Kate Mosse: a life in writing

'In many areas of the arts representation of women is still poor. Because of the Orange prize, there is always a debate'

Demand for arts sponsorship has never been higher as public funding is squeezed and recession-hit companies scale back their charitable giving. But it is absolutely typical of the Orange prize founder Kate Mosse to present the end of the 17-year sponsorship as a blessing in disguise – and to suggest, in the nicest possible way, that the literary grandees behind the award had in any case outgrown their relationship with the mobile phone company before it merged with T-Mobile and decided to refocus its sponsorship on film.

"It wasn't a shock, and it was a mutual decision in that we're very ambitious for the prize and would like to try to take it into other countries. I'm invited to speak at festivals all over the world – Dubai, New Zealand, Lagos. At the moment I do this on an informal basis, as a writer if you like." Mosse is a bestselling novelist as well as the prize's chief public face. "But we would like the prize formally to have a presence in these countries, supporting writers and readers and acting as a magnet for debate. When you work with a sponsor it's always about the fit in the countries you operate in. For a long time we had been thinking, can we do more? So it was a happy divorce."

This week's announcement about the prize's future (would it become the Apple or the BlackBerry prize, the wags wondered) was not quite the speedy remarriage to another big-name company many had expected. There is as yet no new sponsor for the £30,000 prize, plus bronze statuette, awarded annually for the best novel written in English by a woman and published in the UK. Instead, for one year only (the 2012 prize was won in May by Madeline Miller for The Song of Achilles), the prize is being supported privately by a gaggle of friends and supporters. Cherie Blair, who went to the prize's first party the year before her husband became prime minister, is among them. So is the web entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox, who was a judge a few years back and has since joined the board. The writer Joanna Trollope and bookseller Christopher Foyle are among the others, not all of whom have chosen to be named. Between them they have stumped up around £250,000.

From the outside this might look like a somewhat precarious state of affairs, but Mosse, who has a new novel out this month as well as the arrangements for the 2013 prize to announce, is upbeat. "It's really exciting because it's been wonderful seeing how much people love and value the prize," she says. Long-term sponsorships generally take about two years to put together, and everyone on the prize's high-powered board rallied round and did their bit. The actor Miranda Richardson will chair a 2013 judging panel that includes Rachel Johnson, sister of the mayor of London. Mosse says she is "absolutely confident" a new sponsor will be in place by 2014 – but she doesn't know who that might be, or where the prize's ambitions for international expansion are most likely to be realised.

Though the first Orange prize was not awarded until 1996, when the Canadian poet Anne Michaels won it for her elegiac Holocaust novel Fugitive Pieces, the founding committee celebrated its 20th birthday this year. Famously spurred into action by an all-male Booker prize shortlist in 1991 (Ben Okri and Martin Amis but no Angela Carter), the group gathered at the home of the literary agent Anne McDermid the following year.

"Everybody came together just to ask: does it matter? Is it some evil plot? No of course it's not," says Mosse, who has a habit of briskly answering her own questions. "Is it the genuine freedom of the judging panel to choose what they want? Yes, and that's quite right. But are readers missing out? It was a meeting where people were asking questions. It wasn't an angry meeting at all."

After two decades of controversy – AS Byatt once attacked the prize as "sexist" – Mosse gives the impression of having a selection of answers at the ready for the inevitable moment when an interviewer asks her whether, now that an all-male Booker shortlist is all but unthinkable, the women-only prize might have run its course.

In the past she has gone on the attack, pointing out that the Booker criteria (Commonwealth writers yes, Americans no) might also be viewed as an anachronism. But talking over tea in a London hotel, she takes a different tack, arguing that the prize has never been more necessary than it is now: "I think the mere existence of the prize provides a thoughtful, intelligently structured place to have the debate about gender and representation," she says. "The truth is that in many areas of the arts – whether it's the number of theatre directors, the number of women getting commissions for big plays, the number of women in film or in classical music – representation of women is poor, and in some cases it's worse than it was. History suggests that there is no diabolical plot to keep women out. But is there sometimes a suggestion that people choose what they know or are comfortable with, or a mirror of themselves? Maybe, I don't know. All I know is that because of the prize there is always a debate."

