Rebecca Starford, AN UNLIKELY SPY

Rebecca Starford, AN UNLIKELY SPY

Rebecca Starford tells Zibby all about her new book, The Unlikely Spy, from the obituary that inspired her protagonist to the four years it took to research and write the historical novel, and what it has been like to work on a book like this during the last four years of global affairs.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Rebecca. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss An Unlikely Spy and everything else you’re up to.

Rebecca Starford: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Listeners, it is six in the morning in Australia where Rebecca is, so we’re having an in-the-dark podcast situation here, which is great. It adds an extra layer of intimacy to this conversation. Love it.

Rebecca: It does. It adds to the mystique, doesn’t it, the sense of disguise?

Zibby: Yes, already on edge with the mystery behind your book and everything. Can you tell listeners what your book is about? Also, what made you choose the first quote, the epitaph or whatever you want to call it, that discusses how to know whether or not you’re a monster or if this is just what humans really are?

Rebecca: An Unlikely Spy is set in London within two timeframes, both in London. Most of the book is set in 1939. It covers the first year of the second world war, the quiet period, I suppose you’d describe it, at least for the British, during which time Evelyn, a young twenty-one-year-old, is recruited to work for MI5, the intelligence agency based in London. Her work involves the infiltration of a far-right Hitler-sympathizer group who were made up of very influential establishment figures in the UK. This is based on real events and real people. It explores her work as a spy, the technical aspects of it, the processes for her training, and how she will go about infiltrating this group. It also explores the psychological impacts that this work has on her, how it is she has really come to be in this, what I found anyway, quite extraordinary position of both this high-stakes intelligence work at a really young age, but also how it was that she was kind of primed for this work, what made her a suitable candidate for adopting a different persona, and how she reflects on those processes and what it does to her sense of herself, but also her relationships with other people.

Some of those people are actually very, very close to her and have actually helped her in the progression of her career. Those personal and professional worlds really collide later in the story. The epigraph from Clarice Lispector, the quote is, “Who has not asked himself at some time or other, am I a monster, or is this what it means to be a person?” Really jumped out to me. I like Lispector. Also, the whole book explores what betrayal means and also what — for Evelyn, her work as a spy requires her to adopt a persona of these other far-right individuals, many of whom have really abhorrent, awful views, as we know now historically, very anti-Semitic in particular, very much in favor of an allegiance or an alliance with Hitler and also a range of other really problematic views, as we look back on them historically. That was what I wanted to explore. Can Evelyn still feel that sense of betrayal for people who are objectively awful people? She has to develop an intimacy and friendship with them as well. It’s all around that kind of complexity that I wanted to explore in the book.

Zibby: What piqued your interest about this to begin with? Your last book was about bullying and boarding school. Now we’re deep in the James Bond as a woman, World War II. How did you get there? What piqued your interest about it?

Rebecca: It’s interesting. I’ve been asked that a lot, and people asking if there are threads between the earlier books. I was really just interested in that fundamental question of, where do we find belonging? So often, we can find belonging in the wrong places. My first book explored how that happened to me as a teenager. Obviously, this is fictional. It’s set in the 1930s in London, so all of those sorts of differences. It’s really a character study of this young woman and how it is her life is so transformed by some particular circumstances around her own upbringing, her educational opportunities. She really shouldn’t have been in that position at all because she was plucked from obscurity when she wins a scholarship. Evelyn decides to go on to a prestigious boarding school. That’s where she meets these people who become her friends who have influence later in the story. I’m interested in World War II in London. I love London as a city. I’ve spent a lot of time there. I was interested in that particular period of the war. I think we read a lot about, like you said, the James Bond, the action-packed, the military operational aspects of the war. I wasn’t interested in that. I was interested in the psychological aspect of it. I didn’t know a lot about the first year of the war, the so-called phony war where nothing was happening. There was still a belief that it would be over.

