Birmingham Lit Fest Presents….

The Birmingham Literature Festival Podcast - Welcome to the very first Birmingham Literature Festival podcast, bringing writers and readers together to discuss some of 2020’s best books. Each Thursday we’ll be releasing new episodes of the podcast, including wonderful discussions about writing, poetry, big ideas and social issues. Join us each week for exciting and inspiring conversations with new, and familiar, writers from the Midlands and beyond.

https://www.birminghamliteraturefestival.org/podcast

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episode 9: Season 2: Kate Mosse in Conversation With Alison Jean Lester


Welcome to the second series of the Birmingham Lit Fest Presents…podcast. We are really excited to be back for a second season and to be able to continue to connect readers and writers in the Midlands, and far beyond.

This week’s episode features bestselling novelist Kate Mosse, author of eight novels and newly published non-fiction book, An Extra Pair of Hands, her personal story of becoming a carer in middle age. In conversation with author Alison Jean Lester, Kate talks about her experience of caring for her father through Parkinson’s, supporting her mother during widowhood and living, and caring for, her mother-in-law Grandma Rosie, as well as the need to celebrate, and better support, the 8.8 million of invisible carers across the UK holding families together. This episode supports Age UK Birmingham.


You can download our podcast episodes from all the places you would normally get your podcasts every Thursday and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @bhamlitfest. All of our festival events can be found on our website www.birminghamliteraturefestival.org. 


For more information on Writing West Midlands, visit https://writingwestmidlands.org/

Follow the festival on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @BhamLitFest

Credits

Curator: Shantel Edwards (Festival director)
Production: 11C/ Birmingham Podcast Studios for Writing West Midlands

TRANSCRIPT

BLF Series 2, Episode 1: Kate Mosse 


Intro


Welcome to the second series of the Birmingham Lit Fest Presents…podcast. We are really excited to be back for a second season and to continue to connect readers and writers in the Midlands, and far beyond. 


You can download our podcast episodes from all the places you would normally get your podcasts every Thursday and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @bhamlitfest. All of our festival events can be found on our website www.birminghamliteraturefestival.org. 


This week’s episode features bestselling novelist Kate Mosse, author of eight novels and newly published non-fiction book, An Extra Pair of Hands, her personal story of becoming a carer in middle age. In conversation with author Alison Jean Lester, Kate talks about her experience of caring for her father through Parkinson’s, supporting her mother during widowhood and living, and caring for, her mother-in-law Grandma Rosie, as well as the need to celebrate, and better support, the 8.8 million of invisible carers across the UK holding families together. 


This episode supports Age UK Birmingham.


Alison Jean Lester

Hello, everyone. This is Alison Jean Lester, novelist and author of the memoir Absolutely Delicious: A Chronicle of Extraordinary Dying. Absolutely delighted to be here talking with Kate Mosse, novelist, playwright and author of An Extra Pair of Hands: A Story of Caring, Aging, and Everyday Acts of Love. Kate Mosse is an international best-selling novelist, playwright, and nonfiction author, with sales of more than 8 million copies in 38 languages, renowned for bringing unheard and under heard histories to life. She's a champion of women's creativity. She's the Founder Director of the Women's Prize for Fiction, sits on the executive committee of Women of the World and is a visiting professor of contemporary fiction and creative writing at the University of Chichester. Her latest novel, The City of Tears, was published in January 2021. She lives in West Sussex with her husband and mother-in-law. And she's there right now ready to talk with us. Hello, Kate. 


Kate Mosse

Hello, good morning. 


Alison Jean Lester 

Good morning to you, I am so pleased to have been paired with you and to have had the chance to read An Extra Pair of Hands. It's very close to my heart as it is to I think a lot of us in our 50s and, I think you said in another interview, you're approaching 60?


Kate Mosse 

I am, yes. 60th birthday in October. 


Alison Jean Lester 

Right and I remember very palpably when my parents’ parents were dying, and thinking, they're talking to their friends all the time, their friends are also going through this. And my friends and I will also be going through this at the same time. The first thing that struck me in reading, very early on, right in the first pages of this book, where you said the many things that it's about, and the one that really pierced me was trying and failing simultaneously. Can you see that? Can you see that very human duality, that tension in your fictional stories as well? Or was that very palpable to you in talking about just your own life?


