Jan Eliasberg, HANNAH'S WAR

Jan Eliasberg, HANNAH'S WAR

Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Jan Eliasberg who’s the debut author of literary spy thriller Hannah’s War. She is an award-winning screenwriter and director of film and television. She has written and directed dramatic pilots for CBS, NBC, and ABC. She was the first woman to direct Miami Vice and has directed episodes of Wiseguy, 21 Jump Street, 13 Reasons Why, Parenthood, Blue Bloods, NCIS: Los Angeles, and many others. Her debut feature film was Past Midnight staring Paul Giamatti and the late Natasha Richardson. As a screenwriter, Jan has written films driven by strong female leads including Fly Girls with Nicole Kidman and Cameron Diaz. Jan graduated from Wesleyan University and has two MFAs, one from the Yale School of Drama and Directing, and one from Warren Wilson in fiction. A native New Yorker, Jan currently lives in New York City.

Welcome, Jan. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Jan Eliasberg: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

Zibby: Thanks for writing Hannah’s War, which was, oh, my gosh, entertaining and exciting and all of it. Thank you. It was awesome.

Jan: Thank you. I loved writing it. I really did. It was one of the best experiences of my creative life.

Zibby: Wow, that’s saying a lot because you’ve had quite a creative life.

Jan: Yes. It was very different and unexpected. I just loved it.

Zibby: First of all, tell listeners, what is Hannah’s War about?

Jan: Hannah’s War started with a very, very tiny inspiration but an amazing story that I read in The New York Times on the headline on the day that we bombed Hiroshoma, read “Truman vows rain of ruin. Atomic bomb explodes.” In that issue of The New York Times, they basically had to explain the whole history of this project because it had all been developed in secret. Under the fold, I saw a paragraph that said the key component that allowed the allies to develop the bomb was brought to us by a female, non-Aryan physicist. That was The Times‘s way of saying Jewish, which they couldn’t say at the time. I read that and I thought, how is it possible that I haven’t heard of this woman? Who is it? She’s clearly critical to this, to the atomic bomb. Yet there was no name, nothing. It was just that sentence. It sent me into basically ten years of research, not to find her. Once I understood that there was this woman, I actually found her fairly easily.

She’s one of these women who had done amazing things who had been erased from history. She had been working in Germany with a male partner, an Aryan partner. She had been told by everybody she worked with as Hitler was rising in power that she would be protected and she would be fine because she was working at this high level of research. It was fascinating to me because as they were just on the verge of splitting the atom but they hadn’t done it yet, Austria was annexed and she had to flee within six hours. Then I discovered that her partner, Otto Hahn, he couldn’t work without her. He met with her in secret in Sweden where she fled. Then they would plan experiments. He would go back to Germany and he would do them.

He couldn’t understand the results of the experiment without her because that’s how they worked together. He would do the chemical part, and she would do the radiographic analysis and the mathematics and figure out what had actually happened. She was the one who figured out that they had split the atom, which was the key to all nuclear energy, both good and bad, to light up cities, to take us to the moon, and to potential destroy the world. He published the papers about the experiment. Because he lived in Germany, we can either be charitable or we can be really mean about him. If you’re charitable, you say, well, he would’ve ruined his career if he had put her name on the papers because she was Jewish. If you had a Jewish name on a paper, it was immediately discredited by the Germans. Or you can say he knew that if he left her off, that he would basically get credit for what had happened himself. In the end, I think we have to end up sort of adopting that theory because he won the Nobel Prize for this very discovery, and he did not mention her name.

Zibby: That doesn’t sound charitable.

