'I am the novelist I am because of Carcassonne'
Novelist Kate Mosse speaks about Carcassonne and her second novel in a series set there during the Wars of Religion
Novelist Kate Mosse is well known for her multimillion selling Languedoc Trilogy: Labyrinth, Sepulchre and Citadel, set in and around the French city of Carcassonne.
She is now writing a second series which also starts in Carcassonne during the Wars of Religion. The first, The Burning Chambers was published in 2018, and the second, The City of Tears, which takes the readers from Languedoc to Paris, Amsterdam and Chartres will be on sale in January 2021.
Kate Mosse is the author of nine novels and short story collections and was awarded an OBE in 2013 for services to literature and women.
She lives in Chichester, West Sussex, but has a second home in Carcassonne. In June 2019, the Mayor, Gérard Larrat presented her with the Médaille de la Ville.
What made you fall in love with Carcassonne?
My wonderful mother-in-law, Granny Rosie, for whom I am a carer now in England, retired from teaching and she had a little bit of money so we decided to pool our resources and buy a little bolt hole in France.
My husband and I lived in London at that time on a busy main road but my husband had spent several years in Paris working as an interpreter, and had a great deal of affection for France.
In one of those crazy strokes of luck, a friend of a friend knew an estate agent twinned with another estate agent in a place called Carcassonne in Languedoc.
We’d never heard of it, but the second I found myself looking at this tiny little house in the shadow of the medieval city in November 1989 I fell in love. It just felt like my place, one I understood and felt at home in, even though I knew nothing about it.
Over the next few years, having a family and spending quite a lot of time there, I started to search into the history of the region, and I learnt about the Cathars and the crusade against them.
Little by little an idea for a novel took shape and of course many years later, that became Labyrinth, and then I wrote Sepulchre and Citadel.
Those books are love letters to Carcassonne, and its history. The joy about The Burning Chambers was to be able to go back to a period of history that I hadn’t covered, the 16th century, and discover what that Carcassonne looked like.
How did Carcassonne influence your writing?
I am the novelist I am because of Carcassonne. Before I went there I had already written two fictions and two non-fiction, but I hadn’t really found my voice.
In a way the biggest character in all my books is landscape. I think of myself as an adventure writer rather than a historical writer but landscape is at the heart of it, the idea you can only tell a particular story because it is set in that place.
I am very, very deeply rooted at home in Sussex. All my family are nearby, but I had to go away to learn about landscape. Going to Carcassonne liberated a type of writing in me I did not know was there.
Carcassonne has its detractors as some people think it is a sham, historical city crowded with too many tourists [The town and its city walls were restored in the 19th century by Eugène Viollet-le- Duc]. What is your view on that?
I don’t have much sympathy with that point of view. Most of the restoration is absolutely superb.
Some of the turrets don’t belong in the southwest of France, but I think people saying things like that are just being a bit snobby. The city was being dismantled brick by brick and we would have nothing to see now without the restoration.
It is one of the most visited sites outside Paris, and I am not sure why that is a bad thing. There are lots of shops selling plastic swords but that is how people fall in love with history – how a little boy or little girl imagines what it would have been like to live 800 years ago. That’s fantastic.
In the height of the season it is full of people and you can hardly move in the narrow streets, that is what medieval life was like, and in a funny sort of way I feel that is truer to the real experience of the way in which people lived in medieval Carcassonne.
What is the new series about?
It’s the story of a 300-year feud between a Catholic and a Huguenot Protestant family, a missing relic and a missing will.
It starts when France enters into civil war and Huguenots are forced to flee. They go to Amsterdam, then the Canary Islands and find refuge in South Africa.
It is a Romeo and Juliet story I suppose, about forbidden love, and also an exploration of what it is like for people who are not able to stay in the home they grew up in and thought they would live and die in, and the way a country can suddenly turn on itself and fall to pieces, which of course feels very prescient at the moment.
Where did you get the idea from?
I was at a literary festival at Franschhoek in South Africa, about 30 kms east of Cape Town, when I arrived I noticed all the names were in French, not English, Afrikaans or Xhosa.
The main street is Huguenot Street. In the local museum I discovered Huguenot refugees found their way to Franschhoek in the 17th century and the name of the town means “the French corner.”
