Young Marian Sutro is barely out of school when she is recruited to be a spy in France. At a time of Nazi occupation, she finds herself putting her life and her heart at risk for her country. Novelist Simon Mawer blended fact and fiction in his new book, “Trapeze.” It pays homage to the spies of the British Special Operations Executive in World War II. Mawer is the author of “The Glass Room,” which was short listed for the Man Booker Prize. A trained biologist, he says artists who don’t have science are severely limited. Diane talks with writer Simon Mawer.

Guests

  • Simon Mawer author of "The Glass Room," "The Fall," "The Gospel of Judas" and Mendel's Dwarf."

Read An Excerpt

Excerpt from “Trapeze” by Simon Mawer. Copyright 2012 by Simon Mawer. Reprinted here by permission of Other Press. All rights reserved.

Transcript

  • 11:06:56

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Simon Mawer is a novelist and biologist. His book "The Glass Room" was not only a best seller, it was shortlisted for a Man Booker Prize. His new novel is a spy thriller and a love story set in both the UK and occupied France. It's titled "Trapeze." Simon Mawer joins me in the studio.

  • 11:07:26

    MS. DIANE REHMYou are welcome to be part of the program. Call us on 800-433-8850, send us your email to drshow@wamu.org, join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, sir. It's good to have you hear.

  • 11:07:47

    MR. SIMON MAWERGood morning to you.

  • 11:07:49

    REHMI want you to know how much I loved "The Glass Room." We had that book as one of our readers' reviews. It was just absolutely marvelous, so I'm thrilled to have you hear for this book, and to meet you in person.

  • 11:08:11

    MAWERWell, it's great to be here.

  • 11:08:12

    REHMThank you. This young woman, Marian Sutro, is quite young, and as I've said in the introduction, she takes on this challenge when she is told she has a 50/50 chance of survival. Why does she do it?

  • 11:08:40

    MAWERMaybe that's quite a lot of the beginning of the book. I hope you understand it if you read the book. It's -- she's 19 years old. You said she was young. Nineteen years old.

  • 11:08:55

    REHMVery young.

  • 11:08:56

    MAWERBarely out of school, which was absolutely real. I mean, they did recruit women of that age. She was actually 20 when she is parachuted into France. And that, of course, is the reason why I was interested in the idea of the story, and writing the book, because what does motivate somebody of that age? An element, of course is that -- I remember, maybe you remember, at that age you're immortal, aren't you, and I think that's part of it.

  • 11:09:35

    MAWERI think there's a great sense of -- one has to say this, of adventure. We get terribly solemn about wars in general for obvious reasons, and the Second World War in particular, but you can't get around the fact that a lot of aspects of it were immensely exciting.

  • 11:09:57

    REHMRead for us if you would from the fourth -- starting at the fourth page of the book.

  • 11:10:07

    MAWERThis is just to put it in context. You actually start with her in the aircraft, at night, four engine bomber over France. "The plane tilts, turning in a wide circle, engines roaring. She can imagine the pilot up in the cockpit searching, searching, straining to see the tiny glimmers of torch light which mean that they are expected down there in the dark. A lamp comes on in the roof of the fuselage, a single unblinking red eye.

  • 11:10:43

    MAWER"The dispatcher gives the thumbs up. He's found it. There's a note of admiration and triumph in his shout, as though this proves what wonders his crew are able to perform to come all this way in the darkness, 800 miles from home, and find a pinprick of light in a blackened world. He attaches the static line from their parachutes to the rail in the roof of the fuselage and double checks the buckles of their harnesses.

  • 11:11:13

    MAWER"The aircraft makes one pass over the dropping zone and she can hear the sound of the containers leaving the Bombay and see them flash beneath, their canopies billowing open. Then the machine banks and turns and steadies for the second run. Your turn now the dispatcher yells at the pair of them. Merde alos, Benoit mouths to Marian and grins. He looks infuriatingly unconcerned as though all this is in the normal run of things. As though as a matter of course people throw themselves out of aircraft over unknown countryside in the middle of the night.

