Saturday, December 16, 2017

Q&A with Karen Swan


Karen Swan is the author of the new novel The Paris Secret. Her other novels include The Summer Without You, Christmas at Tiffany's, and The Perfect Present. She lives in East Sussex, UK.

Q: You note that The Paris Secret was based on a real-life discovery of an abandoned apartment in Paris. What did you see as the right balance between the actual story and your own fictional creation?

A: It’s both a creative and a legal issue – one has to be really careful not to imply anything as true when it’s not, especially if it’s got negative connotations.

But also, the joy as a writer is in taking an idea and seeing where it leads you and in this instance, I was led by the nose on the question of why the family - having justifiably fled Paris during the Nazi occupation – never returned to the apartment in over 70 years. I had done as much research as I could but the family who own it have gone to great lengths to avoid further publicity on the issue.

Quite possibly their true reasons for keeping it locked are far more mundane than what I’ve come up with, but that’s the joy of fiction - all stories are rooted in truth to some extent and it’s enough to simply start with a question and let my imagination spool out and see where I end up.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the novel, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?

A: I always do a huge amount of research before I start writing – several months’ worth in fact. For this novel, I had something of a head start in that I had studied Nazi Germany at A-Level in the UK so I was already pretty well-informed on the subject.

But what was particularly interesting and surprising to me, was coming in to it at such an oblique angle – Art, I soon realized, was absolutely key to the Third Reich, not just in terms of military strategy but also as part of their peacetime aspirations.

Hitler, as is well documented, was a failed artist, having been rejected repeatedly by art academies in Munich. He continued to paint throughout his life, however, and one of his recognized objectives, once he’d won control of Europe, was to open a museum in Linz, his hometown, which would become the greatest art collection in the world.

Certainly the Nazis, under Goring who was also an avid collector, were steadily plundering state assets from monasteries, churches and museums in all their occupied territories with a view to furnishing this museum – to the point where the “Monuments Men” were formed as part of an unprecedented international aid effort to save as much of the cultural heritage of Europe as was possible during combat.

But in addition to this overarching goal, at grass roots level, art was being used to fund their armaments programme. Throughout the 1930s, as the Far Right movement grew, Jewish families had been obliged to inventory their assets.

Once war broke out, for a while, selling their more valuable items was a form of “flight tax,” in which those families were effectively able to barter their way out of Germany, but eventually, that was stopped as the Holocaust began to ramp up - documentation was falsified, money for goods was paid into blocked bank accounts and these assets were essentially stolen from them.

It was boom-time for state-sponsored agents, galleries and dealers; whatever the Reich leaders didn’t want for themselves, the so-called “degenerate” art of modern artists was sold abroad - the Dutch and American markets positively flourished - and was reinvested in the military effort. Quite literally, Jewish art assets were used to fund the very war which was intending to eradicate them.

Q: How did you come up with your main character, Flora Sykes?

A: Flora was something of a gift in that she came to me fully formed. I always use names as a starting point for “visualizing” my characters; I already knew what her job would be and that she was based in London, but as soon as I came up with her name, I could see her walking down Bond Street.

I’m not usually that lucky; in my most recent book, I only really got to grips with my heroine in the final 50 pages of the first draft, which was pretty painful.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: I admire beautiful prose; language is like music to me – it has tension, rhythm, metre, shape and sound – so I appreciate authors with a similar ear.

I adore Katherine Rundell, a British children’s writer who is so good, I insist on reading her stories out loud to my daughter so that I don’t miss out!

Also Sebastian Faulks, William Boyd, and I just read the newest book by Kristin Hannah, The Great Alone, which was instant love. She’s a stunning writer - there were passages I wanted to mark with a highlighter so that I could go back to them, they were that good.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I write two books a year in the UK – a Christmas title and a “summer” book. The Paris Secret is one of the latter, and I’ve just completed next summer’s story The Greek Escape, so I’m about to go into edits for that.

I was also in Canada a few weeks back promoting my newest book, The Christmas Secret, and then I was in Norway last week researching next Christmas’s book (December 2018); I’m just in the final stretch of working out a plot and I’ll try to start writing before the Christmas break.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m a busy mother of three, I have two dogs and I absolutely love my job.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 16

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Dec. 16, 1775: Jane Austen born.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Q&A with Syl Sobel


Syl Sobel is the author of How the U.S. Government Works, a book for kids. His other books for younger readers include Presidential Elections and Other Cool Facts, and The U.S. Constitution and You. He is an attorney and also has been a reporter, and he is based in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: Why did you decide to write How the U.S. Government Works, and what updates do you have planned for the next edition?

