In between meticulously researching and writing epic historical trilogies Kate Mosse chose to have a bit of fun by writing a standalone gothic thriller. The Taxidermist’s Daughter (Orion, £7.99) was, of course, wildly successful and is now being adapted for screen. She appears at Manchester Literature Festival, 16 Oct, where she will discuss the setting of the book and the current popularity of female-driven revenge narratives.
What will your talk at Manchester Literature Festival consist of?
I really enjoy the Manchester festival so much – there is a real appetite for all sorts of storytelling. I’m going to be talking about my current paperback, The Taxidermist’s Daughter. My readers know me mostly for historical fiction but I also enjoy writing this kind of book for entertainment. The big research pieces are about three-quarters research. So in between those big books, I enjoy giving myself a bit of fun, like this.
Did you feel pressure to do justice to where you’re from in the book?
Oddly, no, I didn’t. This is the first time I’ve written about home home, Sussex home, rather than my adopted home. What I feel is that if you’re lucky enough to be a writer by profession, there is a responsibility to the story and to the readers. I did get in some of the little in jokes for people who come from where I grew up – you’ll notice that the really dark things happened on the other side of the estuary. Though it is revenge thriller, it is also a love letter to home.
How differently did you approach The Taxidermist’s Daughter?
With the big historical works you have a responsibility to the history, an awareness that real people have lived or died, or you are balancing real battles with your imagined characters. With The Taxidermist’s Daughter, I just had an idea and once I had those building blocks in place I sat down and went for it.
Did you enjoy writing about taxidermy?
I did! Research is a very big part of what I write. The research can colour and shade the writing. It is important to do justice to the craft. It was a really big challenge to me because I am vegetarian. I don’t even cook meat and, for days after, I couldn’t get the smell off me – that metallic smell from fresh blood. What was interesting was when I spoke to the women who do taxidermy now and I asked them about the smell – they said they didn’t even notice it anymore.
Do you feel pressure for the forthcoming Burning Chambers trilogy?
Well, the thing is, I focus on the writing. When you’re writing you’ve got to keep your eyes on the page and concentrate on the next word then the next sentence. I mean, I do take a deep breath before I start but it’s just me thinking: “I really hope that this idea turns out well.” I feel that after this book, which was a sprint rather than a marathon, I’m ready to get back to work work.
Do you think your focus on research comes from your academic Oxford background?
When I was at Oxford, it was “this week is George Eliot” and off you go and then your read everything she’s done, then you read an essay about her and an essay about that. But I don’t think I developed that then. When I was younger, I used to love reading history, but when I applied to university you needed a modern language which I didn’t have, because I studied Latin. What I enjoyed about those subjects was the reading around the subject and getting really into it.
I’ve always read a lot of non-fiction – I’m curious. The joy of research is not just for veracity in the novels but it’s that I’m genuinely interested in finding that out. When I wrote Citadel I read so many testimonies and that really hit me. I came out of that thinking that I needed a break from these awful stories of such torture horror and terror. The Taxidermist’s Daughter was a break. But now I am ready to go back into the archives again for the Burning Chambers trilogy.
Do strong female characters too often fall into the beautiful stereotype?
I do absolutely agree that a lot of strong female characters in fiction also feel the need to be feminine too. For me, what the character looks like is part of the plotting. If I had a female character who needed to be particularly short or dark haired, it would be the same as having a male character being those things. It’s just not relevant in the way that I write. By contrast, in contemporary fiction or dystopian fiction you can see heroes and heroines having to look like heroes and heroines. That’s just the way that genre works. With Connie [the titular taxidermist’s daughter] I started writing the character and it was like watching an old-fashioned photograph develop. I know the sort of person Connie is but I don’t know her. As I write she starts to come into colour. I will only discover the colour of her hair half way through, unless it is relevant. I almost never describe how they look but I do describe characteristics. There is always a reason why I describe them physically, other than the cosmetic. For Connie it was because I wanted a villain to be lean too.
Why do you use the term “female hero”?
Because I don’t think that the words “hero” and “heroine” are equal in what they carry with them. The word “heroine” carries a passivity and a sense of a person being rescued. “Hero” carries more action and agency. In the same way that I write about women heroes I want to talk about the stuff that isn’t women falling in love and getting married.
I also like to write about gentle and beautiful men – I mean in terms of spirit rather than looks – who are also being held up to an archetype that they don’t want to go along with. I feel very fond of Freddy in the Winter Ghost. He’s a boy – he isn’t allowed to grieve after his brother is killed in the Great War. And it was true than young men in particular were told to shut up and get on with it.
Do your characters ever surprise you?
Funnily enough, the person who surprised me more was not Connie but Cassie, who developed very differently. I was surprised by how dark she became. People say I am quite nice a person so she was a shock.
Kate Mosse will also be in conversation with Manda Scott at Harrogate History Festival on 23 October.