  • 11:11:50

    MAWERMerde alos. She sits with her feet out through the hole in the slipstream like sitting on a rock with your feet in the water, the current pulling at them. Benoit is right behind her. She can feel him against the bulk of her parachute pack, as though the pack has become a sensitive extension of her own body. She says a prayer, a baby prayer pulled out of childhood memory, but nevertheless a prayer, and therefore a sign of weakness.

  • 11:12:18

    MAWERGod, please look after me, which means, perhaps, father look after me, or mama look after me. But whatever it means, she doesn't any sign of weakness now, not at this moment of deliverance with the slipstream rushing past her, and the void beneath, while the dispatcher gives her a nod that's meant to inspire confidence, but only brings with the horror of superstition that you must never congratulate yourself, never applaud, never even wish anyone good luck. Merde alos. That was all you ever said. Merde alos, she thinks.

  • 11:12:56

    MAWERA prayer of a kind. As the red light blinks off and the green comes on, and the dispatcher shouts go, and there's his hand on her back and she lets go plunging from the rough comfort of the fuselage into the raging darkness over France."

  • 11:13:14

    REHMSimon Mawer reading from his new novel. It's titled "Trapeze." This is such an extraordinary moment, and you've made it even more so. With your reading you've given us a sense of what these men and women did. I mean, here she is, 20 years old, she's jumping out of a plane into France, into what she has no idea she will find even though she's been given special instructions. Now I want to go back to the reality of the women in the French section of British Special Operations. Tell us about this group.

  • 11:14:12

    MAWERThey're extremely interesting, and they captured my imagination long, long ago when I was just a little child. Some of them became very famous in Britain in the 1950s. There were a couple of films made about real stories. Yeah. They were the only women in the western allies, as far as I can work out, who were trained to carry arms effectively in combat, although they were operating clandestine lives in occupied France.

  • 11:14:51

    MAWERThe Soviets had frontline women fighters during the second war, but the western allies didn't, so these were very remarkable, unique women. They were from a tremendous range of backgrounds. Most of them were half French at least, obviously, because you had to be native French speakers, and there were 39 of them in total, of whom the majority survived. So the odds weren't actually 50/50, although that was the figure that was given to them because people at the time didn't know the answer to the question, you know, what chance do I have of survival.

  • 11:15:29

    MAWERThey were only guessing, but we can now say that they did actually have a better than 50/50 survival rate. Of those who were captured, then the survival rate plummeted certainly.

  • 11:15:43

    REHMNow, as you said earlier, your heroine, Marian Sutro, 19 when she's recruited, 20 as she jumps out of this plane, why did her background lend her what was needed she thought to carry out this mission?

  • 11:16:11

    MAWERI gave her a background which actually modeled on one of the real characters, one of the real agents. So born and brought up in Geneva, and -- which for me is a nice bit of irony in the beginning of the book. Her father worked for the League of Nations, and of course, the League of Nations famously failed. It was a sort of prototype of the United Nations, and the reason why the United Nations after the war succeeded, survived, was that everybody realized how desperately necessary it was, whereas, I have to say, the United States wasn't a member of the League of Nations.

  • 11:16:51

    MAWERGermany withdrew from the League of Nations, so the League of Nations never actually achieved that. But that was the sort of stability that the United Nations had, but that was her background. So her father is a diplomat, British diplomat to the United Nations -- sorry, League of Nations in Geneva, and married a woman who was French actually working in the United...

  • 11:17:15

    REHMSo Marian speaks French very well.

  • 11:17:16

    MAWERSo Marian -- yes. Born and brought up in Geneva, yeah.

  • 11:17:20

    REHMAnd her English is clearly as good as her French.

  • 11:17:26

    MAWERAs good because she's obviously got an English father. It's a sort of English-speaking family as well at times, and she is part educated in England. In fact, she's the sort of girl who I've taught many of over the years. Usually in the case of my teaching, they'd be Italian and English, but many, many completely bilingual.

  • 11:17:50

    REHMWhy are her good looks a liability?

  • 11:17:56

    MAWERHer good looks only come across in the book from other people remarking on them. She's never actually described, but yes...

  • 11:18:06

    REHMBut she's good looking.