A: I loved reading to my daughters when they were little. One night my 7-year-old and I were reading The Kids Page in The Washington Post and the topic was “How the U.S. Government Works.” 

At that time I was director of publications for a federal government agency and I told my daughters my job was “to make books for the U.S. government.” So my daughter asked me if I could “make a book” for her on how the U.S. government works.

I figured I could do that. So I wrote about 12 pages on the three branches of government and what each one does, put it in language I thought a child in elementary school could understand, put a plastic cover on it, and gave it to her. She was delighted. 

A few weeks later I told a colleague at work about it, and he suggested I try to get it published. So I wrote query letters to about 50 children’s publishers and finally heard from Barron’s, who said they wanted to publish it. We were all excited, worked on it together as a family, and had a little party when it came out. 
 
Then, of course, my younger daughter asked me the obvious question: “When are you going to write a book for me?” So I asked her what she wanted me to write about, and she said “cool things about presidents.” I thought that was a good idea, so I went to work on it and a few months later had written Presidential Elections and Other Cool Facts. 

Well, a few months after that my editor at Barron’s called and asked me if I had any other book ideas. I had to be honest and told her that my first book was my older daughter’s idea and my second book was my younger daughter’s idea. And she said: “That’s your problem, Mr. Sobel. You should have had more kids!” 

But she proposed that I write something on the Constitution, which was a great idea and became my third book, and then the Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence were next. I’ve always loved civics and reading and studying about government, history, law, and politics, and I’ve always wanted to write about them. Thanks to my kids, I did!

I am a big proponent of the idea that the best writing occurs during rewriting. So this new edition of How the U.S. Government Works gives me an opportunity to tighten text and clarify some of the language that I know I can improve. One topic in particular that I’m clarifying is my discussion of “democracy.”

I said in the earlier edition that the U.S. is a democracy, which is partially true, but really the form of government is a “republic,” and the system we use to elect the leaders is democracy. I am going to flesh that out. 

I also want to improve and update some of the illustrations, for example, by making sure there is sufficient diversity in drawings of groups of people and by adding the Native American and African-American museums to the illustration of D.C. that shows where important buildings are located.

Q: What age group has benefited most from the book?

A: It’s marketed for children in grades 3-5 and I think that’s about right. Depending on their reading levels children in slightly younger and slightly older classes could benefit from it. I know it’s become popular also with home schooling parents and has been recommended on several home school websites.

Interestingly, one audience that I had not thought about when I wrote the book is people from other countries who would like to learn about the U.S. government, especially immigrants studying for citizenship exams. I gather that it’s been recommended on several sites that offer resources for immigrants. I am even thinking about volunteering to teach some citizenship classes locally and to use this and my book on the Constitution as textbooks.

Q: As you mentioned, you've written various other books about the government, including one on presidential elections. What have you focused on in that book, and are you planning a new edition?

A: Presidential Elections and Other Cool Facts is like two books in one. The main text explains the presidential election process, from the primaries and caucuses to the conventions, to the election, and inauguration. Children like to know how things work, or what the rules are. So I like to explain things like how the government works, and how the election process works. It’s a common theme in all of my books.

The second part of the book is the kinds of “cool things about presidents” that my daughter asked for. It has lots of fun facts about different presidents, like who the youngest and oldest presidents were, which states have been the birthplaces of the most presidents, and which sets of presidents are related (hint: there are five of them). I also have a section about several First Ladies, and then there’s a listing at the end of all of the presidents, when they were elected, and which party they belonged to. 
 
The book is in its fourth edition now and I update it in advance of each presidential election, so the fifth edition will come out in early 2020. Should be an interesting one to update.

Q: How do you research your books, and what have you learned that especially surprised you?

A: I’m lucky. Most of my research comes directly from the primary sources: The Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and various statutes. I also read reference materials including encyclopedias to come up with the “fun facts” about presidents. I use David Stewart’s book, The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution, as my go to source about the writing of the Constitution.

