Notes from an author: Kate Mosse

The bestselling author shares her tales from Carcassonne, the ancient French city where stories of the present are indelibly linked to those of the past Thursday, 25 April 2019

Thirty years ago, we bought a tiny house in the shadow of the medieval city walls of Carcassonne. I knew nothing about the Languedoc region — it was only coincidence that had taken us there. I knew nothing about how centuries of religious wars had scarred, shaped and changed the landscape over generations and how, out of that, came the stories. But from the second I stepped from the train, Carcassonne felt familiar. More than that — I felt I belonged.

Writers are sometimes guilty of seeking to impose creative order on unconnected past events. Of seeing significance in a particular moment or imbuing another with importance in retrospect, even if they passed without notice at the time. Hindsight shapes the writer’s world into an organised narrative.

And yet... Was it that day we sat outside at Chez Félix in Place Carnot and drank hot chocolate, surrounded by old men drinking panaché or delicate thimbles of Corbière rosé and a guidebook open on the table between us? It may have been, it may not, it doesn’t matter. The emotion is true, even if the detail is smudged. Out of memories come the beginnings of a novel.

We walked on beneath a chill, blue sky to the Pont Vieux. I saw, for the first time, the astonishing fortified city of old Carcassonne and that was that — the start of a writing love affair that’s never faded.

Carcassonne is story of two cities: the 13th-century hilltop citadel, and the later 14th-century Bastide Saint-Louis, built by refugees expelled from the citadel. The former is a crown of stone looking over the River Aude, with some 52 towers and turrets, Magnificent, imposing, impossible. From our garden far beneath the west walls, we could look up through the apple trees on the slopes of the market gardens to the Château Comtal, where the seigneurs (lords) of Carcassonne once lived. The layers of history — Roman, Visigoth, Crusader, Huguenot — were all there, seamed into the stones.

Over that winter and the next summer, then the next and the next, my sense of belonging in Carcassonne grew stronger. I read guide books and history books. I explored castles and underground rivers. I followed paths in the woods and tourist trails along the coast. I visited libraries and archives and museums. I never intended to write about Carcassonne. This was a holiday house, somewhere to come to get away from things, not to work. 

Historical fiction is a way of making sense of the loops and repetitions of history. It can give us courage in dark times and help us to stand in other people’s shoes. It can slip between the gaps of what we know and what we do not. Most of all, it can help honour and celebrate the forgotten, the ignored and disregarded, voices of history — female voices — beyond the Court and Palace and Synod, the truth of ordinary people.

My latest novel, The Burning Chambers — the first in a quartet of novels inspired by the Huguenot Diaspora — begins in the Bastide in 1562 on the eve of the Wars of Religion that will rip France in two and see millions imprisoned, deported, executed and displaced. It’s a Romeo and Juliet story of two families, a feud and the consequences of love. Both consider faith and the consequences of faith and of what it means, through no fault of your own, to be forced from your home. These are stories that haunt the landscape of Languedoc now, as they did then.

But in 2019, the Place Carnot is a square of bars, restaurants and shops. Awnings of yellow and green and blue, orange cushion covers and red and white stripes. Willow baskets containing garden herbs, orchids and delphiniums. On a nearby stall, black-pepper biscuits to serve with a glass of Guignolet. In June, cherries. Figs in July. Later, blackberries and sunflowers.

As I sit there with my notebook, dreaming, I see the 16th-century market: the wooden colonnades and stalls, the halles aux grains, where the 18th-century marble fountain dedicated to Neptune holds pride of place. I’m imagining the rose water biscuits my heroine, Minou, will buy. I’m both here, and there. The spirit of place, the spirit of the past, these are the building blocks of a novel. It’s of memories, imagined or real, that stories are made.

Kate Mosse’s book, The Burning Chambers, is published by Pan Macmillan and now available in paperback. RRP: £8.99. 

Published in the May 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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