  • 11:18:08

    MAWERWell, that's what people say.

  • 11:18:09

    REHMYes, exactly.

  • 11:18:11

    MAWERYes. They're of course a liability. I mean, you don't want to be -- if you're a woman, you don't want to be six foot two and be an agent trying to live a clandestine life, because you're tall and you stand out.

  • 11:18:23

    REHMAnd you don't want to stand out, but her good looks do...

  • 11:18:29

    MAWERMake her.

  • 11:18:30

    REHM...make her stand out. Simon Mawer. His new novel is titled "Trapeze." Short break, your calls when we come back.

  • 11:20:05

    REHMAnd welcome back. Simon Mawer is with me. He is of course the author of one of my favorite books "The Glass Room" which we used on one of our Readers' Reviews several months ago. Now he has a brand new novel. It's titled "Trapeze" and it's about a woman who during the Second World War sheds her comfortable life, her comfortable background and moves in to help liberate France and work for the allies in France during the time of the Nazi occupation. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Tell us about the training that these people who agreed to these assignments, what kind of training did they have?

  • 11:21:13

    MAWERThere were two principle phases. The first one, which was actually pretty bizarre because a lot of them were going into cities, but they actually were trained in the west coast of Scotland as commanders. I mean physical training, running over hills, assault courses, weapons training. And that lasted about six weeks, maybe a bit more. From there that was known as the A schools. Then they went to the B schools which were schools for spies down in the south of England in which they were trained in the sort of mechanics of being -- of working in a clandestine environment of keeping yourself concealed, making contact with people.

  • 11:22:04

    REHMCourse, we don't learn until later in the novel exactly why Marion was approached to take on this assignment. There are all kinds of clandestine operations involved.

  • 11:22:20

    MAWERYeah, she was -- she's initially recruited as a courier. But there's a sort of muddle because during the war the special operations executive, which is the organization that recruited her, was bitterly loathed by the British secret service because they were doing two opposite things. The SOE were there to, yes, live clandestine lives but to arm resistance groups and carry out sabotage, and in one or two cases actually assassinations. Whereas the secret intelligence service MI6 was trying to be secret. And so the two were at loggerheads and she -- her mission gets hijacked. I mustn't give too much away.

  • 11:23:10

    REHMNow you dedicated this book to Collette. Talk about who she was.

  • 11:23:17

    MAWERYeah, Collette is the -- was the field name, 'cause every agent had a field name which was just used. Not a cover name, which is a different thing altogether. They were known by a name within the organization which was the field name. And Collette was the field name of a woman called Ann Marie Walters. And she was recruited at the age of 19. But the reason I have particular interest in her is that when she was a 19-year-old before she was recruited she was in the WAAF, the Women's Auxiliary Air Force in Britain. And she served with my mother.

  • 11:23:54

    MAWERSo in 1943 they were together at the headquarters of fighter command just north of London. And one day Ann Marie vanished. She was there one day, gone the next. All her possessions had disappeared and nobody knew where she'd gone and she never contacted anybody, any of her friends or anything. And she'd actually been recruited by SOE.

  • 11:24:19

    REHMAnd your mother never saw her or heard from her again.

  • 11:24:26

    MAWERNo, that's true. Of course this was long pre-emails and never -- reestablishing contact after the war was very, very much a more difficult thing. Ann Marie survived, but she lived in Spain -- Spain and France. And, you know, my parents were in England mainly, with the air force in fact. But what did happen was that in 1946 Ann Marie Walters published her book and that my mother discovered. I still have the copy.

  • 11:25:00

    REHMHow wonderful. "Trapeze" is also a love story. Bringing in that kind of element was that important for you as a novelist here?

  • 11:25:20

    MAWERYes. It makes it appealing from a writing-the-novel point of view, but I don't think it clashes with the sort of thread of the story. She -- there was a very heightened degree of relationship, friendship between male and female agents during that period. This is actually undoubted. And so when you're thrown together with somebody in your training -- arduous training in the, you know, Scottish countryside and then this and then you're being parachuted, as she was with Benoit, and working together, it's inevitable that things happen.