Jan: No. Worse than that, she was sitting at the ceremony. I read in her diaries she was waiting for him to give her some kind of acknowledgment because they were friends. They had worked together for twenty years. Nothing. The Nobel Prize committee was also quite misogynist because afterwards — we’re getting way away from the story of the book. But afterwards, I think sixty scientists lobbied for her to get credit because they all knew that it really was more her discovery than his. They just said, nope, we’ve made our decision and that’s that. This woman became the inspiration for Hannah’s War in the sense that I immediately thought, you have a woman who’s experienced what it is to be working and thinking you’re finding truth. What is a great scientist? A great scientist is an artist. They’re going to go wherever the experiment takes you. They need to know what’s at the bottom of matter. How is human energy composed? Yet she’s sitting there and she’s seeing that her science which is so pure and beautiful becomes militarized. The Nazis actually came in and they took over the research institute where she was working.

Then I thought if she’s at Los Alamos where you have the same thing, you have all of these scientists, but now it’s right in the open. They’ve all been brought there by Oppenheimer and the United States military. They’re actually on a base, which looks like a concentration camp, surrounded by barbed wire. They’re both trying to find out how to create a bomb. At the same time, they’re being spied on. The military is keeping them in barracks. They’re being fed terrible food. Somebody who’s had that experience already in Germany of understanding what discrimination is and how science can become a weapon is in a very, very, very interesting position sitting in Los Alamos and essentially seeing it all happen again, but supposedly for a good cause.

It was such a rich environment for the things that I care about, for moral gray areas, for people engaged in one of the most important discoveries of the twentieth century that is going to change the world. Yet there’s a shadow over it too because when — I saw a wonderful documentary that interviewed a lot of the scientists. They were quite old. I think very few of them are still alive. They all talked about what it was like when they actually tested the bomb. One of them said something like, “You know, I knew that VE Day had happened. In my mind, I guess I knew that Hitler and the Germans didn’t have the bomb. Everything I know about myself says that I should’ve turned around and walked out and never looked back, and I didn’t because I had to know if it was going to work.” That dilemma and that level of complexity, it just floored me. I felt like this is a world that I have to explore. I have to explore it in a way from a woman’s point of view because I think it’s a very male world. She herself, the actual scientist, Lise Meitner, had a real moral compass that I think a lot of these men sort of lost in the process of their discoveries.

Zibby: I can see why it’s such a powerful story. That’s riveting just to listen to.

Jan: Thank you. What ended up happening, I certainly didn’t come on all of this in two seconds. I found her. Then I started to realize if I’m going to start to tell her story, I have to understand the history of the bomb and the physics that created it. Then I dove into that research. As I discovered more and more, the story took on layers. Instead of being a linear, straightforward story, it became kind of like the bomb itself, this tiny explosive core and then all of these layers that were put on the outside but still explodes in the end. It’s a pretty explosive story, I think.

Zibby: Have you always been interested in this period of time? Was it just this woman that made you delve deep? Have you always been a historian of…?

Jan: As a writer/director, I had actually written a story about the women air service pilots in World War II. I had been a part of researching that time period before from a very different perspective, a much more heroic story with fewer gray areas, for sure. Although, there was sexism and misogyny and all of that. I think that I’ve always been interested in what I call the tears in the fabric of society. Where are things broken? Where are things jagged? Is it race? Is it this unhealed story of slavery? In this case, there were two issues. There was the disappeared woman. Also, I don’t think we’ve ever really reckoned with the bomb. We created it and then sort of put it away and said, god, we hope we never have to use it again. Every time there’s a political flare-up, suddenly the bomb is there with us again. It’s Iran and Iraq. It keeps coming up. Then there was one other thing that really interested me, and it was personal, about World War II. My father fought in the war. He was a naval officer. His big war story was that he threw up thirteen times on the boat to Hawaii. He changed his name. I always wondered why. I talked to him and he said that, in fact, when he got out of the war he had a very hard time getting a job. He talked about all of the professions that were closed to him, that were closed to Jews: banking, the high echelons of the law, advertising. I hadn’t really thought about anti-Semitism as a present thing until I heard those stories from my dad. I thought, wow, that’s serious. It made me think about that too as an unsolved tear in our fabric.

Zibby: What did he change his name from and to?

