#AuthorInterview: Kate Quinn on The Huntress

War Era Historical

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Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader Kate. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us about The Huntress.
Thanks so much for having me! In a nutshell, THE HUNTRESS is a World War II-centric novel about a battle weary English journalist, a Russian female bomber pilot, and a teenage photographer joining forces to track a Nazi murderess gone to ground in post-war Boston.

At risk of sounding impertinent, where did you find this story? Did it strike like lightning out nowhere or did the idea grow over time?
As I was looking for inspiration about what to write after THE ALICE NETWORK, I stumbled across the story of Hermine Braunsteiner, a brutal camp guard nicknamed “The Stomping Mare” for her treatment of prisoners at Ravensbruck. She was discovered decades after the war, living as a housewife in New York, and her husband and neighbors were dumbfounded to learn her history as a war criminal. I was immediately fascinated by telling a story like that from both ends. What would it be like to track such a woman, to try to get inside her head and figure out where she might have gone to hide and why she did the things she did? And what would it be like to live with such a woman, and suddenly realize a person you loved and thought you knew was capable of such terrible things? That gave me two of my three narrators—Ian, a British war correspondent turned Nazi hunter, obsessed with bringing my Nazi murderess to justice; and Jordan, a bright and photography-obsessed teenage girl in Boston who loves her father's new German girlfriend, but also thinks there's something just a little bit...off. That was probably enough to make a novel on its own, but then I also stumbled across the story of the Night Witches, the all-female regiment of night bombers who flew against Hitler's eastern front, and I was so fascinated with their incredible history I knew I had to fit them in, too. It took some mental jig-saw work, but all three threads came together in the end, and I knew I had my story.

Nina and Yelena are Night Witches. Why did you want to write about these women? 
Because the Night Witches are some of the most badass ladies in history, and my goal in life is to find badass women of the past and bring them to life. The Soviet Union was the only country in the Second World War to use women in combat—there were female tank commanders, female snipers, female fighter pilots and bombers—and the all-women regiments of fliers were formed by Marina Raskova, an aviatrix who was basically the Soviet Amelia Earhart. The night bomber regiment flew outdated cloth-and-plywood biplanes, which they would switch off completely at the start of their bombing run, descend silently on their target to drop their payload, then throttle back up and sideslip away from the resulting ground-fire. Taking a plane into the air and then turning it off—that's a certain kind of crazy! The Germans said the whistling of the wind over those cloth-covered wings sounded like witches on broomsticks, and so the nickname die Nachthexen was born. The women flew ferociously long hours on little to no sleep, and they earned more Hero of the Soviet Union awards—the Soviet Union's highest decoration—than any other comparable male regiment.

Ian and Tony represent a unique group of real-life men and women who dedicated their lives to pursuing war criminals who’d escaped justice. Can you tell us more about these characters and the people who inspired them?
Even before the war was over, war crimes investigation teams were being formed to investigate the horror of the camps, log testimony, preserve evidence, and bring the guilty to justice, but it was far too enormous a task to succeed on any sweeping level. The Nuremberg trials brought only a fraction of the guilty to trial, and after they were over, there was a public sense of “well, now that's done” when in reality there were still many guilty parties unpunished. Some fled overseas and some simply went home and took up their old lives; the world wanted to move on from war trials, and the Soviet Union was turning into the new enemy rather than the defunct Third Reich. Most of the official war crimes investigation teams were disbanded, but a handful of individuals continued the fight. Fritz Bauer, a Jewish prosecutor who makes a cameo appearance in THE HUNTRESS, battled considerably antipathy from his peers in his tireless efforts to try and convict German war criminals. Serge and Beate Klarsfeld were a husband and wife team (the inspiration for the husband and wife team in THE HUNTRESS) who famously caught Klaus Barbie “the Butcher of Lyon” and got him extradited to be tried in France. Simon Wiesenthal is perhaps the most famous Nazi hunter, a camp survivor with an extensive and somewhat checkered record of captures; his refugee documentation center was invaluable in preserving evidence and witness testimony from the death camps. There was no unified strategy among the Nazi hunters, who frequently disagreed as to tactics: some insisted on above-the-board extradition after locating a war criminal, others had no compunction about performing a kidnapping rather than trusting the extradition process; others favored outright execution. My fictional heroes Ian and Tony, like many real-life Nazi hunters, are motivated at least in part by personal loss: Tony is Jewish-American and lost entire branches of his European-based family to the Holocaust, and Ian's younger brother—a captive gunner from the Dunkirk retreat—was murdered rather than being taken to a prisoner-of-war camp.

