Nazi Hunters & Night Witches: Claire Morris Speaks to Kate Quinn about Her Exciting New Novel, The Huntress
For nearly a decade, Kate Quinn has been captivating historical fiction enthusiasts with her fast-paced plots, interesting characters and colourful depictions of ancient Rome, the Renaissance and, lately, the early 20th century. When I received marketing materials claiming her latest novel, The Huntress (William Morrow, 2019), was “special,” with “breathtakingly good storytelling,” I was curious to see what the hype was about. I’m happy to report that it is indeed an unusual and compelling story, and — clichéd as this sounds — I did not want it to end.
The fictional “Huntress” was a Nazi who by all accounts delighted in killing children and other vulnerable people during the tumultuous years of World War II and its aftermath. The novel weaves together three storylines: that of the Huntress disappearing into a new life in post-war Boston (which includes the likeable eighteen-year-old aspiring female photographer, Jordan); that of the group attempting to find her and bring her to justice; and the backstory of a member of this group, Nina, who escaped a difficult life in Siberia to eventually become one of the Night Witches, the all-female Soviet bomber regiment who fought on the Eastern Front during the last years of the war. It’s a complex story, with characters who are all coping with their life experiences in very believable ways, and I asked Quinn how she came to weave the disparate threads together.
“I let out a tremendous ‘Eureka!’ when I came across a mention of Lake Rusalka, a beautiful manmade lake in Nazi-occupied Poland which could serve as the place where my Russian heroine and German villainess have their first deadly stand-off,” she explains. “And with the name rusalka — the eastern European and Russian term for a sometimes benevolent, sometimes lethal water nymph—I realized that through lakes and lake spirits, I could tie all my characters together even though they begin the novel standing on vastly different shores. The Huntress opens with an Austrian lake and its whispered mention of a lorelei (a German water spirit), then moves to Lake Baikal in Russia where the legend of the rusalka still carries strong, then skips around the world to Selkie Lake in Massachusetts (a selkie is a Scottish water spirit—and yes, I did make up Selkie Lake to keep the metaphor going, but all the other lakes are real!).”
As Quinn mentions, the novel moves between a number of different places: Siberia, Moscow, World War II’s Eastern Front, Poland, Vienna and Boston. For the settings depicted in The Huntress, especially the more remote ones like Lake Baikal, Quinn says, “[I] relied on photographs and maps and historic accounts and everything else I could find to give me as complete a picture as possible. Often when describing historic settings, there has been so much change to a city or location in the intervening decades (especially when a war means lots of destruction and rebuilding) that a visit to the modern site actually wouldn’t be terribly helpful—in that case, it’s more useful to find historic photographs and descriptions from journals and war records.”
Quinn set her last novel — The Alice Network (William Morrow, 2017)—in the early 20th century as well. Referring to her earlier novels, she said, “I love ancient Rome and the Renaissance, but I thought it might be a good time for a change—not only can historical eras start feeling stale, but different eras go in and out of style in the fiction world just like anything else, and I was seeing a real boom in 20th-century war fiction. So I started exploring the idea of writing something 20th century, and when I stumbled across the real story of the historic Alice network, suddenly I had a book dying to be written! The Huntress followed naturally after that—I may very well go back to earlier historical eras in future books, but for now I’m enjoying exploring World War I and World War II history.”
I asked her why she thought the early 20th century is a compelling period in which to set a story and why it’s attractive to readers.
“It’s the more recent past, so it feels less foreign to us—many readers have family members for whom this part of history is not just history, but memory,” she said. “And it’s an incredibly packed period of time: two world wars, the Great Depression, the space boom…so much happened in the space of fifty years, there’s room for an infinite number of new stories to be spun.”
Although there is no connection between The Alice Network and The Huntress, fans of the earlier novel will enjoy the fact that Eve Gardiner makes a cameo appearance in The Huntress as an old friend of Ian Graham, the former English war correspondent who has transformed himself into a Nazi hunter.
“I always knew I wanted to give Eve a brief appearance [in The Huntress],” Quinn said. “I toyed with giving her a larger role, but decided that would make The Huntress too much of a sequel, and I wanted the books to stand on their own.”
Talk of sequels made me ask Quinn if she had any plans to continue the stories of Ian, Nina, Tony and Jordan from The Huntress in another novel. She doesn’t, but also doesn’t completely rule out the idea. At the moment she is certainly staying in the 20th century with her writing.
“I’m working on a novel tentatively titled The Rose Code about the female codebreakers of Bletchley Park whose efforts in cracking the German military codes shortened World War II by two or three years,” she shares. “I’m hugely excited about it!”
As is this reader and surely many others.
About the contributor: Claire Morris is the HNS web features editor. She served as the managing editor of the HNS journal, Solander, from 2004 to 2009, and helped to start the HNS North American conferences.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 88 (May 2019)