“I’ve got a cutlass. So I know how strong you’ve got to be to lift one,” says Kate Mosse. “In fact, I nearly dropped the first cutlass that was put into my hands because I’d held out both palms expecting the weight to be more even. And I thought it would be so much lighter than the huge long medieval battle swords I knew so much about. But a cutlass hilt is actually much heavier than the blade. That enables you to make this motion” – she makes a series of short slashes towards her computer camera – “allowing you to fight with real force in the close confines of a ship. But also to slice through ropes without injuring your crew. And it’s got a tough, grooved grip to prevent your hand slipping, because things do get very slippery at sea…”
Because of the “hard, heavy work” involved in seventeenth-century piracy, the pirate queen heroine of Mosse’s new novel, The Ghost Ship, is a big, powerful woman. Nothing like the elfin women cast in the Hollywood versions of life on the high seas. “I’ve been fascinated by the lawless romance of piracy since I was child and I loved my Ladybird Book of Pirates. But there were only two women featured in it – Anne Bonny and Mary Read – and they were dressed soooo inappropriately in the illustration. They wore white frilly shirts with very plunging necklines, long black hair and pretty make-up. But no real female pirate would have looked like Keira Knightley, they would have been strong women.” She shakes her head, “I get annoyed that people have started talking about ‘Strong Women’ like that’s a recent or unusual idea. It’s a normal thing and it always has been.”
By contrast, the 61-year-old, bestselling, historical-adventure novelist (best known for her 2005, Girls’-Own-grail-quest, Labyrinth), and co-founder of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, is petite, scholarly and cannot sail to save her life. But she has made a career writing about “outsider women, the kind who are not admired or accepted by their societies. I’m a one-hundred-per-cent normal child of happily married parents, textbook happy Miss Suburban. But that’s the point of being a novelist, isn’t it? I make things up. I put myself into other people’s skin. I enjoy my imagination. People assume – especially with women – that fiction must be veiled autobiography, and that is simply not true in my case.”
“While there was no shortage of women writers getting published, their novels weren’t being honoured like the ones men were writing”
Born in 1961, Mosse grew up in Chichester as a bit of a swot, read English at Oxford and went into publishing as an editor. There she noticed that “while there was no shortage of women writers getting published, their novels weren’t being honoured or admired like the ones men were writing.” In fact, 60 per cent of books published in the early 1990s were written by women but by 1992 only ten per cent of novels shortlisted for The Booker Prize had female authors. The Booker Prize shortlist of 1991 had no women at all. Mosse was part of a group of journalists, reviewers, agents, publishers, librarians, booksellers – male and female – who decided it was time to launch a new prize for women, initially sponsored by Orange from 1995, and by Baileys from 2013, to correct the balance.
Mosse looks back with glee on how the prize proved its early critics wrong. “In the second year,” she recalls, “a lot of journalists were trying to leak the winner and wreck things. So we had the final judging meeting on the final day. Because there were a couple of famous authors on the shortlist, the press assumed they’d guessed the winner and had their articles written. We announced our winner at the last minute when the newspapers were all finalised, apart from the front pages. [So] that’s where they had to put the story about our winning novel, Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces. It felt great to see an unknown Canadian poet on the front page of three out of four British broadsheets.” She smiles. “The next year Auberon Waugh, who had been silly and unpleasant about the prize (famously referring to it as the “lemon prize”) tried to get into the party – because by then it had become one of the big nights out – and I was happy to let him in. That’s how you change people’s minds. I’m sure he had a very good night!”
Twenty-eight years on, Mosse is proud to tell me that the Baileys Women’s Prize is “one of the three most recognised literary prizes in the world along with the Booker and the Pulitzer. It’s enabled us to become a charity and run research and educational projects. We have a mentorship programme for unpublished writers, called Discoveries, and this year we had 3,000 entries – 79 per cent of which were from outside of London.”
In early June, Mosse was “thrilled” to announce the new Women’s Prize for Non-Fiction. “Only 25 per cent of the non-fiction being reviewed is by women,” she explains. “That’s not proportionate to what’s being published. We still have this cultural idea of men as ‘experts’. So the majority of women’s non-fiction that gets reviewed is about health and childcare, or personal stuff. But we have incredible female historians, political analysts and scientists.”
Mosse knows the Women’s Prize for Fiction got more men reading novels by women and she hopes the new non-fiction prize will shake things up on the factual side of publishing. “Because it was such a shame to look at the lists of books recommended by newspapers and booksellers for Fathers’ Day this year and see so few female writers included.” I checked a few and found she was right. Waterstones’ online page for Fathers’ Day featured 25 book covers and only two – including a picture-book – were by women.
