With a unique ability to transport readers through time and space, best-selling historical fiction author Kate Quinn has secured a prominent place on the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists. Hailing from Southern California and holding a degree in classical voice from Boston University, Quinn has explored ancient eras with four novels in the Empress of Rome saga and two books set in the Italian Renaissance. However, it was upon returning to the 20th century with works such as “The Alice Network,” “The Huntress,” “The Rose Code,” and “The Diamond Eye” that she solidified her position as one of the most acclaimed authors in the genre. Her books, translated into multiple languages, enchant readers around the world, while Kate and her husband now enjoy sunny San Diego in the company of three rescued dogs.
How has your training in classical voice influenced your writing, especially when approaching historical periods in your novels?
My latest book “The Phoenix Crown” has an opera singer heroine; it was terrific to write a woman with a profession and passion I already knew so much about. And all the musical training has made me a good public speaker, which is very useful for author panels, book events, and literary conferences. If you’ve stood in front of a crowd of 200 worrying about reaching your high C, standing in front of a crowd of 200 to talk about books feels easy!
From “The Empress of Rome” to “The Diamond Eye,” you’ve explored multiple historical eras. How do you choose the contexts for your novels and which research is most challenging?
I’m less interested overall in specific historical periods than I am in women of the past doing amazing things—making their contribution, often under-appreciated, to watershed historical moments. Women like that can be found anywhere, so I tend to hop historical eras (there are many that fascinate me) depending on what the market is buying and what readers are interested in reading—there are cyclical trends in historical era popularity, like anything else . The more distant past can be harder to research because there are fewer sources; the most recent past gives you more grist for research but also more places to trip up and get something wrong.
“The Alice Network” and “The Huntress” involve strong women in challenging historical contexts. How important is it to tell powerful female stories in your novels?
I savor women’s stories from the past, the kinds of stories that make your jaw drop as you think “Why don’t more people know about this?” Being able to shine more of a spotlight on such stories—show how women of the past blazed trails for women of today—is a great passion of mine (and of many other women authors in my field too—I’m far from the only one with this goal!)
In “The Rose Code”, you address the role of women at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. What was it like diving into this part of the story and highlighting female characters in this scenario?
The women of Bletchley Park were such awesome-inspiring war heroines, but in a very different way from the women spies or partisans we usually associate with a term like “war heroines.” They were not in physical danger—they spent their war hunched over machines and paper scraps in little green huts in Buckinghamshire—and yet with nothing more than brainpower and willpower they were crucial parts of an operation that may have shortened the war by as much as two years. Their fight was mental and emotional rather than physical, and the stress of living under that burden of secrecy could be huge, but these women changed the world.
Your novels have been translated into several languages. What is it like to see your stories reaching global audiences and what challenges does this present?
I have no control over what countries will want to publish my books in translation, so it’s always a thrill to get a request—and an even bigger thrill to see a story I wrote in a language I can’t read. I can’t help with translations, so all I can do is cross my fingers and trust that the translators are doing a good job on my words.
“The Diamond Eye” marks your return to the 20th century. What inspired this shift and how do you approach the transition between different historical periods in your writing?
“The Diamond Eye” is my fourth 20th century-set novel, but really my first foray into biographical historical fiction—the novel is told almost entirely from the viewpoint of a real woman, rather than a character I based on a real person or fictionalized out of a composite of real people. I didn’t feel I could fictionalize the life of Lyudmila Pavlichenko , also known as Lady Death for her achievements as the most successful female sniper of WWII—she was already a larger than life figure without any embellishment at all. Normally I craft my protagonists out of a blend of the fictional and the historical, but molding the narrative around a real person in THE DIAMOND EYE meant having to find creative solutions to stick to the historical record when the story wanted to go a different direction.
You and your husband live in San Diego with three rescue dogs. How does the presence of pets influence your life and possibly your writing?
I couldn’t do this job without my dogs. Writing is very solitary, working at home all day long, so having the dogs to talk to, cuddle, and periodically drag me out of the house to get some sunshine is just about essential. And pets have a way of working their way into my books, too—I always joke that I might be ruthless with the human characters in my novels, but the dog will never die in a Kate Quinn book!
How do you deal with the balance between historical facts and fictional narrative in your novels?
The historical record provides the framework of any story set in the past, like the skeleton. I always start with that, and then layer the fictional elements and characters on top, like putting flesh on the skeleton. Hopefully then, Dr. Frankenstein-like, the whole creation comes to life.
What are the recurring themes or elements that you seek to explore in your works, regardless of the chosen historical period?
I am fascinated by the ways in which women of the past carve out spheres of influence and independence and power for themselves, while living in eras that do not want them to have it. I am fascinated by war and how it changes women’s lives—sometimes in terrible ways, as violence upends a peaceful world, and sometimes in unexpectedly positive ways, as women are given opportunities in times of crisis that they would never get in peacetime. And I’m also fascinated by aftermath: what happens when a war or crisis is over, and people are left to pick up the pieces and forge a new life?
What advice would you give aspiring writers, especially those interested in creating historical fiction?
Give yourself permission on that first draft to be bad—everyone’s first drafts are terrible, and that’s ok. Just get the words out, however you can. As the saying goes, you can always fix a bad page but you can’t fix a blank page.
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