  • 11:26:01

    REHMAnd all of these characters and their lives become so entwined. Simon Mawer, you are a biology teacher. What in the world are you doing writing novels?

  • 11:26:16

    MAWERNo, I think the question's the wrong way around. I was a biology teacher anyway, but I think it's...

  • 11:26:24

    REHMFor how long?

  • 11:26:25

    MAWEROh, for many, many years, oh yes.

  • 11:26:26

    REHMMany, many years.

  • 11:26:28

    MAWEROh, yes, yes. No, but I think the real question is, you're a novelist. How come you're a biology teacher, too?

  • 11:26:32

    REHMYeah, right.

  • 11:26:33

    MAWERThat was the day job for a long time, which I enjoyed enormously. I mean, and yes, I did biology, which, again, I'm not sorry for. I think it's given me a different perspective on things. I think if I'd come out of university having done, you know, English literature and then tried to be a novelist, I'd have been a different sort of novelist. My novels would be different I suspect. I like the fact that I have a scientific training.

  • 11:27:02

    REHMAnd how do you think that scientific training moves into this role of novelist?

  • 11:27:12

    MAWERThat's a question I have been asked before.

  • 11:27:14

    REHMI'm sure.

  • 11:27:16

    MAWERAnd it's slightly the sort of, you know -- the answer should maybe come from the readers rather than me. I can only guess at it because I'm inside here. I know no other Simon Mawer. I suspect it has -- I hope it has something to do with clarity, getting one's ideas clear because if you're going to be unclear in writing than you're leading the way to getting into a muddle.

  • 11:27:46

    MAWERI mean, that doesn't mean to say that all writing should be transparent and straight forward and easy. One of my favorite writers is Joyce, but I don't think that detracts from the fact, you know, you've got to choose your words carefully and you've got to get them organized properly. So I have that sort of attitude. But also the way I look at people I’m afraid, I don't think it's actually a cold calculating thing.

  • 11:28:12

    MAWERScience has that sort of reputation. I don't see it. I see science as a hugely imaginative process. And because the complexity of what you're dealing with you have to imagine models to explain behavior, to explain the universe, to explain all these things. So I do find it very enriching to have had a scientific training.

  • 11:28:33

    REHMAnd I gather that you've learned -- mastered languages for your novel writing as you did with "The Glass Room."

  • 11:28:48

    MAWERI would love to be able to sit here and say yes, but I think that would be perpetrating a lie. I -- my command of languages is not considerable. It's probably better than the average, but...

  • 11:29:08

    REHMYou could make your way.

  • 11:29:10

    MAWERWell, for "The Glass Room" I was using languages merely as devices that I had to research, like I had to research any other aspect of the background of the book. And it means reading a lot of dictionaries.

  • 11:29:26

    REHMTell me where the idea for "The Glass Room" came from.

  • 11:29:33

    MAWERThat came from a visit to the house which I used as the model for the Landauer House. None of my books are planned. I don't sit down and think right now, what am I going to write next or let's have a look at that because I want to write a novel of that sort. There's nothing that calculated. It's just chance. It's just good luck. And I happened to visit the Tugendhat house, which is the model for the Landauer house, oh, years ago, 15 years ago in the Czech Republic. And on a second visit, which was I think ten years later, the idea occurred to me that this was the sort of focus for a novel.

  • 11:30:20

    REHMTen years later.

  • 11:30:22

    MAWERWell, I had other books to write in between. I wrote, I think, two or three books in between.

  • 11:30:29

    REHMAnd a number of readers, listeners have asked us about "The Glass Room." That Readers' Review was January 27, 2010. So if you'd like to go back and listen to that conversation, or better yet read the book, it's fabulous. And Simon Mawer is here in the studio with me. I wonder whether at some point you might write a novel about falling off a mountain.

  • 11:31:08

    MAWERI've done it.

  • 11:31:09

    REHMTell me about it.

  • 11:31:11

    MAWERThat's called "The Fall" and that is not really based on fact. It is fiction, except I did fall off a mountain.

  • 11:31:21

    REHMTell me about that.

