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Novelist Jan Eliasberg reimagines amazing story of female physicist and the atomic bomb

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Jan Eliasberg was scheduled to appear Tuesday at Bank Square Books as the second author in The Day's "Read of The Day" book club series. Due to concerns about the coronavirus, the event has be rescheduled for 6:30 p.m. May 12. Eliasberg's novel, "Hannah's War," is available for mail order from Bank Square Books.

Novelists are routinely inspired by big moments and charismatic figures from history. But a brief allusion to an anonymous person in a 75-year-old newspaper article?

Not so much.

And yet Jan Eliasberg, an award-winning screenwriter and director of film and television, was perusing microfilm in the New York Public Library and came across an issue in the New York Times published on the day U.S. Forces dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945. A one-sentence paragraph caught her attention.

"The key component that allowed the Allies to develop the bomb was ... (provided) by a female, non-Aryan physicist."

That's all it said.

"My immediate thought was, 'Who IS this woman and why has her face not been staring out of the pages of every science magazine ever?" Eliasberg is speaking by phone from her apartment in Manhattan, discussing "Hannah's World," her highly regarded and recently published first novel.

A deft fusion of espionage, science, military history and two wounded human hearts, "Hannah's War" is an amazing and distinctive novel that reimagines the forgotten woman behind one of history's most overlooked and (literally) world-shaking discoveries.

The uncredited scientist in the newspaper story, Eliasberg learned, was Dr. Lise Meitner, a protected Austrian Jew working at a top-level, non-militarized physics lab at the elite Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin before she was forced in 1938 to flee Germany in the rising tide of Nazism. From exile in Sweden, Meitner used couriered postcards to continue her to research in secret with her German colleague, Otto Hahn. It was Meitner — not Hahn — who gave the first theoretical explanation of the fission process that paved way for construction of the atomic bomb.

Ultimately, Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of nuclear fission. Meitner was not acknowledged — in large part due to anti-Semitism and sexism. Later in life, Meitner received many accolades and awards, and she was the subject of an academic biography, but she was never given proper credit for the Nobel-winning work on fission.

Eliasberg says the idea of sharing this woman's amazing story was irresistible, saying, "Here you have a woman who'd seen and overcome the gender barrier in pure scientific research at the greatest facility in the world. She was told she was protected from the increasing shadow of Hitler — then one morning, the Nazis walked in and said, 'You're working for the Third Reich.' She left in six hours and was lucky to have made it to Sweden."

In her career, Eliasberg has written and directed dramatic pilots for NBC, CBS and ABC and was chosen by Michael Mann as the first woman to direct episodes of "Miami Vice" and "Wiseguy." She has also directed dozens of episodes of such shows as "Nashville," "Bull," "Parenthood," "NCIS: Los Angeles," "Supernatural" and more. Eliasberg also wrote and directed the feature film "Past Midnight," which starred Paul Giamatti, Natasha Richardson and Rutger Hauer.

More recently, she spent years writing a screenplay called "Fly Girls" about the Women Air Service Pilots in World War II — a project designed for and in cooperation with Nicole Kidman and Cameron Diaz — but couldn't get the film made.

In "Hannah's War," Eliasberg based protagonist Dr. Hannah Weiss with accuracy, respect and poignant affection on Meitner. To dramatize and underscore Meitner's accomplishments, Eliasberg had the idea to transpose the physicist, whose work had been pure science until it was militarized by the Third Reich, to Los Alamos as part of the American Manhattan Project under Robert Oppenheimer. The purpose of the secret conclave was to build the world's first nuclear weapon.

But Hannah's journey to the states does not preclude suspicion by the military and FBI that she could be smuggling secrets back to Germany. Major Jack Delaney, physically and mentally suffering after injuries in the liberation of Paris, is tasked with finding out whether Hannah is a spy. Over three days of intense interrogation, Hannah and Jack move from adversaries to sharing strong feelings of attraction — and, with the help of stunningly revealed flashback sequences, both uncover secrets about the other that go well beyond nuclear physics and who might use them for maximum destruction.

Against a fascinating backdrop of historical characters and situations, and engineered with a mounting sense of anxiety, "Hannah's War" is an irresistible work. Eliasberg, who was scheduled to be a guest Tuesday at the second Book of The Day readers' club event at Bank Square Books — it's been tentatively rescheduled for May 12 — answered questions about "Hannah's War."