This just blew me away. I went into the graveyard by the museum and looked up at the mountains and they look just like the mountains in Ariège in Languedoc.
I wondered what would it have been like to have been from a refugee family, growing up here, and hearing your grandparents and great grandparents’ stories about the place they were forced to flee from because of religion, and finding yourself here, on the other side of the world which looks like the place you think of as home.
At that moment I had the idea of an epic story which would start on the eve of the Wars of Religion in 1562 in Carcassonne, in my beloved Languedoc and end up on the other side of the world in 1862 in Franschhoek.
How do you carry out your research? I have been lucky enough to have read an advance copy of The City of Tears which has scenes during the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris when thousands of Huguenots were killed, and I really felt I could understand what it must have been like to have been there.
I wanted to portray how I would have felt there – not knowing what was happening. Hearing noise, smelling fire, and hearing the bells ring out.
I do a huge amount of what I call book research, reading all the history, going to archives, museums and galleries.
But the most important part for me is walking the landscape. So I spent a lot of time in Paris, just really trying to map out that part of the medieval city, much of which, of course, is gone since Haussmann rebuilt the city in the 19th century.
I always have an old map I overlay on top of a contemporary map. I walked from where the walls would have been on one side just by the Louvre Palace to the other side near the Bastille and realised it only takes 20 minutes.
And you think, of course, if they shut all the gates it would be possible to trap thousands of people here in the narrow streets and you start to realise the horror and the real panic.
People tried to escape by jumping into the river. But a huge number of the people who died that day drowned because most people didn’t know how to swim.
For me research is all about finding the nuggets of truth about life in a particular time, and to think of that as a way to tell the story from an ordinary family’s point of view. Not from the kings and queens, not from the generals, not from the people who make history, but from the point of view of all of us who suffer history.
We are part of it, but we are often left out of the book and that is what my research is always about. Trying to find the everyday experience of people who don't usually appear in history books, particularly women of course.
Minou, the central female character is a wonderful, strong personality.
She is but she was typical of her time. History is always partial and often biased and there is always this idea that women were passive and sat around spinning and not really doing anything. But it is simply just not true.
In the period I am writing about in The City of Tears, the men had been away at war for a generation and so who do we think was opening the shops and chopping the wood and taking the cattle to market and baking the bread?
I love Minou as a character, and I loved writing her, but she is quite typical of her time and that is very important. Women were strong. They had to be.
Why do you enjoy writing historical fiction rather than contemporary fiction?
I think part of it comes back to my love of landscape and that truth is often embedded more in the land than in the page of the book.
But I also genuinely believe we walk in the footsteps of the people who have gone before us and the more we understand or think about the past, the more we are able to understand our present, and indeed the possibilities of the future.
Your book is about refugees and we have a refugee crisis now. Do we understand their plight better by reading your book?
I think so because I think what historical and adventure writing fiction can do is put all of us, writers as well as readers, in touch with very big and very complicated emotions.
I think people find it very difficult to engage with the real events happening around them in the present, but by reading a piece of work set in the past, where some of the themes are there as well, helps us deal with these deep emotions much more effectively, when they are not our direct experiences.
Society is different now, but when the soldiers knock on the door, your heart will beat in the same way as someone in the 16th century, the 13th century, or the 9th century.
What do you love about coming to France?
Whenever I come back to Carcassonne it is just that sense of feeling my shoulders dropping. I like the different values put on the way of living daily life. That sense that you buy the food you are going to eat the same day. You go to the market and choose your fruit and vegetables.
I know these things can be rather romanticised and obviously if you’re working in a high powered lawyer’s office in Paris you are not living that way. But I like the idea of living your life all the time, rather than having a work time and then a weekend time.
Of course I love the light and I love the air in the southwest of France, that hot, hot wind in summer and the bitter, biting wind from the Pyrenees in winter.
I love the fact, common to England as well, that wherever you drive, you can go to the heart of the village and you will find the church and the sense of the community and history is very strong.
I think it is many, many things and just the sense of having lived a lot of life at a different pace. It would be different if we lived there full time.
Carcassonne has always been somewhere I go to relax, to write, to be a family. Every time I see that medieval city again, it just makes me smile.
The City of Tears by Kate Mosse, published by Pan Macmillan. Hardback on sale January 14, 2021. Price €20