Kate Mosse

That's a great question, actually, Alison because one of the key things for all of us who write in different genres, is how similar the skill is for writing each different type of book. And there is, for me, it was very liberating writing nonfiction. I've written some nonfiction before, but this is by far the most personal book I've ever written. But actually, the skill and the way that I went about writing it was the same as the way that I go about writing a novel, which is you need to put characters on the page, you need to put emotions on the page. And so that particular thing about trying and failing, and succeeding simultaneously, everything existing in the moment is at the heart, I think of any human experience, in that we all are, whether it's a made-up character or us in our own lives, mostly we're trying to do our best. And often you can have that wonderful feeling that you've got it right. You know, you did the right thing, at the right time. But particularly when you're writing about care, when as you say, there is no alternative ending. The ending, if you're a carer, is almost always going to be in the death of the person you care for. You know, living well and dying well are the same story, you know dying well is part of living well, you know, and it will come to us all, doesn't matter who we are, how immortal we feel, in the end it will come to us all. So, I think that that is at the heart of what it means to be a carer. But obviously in a piece of fiction, I can decide the ending, I can change the ending, I usually finish before my characters die, you know and certainly the lead characters unless, that's part of the story. And so, I wanted to have that sense that whatever you do, will never change things. You know, all you can do is make a - horrible word and it's been much overused at the moment, I'm obsessed with the Olympics, and, you know, it's the word appears on every interview, the journey. But all you can do as a carer is make the journey, as brilliant as it can be for the person you're caring for. And by association yourself.


Alison Jean Lester

Exactly. Because you're not the doctor, you're the comforter and the lifter.


Kate Mosse 

And, you know, the book is full of literary illusions and authors and writings and things like that. But you know, it's the idea that, old age, there is no cure for that, there is no cure for that. And nor should there be, I mean, you know, it's the span of a person's life.


Alison Jean Lester

Well, I'm glad you mentioned the literary references throughout, that was a great joy. And it made me wonder, clearly, reading has been a way of getting through life for you, as well as writing. So, reading must have come first. In writing this book, did you have moments where you're like, ‘oh, I remember there's a poem that fits perfectly here’. Is that what happened throughout?


Kate Mosse

Yeah, do you know in a way, I mean, you can't be a writer, if you're not a reader. The best writers are great readers. And it starts like that for all of us. And it's about expression. And reading is about reading the words of other people who are expressing things that we're feeling or excitements that we want to feel. And sometimes it's about making sense of difficult emotions, but often it's about sharing wonderful emotions, you know, it's everything, it's the full gamut. Because all of our emotions are part of what makes us who we are. It's not just the good stuff that makes us who we are, it's all of it. And so, I've always been a passionate reader. And I've always carried a lot of other people's words in me, if you like. So a lot of the poems in particular, that I quote, or songs that I quote, are, you know I had to check them that I was getting them, right. But many of them were things that I read, you know, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 40 years ago. And thought, I know that that author has put precisely what I'm feeling better than I can. So let me go and find that quotation.


Alison Jean Lester 

It's people who are condensing the essence of things, isn't it?


Kate Mosse

Sure. Exactly right. And I think also that we have completely different experiences, all of us, in caring, as in life. But when we all read a particular poem, you know I finish with a Philip Larkin poem, that ‘what remains of us is love’, an extraordinary poem, the Arundel tomb. The Arundel tomb is actually in Chichester Cathedral, my home city and Chichester cathedral is a place that I love and have done many, many, many, many events there over the years. It's a place that is at the heart of the music and the school community as well as a faith community. And I didn't even realize the Arundel tomb was there until I was studying it at school, you know, half a mile down the road. And then our teacher said, you know, the actual tomb is in Chichester cathedral. But when I use that quotation, so many people have read that line, ‘what remains of us is love’. And it has meant something to them. So, it's about obviously, we are always connected as reader and writer through any book. But then when you share quotations that mean something to you, you're connecting to an even wider range of people who have come across those same words and they have resonated for them. So that's partly why I share so much about other writers because we all become a bigger and bigger and bigger community every time we say, ‘oh yeah, I love that too’. And so, I wanted to do that, because everybody's caring experience is different. And everybody's reading experience is different.