When the girls were little, we used to go to the library together on weekends and look for kids books to read on the topic I was writing about. I learned a lot by reading how other children's authors handled similar topics as the ones I was writing about. I especially like books by Jean Fritz.

The thing that surprised me most was that there are five sets of presidents who were related. Like most people, I can easily name four. But after the first edition of Presidential Elections came out I got an email from a reader who told me about the fifth set of relatives, albeit distant cousins. I did some research and verified it. So I can always learn something, especially from people who read my writing!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I still have a couple more children’s books in me. I’m working now on one about how the courts work, then after that I may try to write something on the legislative process (though it’s hard to top the Schoolhouse Rock classic on how a bill becomes a law).  

But hey, my kids are grown, they’re 25 and 27 now, so it’s time for me to move on to different audiences, too. I’ve got a few books for general audiences in mind. One has to do with the Founding Generation, about whom I love reading and can’t learn enough. I think they were the most extraordinary collection of great people our country has ever seen at one time, and I love reading stories that tell us more about them as people and about how they got along – or didn’t.

I’ve also started working on a sports-related book. I am a big sports fan. I spend a growing amount of my time covering high school sports for my local community newspaper. I really enjoy it. My kids can’t figure out why I continue to go to high school sports events when they haven’t gone to that school for like 10 years. But I just love telling stories, and writing about kids at that age playing sports provides a never-ending variety of good, meaningful stories to tell.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes. I spent 30 years of my professional career working for the federal court system. I am an attorney and a firm believer in legal and judicial process and in the rule of law. I am not blind to the political problems that plague our government today. But I think our system of government is the best around and will continue to survive, even though we are testing its limits.

I think it’s important for children to understand how our government operates and why it was designed the way it was. That’s why I am happy that my publisher wants me to update my books, keep them current, and continue to promote them so that teachers and parents will buy them to teach children about civics.

My mom used to tell the story of how when I was little she once asked me what I wanted to be. I told her “a lawyer.” She asked, “Why? Do you want to go into a courtroom and represent other people?” And she said that I thought about her question and said, “No. I want to explain how the law works to other people.”

I guess that’s what I was meant to do all along.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 15

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Dec. 15, 1930: Edna O'Brien born.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Q&A with Kate Hamer


Kate Hamer is the author of the new novel The Doll Funeral. She also has written the novel The Girl in the Red Coat. She lives in Cardiff, Wales.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Doll Funeral and for your character Ruby?

A: Like my first book, the original catalyst for the story was a strong central image that somehow I just couldn’t get out of my head.

This time it was a girl running through a house at top speed towards an open back door. She bursts out and looks to the sky and starts singing with joy.

The image wouldn’t leave me. I wanted to know why she was so happy, what had just happened. Then it came to me, the girl’s name was Ruby, it’s her 13th birthday and she’s just found out she’d been adopted as a baby.

The reasons why she’s so happy to hear this news is part of the core of the book.

Q: What do you think the book says about families and the connections they share?

A: It’s twofold, really. I was really interested in how the past intertwines with the present and the hauntings that occur in the book are all from family, whether from way back or nearer in time. I also love writing about survivors and Ruby is definitely one of those.

The book asks: if we are really brave, if we go through trials of ice and fire, do we get to choose who are real family are – who to love - whether they happen to be related to us or not?

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: I realise it’s quite a quirky title but it came to me very early on in the process of writing. There’s a scene in the very heart of the book which explains it.

There’s a Japanese practice of actually performing funerals for dolls. The logic being when we lose someone we love, their dolls need a send off too because it’s felt they are somehow imbued with the spirit of the person that owned it.

For me, the significance lies in “what do we leave behind?” It’s a major theme of the book.

Q: The book takes place partly in a forest area. How important is setting to you in your writing?


A: Setting in this novel is particularly key. In fact, I tried to write the story in two other different locations before this version. Somehow it was always just a little off kilter; something was not working.

It was on a day out that we visited the Forest of Dean, which is close to the border of England and Wales. I’d heard of it before but strangely had never been there even though it’s only about an hour away from where I live.

As soon as I went under the canopy I knew my story had found its location. I think I cried! In the book the forest becomes more than a location, it’s almost like another character in the book.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m nearing the end of the first draft of my third novel. I’ve had a huge amount of fun with it.

