Wednesday, April 21, 2021

The Spies Who Inspired Me


HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: In reading today’s wonderful post, I had a thought. Writers are always looking for the idea that inspires them to write a book, of course. That one snippet or meeting or even a scrap of dialogue.

But the wonderful Jane Healey—a dear and treasured friend, and we have signed together many times—had a double inspiration experience.

Yes, she was looking for her next idea, her next set of characters, her next situation. And, as she tells the story to us today, she found it.

And then—the idea became an obstacle.

And then, the very inspirational characters she found—inspired her to go on.

It seemed to me that the women she discovered just turned around, pointed their fingers at her, and said: Hey, sister. DO this!

Jane tells the story better than I ever could. Listen.




Taking a Risk to Write about Risk Takers


By Jane Healey

I am a huge fan of mysteries and thrillers, and I admire the authors that are part of this group, so I am so happy and honored to be here at Jungle Red Writers today! To introduce myself - I am a historical fiction writer and I live just outside of Boston. My first two novels, The Saturday Evening Girls Club and The Beantown Girls, were both stories that focused on lesser known women in history. The Saturday Evening Girls Club is based on an actual club of Jewish and Italian immigrant women in Boston’s North End at the turn of the twentieth century. The Beantown Girls is based on the true stories of the Red Cross Clubmobile girls of World War Two.



My newly released novel, The Secret Stealers, is also about a lesser known group of women in history. The twist is, it happens to be a spy thriller, and I want to tell you a little about how I came to write the story, almost despite myself. After the Beantown Girls, it took me awhile to figure out what my next novel would be about. I keep a file of possible story ideas – articles that I find, excerpts from books, youtube videos – anything that I think might have that special spark that might evolve into a novel.

One of the articles in this idea file was from the Washington Post. Published in June 2011, it was about two best friends in a retirement community in Virginia. The friends, Elizabeth “Betty” McIntosh and Doris Bohrer, lived on the same street in the Westminster at Lake Ridge Seniors Village in Prince William County.

Upon meeting, they bonded over a highly unusual connection—both women had been spies overseas in WWII in the OSS, and later had long careers with the CIA. McIntosh had served in Asia, and, even at ninety-six, still struggled with the guilt over unwittingly handing off an explosive disguised as a piece of coal to a Chinese operative. The bomb ended up blowing up a train, killing hundreds of Japanese soldiers. Bohrer served in Italy, gathering intelligence on what the Nazis were building by analyzing aerial photographs.



I was aware of the British female spies of the SOE during World War II, but had never really heard much about American female spies. I began asking the questions that I always did before starting a new project—who were these women? What were their stories?

Doris and Betty’s story had that spark of fascination for me, but I knew if I wrote their story, to do justice to their history, it had to be a spy thriller.

And that was where I hit that wall of self-doubt that I think many people can relate to when you’re trying to create or do something that you’ve never done before. Yes, I had always dreamed of writing a thriller, and I loved the idea of writing a historical spy thriller, but what if I didn’t have it in me as a writer? Or, worse, what if I wrote one and it turned out to be rubbish?

For the first couple of months while I was doing research, I was gripped with fear and uncertainty every time I faced that blank page with “Chapter One” at the top. Deep down, my biggest worry was that the novel wouldn’t live up to my expectations for it, and I would disappoint my readers as a result.

However, the more I continued to research these brave, trail blazing women, women who risked everything to work overseas as spies for the Allies, some of whom lost their lives for the cause, the more they inspired me to the point that I couldn’t not try to tell a fictionalized version of their story.

Learning the answer to “Who were these women?” sent me down the most fascinating research rabbit holes. There was the brilliant and unflappable Betty Lussier, who was recruited out of college to become part of the OSS’s counterespionage unit, known as X-2. She helped establish an extensive double agent net in Perpignan, France, tracking down collaborators and Nazi agents.

Another of these fearless women was Elizabeth Deveraux Rochester, an elegant, steely socialite with a British mother and American father, who happened to be in Europe when the Germans occupied France. Rather than flee home, she became a courier in occupied France for the OSS and SOE, bringing messages to the resistance and helping smuggle refugees and downed Allied airmen out of the country.

Virginia Hall is perhaps the most famous of these female spies, finally getting her due as both fiction and non-fiction books have been written about her in recent years. She was trained by the SOE because she originally worked for that organization, as an undercover agent in France before America entered the war. 

