Suzanne Kelman, what first of all drew you to write about Hedy Lamarr?
I’ve always been captivated by the golden age of Hollywood, and the ’30s and ’40s are my favourite period in film history. So, it has been fascinating to connect the timeline of World War II with what was happening in Hollywood at the time. Before I wrote When the Nightingale Sings, I’d had a vague knowledge about Hedy’s story from previous research. However, it was only as I started to delve into her whole story that I really understood all that she’d achieved and how, even though she had been a brilliant inventor, she had mainly been forgotten through history for that aspect of her life. So, I was hoping that my book would at least give her a little of the recognition that she so well deserves.
The documentary Bombshell clearly made for great research into Hedy Lamarr, but what other historical sources did you look to?
Because of Hedy’s well-documented career, there were many places to go for resources, from Wikipedia to IMDB. Some of the personal research I did, included reading the books Hedy’s Folly by Richard Rhodes, Ecstasy and Me by Hedy Lamarr, Beautiful by Stephen Michael Shearer, Hollywood Canteen by Lisa Mitchell and Brue Torrence, and, as you mentioned, the documentary, Bombshell. I also read some fictional stories just to understand how other writers had perceived her; Those books were, The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict and Beautiful Invention by Margaret Porter. The hope for me in reading fictional accounts of her life was there was always a chance I might come across something in their storyline that I hadn’t seen before in other research; If so, I could then delve into finding out more about that subject. Sometimes it’s easier to research once you know what you’re looking for. There were also all of her film reviews and newspaper articles about her from the time. I also have a beautiful glossy coffee table book called, The Films of Hedy Lamarr by Christopher Young, which gave me behind-the-scenes insight into all of her films and a production timeline that I could follow.
In A Letter From Suzanne, you mention that many other women in history could have made significant discoveries and were never recognised for their efforts. Are there any other historical figures you have been researching that you would like to write about?
I constantly come across figures of history that I would love to write about, amazing people who have done amazing feats that have never been recognized. The crucial factor, as a fiction writer, is finding the hook. If I can’t find a story to build around that one significant event, it could make for a very dull read. So as much as I would like to write about many figures I come across, particularly women, I’m very drawn to female figures in history; I have to choose ones that I feel I can build a compelling story around.
You also mention that to your historical knowledge you couldn’t place Hedy or Judy (Joan) in Pearl Harbour. Why did you choose this specific moment in history to place the two characters?
This is my fourth World War II historical novel, and up to this point, I hadn’t had an opportunity to explore the battle over Pearl Harbor, which of course, brought America into the war. So, I think it’s a significant event to write about. One of the things I try to achieve through my writing is to present something like this critical battle through the eyes of my protagonist, which I feel can make history more palatable for the fiction lovers out there like me who may not want to read a biography. With Hedy living in LA, which isn’t too far from Hawaii, I felt like I had a perfect opportunity to put them there together, especially as she was friends with Howard Hughes. He could also pilot a flying boat, which had just started going to Hawaii. It was just a perfect storm of circumstances that would hopefully make it believable. Even though it was fictionalized, it did give me a chance to highlight this critical moment in American history.
When there is very little information out there on female scientists like Joan Curran, how do you begin to formulate a picture of who she was?
As you say, Joan Curran is a scientist who there’s very little information about. She has a Wikipedia page, and there is a couple of newspaper articles. But apart from that, there was nothing else and absolutely nothing in her own words. So to really understand her a little, I had to really submerge myself in the world of Cambridge pre-war and Cavendish Labs, where she worked. I also learned a lot about her scientific discovery. Of course, it was a wonderful day whenever I came across a vintage photo of a lab of the era or an article about Cavendish. But, as a non-scientifically minded person, I had to come to at least a rudimental understanding of the experiments and scientific discoveries she had made. Fortunately, my aerospace engineer husband helped me understand the logistics of how and what she was doing. As far as I know, the character in my book AKA Judy Jenkins has a very different personal journey from the real-life scientist. For example, the character has trouble conceiving in my story, whereas Joan Curran had four children. However, I really tried to make sure that Joan’s professional career was documented correctly.
A lot of your writing is focused on the historical period of the Second World War, why is that?
I have always been fascinated by that period in history; as I said, as well as Hollywood, it was a time when many ordinary people had an opportunity to serve their country in very heroic ways. Also, it was a significant turning point in women’s history as they went into factories and to do war work to serve their countries, something that had been impossible to that extent before then. I think it is a combination of the clothes, the music, and the intensiveness of the period when the veil of life and death was so thin. Also, both my grandparents served in the Royal Airforce during that time, and I have a picture of them in their uniforms on my writing desk. Their service to their country inspires me every day.
What is your next project?
My next book is a time-slip novel centred around a secret garden on an estate in England. Two different women from different time periods are drawn into a walled garden, one with a dangerous secret and the other who finds that secret 75 years later and feels compelled to follow its trail. Then follows a story of espionage, love, and betrayal. I particularly like writing this one because I’ve always loved English country gardens, especially secret gardens. Combining that with undercover Russian spies in England during WW2 made it a joy to write.
Suzanne Kelman Suzanne Kelman Suzanne Kelman