Inverness Book Festival: Kate Mosse's Big Book Group
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by Margaret Chrystall
"ARE you noticing something?" asked Craig Melvin, host of Kate Mosse’s Big Book Group. "Trying to read a book is quite like trying to write one."
In front of him at Inverness Book Festival was a crowd of book/Kate Mosse fans, book groups and the odd part-time Cromarty resident and bestselling author (Ian Rankin – also eventual runaway winner of the book quiz!).
Writers and readers were later locked in a united battle to beat Craig’s fiendish quiz questions for the chance to win two copies of Kate’s new book. So new, in fact, that it hasn’t even published yet, though a few copies of a tantalising three-chapter teaser of The Taxidermist’s Daughter had been brought north, but quickly snapped up.
Kate confessed just before sharing her story about the writing of the novel: "I’ve not yet learned to talk about this book, you are my guinea pigs!"
But it had been seven or eight crows hanging about outside the theatre on her way to the event that she’d noticed, she told us. As you probably do when the movie style tagline of your book goes "Psycho meets Mill On The Floss meets Daphne du Maurier".
"I’m at the lovely moment before publication when it is going to be the best book ever," Kate said as Craig started to interview her.
Best-known for her epic Labyrinth – set in Carcassonne, France’s Languedoc, where she bought a house – now completed as a trilogy by Sepulchre and Citadel, Kate had found this new book a less mammoth task.
"I loved writing it, I wrote it really fast. The first draft took five months – Citadel took five years! So I really felt the wind at my heels."
But set on Kate’s home territory of Sussex – she’s from and now returned to Chichester – the book had been inspired equally by a return in her memory to a childhood haunt, a taxidermy museum filled with stuffed animals and birds.
"I love Sussex – Chichester, ‘Chiddester’ as locals say it. Whenever I’m in Edinburgh I have city envy. But me and my husband discovered that the horrible truth was that Chichester was home."
Kate talked about the taxidermy museum she visited regularly as a youngster – now gone and all the exhibits split up and sold on separately.
"Walter Potter’s Museum Of Curiosities – it was full of stuffed animals and tableaux, like Who Killed Cock Robin?
"By the time I was a child it had ended up in Arundel next to Chichester where there wasn’t much to do. So every wet weekend I’d be asking ‘Can we go to the museum?’.
"It was only years later I discovered how traumatised my sisters were – they stayed outside and got sweets."
A vegetarian since she was 10, Kate told us, she realised not far into writing The Taxidermist’s Daughter that she would have to learn taxidermy herself.
"There’s not much taxidermy in the novel. But this is the nature of writing. To know Connie, I had to know how you do that."
The artist Kate learned from has now made Kate her own stuffed crow – not with her for the Inverness trip, sadly – created and named in honour of Kate’s new heroine.
"For me the word is hero, though," Kate explained. "My lead characters are almost always women. But for me the word ‘heroine’ is always about being rescued."
Some might argue that that is what Kate’s mission – along with others – has been in the setting up the women’s prize for fiction, to rescue or boost the profile of great women’s writing.
Triggered by one literary prize longlist that didn’t have one woman writer on it and the concernamong writers, publishers and agents that followed, the creation of the prize was also inspired by statistics that show 60 per cent of writers are women, 70 per cent of those who buy books are women, but only nine per cent of novels shortlisted for major literary prizes were written by women.
Kate said: "It’s now the bestselling shortlist of any prize. It is now seen as a benchmark for quality. And it’s lovely that it gives the winning writers the chance to go three days a week at work or stop their day-job altogether to write another book."
That’s the brilliant part, Kate said. But there had also been a terrible side too – women writing to the organisers from across the world to applaud such a prize in the face of women still being denied the right to education – and simply to write or read what they want.
"I believe anyone who wants to pick up or write a book should. The rest is white noise," said Kate.
Late on in a session that was one of the major highspots of the festival, Kate was put on the spot by Craig. The writer was sent off with two volunteers to create flash fiction with just a few details provided by the audience for inspiration.
While the instant story was concocted by the "Inverness Flash Fiction Three", the event got interactive.
Craig shared 10 questions plus tips to help readers and book groups critique a book. Some of the groups introduced themselves and their story – one had been together for 17 years, another was named after a much-missed former member. Least popular book group choices were revealed and the ones that had most divided the groups.
Then the hastily-written tale was revealed – a steamy mini-epic starring an actress, a bishop and The Fairy Glen.
By then, the evening had the feeling of an old pals get-together, fuelled by a love of books.
Earlier, Kate had tried to explain the pleasure of meeting readers to share the experience of her books.
"The reason I come – the fun for me – is that readers tell you the book you have written," Kate explained.
"When you write it, you don’t know...
"I like the idea of the white space around the book – that is the reader."
Kate’s latest book The Taxidermist’s Daughter (Orion) is out next Thursday (September 11).