By Leslie Lindsay
A gripping story of one woman’s bravery and brilliance during WWII, exploring themes of identity, deception, and more.
~WEDNESDAYS WITH WRITERS|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
JAN ELIASBERG DIRECTOR, WRITER AND PRODUCER KNOWN FOR CREATING EVOCATIVE MATERIAL FEATURING PERFORMANCES FROM TODAY’S MOST COMPELLING ACTORS.
With HANNAH’S WAR (Little Brown/Back Bay Books, March 3 2020), award-winning screenwriter and film director, Jan Eliasberg turns her gaze toward fiction, but staying true to form, she is continuing to highlight strong, independent female characters. I was blown away with the writing in HANNAH’S WAR and had to remind myself this is a debut novel for the author. The writing is fast-paced and beautifully descriptive.
Inspired by real-life scientist, female physicist Lise Meitner, HANNAH’S WAR is Eliasberg’s answer in seeking truth and information about scientific discovery, women’s place in the workforce (and in war), discovery, morality, love, family, and more. There’s a bit of everything in HANNAH’S WAR–from mystery and science, to spies, and romance; a wartime story of loyalty and truth and the unforeseeable fallout from one women’s choice.
HANNAH’S WAR is more imagination than fact, but there are most definitely poles from which Jan Eliasberg strung her narrative–who was Dr. Lise Meitner? What was her story? And why don’t we know more about her? I adored the science references and a woman working in such a field at that time.
Split between dual time periods and locations – Berlin in 1938 and Los Alamos in 1945, we get an eye-opening investigation of military intelligence, the atomic bomb, WWII, and more.
HANNAH’S WAR is an impressive debut with plenty of cat-and-mouse moments, spies, thrills, and romance, which will surely ensnare many.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Jan Eliasberg to the author interview series.
Jan, wow! HANNAH’S WAR is shattering. And your obsession with her absolutely shines. I think we’re all a little haunted into writing something. I have a sense I know what it was for you—Lise Meitner. Can you tell us how you came to learn about her, how the writing blossomed?
I was in the New York Public Library reading on microfiche the August 7, 1945 issue of the New York Times. Under the headline: FIRST ATOMIC BOMB DROPPED ON JAPAN; TRUMAN WARNS FOE OF A ‘RAIN OF RUIN,’” there was an article tracing the simultaneously terrifying and wondrous development of the atomic bomb. Somewhere under the fold, buried in a dense paragraph, this sentence appeared: “The key component that allowed the Allies to develop the bomb was brought to the Allies by a female, ‘non-Aryan’ physicist.” Who was this woman? Who was the female Jewish physicist responsible for the single most important scientific discovery of the twentieth century whose work had, literally, changed the world? And why had I never heard of her? Why, I wondered, isn’t her face staring out of every science textbook?
Those questions prompted a ten-year quest that took me deeply into the history of the atomic bomb, and the physics that propelled it. My mystery woman was Dr. Lise Meitner, an Austrian scientist, a Jew, working at the highest levels of research at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. She and long-term partner Otto Hahn were on the verge of a ground-breaking discovery when Austria was annexed. Meitner’s privileged position, and all the protections her colleagues had promised, evaporated within six terrifying hours, as she fled Berlin within hours of being captured and sent to the camps.
Hahn remained in Berlin and was so dependent on Meitner that he continued to collaborate with her, even after she’d fled to Sweden. He met with her in Copenhagen in secret and sent her, on postcards via courier, the results of experiments they’d designed together. It was Meitner not Hahn, who analyzed the results and recognized that they had split the atom.
Because Meitner was Jewish, the paper Hahn published in Germany did not have her name on it. Hahn falsely claimed that the discovery was based solely on insights gleaned from his own chemical purification work, and that any insight contributed by Meitner played an insignificant role.
After the war, when Hahn was awarded the 1945 Nobel Prize for the discovery of nuclear fission, he conveniently left the record uncorrected, robbing Meitner of the Nobel Prize she rightfully deserved. In Meitner’s diaries, she writes about sitting in the audience at the Nobel Ceremony, hoping that Hahn would mention her name: he did not. The Nobel “mistake,” was never acknowledged, much less rectified.
As a pioneering female director in Hollywood I strongly identified with this brilliant woman whose ground-breaking work was falsely credited to a man. Because Meitner couldn’t correct the historical record, I determined to do it for her.
