells rang out on that fateful day in August, when thousands of women, men and children would be slaughtered, it would actually be easy to close the city gates and trap everyone inside.
When you think of Paris in the modern world, you think that’s impossible, it’s too big. But when I walked the footprint of the 16th century city of Paris, I realised you could easily go in half an hour from the city gates to the west of the Right Bank, where Catherine de Medici was building the Tuilleries Palace, all the way to the Bastille in the east.
And that is the joy of historical research. It brings a place to life so that people can see a modern setting in a new light: for example, I went to Le Tour Saint-Jacques de la Boucherie in the 4th arrondissement where, once, Christians congregated at the start of their long pilgrimage down to Tours and through France, across the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain.
The church is long gone – destroyed during the Revolution – but the tower itself remains. As I stood there, in my head I could hear the crunching of the shells underfoot – pilgrims pinned scallop shells to their clothing and bags as a sign of their faith – many of which fell to the ground in the mass of people. And for me, that’s the thing that I hope to give readers, a feeling for a place, to bring it to life.
The City of Tears is the second of the four novels in The Burning Chambers Series, published January 2021.
The City of Tears summary: Minou Joubert and her family are in Paris in August 1572 for the Royal Wedding, an alliance between the Catholic Crown and the Huguenot King of Navarre intended to bring peace to France after a decade of religious wars. So too is their oldest enemy, Vidal, still in pursuit of a relic that will change the course of history. But within days of the marriage, a massacre will take place and thousands will lie dead in the streets. Minou’s beloved family will be scattered to the four winds…
A gripping, breath-taking novel of revenge, persecution and love, what it means to lose a child, the action sweeps from Puivert, Paris and Chartres to the city of tears itself, Amsterdam.