Linda Hengerer and Suzanne Fox discuss Mary Stewart's book The Moon-Spinners, how she uses setting, shows family love and loyalties, and how her characters answer a Call to Adventure.
In this episode of Tart Words, Suzanne Fox and Linda Hengerer are discussing Mary Stewart’s book The Moon-Spinners how she uses setting, shows family love and loyalties, and how her characters answer a call to adventure.
It was first published in 1962 by Hodder & Stoughton and is now available in ebook editions.
Takeaways for writers:
In The Moon-Spinners, Nicola Ferris is a young English woman working at the embassy in Athens. She comes to Crete for a holiday with her cousin Frances, who owns a successful nursery in England. Gaining an extra day due to the kindness of fellow guests at her hotel, Nicola sets off with a lavish picnic lunch. She comes across two men, Lambis and Mark; Mark has a gunshot wound. Sharing her lunch with them, she sends Lambis off for supplies while she tends to Mark. The seriousness of their situation is made clear to Nicola when they tell her that Mark’s younger brother, Colin, is missing and possibly dead.
After spending the night with Mark and tending his wounds, Nicola heads back to the village where she is due to meet Frances and stay at the new hotel. Stratos Alexiakis, born in the village and returned after a successful career as a London restauranteur to build a hotel, has brought Tony, a British co-worker, back with him. Stratos’s sister Sofia works at the hotel as a chambermaid and also has a windmill she tends in the field.
Despite Mark’s intentions to keep Nicola out of his troubles, she discovers she is caught in the middle.
Mary Stewart creates small family groups that work in different ways. Stratos, Sofia, and Sofia’s abusive husband Josef; Mark, Colin, their sisters; Nicola and Frances. Josef and the sisters don’t appear on the page, but their presence is still palpable.
Nicola comes for a holiday and finds adventure and love. She is not passive when she is involved in Mark’s trouble; she actively looks for Colin and discovers that the hotel is the home of the villains.
Mary Stewart has several books set in Greece and outlying islands; her love for and familiarity with the country shines through in her descriptions.
Exercises for writers:
Characters – How do you show characters with different family dynamics? How do you show affection between characters, even when those characters are not together on the page? How do you show tension when characters are trying to keep information from each other, using subtext and action instead of dialogue? Does your protagonist answer the Call to Adventure willingly, or are they dragged into the story kicking and screaming?
Setting – Is your story or series set in a real place, a fictional place, or a fictional place based on a real place? How do you use what you know of that setting to draw the reader in and make them feel part of the story?
Backstory – In a mystery, there are the events that culminate in the action of the current story. How do you introduce those prior events? Do you work out those events before you write the story (Plotters, I’m with you); or do you see what comes up and adjust the past to fit the present (hey, Pantsers, I feel you)?
Read your favorite book in the genre you’re writing in, and note the author introduces characters and the dynamics with other characters. See how they describe scenes so you feel like you’re there and it’s real. Note how they use backstory and at what points they bring it into the current story.
Transcribed by Otter.ai; Lightly edited by Linda. Please forgive typos and grammar errors.
Episode 117 – The Moon-Spinners
Welcome to Tart Words. I'm your host, Linda Hengerer. And I'm a writer, a reader and a baker. I talk to writers about their latest book and what inspires them; chat with fellow author Suzanne Fox about what writers can learn from reading their favorite authors; and share fast and easy recipes for anyone looking for a sweet treat. Join me as I share Tart Bites, Tart Thoughts, and Tart Words. Today I'm talking with Suzanne Fox. She writes fiction and nonfiction, reviews books for Publishers Weekly, edits the online journal Society 19, and works with authors to shape, publish, and Market their work. Her handmade jewelry and digital art, including that used for the Tart Words Mary Stewart podcasts, is inspired by favorite books and authors. A graduate of the Columbia University MFA writing program, Suzanne now lives in North Carolina.
In this episode of Tart Words, Suzanne Fox and Linda Hengerer are discussing Mary Stewart’s book The Moon-Spinners and how she uses setting, shows family love and loyalties, and how her characters answer a call to adventure. It was first published in 1962 by Hodder & Stoughton and is now available in ebook editions.
