Patience and place are two key components to Kate Mosse‘s approach to writing. For Mosse, the best-selling author of the Languedoc trilogy (Labyrinth, Sepulchre, and Citadel), as well as the novels The Winter Ghost and her most recent The Taxidermist’s Daughter (not to mention the short stories, earlier novels, non-ficiton, and plays!) stories come when they are ready, and as often as not they are inspired by a landscape or location. For example, a taxidermy museum of her childhood, in Sussex, triggered the story that would become her latest novel The Taxidermist’s Daughter.
Mosse, who is also one of the co-founders of the (Baileys) Women’s Prize for Fiction, and listed by both the Bookseller and the Guardian in the top fifty most influential people in publishing kindly sat down to talk to TMO for a wide ranging interview on her fiction, publishing, and much more.
TMO: Let’s start with your latest novel, The Taxidermist’s Daughter. Can you tell us how the idea for the story came to you?
It’s a gothic thriller, set over four days in 1912, and it came about partly from re-visiting the landscape of my childhood in Sussex, on the marshes. Walking out there, remembering being a teenager there, and then starting to imagine a story: a creepy isolated house, set on this very inhospitable landscape with the tide rising higher and higher.
It was also though because I used to visit, as a child, a museum of taxidermy nearby. It was a local icon, everybody went to it, but I never forgot the creepiness of it, the little creatures set in poses, clothed, telling fairy tales and all this sort of stuff. So I think at the back of my mind I always had an idea that if I was ever going to write a Gothic novel, as a thriller, it would feature. Once you have floods and estuaries and marshes, and then you put taxidermy into the mix, you’ve got the makings of a really good chilling story [laughs].
I was surprised myself at how dark The Taxidermist’s Daughter was in that way … but the consequences of Cassie’s treatment were so horrific for her that they had to be horrific on the page
Did you do much research on taxidermy for the book? It features heavily in the plot.
Yes. I looked into the history of the museum, and Walter Potter himself. I talked to lots of people who work as taxidermists now. Obviously I did a lot of reading and research around it, but the main thing was that I got about half way into writing the book, and my lead character, the daughter of the taxidermist, who does it in secret – because in 1912 women weren’t really allowed to be taxidermists, and her father can’t work anymore – and I suddenly realised that I had to go and do it for myself. That was the most gruesome bit of practical research I’ve ever done, but it was really important because I have an enormous admiration for the skill of taxidermy. I’m actually nearly vegan, I don’t even cook meat, so it was very challenging for me, but really important to understand how it felt, what it was like, to make sure my lead character really came to life I guess.
TMO: It seems like a strange art, given that it’s pretty much died out. What do you think the attraction was?
Oh but it hasn’t actually. This is what’s so interesting. It was enormously important in the Victorian period. Taxidermy was part of discovering the world; it was part of science and surgery. It was crucial for the discoveries made up to Darwin and beyond, so it had a very practical and important purpose. It was also part of the Victorian attitude to death. Death was commonplace and everyday, and it was also -I’m afraid – part of decoration. It did die out in the later part of the 20th century, when it was viewed as cruel, and all sorts of things were muddled up with it I suppose, but now in the UK there’s been an enormous renaissance in taxidermy. Every weekend you can do a course in places like London, Glasgow, York, Brighton etc.
There’s an enormous resurgence of taxidermy as a craft. I think that’s happened because of artists. Artists like Polly Morgan, Damien Hirst, Peter Blake – they all have been using taxidermy, thinking about it, or making reference to it in their art, so now it has come back into fashion somewhat, which is fascinating to me as a novelist.
Let’s talk about the timeframe of The Taxidermist’s Daughter. Why did you decide to set the novel in 1912? There’s been a lot of coverage of the anniversary of the Great War, and yet it’s very absent from the novel, and that makes for a strange sensation: though you’ve chosen a very specific time, your novel seems to float outside of time?
Thank you. That’s a wonderful question, because that’s precisely what I was aiming for with this novel. When I started my research I spent a lot of time in the West Sussex record office, in the archives, looking at local newspapers and it was really, really noticeable that whilst by 1913 in local newspapers there were rumblings about the state of Europe and the relationship between Britain and Germany and all of these things, in 1912, outside of the corridors of power there was no indication of this at all, and I thought it very interesting.
