INTERVIEW BY M.N. STROH
Award-winning author, Barbara Spencer, originally considered herself destined for a life of mediocrity. Instead her venture to the West Indies in 1967 became the precursor to a colourful career spanning three continents, where she found herself caught up in riots, wars, and choosing Miss World. Now, a prolific writer of many genres, including children’s fantasy and thrillers for teens and YA, she finished her first historical fiction series, Carinatae, with the publication of Sunset on Golden Wings in May 2021.
I understand this series encapsulates five books. Using the classic elevator pitch, how would you describe the premise of your series?
Sixteen-year-old Maidy Bader discovers a mystery concerning swans when her brother, Pieter, returns to the family home in Holland after an absence of six years, creating a whirlwind of love, jealousy and tragedy. Three survivors of a massacre hold the answers to the mystery of the Carinatae, a race of shape-shifters, and the significance of Pieter’s disappearance.
What attracted you to the setting and period of these novels?
I fell in love with the canals and bridges of Amsterdam in the sixties when my sister and I frequently visited. However, it wasn’t until 2010 during a visit with my granddaughter to celebrate the publication of Running that I encountered the legend of Leda and the Swans and visited the Anne Franke House. Both events impinged so strongly on my imagination that I decided to set my next book in World War II in and around Amsterdam.
Can you give us a quick run-down of each book in the series?
The Year the Swans Came: When, Pieter, mysteriously returns to the family home after an absence of six years, it reawakens in Ruth, Maidy’s best friend, her childhood determination to marry him; that is until she meets four new students at their college. Realising Pieter guards a shameful secret somehow linking him to the students, and dismissing her own feelings for Zande, the most charismatic of the four, Maidy watches from the sidelines as Ruth’s single-minded pursuit of Zande unleashes a web of jealousy and violence and a fight between Pieter and Zande reveals their true nature – one that is no longer entirely human.
Set in south-west France, some seventeen years previously, The Click of a Pebble, tells of the Carinatae, a race of shape shifters, and reintroduces the much younger Zande, Yöst, and Tatania, as they take flight from the persecution of their race. Offered shelter by a gypsy family who own a small-holding in the country, Yöst foolishly dares to believe his hard work will supersede the natural repugnance and intolerance of humans for shape-shifters. His belief is brutally overturned as sudden emotion initiates his change into a swan.
Separated from those he cares most about, An Ocean of White Wings follows Yöst’s adventures as a fully-fledged cob while the shape-shifting swans travel the world, masters of all they survey: land, sea and air. As war overtakes the continent, the swans return to their traditional home among the lakes in Holland where death, in the guise of the priest who instigated the earlier massacre, follows in their footsteps. Now, Yöst may be forced to fight to keep those he loves safe from the tyranny sweeping the country.
In The Drumming of Heels, Zande and Tatania, now Tania, defiantly continue the work of Yöst and the Resistance, snatching prisoners from the jaws of death and sailing them to safety in Norland, on the far side of the lake. Though Tania’s life finds a brief resting place in love, fate proves a pitiless foe for Zande, yet his anger and grief are tempered by an unexpected measure of joy.
Sunset on Golden Wings, the sequel to The Year the Swans Came, brings together all the characters from each story as Maidy travels to New York for Ruth’s wedding. Now a famous film star, for Ruth the past and her longing for Zande remain her present focus. Returning to Holland, Maidy moves to Flambeau in France to take a job with her brother, now an artist. Stories partially told are linked together and brought to closure when Maidy meets Justine a dancer; but the arrival of Zande threatens a repeat of past tragedies.
Have you visited the setting of your series? What details from your journey did you weave into your novels?
In the original paperback edition of The Year the Swans Came, I didn’t mention Holland or the name of the city, although I let lots of clues slip. Bowing to reader pressure, I named the city in the ebook. Now a World Heritage Site, the bridges and cobbled streets of old Amsterdam feature widely throughout the series as do the bicycles that are so much a part of daily life. The last time I was in France, it was to visit Avignon and I used parts of the old city in my description of Flambeau.
Do you have a favorite character in the series? Why?
In the end, it was Yöst who took my heart because as a child he survived against all odds, and gradually learned to put others before himself, and eventually became loved and respected by everyone about him.
Were there challenges you faced in writing the Carinatae series?
It’s unusual to narrate one book in first-person, followed by others written in the third-person. The Year the Swans Came had to be first-person because Maidy was always the intended narrator, present but not part of the unfolding tragedy.
Despite being a planner and not a “pantser”, writing The Click of a Pebble in first-person didn’t work. Neither did my main character. I intended the book to be about Zande’s early life but by the end of chapter two, I realised I wasn’t writing about Zande, it was someone quite different, who became Yöst.
What first inspired you to write historical fiction?
I began writing fantasy for children, then as I learned my craft, thrillers for teens and YAs, which proved very popular. As the ebook revolution happened, my novels continued to sell in paperback but not online; children and teens still loving the feel of paper. So, it wasn’t some noble inspiration that made me change tack, I simply played my part in the burgeoning ebook market. But what? Thrillers? Romance? Fantasy? Then I read Girl with a Pearl Earring and the decision to write The Year the Swans Came as historical fiction was made.
What is the last great book you read?
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley.
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