In many ways its theme is the slipperiness of thought, but it centres around that age – late teenage – that with the wrong mix of personality and circumstance, things can go very wrong – and without giving too much away I can say they most certainly do!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Well, I could say a little about my writing process. I like to write a minimum of a thousand words a day and try and stay at my desk until I do. I also like to dream up what I’m going to write the next day in bed the night before. I drink a ton of coffee and get going.

On a good day I can have achieved my target by lunchtime and carry on. On other days any little distraction like the phone ringing or the postman delivering a parcel can feel like a blissful release. I find I never know what sort of day it’s going to be!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Kate Hamer.

Dec. 14

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Dec. 14, 1916: Shirley Jackson born.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Q&A with Lesa Cline-Ransome


Lesa Cline-Ransome is the author of the new children's picture book Before She Was Harriet, which is about Harriet Tubman. Cline-Ransome's many other books for kids include Just a Lucky So and So and Words Set Me Free. She lives in the Hudson River Valley region of New York. 

Q: Why did you decide to write Before She Was Harriet, and how did you decide on the structure of the book?

A: Harriet Tubman has been a hero of mine for as long as I can remember but when my husband and illustrator, James, approached me with the idea of writing a story about her life, I was filled with absolute dread.

In part because so many authors, including Alan Schroeder (Minty) and Carole Boston Weatherford (Moses) have told her story so beautifully, I wondered what I could add. 

But when James began telling me about his research and the many different lives she lived, I decided to see if I could add my own perspective on her life.   

Telling the story in reverse chronological order allowed the reader to see her as she once saw herself, as young and vibrant, and even showed that though her physical body had experienced a great deal of change, her will, her dreams and her hope, had not dimmed. 
  
Q: What kind of research did you do to write this, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you? 

A: Because I had written books about Frederick Douglass and slavery in the past, I had of course, come across research on Harriet, much of it focused on her work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. 

James' research revealed other facets of her life that I hadn't read much about including her life as a Union spy, suffragist, general and nurse. 

By adding those roles in this book, I think it gives a broader picture of Harriet and provides a more detailed picture of a life dedicated to service. I never knew that when she escaped, she left behind her name Araminta, and took her mother's name Harriet.  

Q: What do you think your husband James Ransome's illustrations add to the book? 

A: James works in a variety of mediums--oils, acrylics, pastels, and even collage. With his use of watercolor in this book, I feel he did a brilliant job of capturing Harriet's strength and passion but also her vulnerability and hope.  

Q: What do you hope young readers take away from Harriet Tubman's story? 

A: I think Harriet's life serves as a reminder that one voice and one life can impact the lives of many. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I am completing the revisions for a collection of stories about 20 female athletes from the 1800s through the 2000s who broke down barriers in sports.  

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: I have a new picture book coming about Venus and Serena Williams, and my first middle grade novel, entitled Finding Langston, is releasing in May. 

It is the story of a young boy who migrated to Chicago from Alabama in the 1940s after the death of his mother. He feels lost and alone in the city until he stumbles upon a library and there, in the stacks, finds strength, courage and a sense of home in the works of Langston Hughes. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Lesa Cline-Ransome.

Dec. 13

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Dec. 13, 1871: Emily Carr born.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Q&A with John Scherber


John Scherber, photo by Gail Yates Tobey
John Scherber is the author of the Murder in Mexico mystery series, which began with Twenty Centavos and The Fifth Codex and now includes 17 additional novels. His other books include the work of nonfiction San Miguel de Allende: A Place in the Heart. Also an artist and a Minnesota native, he lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your mystery series, and for your main character, Paul Zacher?

A: I was on a painting trip to Taos, N.M., in 2005 and I came up with the image of a young woman coming to pose for an artist in his studio. They each have a quite different idea as to what was going to happen.

As I drove, I rehearsed the scene in my mind and nearly memorized it. When I got to the hotel I wrote it down, and that became the beginning of Twenty Centavos. I had begun as a writer right out of college, but I had run off the rails and had writer’s block for 37 years until that day.

The painter, Paul Zacher, is drawn into a murder case because he might see things differently. This perspective gives a different angle to the standard private detective genre.

He is joined by his Mexican girlfriend, Maya Sanchez, who has a master’s degree in history and offers her own cultural slant, and Cody Williams, a retired homicide detective who brings the procedural skills to the team.

As a painter myself, I can bring that experience to the character of painter/detective Zacher.