Description from Amazon:
While on a walking holiday through the beautiful deserted hills of Crete, Nicola Ferris stumbles across a critically injured Englishman, guarded by a fierce Greek. Nicola cannot abandon them and so sets off on a perilous search for their lost companion, all the while being pursued by someone who wants to make sure none of them leave the island.
“When the big white bird flew suddenly up among the glossy leaves and the lemon flowers, and wheeled into the mountain, I followed it.”
Welcome to the podcast, Suzanne. Today we're going to talk about The Moon-Spinners, which is one of my favorite books of Mary Stewart's.
It was mine too. And it actually was my first Mary Stewart book. I still remember reading it not, I believe, right when it came out, but fairly close to when it came out. And I still remember the now-vintage small paperback, you know, mass Market paperback format, and I remember the cover. You know, it just was one of those things that was like, Oh, I love this.
Yeah, and I like everything about the story. I like sort of the small world that it's set in, there's not a lot of traveling to and fro; the story world is set in a small little time out of mind pocket of delightfulness, I guess I want to say. Nicola is coming from her job, to have a holiday with her cousin who has been delayed for a day and then Nicola gets an unexpected extra day herself when a couple staying at the hotel are going in her direction and offered to give her a lift in their car, instead of having her have to wait another day to take the bus. So she has plenty of food from the hotel for a picnic lunch, she is able to hide her bags on the offhand chance that a passerby sees them, she doesn't have to worry about them being stolen, and the hotel isn't officially open yet. So she's not worried about showing up a day early and not having a bed to sleep in. So she does take the opportunity for an adventure. And that is expressed pretty clearly in the beginning of the book when she sees – I think she has a little debate about whether it's an egret or what exactly the bird is, but sees a bird and follows it and that launches her into the story.
Yeah, Mary Stewart is very good at what's described in Joseph Campbell and all of the story manuals that follow the sort of Hero's Journey model. Stewart is very good at creating these calls to adventure. There's a small thing that draws the protagonists, the female protagonist into the mystery in some cases, maybe in in more cases than not in Mary's stories. The male character, the romantic lead, as it were, is actually already involved in the mystery in some way. But the woman is often following a much more subtle clue that brings her into this and here in a sort of wonderful way. It is that egret and as you say, that sense that we've all had at some point that no one expects me anywhere, I have no obligation, so I've essentially been gifted a free day in time.
Yeah, I hadn't thought about that. But Nicola’s entree into the adventure is oblique. You know she does not go looking for the trouble that she ends up being involved in. And it's interesting too with this story, but how Mark’s instinct to protect ends up causing Nicola a little bit more trouble because she fears someone she needn't, and doesn't find that out till afterwards. So when she is looking out for Joseph, she doesn't realize she doesn't need to be worried about him. And I think when you get the characters whose instinct is to protect, it can be good and bad.
Yeah. And this book is interesting, because certainly more than any other one of the short novels, unless I'm overlooking one as I sort of mentally scan them, this one's interesting, because when Nicola meets Mark, who you know is going to be the romantic lead, he is really out of the action, he has been wounded in the beginning until she takes a little bit of care of him, you're really not sure whether he's going to survive. I mean, he is not in good shape now. And so she is drawn into the story by protecting him and you only then are led into the sort of middle of the book where the issue becomes that he is concerned about his brother. So there's this nice layering of protectiveness of people who are driven by protectiveness. And I will also say, and maybe this is one of the reasons that as a teenager I loved the book, was that Mark is wounded that Nicola ends up spending the night with him. Stewart, at a time when the well-bred English romantic suspense heroine was certainly not going to have sex outside of marriage, Stewart creates this wonderful tender scene where they are actually nestled together, her arms around them, you know, they are in bed together, he just happens to be possibly dying. And it's not a sexual scene now. But I think as a teenager who was myself very uncertain about my social and romantic life, I just love the scene where there's this physical tenderness. There's this physical closeness, but because he is very ill, it's temporarily taken out of the sexual quality that were threatening for me as a young reader, perhaps the sexual quality that would be Oh, I've just taken off my slip to make you bandages and now I'm curled up with you in what's essentially a bed.