Everything about the 20th Century, and everything about modern life is in a sense framed by the Great War. It did change the world, whereas it’s an extraordinary thing to think that in 1912 they had no idea. Normal people living normal lives in a market town, and there was that sense that, although it was 1912, this is not the world of Upstairs Downstairs or Downton Abbey. Things hadn’t really changed much since the 19th Century, and I did want to capture that feeling, to capture that sense of a time out of time.
And in Gothic fiction that’s always what happens: the house, the laboratory, the creepy castle – they are always slightly removed from the world; that’s one of the essences of Gothic fiction. You’re on your own against the elements and against this evil thing that is stalking you. But also in a pragmatic sense, I very much wanted the novel to be set against the backdrop of floods, rain and storms – again, in Gothic fiction the landscape is always your enemy – and I discovered that 1912 was, until 2012, the wettest summer on record. So when I was looking in local newspapers, every week there was a report of someone being drowned from a fishing boat because the tides were so wild and high, rivers bursting their banks, carriages going over, so
There was also the ending. Gothic fiction is old-fashioned fiction, if you like, with a beginning, a middle and an end, a resolution. Things are not left hanging. But for anybody reading the novel now, the ending of the book which is, in some ways, the light after the darkness of the story, we know that the fragile peace that the village has found by the end of the novel will not last. We know, but they don’t. There’s a poignancy of writing that ending from our vantage point of 2014.
TMO: Is it difficult to take on such an established and clear form, like the Gothic novel – given that many of the great Gothic novels are more than a century old?
It isn’t, I think, if you genuinely love the form – which I do. In the British library in London, at the moment, there’s a big exhibition The Gothic Imagination, and it was very weird going to see it (Mosse actually opened the exhibition), because it was like looking around the contents of my own head [laughs], and seeing each of the books like The Castle of Ottranto, The mysteries of Udolpho, obviously Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, Dracula, right up to The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and of course the great Gothic writer Daphne Du Maurier. Or modern day writers like Susan Hill, Neil Gaiman, and Sarah Waters.
It’s a structured form certainly, and it does have certain characteristics that you need to respect: isolated landscape, the weather, the elements, the idea that there is something dark within all of us that can be unleashed, but of course with a modern twist. In most Gothic fiction the perpetrators of the crime are men, and the victims are women. Obviously I write novels with women at their heart, so my lead character, Connie, the taxidermist’s daughter, is the protagonist not the person waiting to be saved.
The challenge was to write a proper Gothic novel, that respected the genre, but also to do it in a way that was fresh and new, and that’s one of the things I’ve loved about people’s reaction to it, saying ‘it’s a wonderful, old-fashioned story, but My God! I didn’t realise what was going to happen next’. For me it was essentially a bit of fun – and I know that sounds ridiculous, when it’s essentially a book about a serial killer, but it was a joy to write: self-contained, something with enormous pace, happening over a short space of time before I launch onto another series of historical novels, which of course take years to research. Gothic fiction is supposed to be short, it’s supposed to be quick, and a dark and intense treat.
TMO: Was there a sense that you needed to take a break from those big epic Languedoc books for your recent work?
Absolutely, yes. I really enjoy writing, and having come to the end of the trilogy which took years and years of research – and in particular the research I did for Citadel, which is focussed around a women’s resistance unit, much of the testimony was written by women in the resistance who had survived, and as such it was very grim reading – and I came out of that feeling that I needed to just use my imagination, and not research history, re-interpret history, particularly this type of history which has a very dark underside to it if you will.
With the short stories (The Mistletoe Bride and other haunting stories) and The Winter Ghost, and now The Taxidermist’s Daughter, they all come from a place almost entirely in the imagination – even if I do research the landscape, and the taxidermy etc. They’re about a moment, and a story, so I just wanted to enjoy the writing, while I gathered my breath for the next series of novels, which we’ll be announcing at the start of 2015, and which will be another trilogy and a historical project.
When did you first realise you wanted to become a writer?
Not until I was about 45 actually, though I’d always hoped to make a living that involved books in some way. When I first left University I was a publisher, so it wasn’t that I’d always wanted to be a writer; it was more that little by little I realised that there were stories that I was quite happy trying to write. So it crept up on me. Before Labyrinth, which was my first big book, I’d written two novels and some non-fiction before that, but I very much still felt that I was a reader who wrote, rather than being a writer. With Labyrinth, discovering that landscape, and realising what sort of writer I was, if you like, where story was more important than anything else, and that I was in that tradition of writers whose stories came absolutely out of place rather than anything else. It was only from then that I started to actually think of myself as a writer, and started to say that I was a writer, as opposed to listing all the things that I did and writing was one of them.