Q: The novels are set in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. How important is setting to you in your work, and do you think these books could have been set elsewhere.

A: Setting is critical to me. It is always a character in my fiction. San Miguel, with its expat colony of nearly 10,000, provides a closely knit community within the context of an old colonial Mexican city of 75,000.

The possibilities for both cultural connection and misunderstanding are limitless. The expat community is constantly a little bit off balance within its own numbers and with its Mexican neighbors, so the opportunities for conflict and drama are always on offer.

People who live in San Miguel, or visit there, can recognize places where they eat or hang out, so it has a personal connection. For others it can be an interesting semi-exotic setting for a mystery series. Readers of mysteries also like to follow the same group of core characters that they can get to know.

It’s possible that these books might’ve been set elsewhere, but I knew San Miguel from many visits before I started writing it, and having lived here now for 10 years it seems like the perfect spot.

Q: Did you know when you wrote the first book in the series, Twenty Centavos, that you'd end up writing so many more?

A: I was about halfway through the first one when the plot and concept of the second one, The Fifth Codex, came into my head. By the time I started writing it, I had the idea for the third one in place, titled Brushwork. They just seemed to flow like that. Now I have 19 of them in print and two more moving toward publication.

Q: Who are some of your favorite mystery writers?

A: I was influenced by Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Patricia Highsmith, and Tony Hillerman. My characters are almost never black and white, simply good or evil. I’m interested in the way people can rationalize what they do.

I don’t write about the drug trade in Mexico because those are mostly business crimes and they tend to lack the kind of complexity that drives a good story.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: As I bring out mysteries #20 and #21, I’ll be doing another nonfiction book on the expat experience in Mexico, and starting mystery #22, titled The Missing Matisse.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The Paul Zacher mysteries are in development for a television series by Dorothy Lyman, two-time Emmy Award winner, actor, producer, director, and screenwriter. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 12

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Dec. 12, 1821: Gustave Flaubert born.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Q&A with Margaret Peterson Haddix


Margaret Peterson Haddix is the author of Children of Refuge, the second book in her Children of Exile series for older kids. Her many other books for kids and young adults include the Shadow Children and Missing series. She lives in Columbus, Ohio.

Q: How did you come up with the world you create in the Children of Exile series?

A: I first started thinking about it when I was reading a book about genocide while I was at a Disney hotel. (As you can probably imagine, there’s a long story there.)

But once I decided I was going to write the series, I embarked on lots of other research, mainly by reading anthropology. I found that so fascinating that I wondered how I had gone all the way through college without taking a single anthropology class—I felt a little like I was making up for that!

I started from the premise of wanting to think about how societies train their citizens to rely on or avoid violence for resolving conflicts.

From there, I broadened my search to thinking about how societies train kids in general, and what exactly kids are trained for—to think for themselves, or to blindly obey? To have hopes and dreams they are free to pursue, or to stifle their own desires in order to serve some supposedly higher purpose?

It was probably a good thing my own kids were already mostly grown up and away at college when I was doing all this research, because I started questioning a lot of basic assumptions about parents and children and societal intent.

I especially enjoyed having my ideas challenged by reading about societies who have entirely different viewpoints than the ones common in American life.

Some of the books that were particularly influential in my thinking were Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, and Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

Then I started imagining what a society might do if its entire focus was ensuring that kids were raised well—not just to be non-violent, but to be happy, healthy, well-adjusted, etc. I did not want to portray the Freds as doing everything right, obviously (there’s no story in perfection!), but it was an interesting thought exercise.

It was also a little depressing, because one conclusion I reached was that American society definitely is not designed for the good of children.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on Edwy in book two of the series?

A: Some characters are just gifts for writers, and Edwy was one of them.

When I first wrote his name when I was writing the first chapter of the first book, I thought, “Oh, wait, who’s this?” To my knowledge, I’d never heard of anyone with that name, and I have no clue why that combination of letters popped into my mind just then.

But I knew right away that he was important, not just to Rosi, but to me. He intrigued me as much as he did her, and I knew he would be a catalyst for a lot of the action from then on.

I think I needed to put him at the center of the second book so I could figure him out more.

Q: Did you know from the beginning that you'd be writing more than one book about these characters?

A: Yes. I planned the series as a trilogy from the beginning.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from Children of Refuge?

