Women's Prize For Fiction Founder Kate Mosse On How We Can Get More People Reading

An incredibly accomplished author and a champion of women’s fiction, Kate Mosse is a woman to follow if you're in need of a literary heroine both on and off the page. Her most recent book, The Burning Chambers, was released in March 2019 and has already been named a Sunday Times Number One Bestseller.

They say empowered women empower women, and Mosse is a testament to that. Mosse has written eight novels and short story collections in total. She has also written three non-fiction books, four plays, and has contributed essays and pieces to numerous novels and collections. She is one incredibly creative, busy woman. However, while enjoying her own creative success, Mosse has dedicated serious hours to raising the profiles of other female authors and creatives. She is the founder of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, which is the largest celebration of women’s writing in the world. Past winners have included Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Zadie Smith, Tea Obreht, and Ali Smith to name a few.

I recently got the chance to chat to Mosse about the Women's Prize for Fiction, the books she thinks we should keep an eye out for, and the importance of listening to young writers.

Alice Broster: For people who haven't heard the Women's Prize for Fiction, can you give us a little explainer?

Kate Mosse: The Women's Prize for Fiction, which is now 24 years old, is the largest annual celebration of women's creative writing anywhere in the world. We set it up to honour, amplify, and champion women's voices. It's writing by women for everyone who would enjoy fantastic, high quality fiction.

AB: Why did you set it up initially?

KM: Although the majority of novels published in English are written by women, and the majority of novels are bought by female buyers, at the time we were looking into setting up the Prize fewer than nine percent of books ever shortlisted for major literary prizes were by women.

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AB: Why do you think it is important to raise the profile of female authors?

KM: Well, if the statistics of the numbers of novels being bought and published are as they are, then the fact that 91 percent of attention was given to male writers is clearly wrong, isn't it? That isn't representing the world, it's not representing the story, it's not making sure that everybody's voices that exist in the world are being heard.

It's incredibly important that the voices of all the people that make up our world and all our storytellers are heard and honoured equally. Otherwise you just get a tiny part of what we know the world is like.

AB: Tayari Jones won The Women's Prize for Fiction this year with her novel An American Marriage. What do you think it was that stuck out about this novel?

KM: Each year, we have a judging panel. I'm not involved in making the choices as to who wins. What the judges felt was that it was an exceptional novel of beauty, elegance, and exquisite writing. It also did that holy grail thing of storytelling. It's about huge issues in terms of what it means to be black in America, what it means to live in a world where there is simply no justice. You care about him and her and their friend and whether they'll make it.

It's about a marriage, the strain on a marriage, the collapse of a marriage, the possible saving of a marriage. It's story and character led but when you shut the book, you think, "that's just wrong that these kind of things might happen." It doesn't surprise me that both Barrack Obama and Oprah picked the book in America to be one of their choices of the year.

AB: The Women's Prize for Fiction has developed into a podcast. What gave you the idea for that?

KM: In this day and age it's very important to understand that there are lots of people who, for whatever reason, will not be able to come to any live events. Doing a podcast is an essential way of making sure that any women and men who love reading, who want to engage with the prize can do so.

We've done six episodes and we've done them all through the Baileys book bar. The podcast will be available all year round. It means that we've passed our mission to get more women and men engaging with exceptional work by women from all over the world. We are thrilled that in just under a month, we've already had 25,000 downloads and listens. It's clear that there is a great appetite out there for what the Women's Prize for Fiction does. Long may it last.

AB: Within the podcast, you discuss heroines within novels, feminism, and identity. Do you think that writing could be considered a form of activism?

KM: That's a lovely question. Different authors will give you different answers but I think so, yes. I like historical fiction, big adventure fiction, and all of my heroes are women. I like the stories of unheard women from history. Not the queens, princesses, and mistresses of the generals and the women at the top.

The world was always 50:50. The normal women were there too but we don't appear in the history books. When you only get a partial view of history you don't hear the truth.

For me, the fact that I write women led stories and use unheard women's voices is a form of activism. Because it's about setting the record straight. Many of the women that are longlisted and shortlisted to the Women's Prize for Fiction would say the same. It's on the pages of books that we can tell the truth.

AB: You referred to your own work but what inspires you as a writer?

KM: First and foremost, I want people to have a great time. I want them, when they finish the book to go, "Wow. I'm really glad that I gave my time, my limited precious free time, to reading that story." I also want people to think, "I've never thought about that within the period." I write stories about farms and I write stories set against the backdrop of religious war. Women were there, they were fighting on the battlefronts too. They were running the businesses.

The idea that people will look at the history differently but only after they think they've had a really great time reading the novel, that's what inspires me.

AB: There's a lot of talk at the moment about the idea of reluctant readers. How important do you think it is to get people reading? How important do you think it is for people to see representation in books?

KM: They're two really good but completely separate questions. On the question of representation, it is absolutely crucial that a wider range of writers see their work in print. Because identification, familiarity, and seeing yourself, particularly if you're a child, reflected in the books that you read is so important. Whether it's a question of your religion or your gender, race, where you live, your abilities or disabilities. It matters that the world is reflected truly.

Novels should be a mirror to the world. Representation and extending the opportunities to be published out to a wider range of storytellers, is essential. I also think that it's important for people to read about other people's lives that are totally different to theirs.

In terms of this calling people reluctant readers, I don't believe it at all. There are issues with literacy and that is really important. Making sure that everybody has access to reading and is taught to read is very important.

There is an idea that there are good things to read and bad things to read. I think that we should celebrate reading in all its forms. If people are reading the news on their tablet or their phone, that's okay. I just think that we need to keep making sure that books are everywhere, libraries are open, free to everybody.

If we stop worrying about good and bad reading and just accept that any reading is good, then people will stop being so anxious about it. Sometimes with young people when you say, "you've got to read this” it puts them off reading altogether. Just leave them alone. Let them read on their phone. They'll find the novels they want when they want them.

AB: Are there any new writers or books that our readers should be looking out for in 2019?

KM: There are a lot of young writers coming through at that moment, which is terrific. One of the events we did for the Baileys Book Bar was on millennial feminism. It was a wonderful thing to be on a platform with Teresa Poppy who does a lot of publishing and podcasting, Scarlett Curtis who has written a book called Feminists Don't Wear Pink and Other Lies, and Dolly Alderton who wrote Everything I Know About Love.

Obviously, there are some wonderful women of color writing in this field, very young women as well. It's very important that we, older feminists if you like, make a way for younger writers. It's really important that all generations of feminists stand together. We need to listen to some of the younger voices coming through as well as enjoy putting our own voices out in the world.

One of the areas of diversity that I'm most passionate about is age diversity. That means people in their 80s, as well as people in their teens. I think that when we all come together and we listen to each other and celebrate together, we get more out of it. I speak as a mother of people in their twenties, it's good to remember to listen too.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

The Womens Prize for Fiction Podcast is available to download here and Mosse’s most recent novel, The Burning Chambers, is available to buy here.