April 28, 2021

Mary Stewart's Airs Above the Ground

Mary Stewart's Airs Above the Ground

In this episode of Tart Words, Suzanne Fox and Linda Hengerer are discussing Mary Stewart’s book Airs Above the Ground and how she uses unusual settings, creates vivid animal characters, and shows relationship dynamics.

In this episode of Tart Words, Suzanne Fox and Linda Hengerer are discussing Mary Stewart’s book Airs Above the Ground and how she uses unusual settings, creates vivid animal characters, and shows relationship dynamics.   

It was first published in 1965 by Hodder & Stoughton and is now available in ebook editions.  

Description from Amazon:

Vanessa March's husband Lewis is meant to be on a business trip in Stockholm. So why does he briefly appear in newsreel footage of a fire at a circus in Vienna, with his arm around another woman? Vanessa flies to Austria to find her husband - and inadvertently becomes involved in a mystery surrounding the famous dancing stallions of Austria's Spanish Riding School . . .

Takeaways for writers:

In Airs Above the Ground, Vanessa March is having lunch with her mother’s friend Carmel, whose son Tim wants to see his father in Vienna. Carmel proposes that Vanessa chaperone Tim when she travels to meet her husband Lewis. Vanessa and Lewis should have been on holiday, but an urgent work assignment came up and Lewis had to postpone the holiday; they had a blazing row that Vanessa regrets. Carmel mentions having seen Lewis in a newsreel about a circus fire near Vienna; after seeing the newsreel herself, Vanessa calls Carmel to say she’ll take Tim with her to Vienna and hand him over to his father. 

Vanessa and Tim forge an unlikely alliance, and both give each other the courage to continue on their respective journeys. Both Tim and Lewis have secrets that play into the story, as does Vanessa’s background as a vet and Tim’s desire to work with the Lippizaner stallions. 

As secrets are revealed and surprising skills unveiled, mysteries are solved and relationships are forged.

Exercises for writers:

Unusual Settings – The circus and the Schloss are not your usual settings; note how Mary Stewart incorporates the unique aspects of each into the story. Whether your settings are unusual or not, how do you use Setting to enhance the story’s narrative? 

Vivid Animal Characters – Horses play an integral part in Airs Above the Ground. If you have animal characters, either as pets or as a plot point, how do you give them a personality that makes readers believe the animal/character? Think about animals in movies or on television (Beethoven, Lassie) and how they are the focus of the story. Even if your animal character isn’t a large part of the story, what small trait can you give them that will resonate with readers?

Relationship Dynamics – Vanessa meets Tim at the airport when Carmel gives him over to Vanessa. Though not far apart in age, they are in experience. How do you introduce characters and give them context for a relationship? In the beginning it doesn’t seem that Vanessa and Tim will spend a lot of time together, but they do; how do you show a growing friendship between characters who would not naturally be friends?

Like this episode? Leave a review or rating! 


Transcribed by Otter.ai; Lightly edited by Linda. Please forgive typos and grammar errors.

Episode 120 – Airs Above the Grounds



Linda 00:00

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. 

Find out more about Suzanne at www.bookstrategy.com and www.SocietyNineteenJournal.com


In this episode of Tart Thoughts, Suzanne Fox and Linda Hengerer are discussing Mary Stewart's book Airs Above the Ground and how she uses unusual settings, creates vivid animal characters, and shows relationship dynamics. 


It was first published in 1965 by Hodder and Stoughton and is now available in ebook editions. 

Description from Amazon:


Vanessa March’s husband Lewis is meant to be on a business trip in Stockholm. So why does he briefly appear in newsreel footage of a fire at a circus in Vienna with his arm around another woman? Vanessa flies to Austria to find her husband and inadvertently becomes involved in a mystery surrounding the famous dancing stallions of Austria’s Spanish riding school. 


Welcome to the Tart Words podcast, Suzanne, I am looking forward to talking to you about one of our favorite authors, Mary Stewart, and one of my favorite books of hers Airs Above the Ground.


Suzanne 02:11

Thank you for having me. And I was going to say that Airs Above the Ground is very much one of my favorites too. And as we've talked about, it's hard to choose favorites sometimes but certainly it's in my top five or so.


Linda 02:23

It is mine too. I would say probably The Moon-Spinners and Airs Above the Ground are the two of hers that I have read the most often, excepting her Arthur trilogy, which I read quite a bit over and over when I was a teenager when they first came out in the 70s. But I have always loved Airs Above the Ground. And based on reading that book, when I was in Las Vegas a number of years ago, I actually saw the Lipizzaner stallions at the Excalibur Casino.


Suzanne 02:54

I would really love to have done that. I never was able to do that. But that part of the story really caught my imagination as well. And I think I was one of those many young ladies who loved horses, I was less interested when it turned out that my parents were going to make me use my babysitting money to ride a very tired horse around a not very interesting area of Parsippany, New Jersey, if I wanted to ride horses. But I think like many girls, I had read National Velvet and I loved horses. And so I think the first time I read it, there was still just a bit of that love of horses and horse training and things like that, that added to my love of the novel.