Alison Jean Lester 

Do I recall correctly that sometimes you read to Granny Rosie, is that right? Or there was somebody you were reading to at the kitchen table?


Kate Mosse 

Well, I used to read to my dad in the last months of his life, and in a previous time when he was in intensive care. And I'm still quite sure that one of the reasons he came out of intensive care was he couldn't bear me reading anymore. I was reading the Battle of Lepanto which goes on for ages and I was threatening the Charge of the Light Brigade. I was reading these old-fashioned gentleman's poems that he had grown up with, you know, those wonderful Oxford companions of poetry and I think my father was like, ‘oh enough now, enough of this’. But Granny Rosie, she's 90 and I'm a full-time carer for Granny Rosie


Alison Jean Lester

Let's just be clear, she's your mother-in-law. For the listeners.


Kate Mosse 

She's my mother-in-law, my wonderful dad and mother lived here with us in the house that I'm speaking to you from, from 2009. And my father needed a lot of support, he was living with Parkinson's and towards the end of his life, he was very, very restricted in his movements and his life, but, you know, remained extraordinarily sunny, I suppose, you know, very grateful for care and for his life and for support, you know, he never gave into bitterness or frustration, he had that kind of temperament. And then my ma, she didn't need care but she needed company, having been widowed after nearly 60 years of marriage. And now I'm a full-time carer of Granny Rosie because she's in a wheelchair and needs that kind of help. But she is sharp as a tack. And she can remember, every single poem that she ever learned at school, every single song. And so it tends to at the end of the day, quite often if we're talking and particularly when I was writing the book, and so I was talking about quotations and I was asking her about her life and what she wanted in the book and what she didn't and all of these things. So it's more that granny will suddenly launch forth into a poem, or will say, ‘oh, what's the next line’ and of course, is still absolutely in awe of the fact that on my phone, I can look up any poem in the world, you know, because, you know, she is of the generation and indeed, so was I, you know, we all were for the last 10 years odd, where you would go get up and you would go and find that book of Oxford English verse and you would look in the index and you would you know, all of these things. So now that you can type in just a few words, and within seconds, she still finds this magic, and it is magic. So, she has all of those stories and that literature, particularly that poetry that she carries with her. And the reason that we were looking things up is that we were planning Rosie's funeral. Rosie wanted to, you know, be sure that the things that she would like read, and that mattered to her are there. So, we had a very jolly evening, far too much wine in my case and gin in her case, was drunk, going through and by the end of it, on the one hand it was devastating, because for me, because we were planning what it would be like when Granny Rosie wasn't there. Everybody calls her Granny Rosie, she's not my granny, she's my mother-in-law. But she is universally locally known as Granny Rosie. But on the other hand, that's so great, because that is about older people having agency about being part of the finishing of their life, not becoming people without a voice. And it's so important. My dad did the same. And it it was wonderful at his funeral knowing that every single prayer, every single poem, every single piece of music he had chosen, it was what he wanted. 


Alison Jean Lester 

Yes, and I noted that in your book, just like in mine, we're not saying this is how you should end your life or you should care for somebody. And yet I still feel like saying to people do try to allow the conversation to happen. And I think often the older person or the dying person isn't allowed to talk. I've heard off them, saying to me, I try but my kids are saying, ‘oh mom, you're gonna live forever’, you know, and they don't want to talk about it which stoppers the person who wants to have the agency. 