A: Mostly I hope they enjoy it, but I also hope it makes them think. And, really, they are welcome to think about the book in any way they want.

I would be happy if this book helped kids think about how lots of events that happened before they were born have a huge impact on the way the world is now, and how they experience it.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just turned in the first book of a new trilogy. We’ve switched around the title for both that book and the series as a whole, so I’m a little hesitant to say what it’s called yet. But it will come out in 2019, and I am very excited about that launch!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Oh, yes—the third and final book in the Children of Exile series, which will be called Children of Jubilee, comes out November 2, 2018. I also have a Young Adult book called Summer of Broken Things coming out April 10, 2018.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 11

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Dec. 11, 1911: Naguib Mahfouz born.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Q&A with Jason Fagone


Jason Fagone is the author of the new book The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America's Enemies. It focuses on the life of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, a pioneering codebreaker. He also has written Ingenious and Horsemen of the Esophagus, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and GQ. He has just joined the staff of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Elizebeth Smith Friedman and her husband, William Friedman, both of whom worked as codebreakers?

A: They were a duo, a team of equals. That's how they saw themselves from the very beginning, when they started working together in 1916, as young people still in their twenties.

It was a true meeting of minds in that sense -- as individuals, they were both pretty good, but when they sat at the same table with their pencils and pads of graph paper, solving these important puzzles together in the era before computers, they felt like they were suddenly way more powerful.

Not just twice as good but four times as good. That's how they felt about it, because they clicked so seamlessly.

And as they fell in love, this beautiful thing started to happen, which is that they incorporated bits of secret language into their love letters. William would write to Elizebeth and sign off with a little term of endearment written in cipher, and Elizebeth would reply in the same cipher.

Q: You've noted that one big surprise you discovered in the course of your research involved the work Elizebeth did during World War II. Can you say more about that?

A: When I first began researching Elizebeth's life, I went to the library in Virginia where the Friedmans left their personal papers. Elizebeth left behind 22 boxes of letters and other documents. Eventually I went through all 22 boxes, start to finish, to get a handle on what was there.

And as great as these materials were, they didn't seem to include anything from World War II. Her experiences during the 1920s and 30s were well-documented, and also her life during the 50s and 60s, but the years 1939 through 1945 were pretty much a blank. So I had to look for those records. No one I asked seemed to know where they were or even if they existed at all.

It ended up taking me two years to find that stuff, and when I finally found it, at the National Archives in College Park, I realized why it had been difficult to find -- most every page that spoke to her war experiences was stamped TOP SECRET ULTRA at the top.

These files were classified for 50 or 60 years because they were part of the biggest secret of World War II, which is the ULTRA program -- the immense Allied effort to break the codes of the Nazis and read their secret messages.

And I discovered, reading these files, that Elizebeth played an important part in that effort. Her job was to monitor the clandestine radio stations used by Nazi spies. She spent the war breaking the codes and mapping the secret networks, allowing the FBI to arrest the spies and destroy the rings.

And then after the war, J. Edgar Hoover took credit for all of that, claiming that the FBI had stopped a huge Nazi spy invasion by using traditional sorts of FBI crime-fighting techniques, when really it had been Elizebeth and the codebreakers who stopped the spy rings.

But Elizebeth couldn't stick up her hand and say that, because the codebreaking part of it was so extremely secret, and she didn't have Hoover's power.

Q: How difficult was it for Elizebeth, as a woman in her field in the early- and mid-20th century?

A: It was tough. At every step of her career, there were men who didn't give her the respect she had earned. Early on, the U.S. Treasury Department only hired her as a sort of consolation prize because they couldn't get William, her husband.

But as soon as Elizebeth started to solve puzzles in some new job, she always proved her ability, and by 1931 she was leading a team of young male codebreakers, as their boss.

Q: What is her legacy today?

A: She was a heroine of World War II, a pioneering woman technologist, and one of the greatest codebreakers of all time. And she helped invent the modern science of cryptology that's now at the foundation of the intelligence and information security fields.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Moving across the country, from the Philly area to San Francisco, to join the staff of the San Francisco Chronicle. It's an exciting time for our family and kind of chaotic. Our life is in boxes right now and every day we dig out a bit more.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes -- please buy the book! It's available at any of your favorite stores, physical or online (links here). And if you read the book and enjoy it, please consider writing an online review. They really do help.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb