An Interview with Jan Eliasberg, Author of Hannah’s War

Jan Eliasberg is an award-winning film and television director as well as a prolific screenwriter. Her debut novel Hannah’s War is a literary thriller about a gifted Austrian-Jewish physicist whose seminal work on nuclear fission is co-opted by the Nazi regime. Exiled to the United States from Berlin in 1938, Dr. Hannah Weiss is recruited by Oppenheimer to work on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. There, in 1945, she is investigated by an Army Intelligence Officer, Major Jack Delaney, for leaking encrypted information. But why? The lives of Hannah and Jack quickly become entangled during a three day interrogation as Eliasberg elegantly interweaves their stories in this heart-racing thriller of a book.

Though fast paced, with vivid characters and a page turning plot, what I really found amazing was Eliasberg’s ability to ask difficult questions about scientific discovery, moral certainty and the chain reactions of politics and war. The ensuing explosions–political and personal–are as fascinating as the truths they uncover.

Jan, on your blog you discuss how you didn’t want to write a simple biopic about Lise Meitner, the brilliant physicist who worked on nuclear fission. Tell me why her story captured you.

I stumbled upon her while researching another novel. I was in the NYPL microfiche room, looking at the New York Times the day Hiroshima was reported. There was a historical summary about how the United States had developed this weapon, as The Manhattan Project was conducted entirely in secret. Somewhere below the fold I found an innocuous sentence: “The key component that allowed the allies to develop the bomb was brought to us by a female non-Aryan physicist.” I instantly knew that “non-Aryan” meant Jewish, that they couldn’t say Jewish. It was immediately arresting to me, especially as a feminist and someone who prides herself on knowing about women who have been erased from history. How was it possible I didn’t know her? How is she not in every science textbook? This mystery woman was involved in the most important discovery of the 20th century. I instantly thought: that’s going to be my next book. This happened at least ten years before I actually sat down to write.

Were there challenges fictionalizing some of her story?

I read a wonderful biography about Lise Meitner by Ruth Lewin Sime, Lise Meitner: A life in Physics, and then I read Meitner’s letters and diaries. Her collaboration with Otto Hahn was long standing, and they had been working on this discovery as the Nazis were rising into power. When Austria was annexed all the promises her colleagues had made about how she would be protected crumbled to ash. The Nazis literally moved in one morning and declared the research institute a military arm of the Third Reich. She fled within hours of being arrested, having been turned in to the Gestapo by another scientist. Meanwhile, Hahn couldn’t work without her. He continued in secret, sending results to her via postcards by courier. He had a problem he couldn’t solve, and she solved it for him in the middle of the forest, scrawling equations in the snow with her ski pole: she realized (and told Hahn) that the only way the results made sense was if they had split the atom.

That is so dramatic!

Yes — like a scene from a movie, right? The Nobel Prize was stolen from her. Her name was not on the papers, as a Jewish name would have discredited the work as “Jewish science.” When Hahn reported the discovery of nuclear fission, only his name was on the paper.

He was awarded the Nobel?

In 1944. Meitner was in the audience and in her diaries there is this unbelievably sad and painful entry where she says: “I can’t believe he didn’t even mention my name.” I felt I must restore this woman to her rightful place in history.

You took her pain and used that pain to write your book?

Yes. As a woman director in Hollywood I had certainly experienced things like that. I had seen women’s ideas used or ignored. I knew the same thing had happened with Rosalind Franklin and the molecular structure of DNA. It was a very familiar, painful and contemporary story. However, once Meitner settled in Sweden, her life was essentially uneventful. She worked on other things and discovered an element that was called Meitnerium, but none of it was dramatic in the way I felt a novel should be.

Was it hard to bring the story to the United States?

No, it wasn’t. In my research I had become fascinated by the history of the atomic bomb and by the things that were going on at Los Alamos. I loved the idea of putting a female scientist from Nazi Germany into this male environment with all its manipulations and tensions. I watched Jon Else’s great documentary, The Day After Trinity; in it all the scientists from Oppenheimer’s inner circle confessed that they should have walked away from building the bomb after V-E Day. But they were in the middle of a passionate search for the truth, and they had to find out if it would work.

The hard part was thinking, oh God, now I have to teach myself nuclear physics!

You do an incredible job with the male world of Los Alamos.

Thank you. I think that is from experience. I have lived in a very male world in Hollywood. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been the only woman or the first woman or the first and only woman. Especially in the beginning of my career when it was very unusual to have women on the set in any position except as actress or maybe script supervisor. Everyone would say “Yes, sir” to me. Once people are working, they don’t censor themselves. The swearing and boy talk is very familiar.

