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Interview: Kate Mosse talks about The Burning Chambers

Bringing sixteenth-century Languedoc vividly to life, Kate Mosse's The Burning Chambers is a gripping story of love and betrayal, mysteries and secrets; of war and adventure, conspiracies and divided loyalties. Kate Mosses talks to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little about The Burning Chambers.

This is the first in a series of four novels telling the history of the French Wars of religion. It is both an epic adventure story and a love story - a Romeo & Juliet story of a centuries long feud between two families, one Catholic and one Protestant; it is history with women's voices driving the narrative; it also tells the story of the beginning of the South African wine industry (the novel begins and ends in Franschhoek, in the Cape).

The themes of displacement and religious intolerance dividing communities has resonance today, and I wanted to engage, move and entertain readers and put the stories of ordinary people (as opposed to kings, queens and generals) at the heart of history.

What inspired you to write this book?

I was appearing at the Franschhoek Book Festival in South Africa in 2012, in the heartlands of the wine region. When I arrived, I noticed many of the signs were in French and a road sign saying Lanquedoc, which is the region in France which has inspired all my writing and where we live for part of the year. I felt goosebumps!

Later, I went to the Huguenot Museum at the top of the town and discovered, on a wooden painted board listing the names of French refugees who had sailed from Holland to escape religious persecution and in search of a better life, the name of a family I had written about in my novel Labyrinth. I went home to the UK, but I couldn't forget about the beautiful little town in the Cape. I did a little research and discovered that the first winemakers in the Cape were French Huguenots, sent out to the Cape because the land there was similar to the land in the southwest of France. Another shiver went down my spine ....

Slowly, the idea for a story started to take shape: three hundred years of history, a Romeo & Juliet story of a feud between two families, one Catholic and one Huguenot ... Six years after that first flash of inspiration, the first volume of the story of Minou and her Huguenot husband, Piet is ready to be shared with readers.

What research was involved?

It has been utterly joyous! After some years of being unable write full time - and therefore not able to travel or publish on a regular basis, the experience of being able to immerse myself in a major project, to research and plan, then writing The Burning Chambers has been amazing. Uplifting, inspiring, surprising. I've not felt so excited about one of my books since Labyrinth back in 2005. It's a great feeling ... and I hope that readers will feel the same!

It has been a joy exploring the links between Languedoc in France and Franschhoek in South Africa. (In Afrikaans, Franschhoek means 'the French corner'.) It also gave me great pleasure that the Ridley Scott movie of Labyrinth was filmed in South Africa at the SA Film Studios in the Stellenbosch wine region, just round the corner from Franschhoek.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

When I am writing (as opposed to researching or planning) I write VERY early in the morning - 4 am start, with a cup of strong, sweet black coffee. Once a novel is underway, I work seven days a week until I have a first draft (no weekends off, even if it's Christmas!) I write in my pyjamas .... a new set for each new book (more than one pair, obviously! My West Highland terrier, Hamish, sleeps in a basket beside my desk.

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

The Burning Chambers is a Romeo & Juliet story, an adventure set against 300 years of conflict and the real history of the French Wars of Religion. Many of the issues that plunged France into civil war in the 16th century are still evident today. Why is it that humankind doesn't seem to learn from history? So, playing in the background to The Burning Chambers, I'd choose one of the most moving, brilliant tracks from the ground-breaking musical, Hamilton, by Lin-Manuel Miranda - 'History Has Its Eyes on You'. Also, because the novel is about the importance of love - and how long and wonderful relationships (between wife and husband, between parents and children, between aunts and uncles, between friends) are what helps a character survive the onslaught of history, I'd also choose Jacques Brel's heart-breaking magnificent 'La Chansons des Vieux Amants' - a love song between and about two old people who've lived their lives together. Finally, for a little light relief - because there's plenty of hope in the novel, after all the despair and war - perhaps Steve Harley & the Cockney Rebel singing 'Hear Comes the Sun'.

If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

I try to avoid thinking in those terms - because it stops the characters becoming themselves and living on the page. In the film adaptation of my first historical novel, Labyrinth, one of the key characters was played by the late, amazing John Hurt - and after that, I found it hard to put him from my mind and just write the character. However, I suppose if pushed, I could see Minou played by the British actor Ophelia Lovibond and Piet played by Kevin McKidd (who plays Dr Owen Hunt in Grey's Anatomy). Their young son (in the next novel in the sequence) would be played by my own son, who is an actor!

What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel? For the first time in my career, I've had the time to plan, research and sketch out a whole sequence of books. So to be able to write The Burning Chambers, knowing that I wasn't saying goodbye to the characters at the end of the novel, has been an utter delight. It means they stay with me and I'm continually think of what new adventure they can have. Also, because the sequence of novels covers 300 years of history - and travels the globe from France, UK and Amsterdam, to the New World and South Africa - visiting lots of places for research has been terrific fun too. What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

A glass (or maybe two! of champagne - Veuve Cliquot is my favourite, so my wonderful husband had a bottle ready in the fridge for when I finally pressed SEND and delivered the typescript to my publisher in London, Maria Rejt. Then, sleep. In the last few days before delivering, it always becomes a 24 hour a day race against time. So, I hit delivery dead on my feet. What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

As the Founder Director of the Women's Prize for Fiction - which celebrates outstanding and brilliant fiction written by women from all over the world - I also find time for each year's shortlist. I've read all six now and know the novel I'd like to carry off the 2018 Prize (though obviously I can't say ....). To relax in between writing sessions, I read crime and thrillers and, this year, I've enjoyed the work of the Icelandic writer Yrsa Siguroardottir - creepy, spooky and refreshingly different - and the latest Steve Berry. I also loved Maggie O'Farrell's astonishing memoir of her many brushes with death, I Am, I Am, I Am and I'm a huge fan of the Nigerian novelist Ayobami Adebayo, whose debut novel - Stay With Me - was shortlisted for the 2017 WPFF. What’s next on the agenda for you?

I'm half way through the next novel in the sequence, The City of Tears, which continues the story of Minou and Piet, taking them from Languedoc to Paris for the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre. If The Burning Chambers is, in part, a celebration of the wide open spaces of the Pyrenees and the beauty of Languedoc, The City of Tears is about the hurly burly of the city - Paris, London and, most important, the waterways and canals of Amsterdam. I'm having such fun visiting and refreshing my memory.


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