Interview with Kate Mosse – author of Labyrinth and co-founder of the Women’s Prize for Fiction

Kate Mosse, photo copyright: Mark Rusher 2012

Kate Mosse, photo copyright: Mark Rusher 2012

Originally printed in the Sunday Times, reproduced here with permission.

I was lucky enough to get an interview with Kate Mosse in May 2013, shortly before her trip to South Africa for the Franschhoek Literary Festival. My questiosn appear in bold.

As co-founder of the Women’s fiction prize, do you feel that female authors are getting the coverage they deserve in terms of prizes and literary prestige? Or is it still a male-dominated field?

Things are changing massively, which is fantastic. We’re seeing more women on shortlists for other prizes, sometimes even outnumbering male authors. Women have traditionally bought and written the majority of books – they should also be winning a proportionate number of prizes. Through awarding prizes, we ensure that fabulous books stay on the shelves to later generations to read. Many former Orange Prize winners, and short- and long-listed authors, go on to win other awards due to the exposure they receive from the prize.

What is your opinion on the nature of ebooks?

What really matters is the story and the text and the emotions. How we change and feel is what matters: the medium is unimportant. The ebook is one way we deliver a story to readers. I work at a screen when I write, and in my downtime I’d prefer not to look at another screen when I read. I would rather interact with the paper, the story. But I don’t care how people read my novels – ebooks sometimes bring people back to reading as part of their lives, as part of their lifestyle. I do believe that the paper format will always be more popular for gifts, for the tradition of sharing something beautiful.

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If there were to be a capsule that humankind were to use to preserve the most important books ever written, which book would you contribute?

I would put in a collection of key religious texts – The Bible, The Koran, The Torah. Whatever one feels about religion in terms of faith, it has had a huge impact on human history and discovery. It showcases the momentum of human history and the cultural development of countries, how we relate to the universe and each other, how people create art and music while making sense of the human condition.

World Book Night is coming up! What suggestions do you have for young bookworms?

The key thing is not to recommend this or that book specifically, but to recommend books of quality – the relationship between writer and reader is what matters, and that changes drastically from person to person. Reading is the great leveller, as we can be whoever we want to be and travel wherever. It doesn’t really matter exactly which books people are reading, but it is about the integrity of reading as the one art form we all share from cradle to grave.

And finally, how do you feel about the recent adaptation of Labyrinth for television?

I am so looking forward to visiting South Africa again for the Franschoek Literary Festival after my experiences in Cape Town during the adaptation of Labyrinth. There were many locals on the crew when parts of Labyrinth were shot on the outskirts of Cape Town, and I was fortunate enough to visit the set during production. Many authors feel that the spirit of their novel is lost in adaptation, but when Labyrinth was being filmed in SA there was this huge passion for the novel. Most of the local crew were astounding and hugely engaged in the project, bringing their copies of the novel to set to discuss the novel, and have theirs signed. The role of South Africans was fundamental to the success of the project – I would love to film Citadel in SA. However the film is or isn’t received, the experience of making it was wonderful. There was an extraordinary connection between the book and Cape Town: the spirit of the land is so like the spirit of the book. We hope to do more adaptations in South Africa.

Review of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

the-twelve-tribes_custom-6a80054024c857973e6515991a8ed02933f28957-s6-c10The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis arrived with a great deal of literary street cred: it had been recommended by Oprah, who can still make or break books with nary a blog post. It came with a stunning recommendation from Marilynne Robinson, Orange Prize and Pulitzer Prize winner. Comparisons are being made to inimitable Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison.

Does Twelve Tribes of Hattie live up to these extraordinary claims? This book is an easy shoo-in for my top 13 for 2013, and is unlikely to be booted out of that list any time soon. While the Toni Morrison comparisons are not unfounded, I feel this book deserves more than being lumped in the ‘black female writer’ bracket and being treated as a progressive read by lily-white book clubs. This book, while touching on race, also deals with everything from family to gender to psychosis, while stopping by to discuss religion as well as music. There’s even a brush through midwifery and traditional healing. It is, quite surprisingly, more of a collection of short stories than it is a traditional novel. Through the twelve children of Hattie we discover twelve stories of twelve people, beginning with the heartbreaking departure of Philadelphia and Jubilee and the salvation of Sala.

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Eponymous Hattie is triumphantly drawn, though her life is a wide collection of pain and sacrifice. Called The General by her children, she is a hard, tough, strong woman who bears the pain of losing her children in every manner, who has a husband who is “the greatest mistake of her life”, who somehow manages to feed and clothe and raise a veritable horde of children, each of which grows into and inherits their share of trouble. Each chapter is a look through a prism at Hattie, and her impact on the lives of her children. She is never far from the foreground, and even if she doesn’t appear in the action, she appears in every chapter. Mathis has drawn a remarkably complex woman that one struggles to like or hate, though her strength is easy enough to love.

Ayana Mathis

Ayana Mathis

The novel asks: how do you prepare your children for a world you know is cruel? Through Hattie the reader explores the burdens of parenting, of growing up in the shadow of a mother’s pain and how even the very best intentions can go horribly awry. Add to this the difficulties of racial tensions and outright hatred in America between 1925 – 1980, of being black and gay, of being black and ill, and the novel is filled with complicated troubles and unsentimental discussion. This isn’t a misery memoir but it is filled with great sadness, as it is also lightened by moments of happiness and growth.

Pick this up because you will weep for Hattie, and all she endures for so little thanks. For all she loses, and for all that her children suffer, and for the outstanding depth and maturity of this debut author’s prose.

Read more:

Oprah Interviews Ayana Mathis

Sarah Churchill reviews Twelve Tribes for The Guardian

 The Sunday Times: Three Writers to Watch

 The Atlantic: The Russian Poetry that Inspires Ayana Mathis

A Stirring Portrait of Family, Loss, and Endurance: The Everyday E-Book

The New York Times Sunday Review

VIDEO: Ayana Mathis’ 3 Greatest Writing Lessons