Author Kate Quinn has written a novel with six other authors - Stephanie Thornton, Russell Whitfield, Christian Cameron, Libbie Hawker, Vicky Alvear, SJA Turney. They are known as the H Team. Our writer Rachel Boser caught up with Quinn to discuss the challenges she faced in writing the novel.
"The H Team is a rotating group of historical fiction authors uniting to produce interwoven collaborative novels of the past. Author line-up and subject matter change from project to project, depending on who is available and what historical topic gets the group enthralled, but our motto has always been "historical fiction authors unite to write!"'
Song of War is a compelling retelling of the Trojan War. How seven writers can band together and create a seamless story stretches the imagination, but they have — and brilliantly, too. I caught up with Kate Quinn about her latest collaborative historical novel, and found out how the H Team’s venture is more like a creative team sport.
One of the challenges that Quinn and her team faced is that this is a band of very strong storytellers, all with their own distinct voice. Divided into seven storylines, Song of War allows each author to focus on a particular moment of the Trojan War from the catalyst of the war — Helen’s elopement with Paris — to the final sacking of Troy. The Trojan War story is ideal for such a range of authors. As Quinn says, this works because “with the Trojan War, there is no single big event”. The authors could pick which heroes and/or heroines they would represent and give a climatic ending to each story.
As each book has its own beginning, middle and end, they can be read either on their own or continuously. It is this flawless continuity that intrigues me, especially how they achieve the final product. Quinn said there was a lot of back and forth from the team, thrashing out ideas, outlines and motivations before even a single word was written. The authors agreed what themes and motifs should be touched upon that would give that flow and flexibility, allowing them to reinterpret the traditional story and make it uniquely their own.
Far from being a dusty retelling of a historical tale, the H Team’s reinterpretation comes across as very fresh. Gone is the traditional story of men merely as pawns in the hands of Gods. Instead, it is replaced by exploring human weaknesses and motivations. This more psychological approach rounds out the characters: they feel real because they are not narrated as simply good or bad. Instead, there is a lot of grey that leaves one, while not perhaps empathising with a character, at least understanding his or her motivations.
We see this in Russell Whitfield’s reinterpretation of Troy’s ultimate bad man, Agamemnon. Whitfield said, “Agamemnon is almost always a bad guy for the sake of being bad… I had to uncover why he was so horrid. Why did he hate Achilles so much? Why was he so bitter?” Whitfield does an excellent job. You find out Agamemnon had to unwillingly sacrifice his daughter, he had to unwillingly give up Chryseis — the one woman he really loved — and that the nine-year war had sucked out his very soul, turning him into a relentless slaughtering machine.
These characters work like a thread through the novel. When one author takes over a character, it still feels like the same person. Quinn says that developing the characters was like “two actors on an improv exercise” — and the outcome for the reader is immensely satisfying. Throughout the book, Helen remains the same poker-faced manipulator, and Achilles retains his girlish laugh. These small, helpful character tics retain the flow.
As a more “boots-on-the-ground version of the Iliad”, the attention to historical accuracy gives the novel authenticity. Chris Cameron’s battle scene is so vividly described, you feel you should have dust on your feet from the Trojan plains. Quinn explained, “It meant for some very lively discussions along the lines of, ‘OK, how do we get Paris off that battlefield alive if Aphrodite isn’t going to swoop in, deus ex machina-style?’”
Thrashing out such historical minutiae helps to absorb the reader’s attention, beckoning us into the action. If the devil is in the detail, the H Team’s careful planning has paid off. Like a team relay, the baton — or in this case the pen — is seamlessly transferred from one author to the other, without once halting the rhythm of their story. It should come with a warning, because if you read this book at bedtime, you will never switch your light out until the last page is turned.
Interview by Rachel Boser
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