Kate Quinn takes to the skies in her new novel of Nazi hunters, Night Witches and a truly evil stepmother.
“Gentle or thrilling—you decide,” reads the ad for private charter company Fun Flights in Carlsbad, California. Although novelist Kate Quinn admits she is “not terribly fond of flying,” she opted for adrenaline when she booked a 1929 open cockpit biplane in the name of historical research for her latest novel, The Huntress, a spellbinding Nazi-hunting saga that spans continents and decades.
After her British pilot took off, Quinn found herself soaring through the air, experiencing the same kind of rush that her novel’s character, Nina Markova, might have felt during a World War II bombing run. After growing up in the wilds of Siberia, Nina becomes a fearless member of the Night Witches, the Soviet Union’s legendary all-female night bomber regiment. Quinn was mesmerized by the hair-raising escapades related to the Night Witches and the tales of navigators who climbed out on the wing in the middle of a flight to dislodge a stuck bomb. “I read that and said, ‘You people are crazy, and that’s totally going in the book!’” she says. “A lot of things they experienced I would not have dared to make up.”
So as Quinn’s aerial courage grew, she asked the pilot, nicknamed “Biggles,” if he would consider momentarily cutting the engine, imitating the method the Night Witches often used to silently descend over German troops before releasing their bombs. “Absolutely not,” Biggles quickly responded. “That is not going to happen!”
Spine-tingling bombing runs are just one of the many highlights of Quinn’s intricately plotted novel about a trio of characters that converge after World War II to locate “the Huntress,” the mistress of an SS officer who slaughtered six innocent souls on the shore of a Polish lake. Pilot Nina, who narrowly missed becoming one of the victims, later marries Ian Graham, a British journalist and brother to one of those killed. An unlikely pair and a study in opposites, Nina and Ian are determined to deliver this war criminal to justice.
In the novel, Quinn describes one of Ian’s articles as “Dynamite in ink,” writing: “He knew every pulse point to push in those paragraphs, every emotional trigger to pull.” Those words serve as an apt description of Quinn’s latest tale, which will no doubt appeal to fans of Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale. Similarly, Quinn’s previous novel, The Alice Network, was a historical thriller involving real-life female spies in France. After that book’s tremendous success, Quinn knew she wanted to write something war-based and set in the 20th century. She experienced a “lightbulb moment” when she stumbled across the story of Hermine Braunsteiner, a Nazi war criminal discovered in the 1960s living as a housewife in Queens, New York. “That was the story I realized I wanted to tell,” Quinn says. “What does it mean for someone to discover someone in their family literally has this kind of past?”
To make such a complex story play out, Quinn had to interweave multiple characters, plot points and timelines. In addition to Nina and Ian, she introduces readers to Jordan McBride, a young girl growing up in Boston who begins to suspect that her new German stepmother, Anneliese Weber, may be hiding unspeakable secrets.
“I am really fascinated by aftermaths,” Quinn confesses. “Not just what happens, but what happens after. After VE-Day, a lot of people had to pick up and go on with lives that had been catastrophically, irrevocably altered. How did they do it? I find that an extremely interesting problem and an extremely interesting sort of character dilemma to examine through my fictional people.”
Quinn owes her fascination with history to her mother, a librarian and history scholar who entertained her with bedtime stories about Alexander and the Gordian Knot and Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon. “I was really head-down in history from a very young age,” she says, “so when I started telling stories of my own, it was very natural to gravitate toward the past.” As a young writer, she relied on her mother’s deft editorial skills for critique, a practice she continues today. “She’s very incisive and doesn’t give me a pass just because she’s my mother.”
Today Quinn lives with two rescue dogs (Caesar and Calpurnia) and her husband, an active-duty member of the Navy whom she’s nicknamed “the Overseas Gladiator.” She’s already hard at work on her next book, tentatively called The Rose Code, about a group of female code breakers at Bletchley Park.
Fortunately for readers, Quinn knows she’ll never tire of the power of historical fiction: “Often when we are examining issues that are delicate or sensitive or just dynamite, they feel too close in the modern age. But if you can examine some of the same issues through the lens of the past, it puts them in a slightly safer remove. That way it doesn’t hurt as much to look as closely at something that is perhaps a little too sensitive to examine in our own lives.”
Author photo by Laura Jucha Photography