Jan: It’s kind of funny actually. His last was Eliasberg. He begged his father to change the last name. His father was one of the founding members of Mount Sinai Hospital, which is a Jewish hospital. He father was like, “No, I’m proud of our name.” His whole medical career was built on the fact that he had founded this wonderful Jewish hospital. He founded it because the other hospitals didn’t take Jews.

Zibby: I’m on the board there, by the way. There we go.

Jan: There is actually — I think they still give it out. There’s a prize in his name. He was the head of anesthesiology. He never lost a patient. He was very proud of being Jewish. What my father did was he ended up changing his first name. He was named Joshua Abraham Eliasberg. He changed Joshua Abraham to Jay.

Zibby: Did that help?

Jan: Not really because I said, “Dad, you’re still Eliasberg. You’re not hiding anything from anybody.” It wasn’t the name change, in my mind, that was significant. It was the desire to be other than who he was.

Zibby: What job did he end up getting?

Jan: He was the vice president of research for CBS television in the end. He was just fine. I wasn’t crying any tears for him. It was still an interesting period. What I ended up discovering in the course of this research was that there’s a really good case to be made that anti-Semitism started in America, and Hitler actually appropriated it from us. I’ll tell you why. That sounds like a big thing. Henry Ford, Ford Motor Company, published The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is a discredited book, but very, very — it’s the basis of anti-Semitism, really. Hitler credited Henry Ford by name in Mein Kampf and said that he had really developed his whole philosophy as a result of Henry Ford’s work. There was a bond between the United States and Germany that also hasn’t seen the light of day, I think. I investigate that in the book.

Zibby: Do you watch the TV show Succession, by any chance?

Jan: I certainly do.

Zibby: I just watched the episode last night when they were interviewing the anchor. They were like, “Have you read Mein Kampf?” He’s like, “Just a few times.”

Jan: Yes, and he has the dog named Blondie.

Zibby: Yeah, a dog named Blondie. But he’s like, “Different spelling.”

Jan: Different spelling, yes. He honeymooned at Hitler’s cottage, right?

Zibby: Yeah, exactly.

Jan: I love that show.

Zibby: It’s so funny.

Jan: In fact, my ringtone is the Succession theme song. I love it that much.

Zibby: Is it really? Oh, my gosh. That’s so funny. I’m currently in an obsession of that, losing sleep over that show at the moment.

Jan: It’s an amazing, amazing show.

Zibby: Speaking of shows as they relate to books, you have spent your whole career up until now in the TV and movie world. This is your first book. Why now? Why write this as a book? I know you’ve already adapted it to a screenplay. Why go to this step? Why take this step? Why take a step into publishing and not just write the screenplay?

Jan: I hope you understand this. You’re from New York, right?

Zibby: Yes.

Jan: I’m from New York. If you grew up in New York in a sort of intellectual family, to be a writer is to write a novel. That’s it. You write the great American novel. That’s the dream. I always had this idea that I would write a novel, but I got into acting in high school. I was very dramatic. I ended up directing. It just made a lot of sense for my personality. It brought together a lot of the intellectual things that interested me and the visual things and of course working with actors. That was a very organic evolution. I ended up going to Yale Drama School. I might have stayed in the theater — I went to England; I went to London — if I had stayed there. I was offered a job there, but I was very, very young. I just wasn’t ready to live in London. I was too homesick. I think that the vibrancy of the theater there would’ve been very satisfying to me. I came back and I realized the theater wasn’t vital in the way that it was in England. Remember, this is before Hamilton. This is long before Hamilton. I thought I should experiment with film. I fell in love with film. I started directing.

