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The Writer's Digest Interview: Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn, the bestselling author of The Alice Network talks writing for love and the market, and the inspiration behind her new novel, The Diamond Eye.

Roman empresses. Renaissance mistresses. Spies in World War I. Codebreakers, bomber pilots, and snipers of World War II. Kate Quinn has an affinity for bringing to life the stories of women who confound expectations and change the outcomes of some of the most pivotal moments in world history. As she writes the novels of these influential, but often forgotten women, she’s intentional in making sure she’s “never saying, here’s one extraordinary woman. I want to say here’s one extraordinary woman, but look, there’s also other extraordinary women around her, even if they are not the focus of this novel as protagonists. … I want to show a whole variety of the female experience and how many women succeed and not just one.”

Quinn is the author of bestsellers such as the Empress of Rome saga and the Reese’s Book Club pick, The Alice Network. She learned the World War I spy-thriller was in the running for the second month of the book club while in a TSA line where, she said, “I literally had something like 20 minutes before my flight boarded and some very sketchy airport wi-fi to get on social media and basically beg any person I had ever met in my entire life to go vote for me so that my book could get picked.” And it worked. The book ultimately became a New York Times and USA Today bestseller and an NPR’s Best Book of the Year.

She followed that with two bestselling World War II novels, The Huntress and The Rose Code, and is back with a third. The Diamond Eye, set partially in the freezing, bloody trenches of the Russian Front and partially in Washington, D.C., follows Lyudmila “Mila” Pavlichenko, a mother and history student, as she enlists in the Soviet Army and becomes the deadliest female sniper in history—only to be shuttled off to the U.S. as part of the tightly choreographed Soviet Delegation trying to convince America to enter the war, where she befriends Eleanor Roosevelt.

Quinn stumbled on Pavlichenko’s incredible story while researching The Huntress and “immediately thought, I’ve got to write about her. I have to put her in my back pocket for another book because she’s not going to fit in this one.” This is frequently, though not always, how Quinn lands on her subjects saying, “ … in the course of your research for one novel, you will find the seeds of another quite often. Once you start looking down a certain path, it’s amazing what nuggets will turn up.” But no matter which era her next book lands in, chances are it’ll be part of a similar theme, which is where we began our conversation.

The Diamond Eye | Kate Quinn

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All your books feature these female characters who are severely underestimated by the men in their lives specifically and by society as a whole. There is this line in The Diamond Eye that says, “Snipers must make themselves calm in order to succeed, and that is why women are good at sharpshooting. Because there is not a woman alive who has not learned how to eat rage in order to appear calm.” How did that particular line come about?

It’s because over the last few years, it’s something that no woman who is forced to spend any amount of time on the internet can escape—the sensation that there is a lot of female anger going around. It’s in things like the #MeToo movement. It’s in things like the women’s marches. It’s in the fact that the debate over reproductive rights is ongoing ... And it’s through the fact that there are still things like wage inequality. These are things that fuel a tremendous sense of rage in a lot of the women that I know. It certainly fuels it when you see discussions online that seem like they are no closer to having any kind of conclusion.

I really did want to explore that when I was looking at a character like Mila, whose life is very prescribed to certain parameters, especially living in the Soviet Union when the pressure to be a conformer is even stronger than with Americans. I did want to explore the fact that—for her and for many women—underneath a surface calm and “don’t rock the boat, go along to get along” that there is a lot of anger over a whole variety of issues and how do people use anger to fuel the things in life that they need to get done. Because I think that women are particularly good at swallowing anger in order to get along and to make sure that they don’t rock that proverbial boat.

But what do you do with that anger? Hopefully, you don’t get ulcers! Quite often you do because anger has a way of eating away at you over time. But also anger can be used to fuel all kinds of things. … For Mila, she uses it to fuel her perfectionism, which makes her a very good sharpshooter. It’s something I wanted to explore just because one of the difficulties in writing a Soviet heroine for an American audience is that we’re so used to seeing the Soviets as the bad guys. A thousand James Bond movies, all that Cold War propaganda when they were the enemy for so long.

What I’m trying to do with Mila is make her accessible to a modern-day American audience. She is, in many ways, just like any American woman because there are some things that are universal to the female experience … that are universal to the human experience. So, I’m trying to always find the ways to make Mila accessible, even though there are many things about her that make her experience so very far outside our own. I’m always trying to find the common ground where we, as Americans in our very comfortable, physically safe lives, can look at this woman who is a star of this brutal Russian Front and think, I know just how you feel.

Kate Quinn | Writer's Digest Interview Quote

One of the things that you showcase in your novels is these unlikely female friendships where they must decide who to trust in life-and-death situations. What interests you about writing those kinds of relationships?

