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Interview with Kate Quinn

     Today, I have the pleasure to interview bestselling author, Kate Quinn. She is best known for The Empress of Rome Saga and The Borgia Chronicles. Her latest novel, The Alice Network, focuses on a WWI spy network made up of women. In this interview we discuss these unsung heroines, who risked their lives in WWI. Mrs. Quinn also gives us a hint about what she is working on next. I hope this interview will give you some insight into the history of The Alice Network. I have given a very good review of this book, and I hope you will take the opportunity to read it. Thank you, Mrs. Quinn!

What drew you to take a break from Ancient Rome and write about women in WWI?

     I love ancient Rome, and I'd love to write more books about it someday, but I've never been a one-era writer. I've always had ideas for books in a wide array of historical periods, from ancient Rome clear through to World War I. When I saw the huge recent boom in popularity for 20th century war fiction, it made sense to revisit some of those old plot ideas, and see if anything grabbed my imagination. It certainly did!

It was fascinating that these women did not passively spend their time in WWI. They took a vital and dangerous role in the war effort. Why do you think their story is largely forgotten?

     In their day, women like Louise de Bettignies and Edith Cavell were heroines, lionized and medalled and written about. A generation of girls grew up knowing their stories, and some were motivated by those stories to join the SOE and become spies themselves in the next world war. But such women--Pearl Witherington, Nancy Wake, others like them--eclipsed the female spies who came before them, just as World War I itself tends to be eclipsed in the national memory by World War II. Also, plain old sexism played a certain role in gradually forgetting women like Louise. During wartime women have always stepped into male-dominated fields--but after the war is over, they are asked to step back again. In my research I saw a palpable unease with the idea that women had been asked to participate in such a dishonorable business as spying. Far easier to laud the women who contributed to the war effort in more traditionally feminine roles like nursing. 

The story of Mata Hari fascinates us today. However, why we do not hear more about these other female spies like Louise de Bettignies?

     Mata Hari became famous not because of her spy work, which is dubious, but because she was a beauty and an exotic dancer with some sexy photographs. She became more famous than her counterparts less because of what she did, than because "sexy female spy" is more of a draw than just "female spy." And I'm afraid the Madonna-whore double standard was alive and well in the intelligence business at the time; women in espionage were either cast as saintly patriots who worked for their country without ever compromising their virtue (Louise de Bettignies, Edith Cavell; both portrayed in propaganda as fragile paragons of martyred femininity) or they were sultry untrustworthy harlots who wormed secrets out of men with sex (Mata Hari, portrayed in propaganda as a devious sexpot). And since sex sells, Mata Hari is the one who ends up the most famous--or notorious.

Are there any other women you found fascinating that deserves some recognition for their efforts?

     So many! Marthe Cnockaert, to whom the Germans awarded an Iron Cross for her work nursing German soldiers, never realizing she was spying on them at the same time. Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a Russian female sniper in World War II who racked up 309 kills and met Eleanor Roosevelt. Elsie Inglis, a doctor in WWI who founded hospitals in France and Serbia, stayed with her patients when Germans took over her Serbian unit, and when threatened to sign a certificate stating that she had been well treated, looked the German commander in the eye and said "Make me."

Was the research difficult to find unclassified material on The Alice Network?

     Not really. World War I is now more than 100 years in our past, so a lot of material is no longer under wraps. And there were some excellent first hand sources: Louise de Bettignies' surviving female lieutenant Leonie van Houtte (known in my book under her code name of Violette) went on in real life to marry a journalist after the war, and he wrote a memoir about her experiences as a spy. So I had first hand accounts for a good many of the scenes I had to dramatize!

Were there some facts that surprised about female spies?

     It's not a glamorous job. Movies might make you think spying is all couture gowns and cocktail parties and thrilling action, but the reality was boredom and danger; keeping your head down and trying not to be noticed as you gathered and passed intelligence. Spying took a particularly grueling kind of courage: not just nerving yourself up for one dangerous act, but setting yourself to do it over and over and over again, for months and possibly years as you tried to survive in a war zone.

What were the challenges for working for the Alice Network?

     If you were caught spying, you could be arrested, tried, sentenced to life in prison, or to death by firing squad--being a woman was no protection from the death penalty, as the executions of English nurse Edith Cavell and French spy Gabrielle Petit can testify. Even aside from the dangers of espionage, network spies faced the ordinary privations of life in a war zone. Shortage of food and fuel was dire in occupied France; French homes could be inspected at any time and anything from kitchen curtains to food stores requisitioned. Assault and rape were hovering threats, and curfews and restrictions made daily life miserable--even your clocks were turned to German time to remind you who was boss. 

With the dangers these brave women faced, how do you think being a part of the Alice Network affected their lives after the war? Do you think they were stressed as much as a male combat soldier?

     PTSD has existed as long as there have been wars, whether there was an acknowledged name for it or not. Spies might have faced a different kind of combat from the kind soldiers faced in the trenches, but their fight was surely still wearing on the nerves. I'm sure the women of the Alice Network had their own struggles when they returned to ordinary civilian life--I attempted to show that with my heroine Eve, who in the years after the war struggles visibly with alcoholism, nightmares, and flash-backs.

Ultimately, what would you like for the readers to take from The Alice Network?

     These women defied every rule they were born under, and fought for their countries with extraordinary courage, intelligence, and toughness. They deserved to be remembered--and emulated! 

What are you working on now? Will you revisit WWI?

     I'd like to revisit WWI someday, but at the moment I'm working on another dual timeline story focused more around World War II. Tentatively titled "Darkroom," it involves a hunt for Nazi war criminals in post-war America, and the incredible true story of the female Russian bomber pilots known as the Night Witches...

About the Author:

     KATE QUINN is a native of southern California. She attended Boston University, where she earned a Bachelor's and Master's degree in Classical Voice. A lifelong history buff, she has written four novels in the Empress of Rome Saga, and two books in the Italian Renaissance detailing the early years of the infamous Borgia clan. All have been translated into multiple languages. She and her husband now live in Maryland with two black dogs named Caesar and Calpurnia. For more information visit her website.

Also check out my review of Kate Quinn's novel:

The Alice Network


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