I think that sexism had something to do with it because I was directing in maybe the second wave of women. There were about ten of us. I had a wonderful career, but there were definite parameters. I worked in television, but breaking through to film, impossible. I was offered to direct kids’ films like the Olson twins or something. I was interested in Brecht. I was interested in really serious issues. As I was directing television and making a wonderful living and enjoying the creativity of it, there was a part of me that felt very unfulfilled because ultimately it was somebody else’s show and it was what it was. Some were very good. Some I would look at them and I would go, ugh, I spent a month on that? Oh, my god, what a waste. I’m not ungrateful. I’m very grateful for my time as a television director, very grateful. I did feel like there was a large part of me, a large part of my creative life that was not being tapped. I kept dipping my toe in. I applied to graduate school. I applied to get an MFA in fiction. I thought if I’m accepted, then that’ll mean maybe I’m a writer. I was accepted. I went to graduate school. I had wonderful teachers. I started writing a different novel. I had a lot of great support.

Then I got out of graduate school. I was offered all these televisions shows, but I really wanted to write. And so I sort of found this compromise. I thought, okay, I’ll write screenplays because then I can write the screenplay, I can attach myself to direct, and then I’ll get all of it, the whole thing. I did. I wrote screenplays, some of them absolutely terrific. All of them with female leads. Not a one of them went to get made, mostly because they had female leads. The story of the women air service pilots, for example, had Cameron Diaz and Nicole Kidman attached to star. They were the biggest stars in the world at that time. I thought if that can’t get made, I’m just barking up the wrong tree. That pushed me toward the idea of writing something else. I had to move back to New York to do it because as long as I was in LA and I kept getting job offers, I took them. It wasn’t until I came to New York that I thought maybe I can create this safe space in the quiet to actually do something that really is my own. It’s a lot scarier to sit down and write a novel than it is to sit down and write a screenplay. Screenplays are very hard, but once you’ve broken the story, once you’ve figured out basically what the arc of the story is, it took me about three weeks or a month to write a first draft. Then you layer it and you do revision after revision.

Zibby: How long did it take to do the first draft of Hannah’s War?

Jan: Seven months, which is very quick, actually.

Zibby: It is, yes.

Jan: I know it’s very quick. That was partly because I knew the story so, so, so well by the time I sat down to write it because I had outlined it, because I had so much research at my fingertips, and also because I think I had gotten my chops from writing on deadline. You write for a television show, you sit down and it’s just got to be done, sometimes over a weekend. I had sort of done my Malcom Gladwell ten thousand hours or whatever. That’s how it happened.

Zibby: How does it feel? Now you finally have your intellectual novel. You’re here back in New York. You did it. How do you feel?

Jan: How can I say this without every cliché in the book?

Zibby: You can use clichés. It’s fine.

Jan: I’m walking on water. I’m so elated. It’s everything I wanted. It’s everything I dreamed.

Zibby: That’s so nice.

Jan: When I sat down to write the book, I had to say to myself, if this doesn’t sell, I’m going to be proud that I did it. That was the way I — I thought, if I don’t write this book, I will feel that I’ve let myself down. To some extent, I felt like if I write it, that’s a win. That’s a triumph. Going into it with that expectation was wonderful because it wasn’t at all about, who’s going to care? Am I going to sell it? It was really just about the process. That’s probably partly why I loved the process so much because it was very pure. Then not only did I sell it, but I sold it in a bidding war. I sold it to Little Brown which is a — that’s not self-publishing. That’s one of the best possible labels, and this extraordinary editor, Judy Clain. Then I have to say, I just felt I’d been treated with such respect. Writers in Hollywood are not generally — in television, they’re treated better than in film. I’ve been consulted about everything. It’s just such a great feeling. It’s what I envisioned all my life, what I hoped for.

Zibby: Now that you’ve gotten to this stage, what advice would you have for younger authors? Maybe going back to your younger self when you were just graduating, what advice would you have?