You’re an award-winning screenwriter and director. How did your background in television and film help as you shaped HANNAH’S WAR? How are the disciplines similar, and how do you see them as different? I know when I write, I sometimes ‘see’ the scene coming to life; my fingers are the mere conduit. Is it like for you, too?
Directing film has of course taught me to think visually. I often think of film as a kind of visual poetry, in which each shot must perfectly convey both story and emotion. I took a similar approach to writing the novel; I tried to envision everything, exactly as you said. In writing classes someone always repeats the old adage: “show don’t tell;” as a director, all you do is show because film is a visual medium—so that made my transition to writing fiction not only fluid, but also fun.
Film and television are great taskmasters in terms of story structure: if a cinematic story doesn’t have the correct structure, no amount of beautiful narrative, fabulous dialogue, or brilliant characterization can salvage it. Most screenwriters spend months “breaking story,” before they write a single line. All the story engines must be activated; all the beats of conflict, tension, and rising action must be in place, all the plot twists must come at the right moments to maintain the viewer’s interest and must feel simultaneously both surprising and inevitable.
“I flew through Hannah’s War, a gripping true story long overdue to be told, of a brilliant woman physicist working to develop the first atomic bomb and the secret she fights to protect.”
—Martha Hall Kelly, author of Lilac Girls
As I read HANNAH’S WAR, there were several movies that came to mind…obviously many WWII movies, but also HIDDEN FIGURES, about the intelligent ‘calculators,’ African-American women working to get the space shuttle into orbit. Marginalized women are present in both your work and HIDDEN FIGURES—also at a time when science and math, and well, work in general—was more male-dominated. Can you talk about that, please?
There’s a tradition of books and films about marginalized geniuses contributing in a positive and patriotic way to society while fighting against social prejudices—whether it be the schizophrenic John Nash in A BEAUTIFUL MIND; the story of gay and closeted Alan Turing in THE IMITATION GAME; or Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson in HIDDEN FIGURES. HANNAH’S WAR falls within that tradition.
But these kinds of stories are relatively rare. Because of the way history is told—by the victors—marginalized figures are often left out of, or are greatly diminished, in the authorized story.
We know, for example, about male fighter pilots in World War II—we’ve seen TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH; TORA! TORA! TORA! TUSKEGEE AIRMEN: PEARL HARBOR. But we’ve never seen the story of the W.A.S.P. – the Women Air Service Pilots in WWII—which is just as heroic, just as compelling. That story has been erased from history and needs to be reclaimed.
I wanted to tell Lise Meitner’s story in part because I identified with her. We need more storytellers from marginalized communities to recover and reclaim these stories. Then we will be able to understand history and civilization from a multiplicity of perspectives.
I was so struck—saddened and angered—about the anti-Semitism in HANNAH’S WAR. This was a dark time. Can you talk about that, please?
It was a given that HANNAH’S WAR would investigate anti-Semitism in Germany. Then, because Hannah brings the perspective of what she has seen and experienced in Germany with her to Los Alamos, it allowed me to look at the reality of anti-Semitism in the United States.
My father, who fought in WWII, told me stories of what it was like to come back and try to find a job; he talked about whole professional fields that were closed to him as a Jew: the “white shoe” law firms like Cravath, Swain; Banking; Wall Street. I knew that the character of Jack would be far more interesting if he was hiding secrets of his own and I started toying with the idea of making him Jewish—a Jew who’d made a conscious decision to “pass.”
I remembered being at Yale and learning about the historical link between Yale’s secret societies and the OSS (now the CIA). The CIA was born out of the world of the American “aristocracy”—the moneyed, old families of America. Men of “good character” essentially meant privileged, entitled, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The idea of making Jack an interloper in that world was irresistible—and it felt like a wonderful way to explore anti-Semitism in America.
One could credibly posit that anti-Semitism was exported from America to Germany, not the other way around. I didn’t make any of that up, it’s all there in history if we choose to look at it. And, alas, these issues of Anti-Semitic and anti-refugee sentiments have all too obvious parallels in America today.
Can you tell us more about Lise Meitner—maybe some facts that didn’t make it into HANNAH’S WAR? What do you think she might say about the book?
In photographs, Meitner has the diminutive delicacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a fragile beauty that, I imagine, made her easy to underestimate. She also has the steely gaze of a fierce warrior; someone who will follow her principles with an inner tenacity wherever they lead. Like RBG, she was an avowed and staunch feminist.
“I was known as the woman the all-male chemistry department did not want to hire,” she wrote, “Under such circumstances one becomes, and remains, a feminist.”