The other thing about that scene, which goes from like an afternoon into the next morning, she is taking care of Mark who has been shot and the captain of the boat that he and his brother were on, Lambis, has gone, Nicola sent him off to the boat to get blankets and more food and see if Colin is there. And then she would take care of Mark in Lambis’s absence. So she's gotten this huge amount of food from the hotel, and she shares her sandwiches with Lambis and with Mark, and the day she finds him, she breaks open in orange, and he can only have one section. And then the next morning, when she goes again to feed him and picks up the orange, she refers to the texture of the orange section as limp suede. And I cannot remember when I read that, but that description has stuck with me for decades, it's got to be over 40 years since I read that and possibly 50 years since I read that.
I remember it too, you know, I had the same reaction to it. Maybe that was already a sign we were going to be writers as well as passionate readers, because I think there's sometimes a little physical description, a motif, an image, an exchange, sometimes it's the language, you know, that really takes in one's mind. And I think part of what's wonderful about that is not only that it feels so true and so observed to which Stewart often does you know, when she's talking about flowers, when she's talking about birds, when she's talking about a landscape, food, etc. It just always tends to feel very observed, very grounded in the physical reality of the world as we know it. But I also remember it partly because that feeling that by that point, you're waking up, you're sort of dirty, you're tired, she's concerned that more she wants to look at the wound and make sure he's not about you know, die of sepsis and the food that seemed very ample and delicious the day before they have used up a lot of it. I think there's also maybe a little bit of chocolate left. It is just not which I don't remember if it's in this book or another one where when she when she lights a small fire and this one, she makes a sort of watered down chocolate and it's just this very unsatisfying meal and yet is the sustenance that he needs. You know, and it just, I can remember that that also just was very vivid to me.
Yes. And haven't we all felt at some point that it's not even having a liquid. It's having something hot, however unsatisfying. It might be just like the warmth, holding the warmth in your hand, having the warmth of whatever liquid trickle down your throat and sort of warm you from inside, which after Mark’s been shot and he's been, you know, had a fever, he roused himself. So it's not like he's been unconscious this whole time. But he certainly was not conversing with her. Nicola pretty much was doing what needed to be done with Mark there as a presence but not a participant.
I think that that's true. It's just a book that has a lot of balance of its effects, and a lot of interesting emotional moments. There's so much to me that's quite memorable emotionally. And I also want to just note that for me, and this is interesting to me as a writer, because I write I mean, obviously, my books have both genders. But I'm interested in women's stories, both as a memoirist and as a fiction writer, and in addition to her protagonist’s story in The Moon-Spinners [Stewart] does a wonderful job with secondary female characters. There is Nicola’s cousin Frances, who is just a wonderful character. She's the classic amused English woman. She has a sort of detachment, and it's warm, but she's just a rueful character, she sees the irony of things, she has a little bit of humor running through all of her observations, even when she's sort of abandoned sitting on a rock while people are fighting and nearly dying. She just sort of, in a way, she's an observer of the world. And it's interesting that she's a botanist. And they're partly there because she's interested in plants. Yeah, she's not a character who is passionately involved in human life, although she's more than willing to help Nicola when she can, but she's just a wonderful character. And then another favorite character in that book is Joseph's wife, Sofia, who is caught between terror and kindness throughout the book, and is a painful character to read, because she's so terrified. You don't entirely understand why, but there's several different reasons.
And you get definitely, or at least I did, because of my work with SafeSpace and domestic violence she’s absolutely being abused by her husband. So that's part of it. And at the point where she steps up and says, No, it's to protect someone else. It's to protect Colin, it's not to protect herself. I like her. She's also very old school, she dresses in the traditional manner, she behaves in the traditional manner. She's too polite to refuse Nicola and Frances when they barge into the windmill, and basically bully her into giving them a tour, and so that Frances can run some film of the windmill and the insides of it, but she is a very kind character, and that really does come through.
Yeah, I agree with you on the abuse. And in fact, one of the things that she's fearful of throughout the book is where is her husband, right, who is not coming home, and it's that weight, which is more dangerous when he doesn't come home or when he does come home. And I think that that's very powerful. And in a funny way, I realized because we're talking about them in close proximity that she and Frances are really foils, not opposites. That contrast, Frances controls her own life, she does not need to be unduly worried about anyone really, she is a somewhat detached character where Sofia is entirely attached in the sense of being very dependent on her brother and her husband and her attachments make her very, very fearful because they have landed her in the middle of a lot of very problematic behavior. But when push comes to shove, Sofia both takes care of Colin and does what she needs to do.