It was really interesting to read back over so much archival material. In the intelligence service, there was this conflict between what the intelligence service were telling government because the government of the time in the UK really didn’t want to go to war. It’s understandable, obviously. There was this real reluctance. Whereas M15 where Evelyn was working at the time, they were really warning them of many threats. The biggest concern was this uprising of pro-German British nationals were who in the invasion during that first year of the war. There was a real fear that Hitler was going to be crossing the channel. In the event of that happening, the intelligence agencies were really paranoid about these establishment figures rising up and helping with that insurrection and with that invasion too. So much of their work was focused on local people and the threats that they posed as well. To me, that was just absolutely fascinating because there are so many contemporary parallels between that. I started writing the book in 2016, which was such a huge year for everyone, particularly for you guys over in the States, but also in the UK. Brexit was happening. Nationalism was on the rise. Australia has its own complicated political situation too. There was a lot swirling around. That, to me, was really fascinating, looking at that through the lens of this particular historical event and these characters and drawing out those parallels.

Zibby: Did you major in history? Have you always been into history?

Rebecca: No, I haven’t had any kind of formal training in history. I read a lot of historical novels. I suppose I didn’t set out to write a book like this. It was something that held my interest. I wanted to know whether it would be possible to write a historical novel.

Zibby: Love it. It’s an accidental historical novel.

Rebecca: Yeah, maybe.

Zibby: That’s funny. It’s impressive. It’s not really funny. It’s impressive.

Rebecca: I don’t mean to make it sound like I just sort of whipped it up. Like I say, it was four years. The thing about historical fiction, obviously, is there’s so much research. That was one of the really wonderful things about it too, going and doing that research, being in those particular places, spending time there. Also, I went and visited The National Archives in London in Kew, which was absolutely fascinating. One of the things that happened during that early period in my research is the government declassified a whole bunch of cables and archival material, these transcripts of interviews that MI5 did during this period which illuminated a lot of what was going on behind the scenes. It gave me the sense, almost the personality of the people involved, though they’re pretty standard, but the kind of language that was used, the attitudes. I thought it was absolutely fascinating. It was a nerd’s paradise in the archives. That worked its way into the book too. That was really fantastic.

Zibby: Then let me ask you a really stupid question. Is The Imitator the UK version of the same book, or is that a totally different book?

Rebecca: No, that’s the Australian edition. The same book over here in The Imitator. Yes, I know, it’s a little bit confusing. Hopefully, it’s not too .

Zibby: I just wanted to make sure. I was like, she couldn’t have done a whole second book in this same genre in the same time period. You’ve started all of this research. You’ve done these books. You also have started Kill Your Darlings. Looks like from the masthead you’re still involved in and everything. Tell me about starting that. Tell me about how you balance your time with all of that and all of the writing and just what your life is like now.

Rebecca: Yeah, I do, I run Kill Your Darlings, which is a magazine. We’re online now over here in Australia, though you can read it anywhere in the world. It’s a literary magazine. A lot of time’s spent facilitating some other activities that we do. We run writers’ workshops, mentor programs, manuscript assessments. My day job is as an editor. I was working in-house for various publishers over here in Australia, but I went freelance about five years ago. I still do editing work as well on a freelance basis. My editing and Kill Your Darlings work is about part time also across the week, two and a half to three days. Then I spend the rest of the time writing. I fill in writing around other work, that balance. I do try to write every day, usually in the mornings. I also have a two-year-old. I’m hoping he’s going to stay asleep throughout our chat, but we will see. As I’m sure you and many of your listeners know, that’s a whole other element to be balancing with work. I’ve been working from home. Obviously, with everything being going on with COVID, that’s been challenging, as it’s been challenging for everyone. Life in Australia has been a lot easier for almost everyone else in the entire world. We’ve been really fortunate. Everyone’s been juggling work and life. When the book was accepted by my Australian publisher, I was about two weeks away from going to have him. Then I was doing editing. The bulk of the editing and working with my American publisher was when he was about nine months old or something. Looking back on that time, I can’t believe I even did that. Sometimes that narrow focus on that task at hand — someone said to me once if you’re working and you’re a parent your levels of efficiency just are off the charts because you have such limited amount of time and so much to do. I’ve found that that’s the case. I procrastinate much less now, so that’s good.