I love this quote on your blog: “In a film or television show, story structure is a stern taskmaster; if a cinematic story doesn’t have the correct structure, no amount of beautiful narrative, fabulous dialogue, or brilliant characterization can salvage it.”

As a director dealing with screenplays that didn’t work, and as a screenwriter, I’d come to understand that structure is everything. I spent an extraordinary amount of  time on structuring the story. Research too. I would find something in research, like the fact the US was running out of places to firebomb Japan, and this would become a turning point in the story. So I wrote probably 40-50 drafts — just structure on index cards that were then layered into outlines. By the time I sat down to write, I had every scene on index cards, Post-It notes in all of my books that correlated to the scenes, and even snippets of dialogue.

That sounds like an amazing process. 

It was an amazing process. Very thorough. I was not sitting down to a blank page. Far from it.

What was surprisingly different about the form of the novel?

I love the opening chapter because I realized I had this guarded, mysterious character who keeps a lot of secrets, and who needs to keep secrets in order to  stay safe. Yet I wanted the reader to connect with her…I suddenly realized, Oh, it’s a novel! She can talk directly to the reader.

(Both laugh) Oh, funny. You realized–

I could use first person! In a film you can’t do that. Using voiceover is usually a sign that the film is in trouble and the story doesn’t make sense without more connective tissue. But in the novel I could give readers a peek into the heart and soul of this woman while maintaining the secrecy that needs to be maintained to make the scenes work. I had a vehicle to give us a glimpse of her inner life.

The Field Notes are the equivalent for Jack. He’s sneaky and manipulative and not showing his cards either. If I just had third person scenes and dialogue, I’m not sure you would understand Jack’s strategy. The Field Notes gave me this first person vehicle to indulge in some great language. These crazy army phrases.

They felt so authentic.

Yes. And speaking of authenticity, the General Groves speech was one of the first things I wrote. He used lots of terrible anti-semitic language and communist bashing. Groves wanted to build the bomb very badly and was willing to accommodate whatever he needed to get it. On some level I admire him. He and Oppenheimer were coming from very different directions but both with a mission to achieve.

You are incredibly clear with motivations, even if you reveal them over time. It creates all this tension as everyone searches for the truth.

Everybody’s truth is slightly different. I will say I have to credit my work in film, and theater, because the first thing an actor wants to know is: what is my motivation? It’s ground zero for every single character.

What do you turn to for inspiration? 

The film and theater I love is very much in line with my goals as a writer. I love characters who are in pressure cooker, high stakes situations with a political layer, a social layer, in a world which has resonance to the world today. The playwrights I’m drawn to are Shakespeare, Brecht, Ibsen, Susan Lori-Parks, Tony Kushner, and Martyna Majok. Her play Cost of Living won the Pulitzer in 2018. She is a beautiful cutting-edge playwright and I want to give her a shout out.

As for film, I love The Third Man, an almost perfect film directed by Carol Reed; The Insider directed by Michael Mann, with its dual storyline and double arc; Russian director Larissa Shepitko’s The Ascent; Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker; Bertolucci’s The Conformist; Costa-Gavras’ Z. A Holocaust movie that influenced me greatly is Fateless, based on the Imre Kertész Hungarian memoir and directed by Lajos Koltai. The way it’s photographed is shockingly beautiful.

Oh, and I have to say I think Virginia Woolf is the greatest writer of all time.

What are you tackling next? 

I am working on a second book, not a sequel to Hannah’s War, but a companion piece in the way that Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time is a series of companion piece books. I have taken a character from Hannah’s War who leaves the book about a third of the way through the story.

I loved that character.

After the twentieth person asked what happened to her, I thought: well, maybe I’d better figure that out. I like her too. Partly because she is fiery and unstoppable, and also naive. It’s getting me into very interesting territory, including the formation of Israel and the birth of the Mossad.

JAN ELIASBERG is an award-winning screenwriter and director, devoted to telling the stories of exceptional women robbed of their rightful place in history. Her prolific career includes writing and directing dramatic pilots for CBS, NBC, and ABC. She was hand-picked by Michael Mann as the first woman to direct Miami Vice and Wiseguy; as well as countless episodes of TV series, including Thirteen Reasons Why, Bull, Nashville, Parenthood, The Magicians, NCIS: Los Angeles and numerous others; Her debut feature film Past Midnight, starred Paul Giamatti, the late Natasha Richardson, and the late Rutger Hauer. Eliasberg received her B.A. from Wesleyan University, Magna Cum Laude, and holds MFAs from the Yale School of Drama in Directing and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson in Fiction. Eliasberg currently lives in New York City.

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