And also we come to find out does not accept money from her brother above what she earns working for him, because she suspects that the money is the fruit of illegal acts.
I want to mention very briefly the secondary character of the hotel keeper, Tony, who I think is one of Stewart's best comic creations. I mean, it's sort of hard to believe that he is part of the villainy that in the backstory, you know, propelled the current day plot, but to me, he is just sort of strange and hilarious, and she so wonderfully evokes the contrast of this person who was pure London, the way he dresses the way he speaks. He is very, very much a sophisticated English character, amoral, but probably actually not a character who would work very hard to be a villain, right? He doesn't have a sort of strong avarice or anything and maybe that's why even though he is definitely among the bad guys, he's just to me a very, very funny character. There's a funny moment where Nicola remembers that. He said that his father was a Parson and Tony quotes something that is the person talking about how and Nicola comments on it, and Tony says, but he was such an odd Vicar. Right? I love that.
Yeah. And also Tony doesn't seem malicious he's in, in for the crime if it's against property, but he's not in for the crime if it's to harm another person. So as far as the villains go, he's sort of a benign villain, right?
He is a villain by omission, he won't, as is proved at the end of the book, he's not going to go out of his way to save you, unlike some, but he's not going to go out of his way to hurt you either. And in the land of men, who will very much go out of their way to hurt you by which land I don't mean Greece, I mean, the world of the story, right? You know, you're grateful to have someone who is detached enough that they really don't care about you one way or the other. This book really wonderfully balances the story that has to do with real physical danger and possible family tragedy, you know, there's so many really painful themes that she evokes really well, but you get the relief of these characters who fit into the book seamlessly, I think, and yet give you just kind of a breathing space, right? When you're with them. you're not in the world of blood and violence, you're in the world of much more detached characters.
And as you say that I'm thinking there's actually three little family groups. There's Mark and Colin and then you hear about their two sisters. So that's one little family unit. You have Nicola and Frances, who are cousins but Frances took over guardianship of Nicola when her parents were killed or died, I forget what the exact circumstance was. And then you have Sofia's brother [Stratos], and Sofia, and they're a little family dynamic with Sofia and Joseph being a married couple, and her brother not at all pleased with the treatment that Joseph gives his sister, and Sofia his reluctance to have her brother step in and do something about it.
I have to confess that for some reason, I'm spacing on the brother's name, too. So I apologize. But yes, that it's essentially a kind of mingling of these three miniature family units. And Sofia's brother, in fact, is the prime mover in a way of the problems in the book and his pals. And yet you see him both being a threatening character. There are a number of scenes in which even when he's dealing with Nicola in what's ostensibly polite way, there’s an uneasy feeling about him.
There's an undercurrent that right things could go badly, very quickly at a moment's notice.
Exactly, exactly. And yet, as you say, he is very protective of his sister, and he did in fact, like to do more for her than she is willing to accept.
Yes. And I think that's a good note to end our discussion about The Moon-Spinners. But we'll be back with another episode of the Tart Words podcast talking about another Mary Stewart book. Thanks for coming on, Suzanne.
Thank you for joining me this week. To view the complete show notes and the links mentioned in today's episode, visit Tart Words.com/tart117. Before you go, subscribe to the podcast to receive new episodes when they're released. Subscribe now in the app you're using to listen to this podcast or sign up for email alerts through an easy signup form for bakers, readers and writers at Tart Words.com/About. Thank you again for joining me, Linda Hengerer, for this episode of Tart Words.
Suzanne Fox writes fiction and nonfiction, reviews books for Publishers Weekly, edits the online journal Society Nineteen, and works with authors to shape, publish and market their work. Her handmade jewelry and digital art (including that for the Tart Words Mary Stewart podcasts) is inspired by favorite books and authors. A graduate of the Columbia University MFA Writing program, Suzanne now lives in North Carolina. Find out more about Suzanne at www.bookstrategy.com and www.societynineteenjournal.com.