Jan: That’s a good question. Part of me thinks go with your instincts. The other part of me, the stronger advice I think, is in order to write you really do have to have something to write about that you really are passionate about, and that the experience you get on the way is worth every moment that you spent. For example, I could say I wasted all this time, but I don’t feel that way at all because I feel like every single thing I directed was sharpening my visual sense. Those shows that I would watch and go, oh, my god, why did I do that? even those, I got to hear what bad dialogue sounds like, you know, shows where the person comes in and they explain to another person what they already know because the writer can’t figure out how to hide the exposition. I figured out how to hide the exposition because I would hear that kind of dialogue and I would think, that’s not the way people talk to each other. You just don’t come in and announce what you’ve just discovered.

Every single thing that I’ve done I feel contributed to the book, and even in the sense that the cover — they showed me a cover which was beautiful, but it was like every other historical fiction cover. It was a woman in silhouette walking away from the reader towards something, some kind of misty I don’t know. It is Auschwitz? Is it a scientific laboratory? Is it Berlin? Is it Paris? I looked at it and I thought, this is wonderful. It certainly signals what the book is, the genre and everything, but this book is about a nuclear physicist. If people look at this cover, are they really going to be prepared for this woman who is — she’s a wonderful heroine, but she’s guarded. She’s mysterious. She’s really smart. She’s got almost a barbed sense of humor. I thought, I don’t know that this cover really sums up all the complexity of the book. I was very hesitant because I thought, well, I’m a debut novelist. I talked to Judy and she said, “Oh, I’m totally open. Send me inspirations.” Because I’m a director, I actually could do that. I could find pictures. I could find other book covers. I just put together a Pinterest board of all the inspirations, and I sent them to Judy. She didn’t say anything. She just passed them onto the designer. Then I opened a — I was in FedEx. I opened a little email that was the new cover. I gasped out loud because it was everything that I had sent but made personal by the designer.

Zibby: The cover, for people listening, is the bottom half off to the side of a woman’s face with bright red lipstick and pearl earrings, pearl necklace, and dark outfit; and then Jan’s name in bright red to match the lipstick; and then what’s probably supposed to be atoms floating everywhere, but I’m making that up.

Jan: That’s what I thought immediately, that they were atoms. They also are gold. They actually flash in the light.

Zibby: Ooh, yeah, they do. Look at that.

Jan: There’s a feeling of Gustav Klimt. Klimt was one of my inspirations.

Zibby: Love it.

Jan: Then there’s a background that’s sort of black and dark blue and a little bit green that always feels to me when I look at it like a chalkboard. It’s kind of distressed a little bit. It captures the mystery of the book in a way that makes me very, very happy. It’s sensuous too. It’s an alluring cover. It just makes you want to go, ooh. Things like that, if I hadn’t done all of those lookbooks for films that I’ve directed, I wouldn’t know how to put together inspirations for a cover design. I think that’s my advice. Every single thing that you do is part of the process as long as you can keep the attitude that it is part of the process and that it can take you where you want to go. You just have to be alive to when things align.

Zibby: Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and for your great book. I can’t wait to hear what happens in the next installment. I think you’re working on a sequel.

Jan: I am, actually.

Zibby: That’s going to be amazing.

Jan: I have a question for you. Having read the book, which character do you think that the sequel might follow?

Zibby: Oh, my goodness. I mean, I don’t know.

Jan: Who were you left with questions about?

Zibby: I feel like I had questions about everybody. What about the woman in the beginning who was dating the one who called everybody Jewish slaves?

Jan: Olrique , yes, she appears in the sequel. She is not the star of the sequel, but she appears in it. So does her — this is a bit of spoiler. The sequel is actually Hannah’s cousin.

Zibby: Sabine?

Jan: Sabine.

Zibby: I should’ve said that. That’s obviously — yes.

Jan: Because she disappears probably a third of the way through the book.

Zibby: Yeah, I should’ve said that. She is a firecracker.

Jan: She is really feisty. She is determined to challenge everything that she believes is unjust. I wanted to know what happens to her. She ends up having a very interesting journey.

Zibby: Excellent. Thanks again.

Jan: Thank you.

Jan Eliasberg, HANNAH'S WAR