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Husband and wife authors Kate and Greg Mosse reveal their writing secrets ahead of Cambridge Literary Festival

Husband and wife authors Greg Mosse and best-selling novelist Kate Mosse both have new books inspired by their time in lockdown - and the couple are coming to discuss their work at the Cambridge Literary Festival.

Kate, who is best known for her historical novels set in France, has turned to non-fiction following an inspirational exchange on social media about forgotten women from history.

Husband and wife writers Greg Mosse and Kate Mosse. Pictures: Jasmine Aurora, left, and Ruth Crafer
Husband and wife writers Greg Mosse and Kate Mosse. Pictures: Jasmine Aurora, left, and Ruth Crafer

Her book, Warrior Queens and Quiet Revolutionaries, is a celebration of unheard and under-heard women’s history. It recounts the stories of more than 1,000 women whose names deserve to be better known, from warrior queens to pirate commanders. It features women who dedicated their lives to the natural world or to medicine, women of courage who resisted and fought for what they believed and unsung heroes of stage, screen and stadium.

It is also a detective story of the author’s own family history as Kate pieces together the forgotten life of her great-grandmother, Lily Watson, a famous and highly-successful novelist in her day who has all but disappeared from the record.

Meanwhile Greg, a playwright, decided that while the theatres were shut during the pandemic he should finally try writing a dystopian novel that he prefers to call climate fiction, or “cli-fi”.

Set in an alternate near future in which global warming and pathogenic viruses have torn through the fabric of society, The Coming Darkness follows French secret operative Alexandre Lamarque on the trail of global eco-terrorists. Lamarque’s target is set on destabilising the controls placed on global governments that protect human life from climate change. One wrong move and the world could be plunged into darkness.

The Mosses discussed their new works with Alex Spencer.

The new books from Greg Mosse and Kate Mosse
The new books from Greg Mosse and Kate Mosse

What inspired your new book?

Greg: Well, the thing is when playwriting became illegal I had to find something else to do. I could have sat there writing plays for 18 months but the truth is my whole playwriting philosophy is to write the play, produce the play, write the next play. It’s an incredibly invigorating way of working because a play script, even if it's two full acts, is just 20,000 words. It's nothing like a novel, definitely nothing like a Kate Mosse novel! And you're normally working in a room with other creative spirits and minds. But at the same time, if you want to be in control of your creative destiny, and in lockdown, you want it to feel - or I did - a sense of control over what I was doing. Nothing beats writing a novel.

Is your book similar to your plays?

Greg: My book is a new departure because I decided to set in the future. And I did that because I thought I wanted to include all the things that are intensely engaging in our public discourse, and also the terrible news from across the globe. It's about whole populations that are being moved by flood, famine, fire, drought, disease and we were in the midst of a pandemic as well. So I imagined a future 15 years ahead in which all the things that worry us today are still present, but also more intense, more worrying, more urgent. There is a need for a response. And since I wrote the book some of it has already happened, I’m afraid. One of the key plotlines in The Coming Darkness is a terrorist attack on the international underwater network of data cables. I can't be pleased to see that those things have happened. But when you think about it, those are clearly targets for somebody who just wants to disrupt the hyper-connected world.

Tell me about your hero.

Greg: Alexandra Lamarque is a kind of French James Bond in that he works in undercover situations. He has alternate identities that he uses in order to penetrate very secure locations. He is supported by the organisation called the Directorate Generale for Internal Security. But also, like James Bond, he works alone in dangerous places where his identity is enough to make him a target. And I think that’s really interesting, to be somebody who’s trying to uncover secrets, whilst being yourself a secret, is a lovely tension. And, of course, I was super grateful when Lee Child was kind enough to say that The Coming Darkness reminds him of John le Carre because I think that’s something that John le Carre did brilliantly - that conflict between secrecy and the job of uncovering secrets.

Why have you set it in the French secret service?

