Author Kate Mosse on her new Gothic thriller
PUBLISHED: 09:59 16 November 2015 | UPDATED: 12:00 03 November 2017
Internationally-renowned Kate Mosse OBE was suffering authorial burnout after writing the harrowing conclusion to her Languedoc trilogy, Citadel. So, as a palate-cleanser, she wrote Gothic thriller The Taxidermist’s Daughter. Kate spoke to Jenny Mark-Bell
It is fitting that the craft at the heart of Chichester author Kate Mosse’s latest novel is known for its meticulous care, its almost alchemical ability to breathe vitality into the lifeless cadavers of its subjects. In this, her latest book, Kate has conjured a protagonist that is still with me as I write, weeks after I turned the last page.
Here, the author has strayed from her usual literary stamping ground: instead of the Languedoc region of southern France, the watery environs of Fishbourne, near Chichester, provide the background to the action. It is an elegy to the area of Mosse’s childhood, where she still lives. “All the time I was doing it I had on the one hand the place I could see now – me as a grown-up, walking with my dog, or sometimes my grown-up children, on that landscape – but I had the echo of myself as a teenager and as a child, and then of course I had the imagined landscape of 1912.” For this novel she has forsaken the Languedoc Trilogy’s timeslips in favour of a linear narrative, but for this writer time, and the traces it leaves on a landscape, as the potter’s hands shape the pot on a wheel, is a lodestar.
“I suppose there were two real starting points,” said Kate about the germination of the novel, a Gothic revenge thriller. “The first, as with all of my novels, is landscape. I grew up in Fishbourne just outside Chichester in the Sixties and Seventies. I came back to live down here in the Nineties with my family. Little by little, walking in the marshes, I realised that there was that prickling sensation of wanting to write something set here. The second was that growing up here there was a very famous museum of taxidermy called Potter’s Museum in Arundel. It had come from Bramber, briefly went to Brighton and then, in the Seventies, was in Arundel. It was just one of those places I was obsessed with.
“My sisters, who are both younger than me, now say ‘Oh my God, we hated that museum!’ It was very macabre but every time I mention it any Sussex person knows it. We were all taken on school trips there and we can all remember sitting on the floor cross-legged with our sandwiches, amongst all the stuffed animals.”
The taxidermist’s daughter of the title is Connie, whose father Gifford is slumped in alcoholism. To shore up the family coffers, Connie is secretly practising the forbidden – to her, as a woman – craft of taxidermy.
As research, Kate learnt the basics herself: “I realised a few months into the writing that I would have to do it myself, just to find out what it felt like. It was so, so awful. It was the smell of it that got me. I’m a vegetarian, I don’t even cook meat! But I do love bird taxidermy, I love birds and I love the idea that rather than a bird just being left to rot on the side of the road it is given a new type of life. I have always felt that about contemporary taxidermy. I respect the craft enormously and I came out of that respecting it even more: it is so delicate, so skilled and meticulous.”
Another point of view, of course, is that taxidermy is a violation of the natural order, an inversion of vitality, and the story is Kate’s most macabre yet.
At the heart of the story is family relationships: Connie’s with Gifford, and an artist, Harry, with his father, a doctor. There is a distance in each relationship, which is deliberate, says Kate: “I do like balance, and I like the idea of these two young people, a girl and a boy. One loves her father but he cannot care for her, and as the story unravels we find out why, and then the other father – neither of them wants their child to be doing what they want to do.” Then there is the tension between art – “with a capital A”, says Kate, and which is represented by Hary, and Connie’s working class craft.
The author also has a tightrope to walk with regard to violence, with some scenes that are increasingly difficult to read. “Gothic fiction is very violent,” said Kate. “We think of that as a contemporary thing and there is a lot of violence in fiction at the moment that I really dislike: I think it is titillation and an awful lot of it is violence against women. It is there for its own sake, it’s not part of the plot. Real violence is awful, and when it is made into something that is palatable, that is worrying. But when you go back to the very first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, and you move forward to The Monk, The Mysteries of Udolpho and Frankenstein, Gothic fiction has particular characteristics and the darkness and violence are part of that.”
Connie’s milieu is frightening in and of itself: she is surrounded by bell jars and their strange inhabitants, fur and feathers litter her workshop and an old ice house holds it own secrets…
It is perhaps surprising that this book was an antidote to personal tragedy and professional burnout: “I had spent a long time on Citadel, which was the third of the Languedoc trilogy. During that time my father became very ill and died and that was awful, the worst thing. The research was also very harrowing, because back to this point of how you use violence, the testimonies of the women resistance fighters who survived are very grim reading indeed. I came out of Citadel, for those reasons, very haunted and it sounds absurd to say that a Gothic revenge thriller was light relief, but it did feel like that.” Reading the novel, I was struck by its filmic qualities – the landscape and house are evoked so vividly that you can almost smell them – and Kate is currently in discussions about an adaptation, alongside finishing the screenplay for another short novel, The Winter Ghosts.
A prolific writer – “I am a sprinter rather than a marathon runner” – she is also embarking on her next vast historical project, The Burning Chambers Trilogy, “a Romeo and Juliet story, Huguenots and Catholics in France, Amsterdam and South Africa.”
She has no plans currently to set more books in Sussex, but Kate Mosse will be part of our literary landscape for a long time to come.
The Taxidermist’s Daughter is £12.99, and published by Orion
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