Known as the “Limping Lady” because she had lost one leg in a hunting accident, Hall’s accomplishments were extraordinary. An expert wireless radio operator, she helped create agent networks, recruited French civilians to establish safe houses, helped prisoners of war escape and arranged air drops of supplies for the French Resistance. The Gestapo referred to as “one of the most dangerous Allied agents in France” and vowed to find and destroy her. They did not succeed.

Here were these amazing lesser known stories of women in history, but with a level of danger, intrigue and stakes that compelled me to push past my fears and start writing. I was so incredibly inspired by every single one of them, I finally stepped outside of my creative comfort zone, to write the kind of spy thriller that I hope will not only honor their history, but also entertain and enlighten readers. It is the hardest creative project I have ever worked on, but it’s also the one that I am the most proud of.

I’m hoping somewhere Betty McIntosh and Doris Bohrer are reminiscing about their days in the OSS, sharing their old stories, and happy that someone else decided to share them too.



HANK: Of course they are! And they are applauding you, too. Reds and readers, what questions do you have for Jane? Were any of your relatives in the OSS? And what voices do YOU hear from the past?

 


Jane Healey is the Amazon Charts and
Washington Post bestselling author of The Beantown Girls and The Saturday Evening Girls Club. When her daughters were young, Jane Healey left a career in high tech to fulfill her dream of writing historical fiction about little-known women in history. It was a passion that has turned into something much more. Jane shares a home north of Boston with her husband, two daughters, and two cats. When she’s not writing, she enjoys spending time with her family, traveling, running, cooking, and going to the beach. For more information on the author or upcoming events or to schedule a book club visit, please visit her website, https://janehealey.com.

62 comments:

  1. What an intriguing story, Jane. It amazes me that, so many years later, there’s still so much we still don’t know about events during the Second World War. Your spy story sounds quite thrilling and I’m looking forward to reading it . . . .

    No OSS relatives in our family [as far as I know], but then I guess we never really know, do we?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well exactly! I keep thinking about that… How would we even know? And yes, it does seem more likely that we would know everything… And yet, it’s clear we don’t.

      Delete
    2. Hi this is Jane Healey testing my commenting ability! thank you Joan. :)

      Delete
    3. Hank just reading your lovely intro, thank you for all of your support my friend! Here’s to more in person signings soon! Xoxo

      Delete
    4. YEs yes yes! And you always have such wonderful presentations!

      Delete
  2. This sounds absolutely fascinating. I must read it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Jane, I love historical fiction, and my favorite kind of historical fiction are the stories lurking in the background, the ones behind the scenes. And, the stories of women in WWII are absolutely fascinating to me. I recently bought The Beantown Girls and hope to read it soon. Now, The Secret Stealers is on my order list. Mystery/crime is my main type of reading I do, so when I can combine it with historical fiction, it's the best of all worlds. The title of The Secret Stealers and the cover are just outstanding. And, I haven't forgotten about The Saturday Evening Girls Club. I'll be looking it up, too. I have a feeling you are going to become a favorite author in my reading.

    My question concerns the numbers of American girls/women who first became spies working for the British OSS. It was quite the daring thing to do, and I'm wondering if the numbers were far greater than I imagine. I'm not imagining a large number, but I also won't be surprised to find out I'm wrong. Is there a number on this?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, good question! And sometimes when I am cranky about staying home in the pandemic, I think – – come on Hank, you are not leading crashed pilots through the snow in the Pyrenees to safety.
      You’re not sneaking secret messages to the resistance. Right?

      Delete
    2. Kathy thank you! I hope you enjoy the books. So a few thousand women served abroad for the OSS, the number that served as field agents/spies was much smaller. I don’t have an exact number as that still hasn’t been declassified!

      Delete
    3. A few thousand is more than I expected. To think of that many women who were raised in traditional roles for females at the time were able to switch their way of imagining what a woman could or should do is pretty amazing. It was brave and gutsy and heroic, whether they served as spies or did other work. They were willing to leave their country and cross the pond to the unknown.

      Hank, I wouldn't have lasted a day.

      Delete
  4. Jane, how wonderful you didn't let fear dissuade you from writing about these amazing women. The new book sounds fascinating, as do your first two.

    I also write historical fiction (waving also from north of Boston - in Amesbury) and I love those research rabbit holes. I have no spies in my family - that I know of.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The research is daunting, and the requirement to get everything correct…

      Delete
    2. Thank you Edith! We are practically neighbors!