Greg: I used to be an interpreter and work in Paris in international institutions. So I saw these people, the diplomats, the security services, talking in corners mumbling to one another. I think it was just a habit of secrecy - I’m not sure that any of the meetings or the rooms that I was in required secrecy, but the habit was so ingrained. Also when I first moved to Paris in the 1980s I had a wonderful landlady. I lived in a tiny maid’s room at the top of her building, in eastern Paris in the Marais. She was a delightful person. And as soon as the hero, Alex, popped into my head, I thought, that could be his mum. I was talking to a colleague of mine the other day about how, even in a thriller, you want there to be a full and rounded life for your heroes and you don’t want them to exist as a kind of weird mobile island with no connections, no family, no past. No future, just the present moment. So there was somebody there that I could almost put wholesale into my novel.

Kate Mosse. Picture: Ruth Crafer
Kate Mosse. Picture: Ruth Crafer

Kate, how did you come to write a non-fiction book during lockdown?

Kate: So obviously I didn’t need to stop what I did during lockdown in the way that Greg had to. And we’ve always both been writing here together, but in different rooms doing different forms of things. So during lockdown, I was writing a play an adaptation of my own novel The Taxidermist’s Daughter, which was on at Chichester Festival Theatre in April this year and opened the 60th anniversary season.

Also, early in lockdown I wrote another non-fiction book called An Extra Pair of Hands, which is about my experiences of being a carer, to Greg’s mum, who lives with us. Greg obviously is a carer as well. So I was doing different sorts of writing but I was having a novel published and it kept being delayed because of the lockdown and I love going out and about on publication. And so when it was finally going to be published in the cold, miserable winter of January 2021, I wanted to do something to mark the moment. I asked a few writer friends if they could just tell me one woman from history they’d like to celebrate or who they thought should be better known.

Who did they come up with?

Kate: Anthony Horowitz named the Greek independence fighter of the 19th-century Laskarina Bouboulina, which was brilliant. I didn’t know anything about her. And Lee Child said the women of the Special Operations Executive - I did know them. Professor Kate Williams said Murasaki Shikibu, who is a Japanese writer of the medieval period who was credited with being the first novelist and I just thought this was fantastic. So I thought, well, I’ll just put that question on Twitter and see what other people have to say.

What happened then?

Kate: Within days, I had thousands of nominations from all over the world. A young woman in China asked if I knew the Chinese poet Ding Ling, who was imprisoned many times for her feminism during the Cultural Revolution. A woman in Saudi Arabia asked if I knew the Egyptian feminist Huda Shaarawi, who had come back from the women’s suffrage conference in 1923, and taken off her veil at Cairo railway station. And yet here we are 99 years later, with women still not having bodily autonomy, and so it just steam-rolled from there. And I started to think I would quite like to gather these names together. I didn’t want to stop spending time in the company of these extraordinary women from all over the world throughout history.

This is also a very personal book about your family, isn’t it?

Kate: There was a moment when I had to ask myself, why are you writing this book Kate? There are many books that list women who’ve been left out of history. The book in a way is a question to myself. What is history? Who makes it, who gets to decide? Why are women routinely written out of history? And how does that happen? And it’s also a detective story about my own great grandmother, because her life in a way exemplifies how easily women disappear from the history books, even if they’re very famous in their day. So it was a combination of things and then before I knew it, there were warrior queens and quiet revolutionaries. And Greg and I were going to be publishing books, four weeks apart. How about that?

What did you discover about your grandmother?

Kate: I did know that there was someone in my family who had written. That’s how women’s writing is always described - it’s just a little hobby on the sideline. But what I didn’t realise is that she had been really well known and had written 14 novels, many books of devotional thoughts and poetry, children’s stories, and more than 100 articles at the end of the 19th century in the first years of the 20th century. I’ve never had the time before to really look into her. And what really surprised me is that when her most famous novel, The Vicar of Langthwaite, was published in 1893, the Prime Minister himself, Gladstone, wrote to The Times to say it is to be hugely celebrated that there is a new novel from Lily Watson. So that posed a question - why had she been forgotten? There is a school of thought which says women have been written out of the history books because we don’t know about them. But actually, what I found was much more common was that people did know about women in their day but the people writing the history chose not to include them.