Q: Given the span and success of your work in television and film, it's interesting that you chose the novel format for "Hannah's War." Why is that?

A: When you actually look at my work in film and TV, one of the things that's pretty apparent is, as much as I've tried to place women at the fore of my stories, the system doesn't allow me to do that. A lot of the TV shows I directed are testosterone shows — "Miami Vice" or "CSI: Los Angeles" — and often I was the first or only woman to direct those. I would never impose my feminist outlook; I had to honor the template for what the shows were exploring. And the action scenes and gun battles and planes exploding are really fun. I'm not denying that.

But they're far from my mission of telling the stories of forgotten but important women in history. At some point, for complex, interesting women, fiction is a far more interesting form. I thought of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina and Virginia Woolf. They're beautifully complex, flawed women — and in that spirit I wanted this story to have a wonderful home.

Q: What shouldn't be overlooked in the flow of the narrative is how well you reduced a lot of very complex physics into very digestible bites for the reader. Did you major in fluid mechanics or something?

A: It's no accident that my twelfth grade English teacher was at the kickoff reading for "Hannah's War," but there was no sign of my physics, chemistry, biology or math teachers. I was a literature and theater nerd who believed (as so many young women do) that I was "an idiot" when it came to science and math. When I realized that I would have to teach myself something about nuclear physics to write the book, I was daunted. But, in a wonderful way, I had to overcome my unconscious biases about my own abilities.

I remembered the scene in "A Beautiful Mind" which used the game of picking up women in a bar to illustrate the way that mathematician John Nash discovered Nash's Equilibrium. Or the way Aaron Sorkin wrote an episode of "The West Wing" that explained the arcane Senate practice of the filibuster. It seemed to me that, if I could create and deeply inhabit characters who understood the physics, chemistry and engineering of the atomic bomb, I could learn what I needed to know in order to do so.

It helped that Jack, the military investigator, was himself a scientific novice, he became a guide for the reader. Jack could realistically ask the kinds of basic questions the reader might want to ask. I had to take extremely abstract ideas and distill them to their essence and then create metaphors or images that a layperson could understand.

I was always on the lookout for analogies and metaphors. When I discovered that virtually all scientists and mathematicians play music, for example, it opened up a world of possibilities and a way of discussing science that could appeal to people who love music but hate numbers. When Niels Bohr was stuck on a scientific problem, he really did sit down at the piano and ask, "What would Mozart do?" That immediately became part of a scene.

Q: One of the many topics for thought a reader can bring from "Hannah's War" is a similarity between the rising fever of Nazism in 1930s Germany and certain philosophical movements in American culture today. Was any of this on your mind as you were writing?

A: Alas, the parallels between our society now and 1938 Berlin are way, way too close for comfort. One of the gut punches for me in my research was the discovery of the amount and vigor of anti-Semitism in America. First, though, I spent a very long time researching and, as the novel began to form, parallels began to come up even with (President George W. Bush) supposedly finding nuclear weapons in Iraq. Suddenly, you had nukes back in the headlines, and many thought that would never happen again.

Then, in the last two years, just the amount of anti-Semitism in the world and in America made me reread about the American Nazi Party rally in Madison Square Garden in 1939 attended by 20,000. I didn't know exactly how home-grown and American anti-Semitism really was. We love to think of it as something uniquely German — a product of Germany's depression after WWI and the diabolical machinations of Hitler. And the caging of immigrants! All these sentiments started to surface, and I realized I had a kind of perfect story around which I could impart these themes. 

Q: There's also a good bit of romantic tension and some funny bits in the novel that bring refreshing elements to the story. Was that planned?

A: I don't mind the word funny at all. The sexiest movies are "His Girl Friday" and "Pat and Mike" where the man and the woman fall for each other because they're equals and they go back and forth and it's on. I love that witty banter because it's real. It's a very serious novel, but they're human beings under incredible stress. I wanted them to reflect that in very human ways.


If you go

Who: Author/screenwriter/director Jan Eliasberg

What: In conversation with Rick Koster about her debut novel "Hannah's War." It's the second of our Read of The Day Book Club series in partnership with Bank Square Books. Folks are encouraged to read a copy of the book and take part in the discussion.

When: 6:30 p.m May 12

Where: Bank Square Books, 53 West Main St., Mystic

How much: Free, RSVP requested

For more information: (860) 536-3795


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