      Delete
  5. Thanks for introducing yourself here, Jane. You and your writing are new to me. And I'm off right away to find your books for my TBR.

    WWII and female agents are a favourite topic of mine. Their bravery in action was matched only by their silence after the war was over. I have often wondered at what cost to themselves and their mental/emotional health they kept secret their oh-so-important work once they returned to normal life. I'm going to look up the WaPo article you mention was your inspiration.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I am, too! They lived in such constant danger…

      Delete
  6. Isn't it wonderful that so many stories of heroic women are finally coming to light? It makes me so happy to know that they are no longer shrouded in secrecy, but shared to inspire the rest of us.

    Jane, I listened to The Beantown Girls last fall while I worked in the garden, and enjoyed it so much I passed it off to my husband to listen to on a long car trip. He also liked the book and the women depicted. I have a feeling we will also both like The Secret Stealers very much. Love the name! And isn't it funny how many of those women were named Elizabeth/Betty?

    When did the OSS become the CIA? Wasn't that shortly after WWII? From what I've heard and read, even after retirement agents don't talk about their former roles.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies

    1. Exactly! Who knows what danger they might still be in, you know?

      Delete
    2. The Bletchley code team were never supposed to reveal their roles in the war, not even to their own families, not ever.

      Delete
    3. Yes even in old age, these women still would not share some of the details that f their missions. The OSS for political reasons mostly, was dissolved after the war. Many OSS men abs women ended up serving in the CIA.

      Delete
  7. congratulations on your new release! I love WW2 women spies/resistance characters. Do you remember "Julia" in Lillian Hellman's Pentimento? In the movie, Vanessa Redgrave played an American woman with a wooden leg working in the resistance. I wonder if Virginia Hall was the inspiration for the fictional character.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, what a good question! I loved that book… but I did not know enough to make that connection! I bet Jane knows.

      Delete
    2. OH, Margaret! What a good memory you have. I know that film, but I had forgotten about the wooden leg. I wonder about the inspiration now, too.

      Delete
  8. Jane, welcome to JRW and congratulations on The Secret Stealers. I agree with Karen, the title is super and I love the cover. All three of your books are going right onto my TBR list and I think I'll read the last one first!

    Historical fiction that pertains to WWII seems to be my favorite. I gravitate towards stories that tell about the heroism and the resolve of people who lived through that time. Before I began to read more mysteries than other types of literature, I concentrated on authors whose books were mainly about that era. When I discovered James R. Benn's Billy Boyle, I found that there are so many more stories to tell. One of his main characters is an SOE agent. Her escapades are positively thrilling. Now, I am totally loving a character created by Iona Whishaw. Lane Winslow is a former SOE agent who has retired to British Columbia, with her secrets and her memories, and her promise to keep those secrets for 50 years. S. C. Perkin's Lineage Most Lethal, which I just finished, also takes a strong look back at men and women who were SOE and OSS agents during WWII.

    I read everything that JRW's Rhys Bowen writes about WWII and two of my favorite books by Deborah Crombie tie strongly back to events during that war. I know that your readers will be very glad that you overcame any hesitation and tackled this subject. I'm going to be sure my library also knows about your new book!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love Iona Wishaw! We read one of her books on first chapter phone! It is great!

      Delete
    2. I've been devouring her books since I won book 1 on FCF. Her latest comes out soon and will also be a FCF read!

      Delete
    3. Thank you for adding my books to your TBR Judy!! I am not familiar with a couple of these I must look them up. Oh and thanks for telling your library too ☺️!

      Delete
  9. Jane, the cover alone would be enough to make me grab this book--stunning! I think many of us grew up with this picture of American women stepping into men's places at home during the war--the Rosie the Riveter image. Then the men came home and we got on with life. And yet, the picture was so much more complicated than that. I'm glad these stories are coming out. And not only here, but all over the world--has anyone else just heard of Russia's Night Witches? Fascinating!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes! There is a new book that just came out about them, isn’t there? I’ll go look it up…

      Delete
    2. I've heard of the Night Witches, but not yet read it. Do you recommend it?

      Delete
    3. Amanda, I literally just saw something about the Night Witches yesterday--definitely will be reading more about them.

      Delete
    4. The next James Benn Billy Boyle WWII mystery will be about the night witches. Road of Bones.

      Delete
  10. Welcome, Jane. I love how all these stories are coming to light. I watched a short-lived Amazon show called "Bletchley Circle" (it had a spin-off in San Francisco - I think the pandemic killed it). It's about four female code-breakers - two British, two American - who solve mysteries in San Francisco. I had forgotten about the Presidio and its history as a code-breaking site in WWII, and the role of women.