  • 11:31:22

    MAWERThat was some time ago in my foolish youth. I was living in Scotland at the time, which of course gives a lot of the background to "Trapeze" and the training process -- the training program in "Trapeze" because I know Scottish mountains. I know the rain and I know the midges. But I used to climb. I was not a great climber, but I was a fairly enthusiastic one. And winter climbing in Scotland and I had a big fall and a huge mountain rescue and everything. That was the end of my climbing career.

  • 11:31:59

    REHMDescribe that fall.

  • 11:32:01

    MAWERIt was on the North Face of Ben Nevis in January. It was an ice climb, steep. And we were doing very well, me and my partner. We'd done all the difficult bits. And I was on a very steep snow slope and I was turning around to shout down to him, we've done it. We only have, you know, I can't remember how many feet, 400' or something to go to the top on steep snow. And that's when the sky went dark and the snow came down and I was avalanched, swept off and ended up hanging upside down on the end of the rope.

  • 11:32:43

    REHMFor 22 hours.

  • 11:32:47

    MAWERWell, I righted myself and I got up onto a step and I caught myself. But I was on a cliff and I was out of sight of my partner who is now above me by about 150' of rope. I couldn't communicate with him. That was the problem. So I didn't know why I was still there. And we ended up having to be plucked off by a rescue, yes.

  • 11:33:11

    REHMHow long did it take you to be brought down?

  • 11:33:16

    MAWEROnce they came down -- they did a top layer from the top of the mountain about 1,000' and that was pretty quick. But it was a fairly key moment in my climbing career, like I didn't do any serious --

  • 11:33:32

    REHMLike the end.

  • 11:33:33

    MAWERLike the end. I did a lot of walking and easy climbing subsequently in Italy but not of that high standard.

  • 11:33:41

    REHMSimon Mawer. His new novel is titled "Trapeze." And we're going to open the phones. You are listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go first to Cleveland, Ohio. Good morning, John, you're on the air.

  • 11:34:03

    JOHNThank you, Diane. I love your show.

  • 11:34:04

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:34:04

    JOHNJust happen to be sitting on the boat today and I caught it. My story is about my father. Twenty years ago he was living with us, and my mother also, and he came up one night and he was very ill and he told me something that shocked me and also at the time I didn't really understand. He said he met a young lady at a pub, was introduced to her by a British officer before the invasion. My dad was on LST. This was before Normandy.

  • 11:34:38

    JOHNAnd he basically said that the officer wanted -- my dad was a very tall gregarious outgoing gentleman at the time. And they wanted the soldiers -- the ladies had picked kind of a young man that they wanted to meet and they did. And they took him to a party I guess, was how he described it, and the two of them that he was introduced to, the one he really hit it off with and he said they traveled a little bit. She didn't have much time, but they ended up in a place in Scotland and they got married. And he said, you know, mother's not taking this well, but I gotta tell somebody because you gotta go there and find her grave and be sure that, you know, and on and on and on. And I was just so shocked, taken back by it all.

  • 11:35:24

    JOHNAnd he described that she was killed and the same British officer looked him up before the invasion and brought him her ring. And, you know, I just -- I never really knew how to discover or chase this story down. But that was the story and 20 years ago my father pleaded with me to try to research it, which I did. And he even wanted me to find maybe somebody who could write about it. So I definitely will be buying the book.

  • 11:35:59

    MAWERWell, that’s good.

  • 11:36:01

    REHMIt's a story coming out of that war that perhaps there are a lot of families who could describe similar occurrences.

  • 11:36:17

    MAWERYeah, so much movement of people, disruption of people's lives and temporary relationships, I mean, a most extraordinary period, which is one of the reasons why I find it particularly interesting. I mean, not so much the fighting bit. It's not that aspect, but the social upheavals are fascinating I think.

  • 11:36:41

    REHMYour father and his father before him served in the Royal Air Force. What difference do you think that made in your growing up? I mean, you were moving all over.