Mosse, who holds the title of honorary director, says she joined the prize committee in the first place because, pregnant with her second child and having recently quit her job as a publisher at Random House because she wanted to write a book, she had time on her hands. While she is studiously careful to share credit for the award, name-checking patrons and board members at every opportunity, the extent to which her own career and that of the prize are in sync is striking.

Her first novel, Eskimo Kissing, was published in the same year as the first Orange prize was awarded to an astonished and tearful Michaels, whose book had until that point been virtually ignored. Mosse followed her debut with a non-fiction book about pregnancy, Becoming a Mother, and a second novel Crucifix Lane.

But her big breakthrough came in 2005 with Labyrinth, a 600-page historical blockbuster that has so far sold 3m copies, with a TV mini-series due later this year. A sequel, Sepulchre, followed two years later. Now, in the same month that sees her launch the fiction prize into a new post-Orange era, she is about to publish Citadel, the concluding part of what she now calls her French trilogy.

Writing the 800-page finale to her decade of Languedoc adventure has taken five years, and she calls it "a long and intense ride": "We first bought a house in Carcassonne in 1989 when our children were not yet born, and now they're grown up it feels like we've come full circle. I've enjoyed writing this more than anything I've ever written, but it was also more emotional. I've never before sat at my own desk weeping." She laughs. "The fact that it's sad is good because that's why I know it is the end. At this point I don't anticipate writing more stories set in France."

Labyrinth is a time-slip novel with parallel plots set in the 13th century, when members of the Cathar sect became the first targets of the campaign against heresy that later became the Spanish inquisition, and on an archaeological dig in 2005. Neither of the two sequels moves the story further forward in time, both instead filling in some of the 800 years in between – and, in the case of Citadel, going even further back in time to the 4th century, though this is a minor subplot, with most of the action taking place in the latter stages of the second world war.

The trilogy is based around the idea of a grail quest – though the grail in Mosse's books is not Christ's cup but a trilogy of early Christian texts and the secrets that lie therein (including how to summon a ghost army and defeat the Nazis). She says her initial reaction to The Da Vinci Code, published 18 months before Labyrinth, was alarm, but in the event Dan Brown's Bible mash-up probably helped rather than hindered her own fortunes by stimulating the market for a hitherto unfashionable genre. "When I first said to people 'I'm writing adventure' they said 'don't say that – adventure doesn't sell'. I thought oh well, that is bad news because it is adventure. So I just stopped saying it. It goes back to my dad and the books he read me."

Mosse was the eldest of three daughters of a solicitor and a teacher in Chichester, West Sussex. She describes her childhood as idyllic: "two parents who loved each other and loved us, sitting down to supper after Blue Peter, going to Guides, going to orchestra, going to the local school".

While her mother was bathing her sisters and putting them to bed, Kate would have stories with her dad, and, "being a chap of a certain sort of age, he read the most inappropriate things. For example, at the age of five King Solomon's Mines [by Rider Haggard] which is blood, gore, mayhem."

With a grin Mosse suggests a tagline for Citadel of "girls with guns". Its heroine, Sandrine Vidal, is a resistance fighter who flees her home in Carcassonne for the mountains, where she and a brave band of female friends and cousins (and Sandrine's dashing lover) do all they can, including planting bombs, to hinder the Nazis and their French sympathisers. Meanwhile Sandrine tries to help the semi-mythological Audric Baillard – an 800-year-old survivor from the earlier novels whom Mosse likens to Mary Poppins – to track down the ancient codex that he believes will ensure the final defeat of Hitler's Germany.

"I was always clear that I was writing adventure stories with women heroes," Mosse says. "They're not quite heroines because that makes me think of rescue myths. There are lots of brilliant love stories and coming-of-age novels, but what interested me was women being at the heart of their own stories. No internal monologues for me, I don't want anybody sitting around thinking. I want them to get out there and be active."