Zibby: I know, people always ask me that. I’m like, well, I just have to do it. This is my time. I focus on one thing at a time. I’m like, okay, now I’m doing this. Now I’m doing that. Now I’m doing twenty minutes of kids’ medical forms. Now I’m going to hang out with them. I have four kids.

Rebecca: That’s right. Oh, my god, wow.

Zibby: I have to say, my kids are a little older. I have a six and seven-year-old and then twins who are almost fourteen. In the pandemic, I was like, at least they’re older. Having a baby, I think having one child that age is harder than four kids who are older, just FYI.

Rebecca: Presumably, you had to homeschool the kids as well. I don’t know how that —

Zibby: — Yeah, that was not fun. I get it.

Rebecca: That’s how the day’s spent. I feel lucky that my day job, as it was, was also working with words and always engaging with writing and having conversations with writers because that’s really enriching when it comes to my own work. Being an editor has been so transformative for my own writing process and also when it comes to reworking my own material too. That’s been great.

Zibby: Did I make up that you’re getting a PhD? Was that you? Did I make that up?

Rebecca: I was also doing a PhD.

Zibby: I’m literally doubting myself. I’m like, that can’t be her then.

Rebecca: Yes, I thought it would be a good idea to also do a PhD. I started that about four years ago as well. I have actually finished that. I’ve gotten the examiner’s reports back, so I just need to make a couple of changes. In a couple of months, that will be done. That’s when I’ll be awarded my doctorate. That was probably taking on too much. There was a point last year when I was going, oh, my god, why have I done this? I managed to juggle it until that point, the submission, the mad scramble to get it in. I’d maxed out. I’m not sure what it’s like in the States. In Australia now with your PhD, you used to be able to take as long as you wanted, but they’ve cracked down here. If you go over your four years, you’ve got to start paying fees and all this sort of thing. I said to myself, right, I’ve got to do this. Then it was just absolutely crazy. That was good to be done. I’ve learned my lesson. I finally realized I have to scale back, not scale up now.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. One of your last projects is being adapted or was optioned or something. What about this project? What’s going on with that?

Rebecca: So far, it’s all quiet on that front. It’d be, obviously, wonderful if the book was to take on another form. If anyone is interested, that sounds wonderful. I think there’s an appetite for this kind of material as well. That’d be great if that was to happen.

Zibby: Not to distill your entire magnum opus of research down to one or two sound bites, but is there something about that time that you learned that you were really surprised about or just that isn’t mainstream knowledge, aside from the quiet period in general, and the overall sentiment of the time? Anything?

Rebecca: I think there are two things which are quite different. They’re more social. Maybe I did know these things, though it definitely clarified through the process of research and writing. The real seed of the idea, that very first little idea in the back of my head was — I came across this article in a British newspaper. It was an obituary for a woman. She died when she was in her late eighties. It was only right before her death that she’d revealed to her family — she’d lived a pretty “conventional, ordinary” life. She revealed very close to her death to her family that she’d actually worked for MI5 and she’d been involved in parachuting into France during the occupation, really just extraordinary stuff. She’d had this career during the war. Then the war ended, and her service was terminated. She was required to go back to her life as it had been before, which was living in the countryside, getting married, having children, never working again. I just could not believe this. As a contempory twenty-first-century woman, this made my blood boil. It made my blood boil, but these were the circumstances in which women’s working lives were kind of dictated. She’d been erased from history. There was this tiny, little note in the newspaper about her achievements.