Kate Mosse

Totally Alison, it's exactly that point that people, particularly I would say in England, and possibly in a broader sense, Great Britain, but you know, I'm speaking for myself here. There's the idea that it's somehow morbid to talk about dying. But if you're in your 90s, you are going to be nearer to that than your birth. You know that’s just the maths you know, and of course nobody wants to talk about loss and it is very difficult the idea of the people that you love not being there, but I often have to say this to myself when Granny Rosie is having, as she puts it a down day, I've had to learn because I'm by nature pretty optimistic and annoyingly perky, often and I imagine you are the same, it's very important that when Granny Rosie is having a bad day she's allowed those emotions too. And I think that's part of the same thing that all of our emotions make us who we are, so that it's not, it's not right for me to go ‘oh, come on, cheer up’ because what I'm actually saying is your sadness is making me sad and my emotion matters more than yours, but you know, she's allowed to feel really furious that she can't walk. She was, you know, a cycling champion, a riding champion. She's the granny that taught my kids to do cartwheels in the back garden when she was 65. She was incredibly physical woman all of her life. And then so to lose the ability to walk is a harder thing for her to lose than someone who was maybe a bit more cerebral. And, you know, being physical or sporty wasn't part of their day to day life, but it was for Rosie, you know, she, she was walking, everywhere doing things, walking other people's dogs until she was 86 and had a fall. And this is the very common story of care, that something happens and then out of that one thing, the dominoes fall. So, I had to learn to shut up. And not go ‘oh, you know, it's not that bad’ and just go ‘I'm really sorry, you're feeling down today, what can I do? And if that means, you know, a whiskey mac at half past five in the afternoon, then fine, you know, or if that means she doesn't want to eat anything, me going on endlessly, is not helpful. But me finding a brilliant pudding, that might be just the one thing that she could fancy, that's helpful. So, in a way, it's about unlearning some of the things that you associate with what it means to be a good carer.


Alison Jean Lester 

Right, and what you associate with loving someone. Holding some space for them.


Kate Mosse 

Holding some space for them. But I learned this, you know, Alison, from watching my amazing and heroic ma care for my father. They had been equal partners all of their lives and then my father needed a huge amount of support. And there are many things that are very distressing about Parkinson's, there's huge, amazing research going on from Parkinson's UK, people are living longer and better with Parkinson's. But there are also side effects. And they're also symptoms that are very, very difficult, which people will know about shaking, which means you can't necessarily lift a glass or a spoon to your mouth, the freezing, which means you might be fine, and then you fall, and they are distressing physical disabilities to witness. And it's painful to witness as well as it is obviously for the person living with it. But what I learned from my mum was that she was still her and my father was still him. And the minute you kind of think in those terms, it makes it, it doesn't change the nature of the relationship, the reciprocity, the fact that you are equals continues. Now a lot of people listening to this will not be in that position, because they will be caring for somebody who's either got a long-term disability, so it's not to do with aging or a condition, but it's just that they've got a particular illness that has been with them forever. Or more significantly, there'll be many people listening, who are caring for people with dementia, or Alzheimer's or some sort of neurological decline and deficit. And that is a completely different situation. Because when somebody is no longer themselves, then that is obviously different. And I'm very, very clear in the book and I'm very clear with all the talks I do that I am speaking about my own experience, and I have been very, very blessed that I have had many older people in my life and have cared in different ways for several, you know, three in particular, and every single one of those people has been themselves until the moment they have left life. And that is utterly different from people who are looking after people that they love but who don't know who they are, and sometimes don't know who the person caring for them is either.


Alison Jean Lester 

Yes, it's interesting you touched on this, being very aware of the privilege and also you're very aware of the privilege of being a home based writer, like I am, being able to also have help caring for your parents and Granny Rosie but I still feel the rumble of concern in the background, the worry, the possibility, as you said, of the siren and the blue light that does arrive. Can you imagine after being a carer for a dozen years, being an empty nester? You will become a truly empty nester a lot later than I have, because of people in your home needing you, can you imagine being rumble free and can you imagine what that will mean for you and your writing?


Kate Mosse

Yeah, that's a lovely question. It's a very interesting one that I do kind of ask myself. I like a busy home. And at the moment my brother-in-law is living with us, as is one of my nieces. So, the household that is essentially my husband, Granny Rosie, and me and the dog, the numbers of evenings, when we are actually the only three, and the dog, people sleeping in the house are quite few. So, you're right in terms of permanent living, but I think also that my children are adults. And they both have, you know, the joy about being a parent is when your children are grown up, and they are themselves and they are living their lives. And all of these things, they, of course, come home quite a lot, I'm glad to say and bring their partners with them. And I don't deny that I am looking forward to being a grandmother, which is not on the horizon at the moment, but I will absolutely love that. But I think that one of the things about being a carer and the way that our lives have worked is to think slightly differently about what the nature of a household is. And the idea is, for me, that the household is the people who are living in it at that moment. And so, we're a five-person household at the moment. Next week, we'll have somebody staying for a couple of weeks doing some work, so then we'll be a six-person household. And I think that that is how I will cope with it. The sense that the thought of Granny Rosie not being at the other end of the kitchen table, we spend a huge amount of time together. And you know, if I'm not away working, or we're not out, I spend pretty much every evening, and certainly during the pandemic I have spent every evening in the kitchen with Granny Rosie, the idea of her not being at the other end of the table is very painful to me. But I also know that it's the flexibility of living that is important and that there will always be other people who need to be here who can be here. And it's part of the same privilege that we have space to do that. So, you know, I don't ever envisage a time when my husband and I will be, I mean not that that wouldn't be joyous, we go away to be on our own rather than do it at home.


Alison Jean Lester 

Right and your home is a welcoming space.


Kate Mosse 

It’s what my parents did, and brought me up to believe and both of my sisters live nearby. Nieces and nephews live nearby. And, you know, my parents had an open house policy, but never let it not be our home. And they did it amazingly. So we never felt like that we were just one of a load of people, it was always our home. But it was also welcoming to anybody else. And I was brought up like that and that was my hope that I would be in a position to be able to do the same. And as you say, because I'm a writer and my husband is a writer, we are in a very privileged position, because many people have to give up their work to be a carer and I didn't, and you didn't. So you know, that is another thing that makes all the difference, that you don't lose your sense of identity as a working person. Because you don't have to stop it. Is it, you know, the endlessness of not ever sleeping? You know, at the moment, I'm not in that phase. But that will come again, when you are caring for someone who is at the end of life or needs a lot of care in the night. The emotion of that, you know, being in a privileged position doesn't stop the painful emotions. But it makes all the practical stuff easier than it is for people who are on their own or have fewer resources and all of these things. And again, I think it's throughout the book, I hope I made that very clear that I am aware of that. Because you know, the thing that's given me great pleasure, Alison, is that I have never had such a big reaction from a book in my life. And I've had some really big reactions. But it's been very interesting, this is why I wrote the book, I wrote An Extra Pair of Hands because I felt I had a voice, I was asked to write it by the Wellcome Trust and that it was important for all of us who are in this position to raise our voices together, and not allow the fact that our circumstances are different and therefore it makes us feel that we have no right to speak for other people. Actually, we're not speaking for other people we all need to speak, there's 13 million now, unpaid carers in the UK, just in the UK. And the vast majority of those are women. And the politicians are not addressing the issues in social care. And so therefore I felt it was part of my job if you like as a carer to put my voice with other carers, and the huge numbers of emails, letters, phone calls, events that I've done, everybody has got a different experience but everybody's going ‘we all need to speak about this’. We need to speak loudly about this.


Alison Jean Lester 

Exactly. And I really encourage people to read it a) for the beautiful writing and b) for the devastating statistics. Because it's a really wonderful clarion call for this and the impact on women, amidst the pandemic which has hit women differently from men as well. All of that is very powerfully put in the book. And, as you can imagine, if it hits somebody with a comfortable situation like this, then how does it hit somebody without one, it's just really, really powerful.


Kate Mosse 

And that's actually part of the job of people like us who are writers but also have had these experiences of thinking about caring for people and living and dying and all of that, is that we need to look after our carers. There are some people who have not had a day off, from their caring responsibilities, you know, for 18 months because all of these care services shut down and they had to. We saw the absolute disregard for older people and people with disabilities shown by the government. And this is not a party-political point I'm making, it's the government is in charge, regardless of their political colour. This is a crisis that has been coming down the road for a very, very long time. And of all, the times when it now should be being graphed it is not and it's still not, because it will all fall to pieces. Am I saying that I don't think that families should be the primary carers if they can be, of course I'm not. In almost every case that I've spoken to people want to be the primary carers. But what about the people without any support? What about the people who are caring, you know, an 80-year-old woman who's caring for a 90-year-old man? What about the people who had a child whose child died? What about, you know, all of the what abouts. The sign of a civilized and good society is how we care for the people who need us most, not the people who make the most money. And so, our priorities around this have got very skewed. And it's a brilliant thing that our populations are living older, it's a sign of why the NHS is so extraordinary. And why it matters, that people don't routinely die in their 40s and their 50s, as in many periods of history, they did. But that does bring with it, the idea of how people live well, longer, as you know, and how we approach the business of dying and support and care. So, I do feel very strongly and you write, you know, we're not quite in the same field but we kind of are in this writing. And I think that every book that comes out, every moment that somebody who is in a position can pick up a book like yours or mine and see their own experiences reflected make somebody a little bit less alone in trying to deal with these things that are very complicated. 


Alison Jean Lester 

Yes. And I think it's also, partly, the connecting with people on where you are together and it's also partly opening a window on how things could be.


Kate Mosse 

Exactly and I've always been a campaigner, but positively. So, like, okay, there is a problem here. What are we going to do about it? And let's go forward, hopefully.You know, and I think that's really, really important. Now, again, I'm very lucky in that because one, that is my nature. Secondly, all of the things in terms of the caring responsibilities I have, I love my mother-in-law. There are many people who are caring for people who they don't really like very much. Or who are not very nice. You know, the idea that anybody older is automatically nice we know is not true, people are themselves. It's the age equivalent of In Vino Veritas, you know, people get older, they get more themselves. And some people are not pleasant, and some people are having to care for people that did not care for them. But whereas, Granny Rosie is wonderful, you know, and it’s very interesting people's first reactions, if they don't know, Granny Rosie and they don't know me and they don't know our family and my husband and all the rest of it, when you say you care for your mother in law, people go ‘oh, no’, they automatically pull a face. Like ‘oh, I bet that’s tricky’.


Alison Jean Lester 

Right. Yeah. Imagining the mother-in-law joke.


Kate Mosse 

The mother-in-law joke, but of course behind that is a very deep strain of misogyny. Which I don't sign up to, in any ways whatsoever.


Alison Jean Lester 

Yeah, let me speak for the writers who may be listening, who probably are listening. In all of this, how do you protect your writing time?


Kate Mosse 

Well, you can't. It is as simple as that. You know, absolutely you can't. So, with one of my novels called Citadel, I was writing that when my father was dying, and looking back now I can't believe I kept going. I should have just rung my publisher and said this is not going to come yet. But the problem that everybody knows about caring for older people in particular, or equally younger people with life limiting disabilities but that you might be caring for a long time, is you never know when the significant moment is coming until it's happened. So with everybody who's a carer, there will be many false alarms when you think it's the end, and then it's not. And so, at what point do you say to your publisher, do you know I can't, I'm going to deliver this book late, I just can't do it. Because my father, you know, there were several moments over a period of about nine months where it looked like he was going to die. And then that wasn't the time, it wasn't his time. And so when do you stop. And so in the end, it was more acute even I think with my ma, who had a condition called COPD, she had been a smoker for many years, but she also had issues with her heart, she was incredibly healthy, and wonderful, except for the fact that she had this really big issue. She looked perfect and was wonderful. And there were many times when she had to go in for oxygen or be looked after, there was no sign at all that the weekend that she died, she was going to die, none at all. And I was writing and working and was due on stage to do some interviews and all the rest of it and huge, you know, work situation going on, and I was on the phone and would have to say I’m really sorry, I'm just going to have to go and call you back because the doctors here. But that was again, it wasn't any different from other times that had happened. And then suddenly, my wonderful, beautiful mother was dying. So I think that is what is impossible about protecting your writing time, you really can't, you just have to play it by ear, but be brave enough, and I was only brave enough after the event with my dad's death. When I went back to that novel, I looked on the page that my grief at his loss, his imminent loss was on every single page of that novel. And it didn't belong there. It was, it didn't belong there. And I had to say, you know, I just need to take some time. And after my mother died, I couldn't even read at all, it was the only time in my life I've lost reading. With my dad, because he was preparing to die, he had a strong Christian faith, we knew it was coming. He didn't want to leave my mother, but apart from that he wanted the next part of his adventure, he wanted to be reunited with his mother, he believed all of that. And that was a beautiful thing for us. And so, I didn't lose reading then. And I didn't lose writing. When my ma went out of the blue, I lost the ability to read for months. And that's never happened to me before and that felt like a huge grief. And I lost the ability to write for at least six months. And so, you know, the only thing I can say to people who are in this kind of situation is that if you separate the quality of your writing from the doing of it at all, that is a helpful way to protect yourself as a writer. So the fact you're writing at all, just be proud of that. Don't worry about how good it is, you can rewrite it later. But don't lose them the muscle memory that that's the only piece of advice I can give. So, if you just keep doing it. So, when after my mother died, I was supposed to be writing a novel and I just couldn't because I associated it with the loss. So I wrote a play instead. Because nobody was expecting it. It didn't matter. The timing was mine. It was private. It was just like getting back on the bike when you've had a crash. You know, getting back on the horse, whatever it is, you know, whatever the metaphor.


Alison Jean Lester 

I noticed that your most recent novel is called the city of tears. Is that unrelated to your grief?


Kate Mosse 

Yes. It's entirely unrelated. The series of historical adventure fiction that I'm writing at the moment is essentially a Romeo and Juliet story, a family saga, set against the backdrop of the French wars of religion. So, the first one was The Burning Chambers, the second one The City of Tears. So, its each of the four elements and it covers 300 years of the story of a family and the women of that generation going through from 1562 in France to South Africa in 1862 and the city of tears is Amsterdam. And it is that because it is the city where many of the French Huguenots, I mean obviously there are no other Huguenots except for French ones, its the word we use, but I always put it in. The French Protestants, if you like, the Huguenots after the massacre of St. Bartholomew's day in 1572, in Paris, when almost all the Huguenots leadership was assassinated. My family, as many Huguenots, fled from Paris to Amsterdam and Amsterdam was the great refugee city of the 16th and 17th century. And because Amsterdam accepted so many refugees in, it became a world power. And I love that. But of course, for all of my characters, and the real people who fled there after that massacre, it was the city of tears, because they had lost, everybody had lost people in their families, everybody had lost everything. And it was this city of water. And so for me, in my mind, it became the city of tears. So not to do with my grief. The only thing I would say that's very interesting as a novelist, is that I have written death scenes, deaths of fathers, death of mothers, of siblings of loved ones, all of my life. And it was very interesting when my father died to realize, actually, this is the extraordinary thing about reading and writing. And the joy of incredible writers that have gone before us, is that what I wrote, was how it felt. I hadn't actually experienced my father dying, but I had written the death of a father before that happened to me. And do you know, I wouldn't really change anything. And that's because of all the books I've read, and how other people have put it on the page before me, I knew in a way what to expect, what I would feel from what I had read and seen.


Alison Jean Lester 

I want to talk a little bit, you’ve talked a bit about these sprawling wonderful, rich historical novels, that there's something that I noticed in An Extra Pair of Hands, in the writing style that I wonder might be special to this book, which is quite a lot of sentence fragments, almost lists, sort of bullets of this is how it runs, this is what we do, this is what we have to have. Do you think that was the experience writing itself onto the page in that style, or does that happen in your other books?


Kate Mosse 

That's a really great question about craft. I would say that I write what is called narrative nonfiction. And the nonfiction I'm working on at the moment I am describing as a nonfiction novel, because I realized that actually, my writing style between the fiction and nonfiction isn't as different as some people's is. I do like short sentences, anyway. I do like the placing of a single word or three words. There are phrases that I overuse in my fiction, and I have to go, you know, the joy of search and find is like ‘oh, God, how many times is that phrase been used?’ But certainly writing this, what I wanted was to find a kind of, a language for the experience. I'm not a confessional writer. It was a big decision for me to put my personal life on the page. Because that's, that's not what I do. And I wanted to find a language that felt appropriate to that, that felt comfortable for me. And have I put every emotion on the page, not at all, I have not put anything on the page that I thought my father would not want, my mother would not want and of course, Granny Rosie was reading the script all the way through. And I would say well, I you know, it's up to you anything you don't want in the book. And of course, she was saying, you should put this in and that and I said I'm not putting that in, I think that’s too personal, she was happy, you know, warts and all. I was also very mindful of the fact that I'm writing my story of these, these times. My husband's story, my children, my sisters, they have the right to their story, which is different from mine. It's always the you know, the drawback of having a writer in the family, you know, they get to claim it, but so I wanted to find a language, a style that would feel very deliberately literary, if you like, that this is me, the writer writing a personal story, not me writing a personal story, me Kate, writing a personal story. And so these, as you say, lists, the very fragmented moments sometimes that felt like, well, sometimes there isn't an end to this sentence is just this is the emotion. And I can't, I can't put it in context yet, because I don't know. And I think you can, you can understand that because of the nature of your writing. It's like sometimes the artifice gets in the way of the integrity of the emotion. So actually, you just need to put that word down. But you know, that word contains the story. 


Alison Jean Lester

We've talked a bit about what Granny Rosie remembers, her poetry and I remember very strongly, my mother, my mother who had metastatic melanoma and tumours in her brain that were changing how she thought etc, and suddenly language that she was using that I'd never heard her use before, ever in my life. Her grandparents, her mother was Scottish, but presented as English, but her grandparents were Scottish very. And she lived with them for a year when she was 10 and she just started using Scottish language. And so there were things that I learned in the last weeks of her life. And something that I want to learn from you, which I don't yet understand, is this wonderful thing about Granny Rosie ‘working in the fields of Apuldram in the summer of 1947, singling sugar beets and stucking sheaths’. What was she doing?


Kate Mosse 

Yeah, well, there we are. That's absolutely, you're right. That is English rural description.

So, if you imagine anybody listening, you're on a train, you're going up through England on a train, at harvest time or in the summer, and you're looking out the window and you see a field and it has it almost looks like a tepee. It could be hay or straw or anything, it's all been kind of harvested. And it's all been put across the field in these kind of like, tepees of whatever it is that they're actually harvesting. And it's that, it's simply that, you know, that they're picking it all. And then, you know, winding it round and setting it up. And sugar beet is definitely you know, is obviously a particular type of crop that they had. So, it's just the description of the way that each of those little things. And so, people will be much more familiar with the big black, huge bales of hay. But different crops are kind of placed in the field in different ways. And then another tractor will come along and gather it all up. Yeah, because her father was a gardener. And she lived in, you know, a farming rural community. And so, everybody went out and it was all done by hand.


Alison Jean Lester 

Yes, yes. And these are the old words that as writers, we can try to keep in currency.


Kate Mosse 

Yeah. And I kept saying to Rosie, how do you spell that? Because it was not a word I've come across even and I grew up, you know, we live here, three miles from where Rosie grew up, you know, we live in this same community, but of course, different words. You know, the thing that always made everybody laugh about Sussex, you know, we are Sussex people. And it tells you a great deal about the nature of life is that when you get a book of Sussex dialect, which isn't seen as a dialect, and other parts have maybe a much stronger lilt. But there used to be, in the 19th century, 16 words for mud in Sussex dialect. And that kind of thought, that tells you the nature of life in Sussex in the Victorian period.


Alison Jean Lester 

Oh, that's fantastic. Well, I'm enjoying this so much. And I'm afraid we have to bring it to the end. But I want to bring it to an end on these big smiles. Nobody can see us but we're smiling broadly. And I really look forward to your book, 16 words for mud. I think that will be a great one.


Kate Mosse 

Yeah, well, you know, it's how it goes. I mean, my next book is a book about history, about putting women back into history. But as its spine, I'm using the story of my great grandmother, who turns out to have been a novelist, but who was kind of vanished from the record. And the idea of how easy it is for women's achievements to vanish from the record. It will be women from all over the world in all periods of history, but actually writing An Extra Pair of Hands, I really fell in love with writing narrative nonfiction. So, I'm now juggling the big new novel and the big new piece of nonfiction. So you know, hopefully I'll be back at Birmingham to talk about one or other in person, once we get back to real events full time.


Alison Jean Lester 

Fantastic. Oh, well, thank you so much, Kate. I've really enjoyed meeting with you and getting to know you better. 


Kate Mosse

It's been great, Alison. Thank you so much.


Outro


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The Birmingham Lit Fest Presents... podcast is produced by 11C and Birmingham Podcast Studios for Writing West Midlands.


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 2021-10-01  44m