Launch: Mary Anna Evans’s The Physicist’s Daughter
INTERVIEW BY REBEKAH SIMMERS
Rebekah Simmers talks to award-winning author Mary Anna Evans on her latest novel, The Physicists’ Daughter. The first of a new series, the story follows physicist Justine Byrne as she uses her knowledge of science to fight agents of espionage in WWII and Cold War America.
What is your elevator pitch?
Sabotage. That’s the word on Justine Byrne’s mind as she wonders whether someone is deliberately undermining the war efforts of the factory where she works. Unable to trust anyone―not the charming men vying for her attention, not her unpleasant boss, and not even the women who work beside her―Justine draws on the legacy of her physicist parents’ unconventional upbringing to protect her coworkers, her country, and herself from a war that is suddenly very close to home.
How many books and series have you written? What life experiences shaped you as a writer?
I’ve written thirteen books in my Faye Longchamp archaeological mystery series, and I have a standalone thriller, Wounded Earth. History is a natural part of archaeology so, even though those books have a contemporary setting, I enjoyed giving people from the past their voices. Now that I’m writing historical novels, I can give that part of my imagination free rein.
I’ve also found that, while science is not always in the foreground of my stories, my fiction is almost always subtly influenced by my unusual-for-a-novelist educational background in physics and engineering. Does this mean that my books are full of numbers and formulas or that my characters spend all their time in laboratories? Not at all. My stories are, first and foremost, about people.
When I learned that WWII has been called “The Physicists’ War” because of the importance of radar, sonar, rockets, the atomic bomb, and so much more, I knew that I had found my ideal time period, full of human drama. That’s how The Physicists’ Daughter came to be.
Now that you’d found your ideal time period, how did you begin to fill out your story?
I visited The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, which is a fabulous museum that I recommend highly, but I confess to being confused by its very existence. Why was it in New Orleans? Why not Washington, DC, for example?
I was fascinated to learn that New Orleans is where the famous “Higgins boats” that delivered Allied forces to Normandy were built. I learned that those humble-looking-but-innovative boats were so critical to D-Day that Eisenhower called them the “boats that won the war.” The museum itself is in one of the former Higgins Industries factories.
As I learned about those factories, I became fascinated with Andrew Higgins, the man who founded Higgins Industries and contributed many other designs critical to the war effort. When I learned that he employed many women and people of color, paying them the same salaries that he paid white men, I imagined a young woman working there, on her own in the world with nothing but determination and an unconventional education. I knew that I’d found my story.
Finding such an environment sounds inspirational. Can you share more about that?
It’s my understanding that Higgins Industries was the first employer in New Orleans to pay women and Black men the same wages that White men were paid for the same work. Anyone with an understanding of what the world was like in 1944, and is still like in some ways, has to be struck by the significance of this. Even after working with this story for more than a year, I’m getting a little teary-eyed thinking about what it must have felt like for those people to finally be treated with at least some degree of equality. The money was significant, of course, but receiving much-deserved respect for doing important work was significant, too.
With your educational background in physics and engineering, I can imagine that there is a deep or personal connection to the story and the characters for you. Do you find some of yourself or your own experience reflected in the characters? How they think or analyze situations?
I’ve written a long series of mysteries about a scientist, archaeologist Faye Longchamp. For years, people confused me with Faye, thinking that I’d modeled her on myself. I truly did not. After five or six books, though, I came to realize that Faye and I are alike in one way. We think alike. Logic is very important to us. The heroine of The Physicists’ Daughter, Justine Byrne also approaches life with a deeply embedded sense of cause and effect, which is central to the scientific method. Scientists constantly ask themselves, “If I do this, what will happen? Why?” Having been trained to think like this as a young person, I take those thought processes into everything I do, including my writing. A cause-and-effect orientation is very useful when plotting a coherent story.
Are your characters based on real people? What was your best strategy with getting to know them?
My primary characters are all totally imaginary, although Andrew Higgins does make a cameo appearance.
I ask myself where they come from. What has their life been like? Who do they love and who loves them? When I know enough about their past, I can answer the single most important storytelling question: What do my characters want? Once I can answer that question, I’m ready to start the book.
You mentioned earlier about your books not being “full of numbers and formulas” but about the people. Can you share more about how you balance the human drama with the science as a writer? How you perhaps choose which scientific concepts to bring to your reader and how you do so?
In many ways, the scientific concepts chose themselves. I knew that I wanted to work with physics, because of its importance in World War II. I knew that I wanted to work with the secret project at Higgins Industries in New Orleans, so the critical thing was going to be explaining the physics behind it in a way that was accurate but approachable for everybody. As it turned out, the best way that I found to do that was very visual. I really enjoyed writing about jet-black slabs of carbon and rocketing, curving streams of ions. Science is elegant and beautiful, and the love of beauty is an extremely human thing.
How did you conduct your research for the novel?
I visited the site of one of Andrew Higgins’ factories, which is also the location of The National World War II Museum, and that’s where I got the idea for the book. The museum has archival materials online, including oral histories taken from Higgins factory workers, and they were incredibly useful.
I got a critical plot element from an article on the museum’s website about a secret project conducted late in the war by Higgins Industries. Another Higgins factory was later purchased by NASA, so historical interior and exterior photographs, maps, and aerial photographs are easily available. I luckily already owned the WPA Guide to New Orleans, written just a few years before the book’s time period.
The most surprising things I was able to access on the internet were detailed plans and blueprints for a project that was highly classified in the 1940s but is now available to anybody with a wi-fi connection. As I studied those plans, I wondered what the engineers who drew them would think if they knew how easily I accessed them!
How do you organize and track your research?
I am both very organized and very disorganized, if that makes any sense. I bookmark all important websites. Even now, I can go straight to design documents that were so classified in 1944 that reading them was probably a capital crime.
I’ve always got a teetering stack of books related to my time period handy. As for notes, though, I wish I were more organized. I rely on my memory too much…and also on a rainbow of sticky-notes stuck in all those books.
I write outlines that are very detailed but very messy, and I paste them to the bottom of my manuscript along with a list of notes to myself that grows as I write. Somehow, this method works.
What is the last great book you read?
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.
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