Mosse calls Wuthering Heights "the greatest landscape novel of all time" and names Emily Brontë alongside Algernon Blackwood and Agatha Christie as important influences. She spent a lot of time outside when she was young, tramping through woods and marshes, and clearly enjoys the frisson of superstition.

Mosse's distinctive formula did not come to her immediately. Her first and second novels both had contemporary settings and were far more literary in style and intention. "My earlier novels show all the flaws of thinking you can manipulate yourself as a writer," she says. "I thought because of what I read, that I would write literary fiction, and as I wrote them I sat on my own shoulder going 'ooh, no, that's a bit too racy or a bit too this or that.' I was trying quite consciously to write a book that clearly I didn't have the skill to do. And although I'm really proud of them, and I like it when people come up and say they've read them, I can see they're not altogether successful because the tension between me as a reader and me as a writer is evident on every page. Whereas with Labyrinth I just thought I've got this story, and it felt really exciting to have a go."

Labyrinth was the book – and medieval Carcassonne the place – in which she found her voice as a writer and with it a particularly intense atmosphere. Critics were less kind about Sepulchre, which she now says was rushed. Mosse wrote to one reviewer to thank her afterwards and says the comments encouraged her to take her time with her finale. She did three years of research before she began writing Citadel, because once she starts she doesn't want anything to interrupt the momentum.

Commercially, Mosse's turn to adventure paid off brilliantly. For the past few years she has been able to write full-time at her homes in south-west France and Sussex, where her husband Greg (who took her name when they married) teaches creative writing. Their two children are in their early 20s.

Mosse laughs when I tell her she is a literary impresario: "Ooh I like that – I wish I had a velvet jacket on." Giving a prize to a book is a bit like publishing it again, and in her prize-giving role, and as an energetic campaigner for public libraries, she is proud to champion novels and writers that might never otherwise reach big audiences. She singles out Anne Michaels, Andrea Levy's Small Island and Marilynne Robinson's "gentle, quiet" Home when asked of which of the Orange winners she is most proud.

"For whatever reason, the sales figures for a beautiful literary novel often struggle to hit a living wage. None of us knows what will last, what will be on the shelves 100 years from now. It's not our business to know. But with literary fiction I fear that if there were no prizes to make books sit on the shelves, they might vanish too quickly for them to take hold even if they are wonderful. Whereas the sheer volume of sales of other types of fiction means there are more copies around, so it's more likely someone in five years will come across them. It's about giving everything a fighting chance."

As a writer, though, she belongs firmly in the big league. "I've got so many people who publish me," she says when I ask who her editor is. She has moved beyond simple authorship to become a brand. In one way, having a foot on both sides of the artistic/commercial divide in publishing is helpful. Mosse wondered at one point if her novels would make the Orange judges' job awkward. Once she started writing bestsellers about tarot cards and blood sacrifices, any potential for conflict went away. But someone less self-assured than Mosse might find her position uncomfortable. She agrees she knows loads of people who haven't read her novels.

Instead she goes to fantasy conventions where she meets huge queues of fans, many of them teenagers. That her audience at such events is up to 50% male is not the least of her publisher's achievements, when Mosse herself is so closely associated with the promotion of women's fiction and many of her female contemporaries struggle to persuade male readers that their books could be for men.

As the French trilogy developed Mosse grew into her books' new shape. Once she'd have been astonished to be told she would write a book of 190,000 words. By the time she began Citadel, she knew it would be even fatter. "I suppose it's the reason I like big live theatre, and opera, and big orchestras. I just like big blowsy stuff and a good old-fashioned adventure story you can get your teeth into. That is my cup of tea."

Now that Citadel is finished, she will go on a publicity tour and start on a new series of books next year. Between now and then Mosse, who for several years ran Chichester Festival Theatre and enjoys theatre much more than cinema, is writing her first full-length play. "I have an idea for a piece of untold women's history, a play with a lot of roles for older female actors," she says. "I might not be able to do it at all, but I'm going to have a go."

• This article was amended on 15 October 2012. The original said Marilynne Robinson won the Orange prize for her novel Gilead. She won the prize for Home in 2009.


Susanna Rustin

The GuardianTramp

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