For the millennium, the electronic revolution, plus the credit crunch, has sponsored all sorts of doomsday predictions on the books, with regular bad news from the digital frontline. In America, even best-selling authors such as Malcolm Gladwell have taken to YouTube to denounce Big Brother, aka Amazon. In Britain, book selling is said to be on the rocks, libraries doomed, the e-book conquering all, with the Visigoths of online selling taking Waterstone’s by storm.
Incomes are down and contracts scarce, putting careers in crisis and livelihoods at risk. In 2013, the median income for a professional writer was around £11,000, well below the £16,850 that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation considers a minimum standard of living.
And that’s before you even start tackling the creative questions. Last May, Booker-nominated novelist Will Self added his thunderous tones to a Stygian choir mourning the fate of literary fiction. “How do you think it feels,” he growled, “to have devoted your entire adult life to an art form, only to see the bloody thing die before your eyes?”
Amid the gloom, however, there was print’s indefatigable Pollyanna, an optimistic literary entrepreneur for whom the glass is not just half full but positively overflowing. Kate Mosse, best-selling author of the Languedoc trilogy (Labyrinth, Sepulcher and Citadel), and champion of the prize formerly known as Orange, became the smiling face of English writing during the credit crunch and computer revolution, and a tireless advocate of old-fashioned creativity.
Mosse is a stranger to self-angst. She brings a rare and contagious energy to her life as a writer reminiscent of the Victorians. For example, while completing her knock on the door trilogy (over 2,000 pages), she also reveled in her role as co-founder of the Orange Prize.
Despite Mosse’s public face, this was no picnic. When, in 2012, Orange withdrew its sponsorship, some speculated that the game was up for the English-speaking world’s premier writing award for women. The crisis would have baffled anyone less gifted in contemporary arts management.
Eventually, Mosse’s board of directors, including successful and determined women such as Martha Lane Fox, prevailed. They announced a one-time renewal of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, funded by private benefactors led by Cherie Blair and Joanna Trollope.
Meanwhile, Mosse devoted herself full-time to overseeing a year of private sponsorship to keep the prize alive. Looking back, she says, “It was impossible for me to write in 2013, and it was really disappointing.”
His sacrifice paid off. The Women’s Prize for Fiction confounded any prediction of impending doom. In the spring of 2013, he carried on as if Orange had never given up, presented his award to AM Holmes for may we be forgiven, then announced a new sponsor, Baileys Irish Cream.
Some commentators expressed dismay. Was a sickening liquor a suitable substitute for a communications giant? But when the first Baileys Prize was awarded in May to Eimear McBride’s A girl is a half-formed thing, it looked like business as usual. The bookstore calculated that, of the five best-selling award-winning novels in stores, four were Orange titles. Mosse now says, “I couldn’t be happier with that first year. This new team revitalized us. 2014 was a huge relief. And I was cleared to be a writer again.”
Just weeks after the first Baileys award, Mosse delivered his own new novel. In keeping with her Victorian literary ethos, she had managed to maintain her creativity and thriving managerial life.
“Your writing voice,” she argues, “isn’t necessarily your reading voice.” In January, when the price was in full swing, Mosse had started work on a gothic thriller. His subject ? Stuffing.
“Strange, but true,” she laughs. On closer inspection, however, Mosse’s latest fiction reflects both his unquenchable optimism and his instinctive understanding of his strengths as a writer.
The taxidermist’s daughter will launch on September 11 at the Horniman Museum in south London, with an event for 1,000 people. Ahead of her big night, Mosse describes the huge poster of herself hanging outside the Horniman with cheerful candor. “I look crazy,” she said.
Perhaps Mosse is elated by the fulfillment of a gothic fantasy. The taxidermist’s daughter, a thriller and a why, is inspired by Mosse’s childhood fascination with a famous Sussex tourist attraction, the Walter Potter Curiosities Museum. This lost Victorian collection of bizarre paintings, such as The Original Death and Burial of Cock Robin, was “my favorite outing”, says Mosse. Basically, it was this strange kaleidoscope of kitsch, mortality and disguise that fueled her teenage appetite for storytelling, an unabashed desire to entertain.
So when Mosse decided to write a gothic thriller, it was perhaps no surprise that she focused on the weird and obsessive world of the taxidermist. Less predictable, though characteristic of his attention to detail, was his decision to learn the trade. At the same time as he was finishing the first project, Mosse took classes on “how to skin and stuff animals”. Is it embalming?
“Embalming is different,” she corrects. “Before the films, taxidermy was how things were remembered and part of working life on the British high streets.”
The taxidermist’s daughter However, it’s not just about feathers, fur and skin at the height of a forgotten art form. It is also set just before the Great War, in the summer of 1912, the wettest summer of the last century, among the marshes of Fishbourne, West Sussex, in an atmosphere of impending dread. The tide is rising, the sky is falling, and there’s a terrible untold secret in Connie Gifford’s young life.
As a genre writer, says Mosse, “I’m out. It’s Mill on the Floss meets Psycho.“It also pays homage to other classics of the Gothic tradition – The castle of Otranto, Frankenstein and The monk – but insists that Connie is “not a victim”, like most gothic heroines, but a “modern Mrs”.
So after the Women’s Prize for Fiction was renamed, Mosse went on to give a three-part masterclass on How to Survive as a Writer in the 21st Century.
First, she revived a familiar genre, offering “a good old-fashioned story.” Second, she demonstrated how to write from a powerful connection to her true self. Once, in the 1990s, Mosse wrote literary fiction with titles like Eskimo kiss. No more. “I realized,” she admits, “that I should have listened to myself earlier. My talent is storytelling, not literary fiction.”
Finally, she connected her creative life to everyday experience. Challenge her hectic schedule and she retorts, “Every writer I know does a lot of different things. I know very few writers who can survive just by writing novels. It’s always been that way. For me, being outside is essential. I’m not interested in writing stories where people think a lot. I prefer them to do things. What I like least is sitting alone, writing.
She also dismisses Self and the Jeremiahs: “The market is tough, but e-books haven’t changed things as much as people feared.”
Plus, for every Mosse reader, there’s a practical dividend to their R&D. “Once you have read The taxidermist’s daughter“, she concludes, with a mischievous smile, ” you can skin your own crow.