New Article in The Day: Novelist Jan Eliasberg reimagines amazing story of female physicist and the atomic bomb

Novelists are routinely inspired by big moments and charismatic figures from history. But a brief allusion to an anonymous person in a 75-year-old newspaper article?

Not so much.

And yet Jan Eliasberg, an award-winning screenwriter and director of film and television, was perusing microfilm in the New York Public Library and came across an issue in the New York Times published on the day U.S. Forces dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945. A one-sentence paragraph caught her attention.

“The key component that allowed the Allies to develop the bomb was … (provided) by a female, non-Aryan physicist.”

That’s all it said.

“My immediate thought was, ‘Who IS this woman and why has her face not been staring out of the pages of every science magazine ever?” Eliasberg is speaking by phone from her apartment in Manhattan, discussing “Hannah’s World,” her highly regarded and recently published first novel.

A deft fusion of espionage, science, military history and two wounded human hearts, “Hannah’s War” is an amazing and distinctive novel that reimagines the forgotten woman behind one of history’s most overlooked and (literally) world-shaking discoveries.

The uncredited scientist in the newspaper story, Eliasberg learned, was Dr. Lise Meitner, a protected Austrian Jew working at a top-level, non-militarized physics lab at the elite Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin before she was forced in 1938 to flee Germany in the rising tide of Nazism. From exile in Sweden, Meitner used couriered postcards to continue her to research in secret with her German colleague, Otto Hahn. It was Meitner — not Hahn — who gave the first theoretical explanation of the fission process that paved way for construction of the atomic bomb.

Ultimately, Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of nuclear fission. Meitner was not acknowledged — in large part due to anti-Semitism and sexism. Later in life, Meitner received many accolades and awards, and she was the subject of an academic biography, but she was never given proper credit for the Nobel-winning work on fission.

Eliasberg says the idea of sharing this woman’s amazing story was irresistible, saying, “Here you have a woman who’d seen and overcome the gender barrier in pure scientific research at the greatest facility in the world. She was told she was protected from the increasing shadow of Hitler — then one morning, the Nazis walked in and said, ‘You’re working for the Third Reich.’ She left in six hours and was lucky to have made it to Sweden.”

In her career, Eliasberg has written and directed dramatic pilots for NBC, CBS and ABC and was chosen by Michael Mann as the first woman to direct episodes of “Miami Vice” and “Wiseguy.” She has also directed dozens of episodes of such shows as “Nashville,” “Bull,” “Parenthood,” “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “Supernatural” and more. Eliasberg also wrote and directed the feature film “Past Midnight,” which starred Paul Giamatti, Natasha Richardson and Rutger Hauer.

More recently, she spent years writing a screenplay called “Fly Girls” about the Women Air Service Pilots in World War II — a project designed for and in cooperation with Nicole Kidman and Cameron Diaz — but couldn’t get the film made.

In “Hannah’s War,” Eliasberg based protagonist Dr. Hannah Weiss with accuracy, respect and poignant affection on Meitner. To dramatize and underscore Meitner’s accomplishments, Eliasberg had the idea to transpose the physicist, whose work had been pure science until it was militarized by the Third Reich, to Los Alamos as part of the American Manhattan Project under Robert Oppenheimer. The purpose of the secret conclave was to build the world’s first nuclear weapon.

But Hannah’s journey to the states does not preclude suspicion by the military and FBI that she could be smuggling secrets back to Germany. Major Jack Delaney, physically and mentally suffering after injuries in the liberation of Paris, is tasked with finding out whether Hannah is a spy. Over three days of intense interrogation, Hannah and Jack move from adversaries to sharing strong feelings of attraction — and, with the help of stunningly revealed flashback sequences, both uncover secrets about the other that go well beyond nuclear physics and who might use them for maximum destruction.

Against a fascinating backdrop of historical characters and situations, and engineered with a mounting sense of anxiety, “Hannah’s War” is an irresistible work. Eliasberg, who was scheduled to be a guest Tuesday at the second Book of The Day readers’ club event at Bank Square Books — it’s been tentatively rescheduled for May 12 — answered questions about “Hannah’s War.”

Q: Given the span and success of your work in television and film, it’s interesting that you chose the novel format for “Hannah’s War.” Why is that?

A: When you actually look at my work in film and TV, one of the things that’s pretty apparent is, as much as I’ve tried to place women at the fore of my stories, the system doesn’t allow me to do that. A lot of the TV shows I directed are testosterone shows — “Miami Vice” or “CSI: Los Angeles” — and often I was the first or only woman to direct those. I would never impose my feminist outlook; I had to honor the template for what the shows were exploring. And the action scenes and gun battles and planes exploding are really fun. I’m not denying that.

But they’re far from my mission of telling the stories of forgotten but important women in history. At some point, for complex, interesting women, fiction is a far more interesting form. I thought of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina and Virginia Woolf. They’re beautifully complex, flawed women — and in that spirit I wanted this story to have a wonderful home.

Read the full article here: