Bestselling Author Kate Mosse On Salad Cream, Writing Habits And The Taxidermist's Daughter

Some people might say that Kate Mosse lived a full working life before she even became a bestselling (not to mention, world famous) female author.

Kate's first collection of books, which were published in her mid-thirties, have since been followed by the likes of Labyrinth, Sepulchre and Citadel - of which a whopping five million copies have been sold worldwide. She also received an OBE last year.

Originally a publisher, Mosse first realised she wanted to write following a trip to Carcassonne, South France where she found herself falling for the landscape, and felt inspired to tell its stories.

Since then, she's gone on to write a handful of incredible novels - including her brand new book The Taxidermist's Daughter - while also scooping the occasional OBE for services to literature, working alongside the likes of The National Theatre, co-founding the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction and, of course, generally enjoying life... and the X Factor.

It certainly can't be easy being in such high demand, so how does Kate juggle between being a best-selling author, a mother and a wife? We caught up with her to find out how she makes her hectic work-life balance, well, work...

When was the first time that you realised you wanted to write for a living?

For me, it was the liberation of going to Carcassonne for the first time and stumbling upon the history of the place and then thinking ‘Oh, I’ve got a story to tell!’

It was the story that came up and tapped me on the shoulder and I suddenly thought ‘this is the book I want to write’. Then, I discovered that I had other stories in me. So it was 'place'.

Place is my inspiration – place and history. And out of that suddenly came this idea of the sorts of novels I’d be writing. That didn’t happen to me until I was 45. I feel very lucky as I began this career when I was middle aged.

I’m pleased that I did everything else first and then success came my way when I was older because although you love it and it’s a really exciting thing – as people are reading your books, you’re in the bestseller list and all the rest of it – you also know that it could’ve gone the other way.

Did you find it difficult to carve yourself a path as an author?

I’m in quite an odd position, I suppose, because I had worked as a publisher before I became an author, so I knew the industry and the trade very well. I was also quite lucky because of being involved in the Women’s Prize For Fiction, who deal with all sorts of different publishers rather than just one company.

It wasn’t as difficult for me as it can be for people who don’t have any of those connections, and I think it’s very important to acknowledge that I was very lucky in that respect. The other side to the story is that people had to adjust their expectations of me.

People didn’t necessarily expect me to write adventure novels or gothic thrillers, as I was associated with fiction and women’s fiction. I had to learn what my writing voice was and then, when people started to see me in that light, it worked out pretty well!

I feel like I’ve been very lucky, truthfully, but a lot of luck is about sticking with it and being ready to make the most of your opportunities when they come. There is no such thing as an overnight success, there never has been.

Your previous novels are set in the South West of France, however your new book is based in your hometown of Sussex. Why has it taken you until now to write about the place you grew up in?

I have very strong connections to Chichester in Sussex as I grew up there, it’s where I live now and it’s where my family live. But when I lived here originally I was always somebody’s sister, somebody’s mother, somebody’s wife, somebody’s school friend.

I think that with going to another part of the world, my adopted home of Carcassonne, there I could be a writer. And because of that I learnt to write about landscape, I learnt to write about history, I learnt to see the stories in the landscape.

After all of those years of writing love letters to Carcassonne, I was ready to come and write about home. I had to go away in order to be able to write about it.

You’ve created some strong female characters in your novels including Connie, who is the Taxidermist’s daughter in your new book. What inspires these characters?

As a writer, I think that there are many wonderful love stories that have been written, however I want to write about something else in a woman’s life – not just finding Mr Right and getting married to him.

So, for me, it’s about anything else that we might do. I’m interested in people who are quite isolated, who are out of their time, who have great courage to stand up and be themselves even if the society around them doesn’t really want them to do that.

They are the type of women that come to me because I write gothic thrillers, I write adventure, and so you need an active, brave person to carry those stories forward.

My women, I suppose, are a type of woman – but they are a fictional type, they’re not based upon anybody in the real world. I suppose you could say they’re inspired by characters from Emily Brontë, Daphne du Maurier, H. Rider Haggard – these great adventure and gothic heroes are the people who inspire my women.

Would you consider yourself a feminist?

Yes of course, any woman who works is a feminist. I’ve always called myself one and I’m particularly delighted that both my daughter and son call themselves feminists.

I think now, in modern times, people are much more sophisticated about it – they understand that the ‘F’ word is about fairness. That everybody should have the opportunity to fulfill their potential and not be held back for any reason - men or women.

But I write about characters who are earlier than our period, partly as a way to remind that things only change when people make them change.

So with my lead character Connie, she’s not allowed to be a taxidermist, as she’s a woman, but she has to be because it’s their livelihood - it’s that rock and a hard place scenario.

Do you think that becoming a parent impacted your work/life balance?

No and yes. My husband and I always co-parented, sometimes one of us worked longer hours than the other and then we’d swap around. We were in a position to do that because I’m a writer and my husband’s a teacher.

I actually think being a parent made me more disciplined as a writer, it made me make the most of every free hour that I had. It’s all about managing your time and when you have children you have to manage your time – so that’s very liberating in its own way.

Being a parent made me realise what’s important in life – family, friends and love are the things that matter most. Secondly, it focused my mind. I think I became more productive once I was a parent, because you don’t have endless acres of free time.

I love having grown-up children although obviously when they move away from home, it’s a different sort of thing. I’ve enjoyed the teenage years and adult years more than the ‘little’ years.

How do you balance work and life? Do you have a set time that you just switch off? Or are you constantly in author-mode?

I try to switch off. I think the problem - and you will know this when you talk to anyone who doesn’t have a ‘proper’ job [laughs] - is that I work every day.

Everybody I know who works from home does the same, and the problem with new technologies, social media and all of that is that everybody is permanently ‘on’. You have to try and be disciplined about it.

I don’t have a set working week in the way that some writers do. When I’m writing a book I write every day and I write very early in the day, but I try to clock off quite early too.

It’s about trying to carve out time when you’re not working to make sure that you go to the theatre or read books. It’s important, as a writer, that you do the things that give you pleasure and give your time to the people that matter - not always to your imaginary friends who are sitting waiting on the computer for you to give them the next piece of their story.

So yes, I try to do that and often fail.

Have you ever had writer’s block?

Yes, I don’t think of it as writer’s block though. I think that some days your writing goes better than other days. The way I think about it is that this is my job. My job is to write a book – the best book I can – and give it to my publisher to publish.

People working in other sectors wouldn’t just ‘not go into work’ if they didn’t feel in the mood. So for me, when I’m writing a book I will sit at my desk every day. And some days go better than others.

Often you doubt yourself, or you think that it’s not very good and that everyone else is better than you are. But your job isn’t to compare yourself to anyone else. Your job is to get the next sentence down and make it as good as you can.

So, whenever I feel those things I just go back to basics and keep going because tomorrow it will be better. Every author I know feels that, every author I know has days when it doesn’t quite sing.

Do you have a set daily routine that you stick to?

When I’m writing (as oppose to researching, planning or publishing) I get up between 3.30 – 4.00am and I write on-and-off from about 4am until midday.

Then I go into relaxation mode and do tasks, catch up with emails and all of those things. I go to bed early as well. I’m always the first in bed.

The rest of the time, I probably get up at about 6am and I’ll do things like go to the gym or go for a walk – you know, to get yourself going in that sort of way. Then I’ll sort out what the day ahead has: it might have interviews, it might have television and radio, it might be the work I do at the National Theatre or the Chichester Festival Theatre.

In a way, I have a yearly calendar rather than a week-by-week or a month-by-month as it depends where I am in the writing cycle.

Do you have any tips for keeping healthy and fit?

I’m one of those people who has become healthier and fitter as I’ve got older. I run for half an hour every day, pretty much, although when I’m on tour it’s harder to factor in.

I have a dog, so I try to be out and about in the country every day – if it’s possible. I enjoyed walking on the Fishbourne Marshes when I was writing The Taxidermist’s Daughter, as I was able to research while giving the dog a run.

I cycle a lot at home in Chichester and try to go everywhere by my own steam. Even when I’m in London I will try to allow enough time to walk from the station rather than get a taxi or the tube.

So yes, I factor exercise within my daily routine, which is good. I think it’s great to be older and able to do that.

I’m also vegetarian and have been for a very long time (since I was about 10). Although I’m the least sophisticated eater you will ever come across - I’m strictly a baked potato with salad cream person. Thankfully my husband is a brilliant cook and both of my children are brilliant cooks – I’m just very good at getting things out of pots.

What would you say your guilty pleasure is?

Heinz salad cream [laughs]. Oh god, probably watching the X Factor. I feel ashamed of myself every time, I think to myself ‘what are you doing, you should be reading a book or something’. But there is something horribly addictive about it.

Even though you know you’re being manipulated, and it’s all completely ridiculous, and we all know the narrative, and that this person’s been set up for that – it’s so transparent. But it’s easy watching on a Saturday or Sunday night.

What would you say the reality of being an author is?

It’s hard work, like any job worth having is hard work. But, if it matters, it should be hard work.

Is it a joyous, wonderful privilege to be a full time writer? Yes absolutely, and I think that to myself every day. It’s wonderful to be in charge of your time.

The fact that I can earn my living as a full time writer and that the biggest difficulty facing me is usually to do with a piece of writing not going so well, is utterly wonderful.

There are glamorous bits about it, but mostly it’s sitting in your pyjamas at your computer going ‘oh god, I can’t make this chapter work’.

Do you have any advice you’d like to offer for aspiring female authors?

You’ve got to have persistence, but most of all you’ve got to be proud of yourself, because sometimes you will get great praise and things will go well, and other times you will get criticism and things won’t go so well.

But if you know you’ve done the best job you could possibly do, then you keep the power surrounding the joy of the work. You must be proud of what you’ve achieved and never let anything go out if you’re not proud of it.

Also, you can’t be a good writer unless you’re a good reader. Read anything and everything. You sometimes learn more about writing from a book that you don’t particularly enjoy rather than from one that you do.

Finally, write all the time in order to take away the fear of writing. Too many people think ‘I can’t start’, ‘I don’t have enough time’, ‘I’ll do it when the children have grown up’, ‘I’ll do it when I don’t have a full time job’, ‘I’ll do it when I don’t have care and responsibility’.

But if you write a little bit every day (and it doesn’t have to necessarily be great work) you’ll get into the habit. It’s like getting fit: you don’t run a marathon unless you build up to it – and that’s what writing is like.

Do all of those things and then you will have the stamina and persistence to get your book published.

Finally, if you weren’t an author, what would you like to be?

I’m afraid I am a massive fan of musical theatre. I would love to be able to tap dance but I have two left feet and no singing voice, so sadly that career passed me by.

The Taxidermist's Daughter by Kate Mosse is out now in hardback.

Blinkbox Books will be hosting an event with Kate Mosse and Clare Balding on October 4th at Cadogan Hall. You can get tickets for the event here.