    And then there are movies like Hidden Figures.

    Your books sound fascinating!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We really enjoyed the Bletchley Circle series. Both of them.

      Delete
    2. I think Bletchley Circle started out as a BBC series, and was aired on PBS first. I remember watching it that way long before Amazon picked it up and added the San Francisco part.

      Delete
    3. Karen, I think you're right. It started with four British women.

      Delete
    4. Yes, the original one was better than he SF, I thought. Although I'd thought it was such a good idea...

      Delete
  11. How fascinating! I truly admire your ability to overcome your fears and just get on with writing your book. Was The Little Train That Could a tiny voice in your head? looking forward to reading this, jane.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, that is great! What a wonderful image… And yes, there are times one that actually goes through my mind. The things that stick in our brains! I guess because they are so wise and relevant.

      Delete
  12. Congratulations Jane for The Secret Stealers. Historical novels were my first love and, combined with a thriller story about spy women in WWII is certainly a plus for me. I’m looking forward to read it.

    Our father was not a spy. He was in the Royal Canadian Navy during WWII. While stationed in UK, we know that he received special training to undertake secret missions. He didn’t like to remember this time and refused to talk about it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, how fascinating! I bet he had some stories. but yes, so many people like that just compartmentalized, and never discussed it.

      Delete
    2. My cousin was in Vietnam in the Air Force. He also never spoke about his time there until shortly before his death a few years ago. It turned out he was a guerilla spy, using tunnels in the jungle, and apparently he had a very rough time of it.

      Delete
    3. Oh, gosh, Karen. That is chilling.

      Delete
  13. This is fascinating! Stories of women who contributed to WWII always inspire me. I'm looking forward to reading The Secret Stealers.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agreed! And we always think--what would WE have done?

      Delete
  14. Congratulations, Jane, on The Secret Stealers. Wonderful title, wonderful cover. I love reading about WWI and WWI, as especially women's roles, so I'm really looking forward to your book!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much Deborah!! I also love the cover, they really nailed this one!

      Delete
  15. Love the premise and the cover! Look forward to reading it.
    My parents had a Russian friend who fled in 1917 and came to the US. Joined the US Forest Service but was often sent overseas to possible political hot spots! My parents were sure he was really CIA. He was fascinating and could speak multiple languages.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The Forest Service! Oh, that is FASCINATING! Hmmm...

      Delete
  16. The Secret Stealers sounds wonderful! I love historical fiction. So much of what people did for the war effort was secret and will remain that way forever, it seems. My great aunt was a missionary in China when the second war broke out. She spent most of it in a Japanese intern camp. I'm sure she did a lot of praying, but I doubt she did any spying.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Jane, welcome to Jungle Reds.

    Question: Were you able to conduct historical research despite the COVID 19 pandemic restrictions like lockdowns?

    Hank,

    As far as I know, I do not have relatives who were in the OSS. If they were, it was a secret.

    Diana

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Diana,
      Great question. My first draft was due to my editor on March 1 2020, so my research was done long before the pandemic began, thank goodness! Best, Jane

      Delete
  18. This sounds so FANTASTIC, I just went online and bought it! Weirdly, I was talking to an old codger at my hardware store this morning about how his father was a pilot in WWII, so it was already on my mind. I do understand about doubting your own writing chops when entering a new genre but I'm thrilled that you went for it, and I can't wait to read The Secret Stealers. Congratulations!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. OH, that's so fascinating..and those real-life memories are fast disappearing...

      Delete
    2. Thank you so very much Jenn! I hope you enjoy!!

      Delete
  19. I read a book in high school - The Spy Wore Red - about Aline, Countess of the Romanones, who was an OSS agent. It was a great book that I enjoyed very much. I look forward to reading The Secret Stealers and appreciate your stopping by JRW to tell us how to came to be written ~

    ReplyDelete
  20. I read a book in high school - The Spy Wore Red - about Aline, Countess of the Romanones, who was an OSS agent. It was a great book that I enjoyed very much. I look forward to reading The Secret Stealers and appreciate your stopping by JRW to tell us how to came to be written ~

    ReplyDelete
  21. I was intrigued by the title before I knew anything else about the book. But this sounds terrific, will order it from my local indie bookstore now. Thanks for sticking with it!

    ReplyDelete