That was a big propellant for me to uncover this story. Evelyn is not that kind of character. She’s not overtly heroic. I think she’s a courageous person in many ways, but she’s much more complex in terms of creating this character on the page. I wanted to uncover those kinds of stories. I just came across countless stories of women whose service was obviously so important and so integral, but so often, it’s forgotten. If we think about these war stories or even if we think about espionage stories, it’s such a masculine space. That, for me, was really important. Obviously, I was aware of women having these working opportunities during the war and then going back to the housewife role, such as it was back then, very, very limited. Yes, reading it over and over. Women who were so accomplished as well, I found that really demoralizing and upsetting.

The other thing that I discovered, which maybe I sort of knew intuitively but it was confronting to read about it, was — the group that Evelyn infiltrates, they’re quite at the extreme end of these far-right kind of attitudes. A lot of these social attitudes around nationalism and anti-Semitism in particular were fairly widespread amongst the establishment. Britain, as we know, has a problematic history when it comes to anti-Semitism, as so many countries in Europe do. These ideas that this particular group take and go extreme with were quite pervasive at the time too. One of the challenges was how to immerse myself in that way of thinking and how to calibrate those attitudes as well. Obviously, not everyone had those thoughts and those feelings and attitudes as well. How to scale them against what we now know and what we now think about those particular prejudices and hatred, that was fairly confronting too. There were those parallels. The book, we signed off on all the proofs and everything over there for you guys in the States when there was the storming of the capital. It was crazy that this was happening.

Zibby: It was a crazy day.

Rebecca: That’s a whole other conversation. That was a home-grown insurrection. This much smaller, small-scale in my little book, it just shows that this history is still repeating itself. The fermenting of these kind of clashes between ideas and the way that we live and how we are governed just continues. That was really extraordinary as well. The events of World War II, I think this is why people are still so interested in it. They keep playing out in a different format across our time span since the war. That’s why when we’re reading it, I think we can draw these quite powerful parallels.

Zibby: Are you working on a new project now because you’re not doing enough?

Rebecca: I’ve finished the PhD, so I’ve got to take on something huge now. I am thinking and starting to plan out another book project. It’s in the very, very early stages. It is set abroad again, for me. It’s set in some different locations overseas, which is challenging to my research because obviously we can’t travel at the moment. I’m just about thinking ways I can — using Google Maps a lot and thinking how I can plan for that. Yes, I do hope to be writing properly again very, very soon.

Zibby: If it takes place in New York City, just let me know. I can FaceTime you from the street or something.

Rebecca: Wonderful. Any excuse to come back to New York, I would be absolutely there.

Zibby: I’ve never been to Australia. It’s number one on my list. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there, but I would love to.

Rebecca: Whenever we reopen our borders, it would be wonderful to have you come over here. It’s a beautiful country. It’s big, though. You need a lot of time.

Zibby: I know, which I don’t have. Moms don’t have time to go to Australia.

Rebecca: I understand.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Rebecca: To persevere, really. So much of writing, for me anyway, is about sitting at the desk, turning up, turning up for work I suppose. So much of the work on this book, as it was for my first book, was taking the material that I had in that first draft, which was very unwieldy, very messy, and just revising and working. For me, obviously a lot of it was built around the research, feeding that research through, taking things out. Being persistent and being patient, I think that’s the biggest requirement of a writer because it is challenging at times. It can be frustrating when things aren’t coming together as well. Like I said, this is a book that took me four years. I had a baby in between. Thankfully, I’d done the bulk of that writing work before he turned up. Just that patience and perseverance I think is the best thing to continue, and also to be open to sharing your work with others. I’ve found that having some really great, trusted readers to get feedback, really objective feedback, has been really instructive and helpful for me. I’ve been really lucky in that respect.

Zibby: Excellent. Rebecca, thank you so much. Thanks for waking up early and doing this podcast.

Rebecca: My pleasure. As you can see, I probably would’ve been up anyway.

Zibby: Still, but you wouldn’t have been all dressed and everything. You got an early start on the day.

Rebecca: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. It’s been so lovely to chat.

Zibby: You too. It’s been great. Have a great day.

Rebecca: Thank you. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Rebecca Starford, AN UNLIKELY SPY

AN UNLIKELY SPY by Rebecca Starford

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