  • 11:36:57

    MAWERHuge. Not just the moving, although that had an effect. I mean, I've lived in Italy now in the same place for about 32 years and I'm a sort of self imposed exile from Britain. I never lived in any place -- after I was about seven never lived in any one place for more than about two years. So that was remarkable. But also of course there was the military. That was in my life all the time.

  • 11:37:27

    REHMSimon Mawer. The new novel is titled "Trapeze." I hope you'll join us, 800-433-8850. Short break, we'll be right back.

  • 11:40:01

    REHMAnd welcome back. Simon Mawer is here with me. We're talking about his brand new very exciting novel. It's titled "Trapeze." Going to go right back to the phones to Cleveland, Oh. Ed, I gather you have a very personal experience to share.

  • 11:40:26

    EDYes, I did. I married into a family in 1969. My mother-in-law was a British war bride. And probably not 'til the mid '80s did we discover that she had had an experience as a spy and was a member of SOE. Her personal background was that she had a much older brother who was an international businessman who was located in Belgium, took her under his wing, educated her in Belgian schools. She was later, as a very young lady, engaged to an RAF pilot who was shot down and killed in the Battle of Britain, which was her motivation to do something for the war effort.

  • 11:41:39

    EDAnd in doing so she was ultimately recruited for SOE. And it became a very surprising experience for the entire family to learn.

  • 11:41:55

    REHMI wonder if it changed your perspective of your mother-in-law once you learned that about her.

  • 11:42:05

    EDThere was no question.

  • 11:42:07

    REHMYeah, I'll bet.

  • 11:42:07

    EDShe had an incredible life history and she did in fact jump out of Lysander airplanes into occupied France. She has many experiences of not knowing whether, you know, what was going to happen at the end when she landed or when she was supposed to be picked up, whether or not there was someone lying in waiting knowing that there were people there expecting …

  • 11:42:47

    REHMWho were supposed to be there. And Marian has the same feeling as she lands, Simon.

  • 11:42:53

    MAWERWe're talking about the same sort of thing.

  • 11:42:56

    REHMExactly.

  • 11:42:56

    MAWERAnd I tried to mirror real experience as much as I could in the novel. I mean the purpose being because, of course, you can read the histories. And this gentleman who's...

  • 11:43:07

    REHMThere it is.

  • 11:43:08

    MAWER...phoned in has talked about one such. And many of them were not written. Many of these people went back into civilian life and tried to live normal lives. My idea was to try and use a novel to give some sort of feeling in the reader for what it was like. You don't get that from the histories, that's the thing.

  • 11:43:31

    REHMSo if you had just written a history of these women, which you could have done, doing a great deal of research, how do you think that would have been different for you?

  • 11:43:48

    MAWERNovels have to do a number of things. I mean different novels do different things. And this one is the kind of novel in which I want to try and put the reader behind the eyes of the character. It's not first-person narrative, but it's always Marian's point of view. And to try and get across this is what it was like. And to get you to feel the fear because, of course, the adventure very soon changes into something quite different, particularly when she gets to Paris.

  • 11:44:24

    REHMBut fear is very definitely there from those earliest pages and clearly you have succeeded in doing exactly that. Ed, thanks to you for calling. Thanks to your mother-in-law for her service. Here's an email from Stacy who says, "The author speaks about how there were exciting events taking place during World War II, such as in the life of your main character, but were there dark aspects that took away or changed your perspective in a negative manner any time during the writing of the book?"

  • 11:45:16

    MAWERYes. Of course there were. I had an idea what was going to happen to her at the end of the book and I’m not gonna say because that'll be a plot spoiler, but yes. I mean particularly the central part of the book, the second half of the book is when she goes to Paris. And Paris was not a fun, exciting place to be. It was a frightening place to be. It was a very dangerous place to be. The Parisian population was literally starving. They were significantly undernourished throughout the occupation.

  • 11:45:53

    MAWERIn the countryside, where you had access to food grown in farms, you know, hidden from the occupying authorities or whatever, you could eat well, you could live well, but not in the big cities. And it was pretty desperate. And of course everything was going on in Paris. There were a whole lot of SOE circuits and they were collapsing. They were being betrayed. There were a tremendous number of arrests. It was very frightening.