Remarkably, Mosse managed to launch her own literary career around the same time as the Orange Prize got going. She published her first non-fiction book, Becoming a Mother, in 1993 and a couple of novels before hitting the bestseller lists with 2005’s Labyrinth, which caught the grail fever started by Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (2003). Now translated into 38 languages, the time-slip adventure bounces between the present-day and the crusades of thirteenth-century Carcassonne.
Now you know Mosse owns a cutlass, it will come as no surprise to learn that, while she loves her history books, she’s fired up by what she calls “the charisma of things”. “When you touch a historical artefact you’re instantly connected to everybody who touched it before you. It’s a physical jolt that brings the past to life,” she says. So Labyrinth and the next two books in Mosse’s Languedoc Trilogy were inspired by the floor labyrinth in the nave of Chartres Cathedral. Her latest non-fiction book, Warrior Queens & Quiet Revolutionaries: How Women (also) Built the World, which celebrates the achievements of a thousand underrated women, and is intertwined with her own family history, was inspired by the 1893 edition of her great-grandmother Lily Watson’s most successful novel, The Vicar of Langthwaite, which she tells me was “filled with handwritten notes and a letter from the prime minister, Gladstone, praising the novel.”
Although it can be read as a stand-alone novel, The Ghost Ship is the third in Mosse’s Joubert Family Chronicles charting the Huguenot diaspora from the wars of religion in sixteenth-century France to nineteenth-century South Africa. In the early pages The Ghost Ship’s heroine, Louise Joubert, witnesses the 1610 assassination of French King Henri IV by a Catholic zealot. Known as Good King Henri after his death, the Protestant king had converted to Catholicism in an attempt to unite his subjects and put an end to the religious wars that had torn his country apart for decades. “I’m often inspired by the big turning points in history,” says Mosse, “and I’d argue that Henri’s assassination led directly to the French Revolution. In this case the event forced Louise’s family to flee so as not to be caught up in politics again.”
Louise’s adventures as a pirate queen were inspired by the historical female pirates Mosse studied. “I read about the Irish pirate Gráinne O’Malley and Zheng Yi, the great Chinese pirate leader. She was the most ruthless person I’ve come across in all my historical research. She commanded of thousands of pirates. She imprisoned and executed her own children. You didn’t cross her!”
Mosse notes that, as it had long suited men to believe it was bad luck for women to board ships, there were no lawful work opportunities for women drawn to the idea of sailing. So those bold enough to have broken the rules may have been more likely to join pirate crews. “A pirate ship is a floating republic,” shrugs Mosse. “It has very different rules, completely different from usual society. So it makes sense that women who liked the idea of being free would disguise themselves as men and go to sea. They would be able to travel, they wouldn’t be limited or confined.”
But how would women get away with pretending to be men in such claustrophobic conditions? “People keep asking me that,” she laughs. “Well, people didn’t undress at all then. People washed themselves in their clothes. There was a flap on the back of your trousers and that was that. But you’re right about everybody being on top of everybody else. I had a fellowship at the Dutch writer’s house in Amsterdam and I spent a lot of time in the maritime museum there studying the ships I based these on. They are so, so tiny. There was absolutely no privacy. There was never a moment when everybody goes to bed because of how a ship works.”
Living in Sussex, Mosse also visited the historic dockyards at Portsmouth and made a close study of The Victory, which is a younger ship than those her characters sail, but she points out that “seafaring technology didn’t change much for 400-500 years, not until metal came into the picture. So I learned a lot from looking at the galley and listening to the creaking, moaning, shifting… Because a ship is never silent. Out in the middle of the soundless ocean, there are all these sounds.”
Against that backdrop, Mosse gives her mighty pirate queen a grand romance. “Quite often love stories that sit outside of what is seen as the acceptable mainstream end badly,” she grins. “As if there’s a moral price to be paid. So I was determined from the outset to make this a successful and happy love story.” She nods with satisfaction. Mosse admits that after years of painstaking research she now “knows the period backwards, so I could luxuriate in seeing where the characters went.” You felt the wind in your sails? “Haaa! Yes! I had fun!”
“The Ghost Ship” by Kate Moss is out now (£22, Pan Macmillan)
Helen Brown is an arts journalist writing regularly for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Financial Times and The Daily Mail