Linda 03:37

I never got into that love of horses. I know it's quite common. And although I've read some books where horses really factored into it, and I get the love that you can have for a beloved companion like that, I never personally I've never been on a horse. I have been around horses, but I've never ridden one. And it was not that aspect so much, although I was definitely intrigued by the performance aspect and breeding of these fabulous horses that are trained to do specific types of movements that came out of the old knights and the horse as an extra weapon that the knight has to protect himself, and then it morphed into this beautiful dance almost


Suzanne 04:24

I think as always to jump into Mary Stewart. Well first I do want to say Linda you don't ever have to get on a horse because you like me love Dick Francis. And Dick Francis is pretty much for me the best of horses, you don't have to pay for them, brush them, 


Linda 04:39

Muck them out,


Suzanne 04:40

get thrown by them, but you can absolutely I think experience much of what is really wonderful about horses in his books. But in this book, the other thing that I think is really lovely is that one of the characters Tim Lacey from the beginning is very interested in the Lipizzan tradition and would like to work for the Lipizzan stud. That's one of his reasons for wanting to go to Austria. But you don't actually know until midway through the book that there is a Lipizzan stallion where you least expect. And I think that is so magical, the discovery scene of when you realize that a broken down circus horse actually has a long ago history as a highly trained dressage and performance horse. I just think it's just one of the most beautiful scenes and to this day, both that and the very end of the book where he has come home, bring tears to my eyes.


Linda 05:35 

Yeah, they're both really well written. And one of the things that Mary Stewart does so well is write animals, certainly with the horses. We talked about it with the dolphin in This Rough Magic, but certainly in this book, you get the feel for this horse that is many years past his prime, and has been incognito as a fabulous horse in the guise of a circus horse, and then to see that he remembers his past, and that at the end has been brought home was really, really well done.


Suzanne 06:10

I think so too. And I think it brings up for me a sort of interesting thing about research for writers, which is to say that the tendency, and I certainly do this too, and in addition to having to cut out whole scenes that I love but are not needed for my own books, I certainly cut out a lot of the results of my research. But Mary Stewart clearly really understands the history of the places you find yourself in in her novels, she understands the history and the nature of everything she writes about, including the Lipizzan tradition, but she also somehow understands what the creatures really are, how do they connect to human beings? And how do the systems around them work? You know that I think our traveling circus, you really feel that she dug down enough not to just give you a bunch of facts about the circus does this or that, but to understand what is the culture of the traveling circus at that time? Like, what is the Lipizzan culture? Like how do veterinarians see horses? How to horses see them? Does that make sense? I think there's the feeling level that she gets to. And so you not only feel, I think that her facts are correct, but to me, there's an authenticity about the scenes, that is what we're all really trying to get out with our research and don't always quite get there to where you really feel it as an organic reality and organic world.


Linda 07:39

I feel that too, that the novel, you definitely feel that you are with Vanessa March as the main character as she's moving from England to Austria coming upon her husband. And you definitely get a feel for the relationship, the relationships between the other characters, and also the similarity that she writes about with Vanessa coming to Austria with Timothy, who is old enough to travel on his own, but his mother won't let him go without a chaperone. And then Vanessa, who doesn't need a chaperone, but is going into uncharted waters, because she finds that her husband isn't quite where he said he was going to be. So she and Tim are adventuring into Austria with no real expectation of what's going to be waiting for them when they get there. 


Suzanne 08:36

Right. And I think another fun piece of the plot is that they both have left some things out in their description of what they're doing to the other. Vanessa has not really revealed that, Hmm, Number one, she doesn't really know where her husband is. And number two, when she encounters him, she doesn't admit that at first either since he's incognito. And Tim has not said to her that while it is true that his father who he's ostensibly going to visit lives in Vienna, he has not really mentioned that he doesn't even know where his father lives. And so he has no assurance whatsoever that there will be any place to stay or that he'll have enough money. And so I think that that sort of adds to this kind of gently comic aspect of the plot that I think is quite fun and light hearted in a nice way.


Linda 09:26

Yes. And although Vanessa is not that much older than Tim, I believe Tim is 17 or 18. And Vanessa is in her mid-20s her lived experience is greater: she has gone to school as a vet and practiced as a vet before she married Lewis but they are closer in age than any of the other characters in the book. So I thought that their friendship was quite organic and true to finding themselves in a strange country and you only know one other person and between the two of them they get to where they need to be.


Suzanne 10:02

I think that's a great point, they sort of function as home for each other as they're traveling in this strange place. I would also note that Tim is an interesting character, because in some ways, he is very inexperienced, logistically speaking. But you're told why that is. But before you meet him, you meet his mother, who is described very much as someone who never wants him to grow up and is very clingy. That's what he's really escaping from. And so you get a character who, while he doesn't have much practical life experience, he takes to that kind of experience I think very well. And he is very committed to becoming an independent person with his own life. And I think that you're right, that makes them feel closer in age than you might think that a very inexperienced teenager and married woman in her mid-20s who's practiced a profession would be. They have more of a meeting of the minds than you might think.