Lorelai fascinated me to no end. There is no mistaking her role, but she boasts a complexity that is hard to miss. Was she a challenge to write? 
Yes, she was. I made her a fictional composite of two real women—Hermine Braunsteiner, who I mentioned above, and Erna Petri, an SS officer's wife who during the war found six Jewish children (escapees from a transport train) hiding near her home in Poland. She comforted the children, took them home, fed them a meal—then took them out to the woods behind her house and shot them. The question that begs to be asked is “How could anyone do such a thing?” It's certainly the question my characters ask Lorelei when they find her. But there isn't any answer to a question like that. It was tough to write her because I had to stay outside her point of view, yet know what was going on inside her head as this very intelligent woman slowly realizes she's being tracked.

PTSD manifests itself in a number of ways in the narrative. Ian, Nina, Lorelei, Ruth and Eve (for those who’ve read The Alice Network) all suffer in some capacity. Why did you choose to hone on this particular subject? 
PTSD is something I know a lot about. With my husband being active duty Navy, I've gotten to know lots of military men and women, and a number of them have suffered from PTSD to some degree depending on their experiences. It's something that manifests differently for everyone who has it, and showing the range of that experience is one of my goals in writing war-damaged characters. Ian, a war correspondent, has seen more action as a journalist than many soldiers—war correspondents hopped from one hot zone to the next, so their war records frequently read like a highlight reel of the most violent conflicts a war had to offer—yet he doesn't feel he has a right to be traumatized, because he was a writer rather than a soldier. Nina, a Night Witch pilot, adapts very well to the inhuman conditions of night bombing (little sleep, over-strain, getting strung out on the stimulants Russian military doctors gave their pilots to keep them awake) but struggles after the war with the lack of purpose in her life, missing the camaraderie and companionship of her regiment. Ruth is a Jewish child who witnesses terrible violence when she is too young to understand it, and struggles with the trauma of half-remembering and half-forgetting what she saw and what it meant. Lorelei, even if she is the villain who has done terrible things, grieves for the people she loved and the home she lost when Germany lost the war. And Eve—who does make a cameo in this book!--suffered terribly from the guilt of betraying her friends in THE ALICE NETWORK.

Water spirits filter in and out of the story. What inspired you to include this content? 
I was trying to find a link that would pull together my Night Witch storyline and the storyline with the Nazi murderess, and I let out an almighty yelp of inspiration the day I found it: Lake Rusalka, a beautiful little man-made lake created by the Nazis in occupied Poland. A rusalka is a Russian lake spirit, a beautiful nymph who comes from the water and is said to have a kiss that kills. Lake Rusalka gave me a real location where my Nazi murderess and my Russian pilot could face off, and it gave me a theme too as I started researching the different kinds of water spirits across a variety of cultures. The Russians and eastern Europeans have the rusalka, the Greeks have the siren, the Scottish have the selkie, the Germans have the lorelei...with that idea of the water nymph, sometimes benevolent and sometimes malevolent, I knew that I could tie the various women of this book together. Nina, my Russian heroine, begins the novel standing on the shore of the vast rift lake Baikal in Siberia. Ruth, my young Jewish heroine, witnesses a terrible crime on the shore of Altaussee in Austria. Lorelei (and of course I had to give her that name, as soon as this idea took hold) grieves for the home she has lost on Lake Rusalka in Poland. Jordan, my young American heroine, begins the novel standing on the shore of Selkie Lake in Massachusetts...and it's around the shores of that lake that all the heroines will at last meet at the very end of THE HUNTRESS. (Ok, I admit made up Selkie Lake so the mythology would work out nice and neatly, but all the other lakes are real!)

