The Burning Chambers, the first in a new series by Kate Mosse, is published today. Anna Mazzola met with her to discuss how to write compelling stories, what historical fiction says about the present day, pre-publication nerves and strong black coffee.
Firstly, congratulations on a brilliant and gripping novel. I tore through it in a few days, which is quite something in a book so chunky and so full of complex history. Tell us your secrets: what’s the key to good storytelling?
Thank you. I really enjoyed writing it. I hadn’t been able to write full time for some time and it was wonderful to have the time to immerse myself. I love telling stories, that’s the thing. The sort of novels I like (to read as well as write) are all about pace, plot, character and momentum driving the narrative forward.
I spend years in research until I’m ready to put imagined characters against the factual backdrop. The important thing for me is that I’m writing ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. I’m more interested in the forgotten histories – in the consequences on normal people’s lives because of decisions made in their names, in the Court, in the Papal Palace, on the battlefield – than in the stories of kings, queens and courtiers.
How do you start your novels? Does it begin with a place, the characters, or just an idea?
I start with a place and, out of that place, the glimmer of an idea for a story (in this case a series of stories) starts to take shape. There’s always a moment where a book, or a sequence of books, takes flight and, for The Burning Chambers, it was being at Franschhoek Book Festival in South Africa. As you drive into the town, there’s a sign at side of road that says Lanquedoc (a ‘q’ not a ‘g’, but still it’s the name of the region about which I write in France). Then I noticed that many restaurants have French names and, when I asked, someone told me that Franschhoek in fact means French (Fransch) Corner (Hoek) in Afrikaans. Next, I went to the Huguenot museum on the outskirts of the town – a beautiful museum – and saw displayed a painted wooden board listing all the names of those who’d sailed to the Cape following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, which led to the final expulsion of the last remaining Huguenots from France. There, on that list, was the name of the family I’d mentioned in Labyrinth and a shiver went down my spine.
Out of that research, discovering the history of Franschhoek, the history of wine making and links between vintners in the south of France and Southern Africa, I thought ‘there’s a story here for me – I’ve just got to find it.’
So it’s the place, its history and the links between them that inspire the story. Then, little by little, characters show themselves and say ‘might you be able to use me’? I usually don’t have an actual storyline in mind at that point, but I know the sort of story I’m going to tell. I have the architecture. It’s like setting the stage and sending characters onto it.
And that’s key to pace. In long, complex novels it’s easy, if you have over-planned before you start writing, for the narrative to become stale. I need to discover things as I go. It’s nerve-wracking because, of course you always worry it won’t happen. That inspiration will refuse to come. When it does, it’s a glorious thing.
Who else do you think does it really well? Which books in particular have inspired your style?
There are many historical writers I admire: Hilary Mantel, Suzannah Lipscomb, SJ Parris, CJ Sansom, Ken Follett, Philippa Gregory. Authors who are shining a light on the lives real people lived in other periods of history. But in terms of inspiration on my writing itself, the biggest influence remains Wuthering Heights. A ghost story, a story of obsession, a story of social inequities and women’s place in society, a story with Nature at the heart of things, I believe Bronte – more than any other author of her time – completely changed the rules for what it was acceptable for a woman to write. Before that, women were generally writing in a narrow domestic sphere. She ripped that up by being ambitious, by being single-minded.
Other influences include Willa Cather and the big landscape writers. That’s the tradition I feel I belong in, those authors for whom landscape is a character.
Do you consider yourself to be a historical fiction writer or an adventure writer?
Both! This is the first time I’ve written and planned a series that is pure historical fiction and with no time-slip element, as in Labyrinth. But I’m certainly also an adventure writer in that the relationship between jeopardy, wild landscapes and story is what carries the story forward. I love the work of writers like Rider Haggard and Walter Scott, where a lot goes on. These were my late father’s favourite childhood stories, so he read them to me, not realising that the combination of sex, violence and adventure might mean that King Solomon’s Mines might not be suitable for bedtime reading! Although, of course, many of those Victorian attitudes sit uncomfortably now, the nature of the storytelling set up in me a love of character-led novels, of intense and epic intense landscapes and of excitement.
In your Author’s Note to The Burning Chambers you say your characters are ‘Ordinary women and men, struggling to live love and survive against a backdrop of religious war and displacement. Some things do not change.’ Do you think writing about the past allows us to explore issues in a way that we couldn’t if we were writing contemporary fiction?
Yes, absolutely. I’m planning and writing a series of novels set over 300 years. The Burning Chambers is a Romeo & Juliet novel of a feud between two families, one Catholic and one Huguenot, a story about betrayal, war, love and displacement. The novels have to be tethered properly in the period of time in which they are set. Having said that, it’s impossible not to see echoes of what’s going on now. It’s also a Diaspora story – people who find themselves expelled from their own country, about a country that turns on some of its citizens and almost destroys itself in the process. When I started writing the book – and planning the series – I had no idea how current the issues would suddenly seem to be.
The reason, I think, that historical fiction is so popular is that many of the conflicts, emotions and confusions we feel as we look at the state of the world are sometimes easier to process or to deal with when seen through the prism of historical fiction. There, sometimes you can deal with strong emotions and conflict and doubt in a way that helps. Whereas in ‘real life’, we all often have our hard-and-fast opinions, fiction slips between the gaps.
One of the characters in The Burning Chambers says that ‘Without knowing the mistakes of the past…how can we learn not to repeat them?’ Do you think we’ve failed to learn from our history?