Why were women like Lily and others who were famous in their own lifetime forgotten by history?

Kate: We have the examples of some people like Mary Seacole and Mary Anning, who are now both well known. Mary Seacole routinely comes top in the list of the most significant and influential black British people. She was a superstar in her day, but because there was nobody protecting her legacy, she completely vanished. The only reason we know her is thanks to women and men campaigning to get her put back in her rightful place. The same with happened with Mary Anning, the late18th-century/early 19th-century fossil hunter. Her work was routinely attributed to the men to whom she sold her fossils, and she was completely written out of history. Now there is something a lot of these women have in common, although not my great grandmother. But many of the women who have disappeared chose to remain unmarried, not least of all because women were essentially property. They had no rights over their writing. And in Victorian England, a middle class woman actually had fewer rights then the servants she employed in some ways. And so many women chose not to be owned in that way under the law and consequently, there’s no family left behind, and often family is what keeps your legacy alive. That’s not true for my great grandmother. I never really quite found out why her books disappeared, other than fashion. Victorian values are not fashionable. But for many of the women in my book, it’s because there was nobody there when they died to fight their corner.

Do you think the pendulum has swung backwards for women's rights recently?

Kate: Yes, I do and it’s shocking how quickly this is happening. I think that what you see in times of crisis is a rising dog whistle populism, which we’re seeing, and always that comes with scapegoating of women and reinforcement of traditional female values, ie men trying to control women. We are absolutely, I fear, back in that stage. Now, there’s an economic crisis, women are bearing the brunt of it. There is a discussion about who gets to have the jobs. The pattern is always the same. Even though actually the whole care system would collapse and the whole economy would collapse without women in low-paid jobs. We’re also seeing attacks on women’s bodily autonomy. Women are the only group that don’t have, in some countries, rights over their own bodies. There’s not a single other section of society that you could say that of. It is the campaigns that I fought as a young feminist that I am really astonished, as an older feminist, to be having the same conversations about again. That is why history matters, because nothing happens by chance. All our right have has been fought for by somebody else before you. And without knowing our history we can’t protect those rights when people take them away from us. In Afghanistan in August 2021, before the Taliban went back in, there were more women in the Afghan parliament than any other parliament in the world. And that was lost in 36 hours. That’s all it took.

How do the pair of you work together?

Greg: I have learned from Kate enormously in three different areas. So first of all, Kate has a brilliant creative intelligence, writing these incredibly complex but easy-to-follow plots. That’s a stroke of genius. Then the second thing is she is a wonderful editor of her own work and she can apply that skill to others. She was trained as an editor when she was a publisher before becoming a writer. So she has alongside that subjective genius. She also has the objective understanding of structured storytelling. And then finally, of course, because of that background as a publisher, and then her work over 30 years with the Women’s Prize for Fiction, there’s nothing she doesn’t know about the business of publishing and publishing stories.

Kate: We’ve always been each other’s first reader and first editor. Greg is just starting with novels and I was just starting as playwright in the same year. We’ve always shared our work with each other at an early stage for years and years. So so in a way it doesn’t feel as different for us as it looks to the outside world. Also our son, Felix Mosse, is an actor, and during lockdown he was therefore off the stage and he has also written a novel. He is writing in the fantasy area and will have his first novel out next year. So it’s actually it’s been quite fun. All the family was writing, but it's not really made any difference, because we’ve always worked at home together in separate rooms.

  • Warrior Queens & Quiet Revolutionaries, by Kate Mosse, is published by Pan MacMillan.
  • The Coming Darkness, by Greg Mosse, is published by Moonflower Books.
  • They will be speaking at the Cambridge Literary Festival on Sunday, November 20. Visit cambridgeliteraryfestival.com.

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