I love depicting female friendships because I’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded by a wonderful cadre of women colleagues and friends, without whom I think I would be in a padded room by now. It is the complexities of female friendship that are a very rich ground, and it’s something that can really keep on giving. Whenever I’m writing a book about an extraordinary woman, I want to get away from the old, tired trope of “you’re not like the other girls; you’re different.” I want to portray a woman who is extraordinary, but who is also surrounded by other extraordinary women and who is not threatened by them and who befriended them. Or, even if they’re not friends, they can be allies, they can work together, they can get things done.

You mentioned being surrounded by your own group of supportive women. How did you find that group and how did you develop the working relationship in terms of making sure that everyone was serious and had the same goals or that you were on the same page?

I really owe a lot of that, first of all, to ARCs and cover quotes and also to writers’ organizations. It’s one of those things, writing being a rather small world, you start getting these requests for, “Will you read so and so’s book for a possible cover quote” which means you get to know a wide variety of people’s work, and then you get to admire people’s work. Then at some point, if you’re lucky, you get to meet them in person and be able to say, “Hey, I loved your book.” That is often the start of a beautiful friendship. I was lucky enough to move to Maryland, where I found a terrific group with my local RWA chapter; I didn’t technically write romance, but I had romantic elements. I came in and met a lot of wonderful women there. …

Once you have met people in person, you’ve had that glass of wine at a conference where you’ve all been sharing horror stories about the agents who rejected you, how many rejection letters you’ve got, what was the worst editorial comment that you ever had to face, who has the best story about an internet troll trying to fact check your timeline, then it’s much easier to keep in touch…

You mentioned agent rejections, so I wondered about your agent and what your working relationship is like?

I had met her at a conference, and she introduced herself literally because her teenage daughter had read Mistress of Rome and said, “Mom, you’ve gotta read this.” And so, Mom did. Then when Mom met me at the conference, she told me that story. Not long afterward, my agent, whom I loved, very sadly died of cancer. So, I had nobody, and I was floundering. I had a contract, so I didn’t need another agent immediately. I just had to finish a book that was already in the can.

Eventually, I started reaching out and I did reach out to Kevan [Lyon] and she took me on even though I still had a contract to fill that she had had no part in wrangling. There was going to be nothing that she could help me work on for a while yet. But that didn’t make any difference to her, which really impressed me because there wasn’t a sense of “what can you bring me for me to take you on.” But we did start working together, and I really do have to credit her with some of the success I eventually found for The Alice Network. I had an idea that I really liked, and we shopped it, but it wasn’t going anywhere. It was a historical era that just wasn’t moving. So, it became an issue of Kevan saying, “Well, have you considered doing something a little bit more 20th century, a little bit closer in time?” That was one of the catalysts that helped me eventually find the idea that became The Alice Network.

In other interviews, you’ve talked about the shift in your own interest from moving from ancient Rome to the Renaissance to the 20th century. But I did wonder if there was something of a business aspect behind that shift because writing doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

There was, absolutely. I had this idea that wasn’t going to sell, and I realized that. I could put my head in the sand, and I can write it anyway and see if anyone wants it after it’s done. Or I can try to find something that’s a little more commercial—and I don’t find the word commercial a dirty word. I think as a writer, you absolutely do have to find something that you are passionate about to write, because it will not work if you don’t love what you’re writing. It will not. But I don’t think it is in any way selling out to try to find that Venn diagram overlap between what you are passionate about and what the market wants. …

Now, that’s a little difficult because anyone could say, if you chase trends too much in the writing world, by the time you write a book, the trend could be over. So, it is a little tricky, I have to admit. This is why I think it’s very important to read in your genre, read widely. See what is on the highly anticipated listicles that go around, see what’s selling, see what people are reading, see what readers are talking about. That’s something I do all the time. I think it’s something you have to do if you want to take writing from a hobby of your heart—which there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, where you can just write to please yourself. But, if you also want to pay the electricity bill with your writing, you’re going to have to consider what is selling.

So, when I was looking for that new idea that I thought maybe it might be something a little bit more commercial, I looked around at this spike in historical women’s fiction. And also, given the fact that it was late 2014, early 2015, I was seeing all of these articles online about the 100th anniversary of a bunch of different World War I dates. That got me thinking about World War I, about something 20th century. That was when we’re really starting to see finally that war fiction, especially women-centric war fiction, was popping up. Now there’s so much war fiction, but for a long time, people said that you couldn’t sell a World War II novel to save your life. It was all Tudors and Wars of the Roses. So, I am always aware that any trend is going to be something that we are just one hit TV show or one hit movie away from—a dud era suddenly becoming the next hot trend. …

I’m less interested in specific historical eras than I am interested in finding extraordinary women who did extraordinary things, regardless of what time period they lived in or what war or what tremendous crucible they went through. If I can find those women in any historical era—and you always can because they existed, because they were there—I think I will have something to write about.