Linda 11:01

Yes. I also like the way that Tim accepts every little change of circumstance in a nonjudgmental way. He finds out that Vanessa is going to meet her husband except it turns out that's not exactly true. And he just goes with the flow. And then when they get to the circus, and meet Lewis and Lewis's alter ego, Lee, he accepts that and then when he finds out that Lee is really Lewis, he accepts that and accepts sort of each iteration of the new circumstance with, Okay, now what do we do? as opposed to, I liked it better the old way. Why do we have to change?


Suzanne 11:41

Absolutely. He welcomes the adventure of it, and I think he has a lot of confidence in his own ability to deal with it. For some reason, I'm reminded that in Wildfire at Midnight, the actress Marcia Malling describes somebody as being sorbo – S O R B O – and when Janet Brooke says what does that mean? She says, Well, I've just dated myself, it was the name of a rubber, a very bouncy rubber ball. Tim has a little bit of a sorbo quality in that sense. Yeah, right, that he's very confident. He's sort of bouncy, he's energetic, he's very resilient. Right, nothing really finds him at a loss. And he really does not lose his very good humor through it as well. Yes.


Linda 12:24

And I think that sometimes comes with that youthful age, because certainly when you're 17, or 18, you think you know more than you actually do. But you don't find out that till you're older.


Suzanne 12:35

That is certainly true. And then you look back 10 years from then, and you're horrified at how little you knew.


Linda 12:41

I love this settings that she uses to not just the circus, but when they're in the castle that has been recreated as a bed and breakfast so that the owners can live in a somewhat smaller portion of the castle but still maintain its beauty and historical accuracy, towards the end of the book that plays into some of the chase where Vanessa has done some exploring and because they modernized the castle by installing an elevator, that becomes a pivotal plot point before Lee or Lewis comes to the rescue. And there's a little misunderstanding on Vanessa's part about what the object that the bad guy is after; she thinks it's jewels. And it turns out to be drugs.


Suzanne 13:32

There certainly is a bad guy and she is not incorrect that he is looking forward in something that she now has. You know you're an author who writes setting very cleverly, when you figure out a way to put your characters in a setting that both has an elevator and has battlements that you can be running along. There's just a moment in it that is very funny to me, where Vanessa begins to explain that a very how shall we say, not particularly high class looking horse is about to show up since he's been dyed. And he's elderly. She starts to explain this to the owners of the Schloss turned B&B. And then she realizes she doesn't have to because in the lifestyle that the owners come from, it's perfectly normal to have a horse, and of course they have a working stable. In fact, she is led to a very clean stall. And it's just very funny. I mean, as always, I think the settings are always kind of cleverly organized. And so they feel both real and suited to suspense. And that's not that easy to do as a writer. I think that there's that way in which a lot of thriller or suspense writers, it's easy to fall into the trap of having your settings almost become a little bit clichéd in terms of why they feel dangerous. And I think Stewart does not do that. She's very good at writing settings that can be quite beautiful and quite dangerous at the same time.


Linda 14:58

Beautiful in the daylight with the sun shining and menacing at night, when there's only a little bit of moon, to light your way over the ruined battlements as you're running for your life from the crazed circus guy.


Suzanne 15:15

Who has arrived in your bedroom unexpectedly a few moments before, never a happy moment in a woman's life.


Linda 15:22

Certainly not. It's interesting that Vanessa is able to keep her wits about her enough to think about escaping, but also that when she had done a little reconnaissance earlier that she had an idea of where to go.


Suzanne 15:37

That's interesting. I hadn't thought about it, but you're right. And it does serve her well as does the fact that she's been down sort of in the winding corridors to go to the stables she actually has a better sense of it than most guests would have. Certainly, I have to say when I've stayed at former beautiful mansions turned into B&Bs, I pretty much could find my way to the bar, the breakfast room, my bedroom and the bathroom. When crazy circus guy shows up at my bedroom, I am not going to be able to evade him particularly well.


Linda 16:09

That's funny. I think on that note, we can end our talk about Airs Above the Ground, which as always, I find delightful and I have read it innumerable times. But I enjoy it every time.


Suzanne 16:22

Well, me too. And if you can't end on the note of crazy circus guy in the bedroom, where can you end?  Linda, thanks so much for having me. It's such a delight to talk about these books with you.


Linda 16:33

Thanks for coming on the Tart Words podcast, Suzanne. Until next time. 


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/tart120. 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 Thoughts.


Suzanne Fox Profile Photo

Suzanne Fox


Author, editor, book reviewer, and book consultant Suzanne Fox earned her MFA in Writing at the Columbia University School of the Arts. Her first book, the memoir Home Life, was published by Simon & Schuster; appearing under the pseudonyms Suzanne Scott and Suzanne Judson, her women’s fiction novels have been published by Berkley Penguin Putnam and Harlequin. Suzanne works personally with writers in many genres on book structure and publication, reviews literary and mystery fiction for Publishers Weekly, edits the online journal Society Nineteen, and teaches workshops in memoir, fiction writing, and the creative process. Until recently a resident of Vero Beach, Suzanne now lives in North Carolina. More information about Suzanne can be found at www.sfoxarts.com.