  • 11:46:22

    MAWERAnd when she's projected into Paris and she's walking the streets of Paris that is -- okay. Yes, there's excitement, but there is, I have real fear.

  • 11:46:33

    REHMTrue fear because she cannot look at all unnerved in any way. Even if she's confronted by a Nazi soldier, she must remain calm.

  • 11:46:52

    MAWERI think the problem is that if you are innocent, if you're not doing anything you just behave. What she has to do all the time is work out how she should behave were she to be just an ordinary Parisian girl.

  • 11:47:09

    REHMYou must give away a little bit about why she is there in Paris and how her love life is complicated.

  • 11:47:22

    MAWEROkay. It's to do with her brother and it's to do with a friend of his who Marian knew before the war.

  • 11:47:33

    REHMWhen she was quite young.

  • 11:47:34

    MAWERWhen she's a 15, 16-year-old school girl in Geneva, going backwards and forwards to boarding school in England and that sort of thing. Her brother Ned is a research physicist. And of course he gets into a reserved occupation and he's concerned with military work. We're not really explained exactly what, but an awful lot of people from the universities were in Britain. What is not very well known is the fact that the country that was leading in nuclear research in 1938, 1939 and was leading the world towards the idea of an atom bomb was actually France.

  • 11:48:19

    MAWERThe laboratory run by Frederic Joliot Curie, who was the son-in-law of Marie Curie. Fred and his wife, Elaine, were both joint Nobel prize winners in 1935. They almost got a prize for work done in 1938 on nuclear fission. They were just trumped by the interpretation of some experimental work done in Germany. They had exactly the same experimental results and they were hesitant about the interpretation which was very revolutionary. The German team which was Otto Hahn, but also an associate who was actually a Jewish woman being exiled from Germany at that stage, a woman called Lise Meitner.

  • 11:49:14

    MAWERThey made the correct interpretation. They made the discovery, but the French were there and actually in the spring of 1940, just before the invasion Joliot Curie's team deposited a patent, secret patent in the archives of the National Research Institute in Paris, How To Make An Atom Bomb. And this is to do with Marian going to Paris.

  • 11:49:44

    REHMOf course. All right. To Fort Myers, Fla. Good morning, Jane.

  • 11:49:51

    JANEGood morning, Diane. Thank you so much for taking my call.

  • 11:49:53

    REHMSurely.

  • 11:49:56

    JANEI can't tell you how delighted I am to hear the discussion about this book. I know something about the SOE, not directly, but I did a research project on Nancy Wake.

  • 11:50:06

    REHMYou know, I’m having a hard time understanding you, Jane.

  • 11:50:12

    JANEOkay. I'm sorry.

  • 11:50:13

    REHMLet's see if that telephone line of yours can be a little more clear in its production.

  • 11:50:22

    JANEI'll try again and see what happens.

  • 11:50:24

    REHMGood, okay. Good.

  • 11:50:25

    JANEBetter?

  • 11:50:26

    REHMMuch.

  • 11:50:26

    JANEI did a study project on Nancy Wake who was one of the 39 women of the SOE a few years ago. And I was so delighted with what I learned about her. She was considered the most decorated woman of World War II. And I'm tickled pink that such a book has come out now about the operation, even as a novel. I think that's fabulous 'cause it will make it so accessible to so many people. What I loved about Nancy Wake, among other things, was that while she was born a New Zealander she went to Paris and eventually married a gentleman in Marseille.

  • 11:51:03

    JANEThey, together, did a great deal to assist in helping downed pilots in France get out through via Spain to go back to the British Isles. And when the Gestapo's investigation of them got entirely too hot she left. Her husband was later killed. But when she left she went to Scotland, eventually, went through the training and this woman is a woman like I think I would have loved to have been -- she went into France with her high heels on and her ankles taped up.

  • 11:51:39

    REHMWhoa. So there are you. You're hearing from people who do understand.

  • 11:51:47

    MAWERIt's good to hear. Nancy Wake was remarkable. She died not long ago. She lived to a grand age.

  • 11:51:54

    REHMDid you ever speak with her?

  • 11:51:55

    MAWERNo. No, I didn't.