I do. That’s probably inevitable, though, because the pattern of human experience isn’t a linear one. It isn’t ‘we start here and end up there’. Life isn’t fiction with a clear beginning, middle and end. History is like a series of waves that go up and down; an ebb and flow. Things get better, then sometimes they get worse again. But if we paid more attention to the patterns of the past, then possibly the consequences of this ebb and flow would be less devastating to ordinary people’s lives. Those of us who are not the kings or queens or decision makers. If nothing else, historical fiction should encourage us to feel watchful and to not take anything for granted.
It’s a huge undertaking, writing another trilogy. Did you feel nervous about it?
It actually feels liberating. In part that’s because I’ve been a part-time carer for the past few years, so wasn’t able to commit to writing full time. And also, because it’s great have a sense of a schedule and a big project stretching out before you. It’s also a wonderful thing at this stage in my career and at my age to have fallen back in love with writing. I feel quite new and that’s a lovely thing.
There will be at least another three books in the series, possibly more. When I went into archives in Toulouse and Carcassonne, I discovered so much rich local history that I realised I would need more pages!
I’m now writing book number two, The City of Tears, which is set in Paris, Amsterdam and London. The novel starts in 1572, with characters from The Burning Chambers discussing whether they should attend the royal wedding, to be held slightly before the Feast Day of St Bartholomew. Anyone who knows their history – it was one of the most notorious massacres of the sequence of wars of religion – are pleading with me not to let them go. The truth is, I don’t yet know who’s going to survive and who isn’t…
How much do you research, and what kind of research do you do?
At the outset, I spent three or four years researching the 300-year time period over which the series is set: the wars of religion themselves, the consequences of them and the effect on France and the countries which welcome the Huguenot refugees. Then, as I started to write, The Burning Chambers itself, I went back and did specific research for that book. A lot of that is what I call ‘fieldwork’. I find that a key part of research is walking about, being in a place, the sights, smells and atmosphere. I spent about five days each month in Carcassonne for a year, just being there.
I also spent a lot of time looking at old maps and visiting museums – the Huguenot Museum in Franschhoek and also in Rochester in Kent are both wonderful. I love seeing artefacts of the time, not least because sometimes it the holding of an old book in your hand, or feeling the texture of cloth on the clothes people would have worn that helps the story come alive. You’re trying to get to the reality of everyday people’s lives. Neil McGregor in his History of the World in One Hundred Objects describes this as the ‘charisma of things’. I’ve never heard it put better than that.
Food is important too, the communal activities, the type of food, that tells you so much about a society. (A much-quoted comment about Henri of Navarre – who was to become Henri IV and sign the Edict of Nantes in 1598, bringing peace to France, is that he stank of Garlic because he chewed it all the time.)
Tell me about your writing schedule. I understand you get up ridiculously early.
I do get up early when I’m writing a first draft. I turn in at about 9pm, think about the next chapter while I’m sleeping, then get up and go back to my desk at about 4am. This is easier in summer … I have a couple of mugs of strong, sweet black coffee, then write on and off for the rest of the day.
The first draft takes about 5 months. During that time I don’t re-read what I’ve written day before. I don’t obsess about how bad (or occasionally, good!) it is, because I know that the real writing is in the editing. That’s when you make it into the novel it’s supposed to be.
What do you think about market for historical fiction now? Are we in a dip or still on the rise?
To go by books being bought at the 2018 London Book Fair, historical fiction is doing very well. Often, when the contemporary politics are challenging or problematic or even dangerous, people turn to art to find answers there. Historical fiction deals with many of the things that concern us now. That’s why historical fiction is popular and I’d say the same is true of crime and thrillers.
Do you still feel anxiety prior to publication?
Maybe not anxiety, but certainly nervous. Excited too. I’ve hugely enjoyed writing the book and my publishers, Mantle, have been amazing; it’s been a proper partnership. So, of course, I hope readers like it. But even after six previous novels, a collection of short stories, three works of non-fiction and a handful of plays, I am no calmer than someone just starting out.
I enjoy social media – Twitter and Instagram. I enjoy that level of engagement. And I love meeting readers and am doing lots of events, particularly with independent booksellers. But I don’t let myself get caught up too much in the reviews. Anita Brookner once said – though I can’t remember the reference – that having a book published is like having a layer of skin removed. I’m quite robust, in that I spend a lot of time promoting other women’s work through the Women’s Prize for Fiction, I know how easy it is for books to get lost or unkind reviews to wound. Publishing success is so much about luck and timing. But, I’ve loved writing The Burning Chambers, so of course I want readers to love it too. Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead is the best analysis of this. I’d advise every writer and would-be writer to read it.
I’ve also been lucky enough to interview a fair few actors, television and stage directors and writers. Almost every actor I’ve interviewed can quote verbatim the bad reviews but can’t remember anything from a good one! That taught me a lesson: however much you can learn from good reviews, negative and positive, you don’t need to listen to critical stuff at the moment you’re celebrating. Allow yourself to enjoy your publication.
The only thing any of us can do as a writer is to discover our own voice then work to be the best version of ourself. You’re not in a competition with anyone else, but rather in a competition to make sure each novel you write is a little better than the one before. If you can do that and you can be proud of what you’ve done, that’s an achievement. In the end, writing should be fun. If you can get that onto the page, then you are halfway there.
The Burning Chambers is published by Mantle on 3 May 2018.
Anna Mazzola is a writer of historical crime fiction. Her debut novel, The Unseeing, is based on the life of a real woman called Sarah Gale who was convicted of aiding a murder in London in 1837. Her second novel, The Story Keeper, out in July, follows a folklorist’s assistant as she searches out dark fairytales and stolen girls on the Isle of Skye in 1857.
Author photo © Ruth Crafer