What resources proved the most beneficial to your research? 
Amazon with their “One Click Buy” feature and their “Customers who bought X also bought Y” feature are both the bane and the salvation of my research habit. I use my share of online resources, but for in-depth research I like paper books—easier to flip through to find what I need, rather than search in an e-version—and I like to own my research books because I need to underline, dog-ear, and make incoherent margin notes of USE THIS!!! as I go. So whenever I start a new book, I go on a book-buying binge hunting for cheap $5 used copies of all the books I want for my research library. One particularly useful volume was “A Dance With Death,” a collection of interviews done in the nineties with many of the surviving women who had been Night Witch pilots during the war. It was both hair-raising and utterly fabulous to see a photograph of a tiny white-haired Russian babushka with a Red Star and a Hero of the Soviet Union pinned to her cardigan, matter-of-factly saying in her interview “When the bomb got stuck on the rack mid-bombing-run, you climbed out on the wing and gave it a push.”

Do you have a favorite scene in The Huntress? 
Nina's first scene on Lake Baikal, which is such a fabulous setting I knew I had to use it as soon as I saw pictures. The wild dangerous beauty of the world's deepest rift-lake, poised on Russia's furthest eastern edge, somehow made Nina click in my head—she took off in that scene, and never slowed down once through the entire book. I've rarely had a character take over a book from me so strongly.

Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories and I always wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Is there a character, scene, or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing The Huntress?
I read a fantastic historical snippet, when researching the Night Witches, about a male engineer who decided to start mansplaining to a bunch of the regiment's female mechanics and armorers about how to handle their equipment and fuses. The ladies, who had been continuously arming and fixing planes for two years by this point, listened in amusement and irritation until one of them observed the engineer had carelessly picked up a live explosive device and was waving it around. She tore it out of his hands and flung it away; the device exploded and a flying piece of shell gashed Mr. Mansplainer down the cheek. I imagine he was fairly red with embarrassment after this incident, and I would have loved to get it into the book, but I couldn't find a way!

If you could sit down and talk with a member or members of the cast of The Huntress, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you invite and why?  
I adore Nina, my Russian pilot, and I would love to meet her in person. She's a little whirlwind of chaos in human form—she'd tramp mud all over my house, drink her own weight in neat vodka without slurring a single word, slice her sandwiches with the straight razor she carries tucked in her boot (with which she once killed a German soldier, as she will be happy to tell you), borrow my entire stack of Georgette Heyer Regency romances, and eat every cookie, snack, and bag of chips in my cupboard. It would be a wonderful evening.

If you could pick a fantasy cast – anyone at all, living or dead, at any point in their careers- to play your characters in a big screen adaptation of The Huntress, who would you cast?
Oooh, fun question! Claire Foy (The Crown) would make a fantastic Lorelei—the mask-like face and calm blue eyes like a shield over a roil of powerful emotions would make her a fantastic villainess. Matthew Goode (Downton Abbey, Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society) would be my pick for Ian; a classic lean English gentleman with a deadpan drawl and the ability to wear a fedora cocked at the perfect angle. Colin Farrell at 25 would be the perfect Tony, Ian's wise-cracking American partner with his skill for languages and his ability to sweet-talk anyone on the planet. And Tatiana Maslany proved in Orphan Black proved she could do a killer Russian accent—I think she could play Nina with just the right amount of swagger, charm, courage, and a hint of bat-sh*t crazy.

What do you hope readers take from their experience of this story?  
I hope they flip the final page thinking “That was a wonderful book, and it will make a great gift for my mom, my sister, my grandmother, my boss, my bestie, and the lady at Starbucks who makes my lattes.” :D Speaking seriously, I hope readers walk away as wowed as I was by the real historical achievements of the Night Witches, the Nazi hunters, and the female photographers who are my American heroine's inspiration. These are women of the past who deserve to be celebrated!


"A thoroughly immersive page-turner, The Huntress captures readers from the first page, leading them on an explosive journey that shines a spotlight on the horrors of war and the legacy it leaves for those who survive. " —Chanel Cleeton, author of Next Year in Havana

"Impeccably paced with incredible tension and memorable characters; couldn’t put it down" —Kris Waldherr, author of Doomed Queens

" Quinn writes on a level few can match..." —Erin Davies, Historical Fiction Reader