  • 11:51:56

    REHMYou didn't.

  • 11:51:57

    MAWERNo. She was very remarkable. She did actually claim to have killed a German soldier with her bare hands. She was that sort of lady.

  • 11:52:08

    REHMWhoa.

  • 11:52:08

    MAWERWe don't know whether it's true. We have her word for it. She was extraordinary. She was very Australian. She didn't actually like Australia very much and she ended her life in Britain. No. That sounds as if she did away with herself. I don't mean that. She died in Britain, although, she was supported in her final years by the Australian government.

  • 11:52:30

    REHMJane, thanks for your call. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You are now, as you said, living in Italy where you've been for the past 32 years. Tell me why. Why was it so important for you to get out of Britain?

  • 11:52:52

    MAWERI don't think it was important. I think I made sort of decisions which were rather superficial at the time. I wanted to be a writer from when I left university, but I had to be a teacher.

  • 11:53:06

    REHMAnd even younger. Even younger.

  • 11:53:08

    MAWEROh, yes. Oh, yes, from when I was 11 in fact, yes. But it's a silly thing to want to do isn't it. And my leaving -- I had a romantic idea about going to the Mediterranean, a very British idea actually. Many English writers fled to the Mediterranean, living on a Mediterranean island and writing. And so that's why I went. Of course I stayed because I did things like meet the woman who became my wife and sort of settled in and had children. And they tend to keep you in one place for a bit of time. And so time went on and I'm still there.

  • 11:53:48

    REHMIs your wife Italian?

  • 11:53:50

    MAWERShe's actually Maltese.

  • 11:53:52

    REHMShe's Maltese.

  • 11:53:54

    MAWERFrom Malta, yes. And that was my first stop before we actually moved to Italy.

  • 11:54:00

    REHMAnd haven't you formed some sort of writers group there?

  • 11:54:06

    MAWERWell, it's not me that's formed it. A group of English writers have sort of set themselves up, yes. It's a very diffuse. It's not very focused, but a group of people who write a variety of things. I mean one's a wine writer. She writes books on wine and she lives in the North. And there's another one who writes mainly children's fiction in Britain. We've got all sorts. All sorts.

  • 11:54:38

    REHMAnd how often do you meet?

  • 11:54:41

    MAWERWell, we're meant to meet once every six months. We have a website. And, you know, but it doesn't always -- we're in a bit of a hiatus at the moment.

  • 11:54:52

    REHMNow, I'm going to give a little bit away by virtue of saying that the end of the book may leave you somewhat wanting more. That's how the end of the novel I think leaves a lot of people who've read it. And I am assuming that more is coming.

  • 11:55:27

    MAWERYeah, I don't know necessarily know that more was originally planned, but I have actually started work -- I have to say this very quietly so that nobody hears -- started work on the sequel.

  • 11:55:41

    REHMSo that you don't hear is what you mean. So what has happened is that as you finished this book you realized that Marian's story had to continue.

  • 11:55:58

    MAWERIf Marian continues.

  • 11:56:01

    REHMAnd we don't know that.

  • 11:56:02

    MAWERAnd we don't know.

  • 11:56:04

    REHMBut a story continues and we also -- I am assuming that it continues within the context of those war years.

  • 11:56:22

    MAWEROh, no.

  • 11:56:25

    REHMMuch later?

  • 11:56:25

    MAWERIt's gonna be the post-war.

  • 11:56:28

    REHMPost-war?

  • 11:56:28

    MAWERUm-hum, but of course, it will be informed by the war period and there will be glances back.

  • 11:56:37

    REHMSimon Mawer. The new novel is titled, "Trapeze." It is totally engrossing and you will love it as I love "The Glass Room." And let me remind you once again we did that reader's review back in January 2010. Thank you so much.

  • 11:57:07

    MAWERThank you very much for having me.

  • 11:57:08

    REHMIt was very good to meet you.

  • 11:57:09

    MAWERI enjoyed it.

  • 11:57:10

    REHMCongratulations.

  • 11:57:12

    MAWERThank you.

  • 11:57:12

    REHMThanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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