Kate Mosse on founding of the Baileys Womens Prize for Fiction

On the twentieth anniversary of the Baileys Women Prize for Fiction, previously the Orange Prize, we revisit an interview with one of its founders.

You were one of the founders of the Orange Prize in 1996. Are women writers still overlooked by other shortlists?
We founded the Orange Prize for a range of reasons. One was internationalism, one was the nature of being literary, and one was the fact that women didn't appear very often on prize shortlists, a situation that has improved enormously in the past few years. That is terrific.

Is the Orange Prize doing what you wanted it to do?
Yes. Our focus was getting outstanding international fiction by women promoted and read by as many men and women as possible. Figures from the book trade show that the Orange Prize shortlist overall is the bestselling shortlist of any prize. It suggests that the goal of putting these books in the hands of readers is working. We're very proud of that.

The prize has got people reading more widely. It celebrates women's achievements, but it was founded looking outwards, rather than inwards. It is about men and women reading outstanding women's fiction, not just a pat on the back.

It has been criticised by prominent women writers, including Germaine Greer and A S Byatt. How do you respond to those criticisms?
Lots of people have objections to prizes of all types, and it would be extraordinary if everybody agreed on anything that's worthwhile - they never do. A S Byatt is a writer I hugely respect and enjoy, but her point of view and mine are not the same. There are thousands and thousands of people who think the Orange Prize is a terrific thing, and a few who don't. That's absolutely their prerogative. I don't feel there is any need to try to persuade people.

The prize has a very clear focus and brief, and some people don't particularly like that, in the same way as some people don't like the fact that the Booker doesn't include Americans. Again, it's their prerogative to disagree. People have different views of how you deal with different issues in literature, and, frankly, long may it last that there is a range of views.

Will the prize eventually cease to be necessary?
All prizes have a role, if they are run with integrity and with a clear focus on reading and quality writing. I don't think any of them is necessary, but they all play an incredibly important role in building a body of literature, in introducing new authors to new readers, and extending reading. Therefore, all prizes are both not necessary at all and totally necessary. I don't think the Orange is any different. It would be odd to stop doing it, because it is very successful in promoting outstanding literature.

What do you think of this year's shortlist?
I have my personal favourites, but I'm not part of the judging panel, so I'll keep my opinions to myself.

Have there been any books that you wished would win, but didn't?
Oh, yes, absolutely. Often after listening to the judges talking about books, books that were maybe not my cup of tea to start with, I've changed my opinion. But there are always one's own favourites that don't win when you hoped they would. You can't avoid that, not unless you're a judge every year.

You write historical fiction. What is most important: imagination or research?
One without the other doesn't work. People read historical fiction to get a genuine sense of another time, another place and another way of seeing the world, but without an imagination that lifts it into a story and a narrative involving characters that you want to engage with, it doesn't work as a piece of historical fiction. I am not a fan of historical fiction that is sloppy in its research or is dishonest about the real history.

Some people say it doesn't matter, because it's a novel, whereas I say that if you are setting something in an actual place and time, you owe it to the people who were there, and to the real historians, not least, to get it right. You need both imagination and rigorous research to make a piece of historical fiction come alive.

Kate Mosse is the honorary director of the Orange Prize for Fiction. Her latest book, "The Winter Ghosts", is published by Orion (£14.99).

The winner of the Orange Prize will be announced on 9 June.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The myth of Mandela