In talking about the research and finding these lesser-known figures, you also include the well-known figures. How do you approach writing those historical figures with these lesser-known figures who people haven’t heard of? Do you write them differently?

I like having famous historical figures because it’s nice to have that little bit of marquee recognition in there, someone who’s literally strolling out of our schoolbooks from when we were history students on the pages of the novel. But I’d almost rather have them be in the background for my fictionalized people so that they’re there to add spice, but not be the main focus. That’s often because so much has already been written about people like Eleanor Roosevelt and Prince Philip and Winston Churchill and Alan Turing, who was a background character in The Rose Code.

For someone like Eleanor Roosevelt, I was really quite gobsmacked when I read a bit in Lyudmila Pavlichenko’s memoir where she literally details the fact that when the delegation was at Hyde Park, which is the Roosevelt’s Hudson estate, she happened to take a canoe out on the water early in the morning, fell out, and got soaked. Then, she somehow ends up in the first lady’s room, as Eleanor is literally hemming a pair of pajamas for her. She’s wrapped in towels and the two of them are just having a good gab about everything under the sun. And I just thought that is such a wonderful scene. I would not dare make something like that up, but it really happened. It was in the memoir. At least it appears to have really happened. I thought, what a wonderful way to get a little bit of a private view of what a tremendously public woman like Eleanor Roosevelt was.

You do a lot of research for your novels, and you always have detailed author notes of the historical facts of your story at the end of your books. How do you balance the research and the plotting/outlining with the actual writing? Because you also publish a novel year, which is a really fast timeline.

It’s not quite as fast as that. It’s more like every year and a half. The Diamond Eye came about fast on the heels of The Rose Code, and that was unplanned. I drafted that in about three and a half months flat, which is very fast for me. That was over the end of 2020 and the start of 2021, and I honestly believe my Muse took one look at this dumpster fire of the world coming through my news feed—because we were going through the COVID spikes, the vaccine was still nowhere in sight, there was the election, there was everything that came after it, there was the inauguration, the insurrection—all of that happened during the writing and drafting of The Diamond Eye. I honestly believe my Muse said, “I’m going to the Russian Front. It sounds like a spa vacation” and decided to go to this wonderfully warm, welcoming, and calming environment of mud, death, overwhelming violence, and blood spray and said, “This sounds wonderful. I’m staying here for a while.” And I don’t mean to be flippant about the horror of the Russian Front. Really, I don’t, but I do think that’s a reason why that book, in particular, came so fast. I have told my agent and my editor I don’t think I can do that again.

But as far as the reading and the research and the drafting, I do a lot of research in advance, and … I try to do a lot of outlining in advance, more with each book so that I can hopefully streamline the drafting process. Then I’m researching all the way through the writing process, diving deep into whatever I need to get that particular day’s word count done. I’m researching like mad in the editing process when I’m fact-checking and streamlining and finding all the places where, during the drafting process, I said, “Insert historically accurate Roman banquet menu here” and then I have to actually go find a banquet menu and insert it. Things like that. So, I really continue with the research both before, during, and after the writing of the book.

Do you have any last bits of advice for the readers of Writer’s Digest who are trying to write or get published?

I would say what it comes down to is a phrase my husband, who is active-duty Navy, has taught me: Embrace the suck. And that comes down to another quote by somebody who was definitely not active-duty Navy, but whom you may have heard of, named Nora Roberts. She said, “I can fix a bad page, but I can’t fix a blank page.” You need to give yourself permission to be bad when you are drafting. The reason that’s so important is because a lot of writers, especially when you’re starting out, have that little voice in your head that says, “This is so terrible. Why did I think I could write a book? I can’t ever show this to anyone.” They let that voice get so loud that they don’t end up writing anything. This is where you need to embrace the suck. Let yourself be bad. It’s OK. Everybody’s first drafts are bad. My first drafts are terrible, but once you have a bad first draft down, you can fix it. You can edit it, you can polish it up, but you can’t get anything done if you don’t shut that voice down and get those words out. 

Historical Fiction

Join Donna Russo Morin to learn the definition of historical markers and how and where to unearth them. And uncover the tools to integrate history, research, and the fiction plot arc. Most of all, find out how to honor verisimilitude—the goal of any historical writing—and avoid the dreaded anachronism.

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