Exclusive Interview: Serpent In The Heather Author Kay Kenyon
In a lot of World War II alternate history novels (and comics, and games…) the Nazi’s rumored interest in the occult plays a big part. But in Serpent In The Heather (hardcover, Kindle), the second book of her Dark Talents trilogy after At The Table Of Wolves, writer Kay Kenyon once presents the story of a psychic WWII-era spy whose special powers didn’t come from making a deal with the devil.
To start, what is Serpent In The Heather about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the first book in The Dark Talents series, At The Table Of Wolves?
Kim Tavistock is a brilliant woman with a dangerous psi-power: she draws out from people secrets they most wish to hide. In Serpent In The Heather, Kim’s been recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Service as an agent; she was a citizen sleuth in At The Table Of Wolves. She’s on her first official mission, undercover at a remote castle in Wales to find and stop a serial killer of young people who have Talents. Britain is in a state of terror as the murders continue, and Kim ends up on a lonely beach at night with the Germans coming and a Nazi assassin closing in. One of my favorite scenes in anything I’ve written.
The series takes place in 1936 England. The concept is that psi-Talents have recently come into the world, bringing out such abilities as mesmerizing, attraction, hyperempathy, and precognition. Kim’s Talent of the spill has gotten her in a lot personal trouble; people don’t like giving up their secrets so easily. But it also makes her a powerful agent in the shadow war of espionage against the Nazis and their supporters. In Kim, we’ve got a lone operator who uses not only her Talent, but cunning, charm, and insight to face off with evil.
The story opens four months after the close of At The Table Of Wolves. Several subplots entwine in the series, and in each book, those subplots continue, though the pattern is that in each book, a different threat arises.In Serpent, as in Wolves, the Nazis get plenty of help from fascist-leaning English aristocrats.
It sounds like Serpent In The Heather would fall into the category of historical supernatural fantasy. Do you agree, or do you think there’s a different genre or combination of them to describe this novel?
I would rather say historical fantasy or alternate history fantasy. To me, supernatural fantasy has a connotation of horror or paranormal. Another handle I like to use is: period spy thriller with super powers.
What makes this series different from other alternate history World War II stories like the Indiana Jones movies, the video game Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, or such novels as David Mack’s The Midnight Front?
I set out in a new direction, purposely not incorporating occultism, as historically it wasn’t strong among Nazi leaders, despite the interest of a few highly placed Nazis, and despite the general impression that Nazis were keen on it. Hitler thought occultism was ridiculous.
Anyway, as you point out, it’s been done up so well by others. I didn’t want the books to be a conceptual retread. Nor is it a military epic with demonic powers that I see David Mack has recently done. My series feels more like semi-realistic espionage. The Dark Talents novels explore how psi-powers — as a new social phenomenon — are specifically used in spying and weaponizing, and how they change the wielders of those powers, mentally, emotionally, and morally.
It also sounds like your hero,Kim Tavistock,was inspired by the character of Peggy Carter from Captain America: The First Avenger and the TV show Agent Carter. Or is that just wishful thinking on my part because the woman on the cover of At The Table Of Wolves looks like Carter star Hayley Atwood?
I loved Agent Carter’s grim determination and, without possessing an obvious superpower, her single-minded pursuit of the bad guys. Also the historical framework, and the feminist overtones. So, yes, Kim Tavistock is a lot like her, though she’s not quite as perfect as Peggy Carter. She’s flawed and nuanced as a character, dealing with the backlash against her spill ability, and driven by a haunting backstory. I took inspiration from every female spy in films where the character was not merely a sidekick, femme fatale, or love interest. Kim often goes up against the Nazi threat alone, undercover, cut off from backups or allies. To survive, she plays roles, pursues relationships, lies with aplomb, and uses the spill with surgical intent, cutting to the heart of hidden truths.
As for the tone of the books, do Serpent In The Heather and At The Table Of Wolves have a fantastical feel, or did you go for a grittier, more realistic approach?
Gritty. Realistic. Would you write my promo copy?
Those words nicely capture the series mood. The feel of The Dark Talents novels is governed by the espionage context, with its secrets, lies, and deceptions. Spy versus spy, with stakes the fate of the free world. The stories have a finely-detailed historical setting, where the fantasy elements add depth and mystery. However, there are some scenes where the full powers of a Talent are on view, providing a fantastical feel.
Are there any writers or specific stories had a big impact on Serpent In The Heather, but not on At The Table Of Wolves?
Maybe not separate inspirations for the two books, but overall I was influenced by the spy thrillers of Alan Furst, with his marvelous dark milieus. I was pleased that a number of reviewers have commented on my finely-grained atmospherics. I like to provide an intense vicarious experience, a feeling that the reader is really there.
What about non-literary influences; are there any other movies, TV shows, video games, or comic books that had an influence on aspects of Serpent In The Heather?
I’m a fan of Foyle’s War [the British detective show] and British mysteries, and of course, Downtown Abbey. I leaned into these milieus and their nuanced characters. There is a major character in Serpent In The Heather who, for film or TV, I imagine being played by Maggie Smith.
As we’ve been discussing, Serpent In The Heather and At The Table Of Wolves are part of your Dark Talents series. Without spoiling anything, what can you tell us about it?
The Dark Talents novels will be a trilogy, with the final book, Nest Of The Monarch, coming out in the spring of 2019. Book three is set in Berlin and the Bavarian Alps, with Kim posing as the wife of a diplomat and going up against a Nazi cadre of augmented Talents with, well, strange appetites. Kim’s struggles with being accepted in the male-dominated intelligence service will come to a head in this book, and her final challenge will push her beyond what even she thought herself capable of.
Obviously, if someone is interested in this series, they should buy At The Table Of Wolves and Serpent In The Heather now. But is there any reason they should wait until all the books are out before reading them?
No, absolutely do not wait. Nest Of The Monarch is already in production, and as always, you can support writers you like by not waiting for the end of any given series.
I asked earlier if any movies, TV shows, video games, or comic books had influenced At The Table Of Wolves and Serpent In The Heather. But has there been any interest in turning either book, or the series as a whole, into a movie, show, game, or comic?
Nibbles for film, yes, but no plans yet. I could imagine each book in the series as a movie, but perhaps not a TV series, because the novels are so tightly plotted and each one ends on a big note of completion.
If At The Table Of Wolves and Serpent In The Heather were to be made into movies, who would you like them to cast as Kim Tavistock and why her? Y’know, besides Hayley Atwell and Maggie Smith, of course.
Maybe Keira Knightley [Pirates Of The Caribbean]. But a young Jodie Foster would really have nailed the Kim Tavistock persona.
Finally, if someone’s read and enjoyed At The Table Of Wolves and Serpent In The Heather, which of your other novels would you suggest they read and why that one?
For another historical fantasy, A Thousand Perfect Things. It’s set in an altered 19th century England and India under the British Raj. The female major character overcomes so much and the period details are engrossing, I think. This story features another protagonist who has to prove herself in an environment where women’s professional ambitions are dismissed and whose bravery is tested against a backdrop of looming war.