In 1945, at a dinner for the Women’s Press Club, President Harry Truman honored Meitner’s accomplishments with this back-handed compliment, “So you’re the little lady who got us into this atomic mess!” Such sexism and condescension weren’t new to Meitner. She’d endured them patiently and without protest since the day she gave her inaugural speech as the first female University Lecturer and the press jokingly reported the topic of her speech as “Cosmetic Physics” instead of “Cosmic Physics.”
I like to imagine her at that Women’s Press Club Dinner, dainty frame perched in the seat of honor, cuffs of lace encircling her tiny wrists, her mouth in a practiced smile as she struggles to suppress an eye-roll at Truman’s diminishing praise.
Most importantly, however, she had an incredibly strong moral compass. I was very taken with his statement she made near the end of her life: “Those blessed with a brilliant mind and a gift for science have a higher duty that comes before discovery, a duty to humanity. Science can be used for good or evil; so, it’s incumbent upon scientists to ensure that their work makes the world a better place.”
Meitner died in 1968 in Cambridge, England; she was 89 years old. The epitaph on her gravestone, written by her nephew Otto Frisch, reads:
“Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity.”
I’d like to think that she’d very much appreciate the way I captured her humanity in the novel.
Jan, this has been so insightful and fascinating. Thank you so much for taking the time. Is there something I should have asked, but may have forgotten? What’s obsessing you now that Lise/Hannah made her way into a book?
I’ve enjoyed this enormously – thank you for asking such great questions.
I hope that HANNAH’S WAR will show my daughter and her peers that history is filled with remarkable women of towering achievement and deep humanism; we need only look beyond the authorized texts to see them. I wrote to shine a light on one of these women, and I hope HANNAH’S WAR will be a beacon for all women, in my daughter’s generation and beyond, to live not only with authenticity and pride, but also with the support and acknowledgement of the wider world.
I hope readers will come to believe that the actions of one person can shape the course of history, that the power of love can, truly, change the world. Those are the primary reasons I write the book.
If readers want to know more about the research I did, or more about my visual inspirations, or my film and television work, they can visit my website: http://www.janeliasberg.com. I welcome a dialogue with my readers and love to get specific questions.
In terms of what’s obsessing me now: I’m working on my next novel. It will stand alone for anyone who hasn’t read HANNAH’S WAR, but it is a companion piece in the sense that it follows the character of Hannah’s niece. Sabine Weiss, who disappears mysteriously halfway through HANNAH’S WAR to a fate we never know. It explores the experiences of those who remain, those who survive. It asks how survivors of deep trauma can heal and questions what our collective obligation is to help in that healing.
Just as in HANNAH’S WAR, those big moral questions are wrapped up in what I hope is an “edge of your seat” mystery and a great, sweeping love story.
Artistic photo of book designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram @leslielindsay1 for more like this and other bookish things.
For more information, to connect with Jan Eliasberg via social media, or to purchase a copy of HANNAH’S WAR, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jan Eliasberg is an award-winning writer/director. Her prolific directing career includes dramatic pilots for CBS, NBC, and ABC, such as Miami Vice and Wiseguy; countless episodes of television series, including Bull, Nashville, Parenthood, The Magicians, Blue Bloods, NCIS: Los Angeles, Supernatural, and dozens of others; as well as the feature film Past Midnight, starring Paul Giamatti, the late Natasha Richardson, and Rutger Hauer.
Eliasberg also has a storied career as a screenwriter, writing films driven by strong female leads, including Fly Girls about the Women Air Service Pilots in WWII for Nicole Kidman and Cameron Diaz at FOX 2000, among many others.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
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- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Email: email@example.com
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
Leslie Lindsay is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA (Woodbine House, 2012). Her work has been published in Pithead Chapel, Common Ground Review, Cleaver Magazine (craft and CNF), The Awakenings Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Ruminate’s The Waking, Brave Voices Literary Magazine, Manifest-Station, and others. Her cover art will be featured on Up the Staircase Quarterly in May 2020 and the 2nd edition of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA will be available this spring. Leslie has been awarded one of the top 1% reviewers on GoodReads and recognized by Jane Friedman as one of the most influential book reviewers. Since 2013, Leslie has interviewed over 700 bestselling and debut authors on her author interview series. Follow her bookstagram posts @leslielindsay1.
SECOND EDITION OF SPEAKING OF APRAXIA COMING SOON FROM WOODBINE HOUSE
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Dewey Decimal Media and used with permission. Artistic photo of book designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram @leslielindsay1 for more like this and other bookish things]