I will confess, upon reading Amy Butler Greenfield‘s essay below, my stomach lurched. Give up a project that was “one small revision” away from a sale? Whoa. Yes, Amy’s story has a happy ending in that she did indeed sell the project. But my takeaway from the turn of events surrounding The Woman All Spies Fear: Code Breaker Elizebeth Smith Friedman and her hidden life (Random House) is that, no matter the cost, we need to be true to the story that’s chosen us. I suspect Elizebeth would be proud of Amy Butler Greenfield’s newest book but even prouder of her determination in writing it.
Thank you so much for inviting me to Friend Friday, Kirby! I can’t wait to tell you more about the amazing woman at the heart of THE WOMAN ALL SPIES FEAR, and how I came to write about her.
Back in the 1930s, Elizebeth Smith Friedman was one of the world’s most famous code breakers, but after she went undercover, she slipped from public view. For over half a century, she remained in history’s shadows, and few people remembered her. So how did I hear about her?
When I was about ten years old, I discovered her in my attic.
Not Elizebeth herself, mind you! What I discovered was a magazine in our attic that had a feature story about her, written in 1937. I was impressed. Here was a woman to reckon with—one who solved mysteries, fought gangsters, and broke up spy rings. She sounded like a hero to me, so why did no one seem to know about her anymore? I looked in lots of libraries, but there was nothing.
Even back then, I was curious about the past, especially the parts of the past that get forgotten. I liked digging for answers, which is why I became a historian and writer. It’s also why I started to think about Elizebeth again about eight years ago, and to wonder if maybe I should write a book about her.
I started with the idea of writing a book that would be accessible to my young daughter, who was fascinated with code breaking. My first attempt was a nonfiction picture book. Some editors liked it, but they worried that because Elizebeth wasn’t famous, the story needed to explain too much background about her. One suggested I write a longer book for middle-graders instead. I love writing fiction for middle-grade readers, so I jumped on that idea. In practice, however, it didn’t work for me. Even when I got encouraging feedback and I seemed to be one small revision away from a sale, everything felt wrong.
Deep down, I knew that this book wanted to be something else. But what? I wasn’t sure.
It wasn’t easy to step back, not when I had a project that was so close to being accepted. But that’s what I did. I gave myself permission to take a break, immerse myself in research again, and reconsider everything.
It took time, but when I found my voice, the words poured out like magic. I was writing for an older audience now, and I knew the story I wanted to tell, and how I wanted to tell it. Not long afterward, the book proposal—including those first chapters—sold at auction.
Writing the rest of the book was a challenge, but also a joy. While I was finding my voice, two biographies about Elizebeth had appeared, and I wondered if there was anything new to say about her. I needn’t have worried. Elizebeth could be as elusive as any code or cipher, and her life still had plenty of mysteries.
Digging into archives, genealogical records, and declassified files, I discovered sides of Elizebeth than no one knew about. I read her diary, journals, and love letters, sometimes with tears in my eyes. Even humdrum sources like medical files, census forms, and absence records led me to startling stories. I also taught myself the basics of her job so I could better understand exactly how extraordinary she was, then show that to readers.
Writing this book has been one of the great adventures of my life. I’m so glad that I stepped back and gave myself time to research and write and let the book become what it needed to be. It’s exciting now to share that book—and Elizebeth—with the world.
Amy Butler Greenfield writes award-winning books for children and adults, including A Perfect Red, Ra the Mighty, and The Woman All Spies Fear. Among other honors, her books have won the PEN/Albrand Award, the Beacon of Freedom Award, and the French Prix du Livre Environnement. An enthusiastic speaker on radio and television, including PBS’s American Experience, Amy has also given popular talks at the International Spy Museum, the Los Angeles Public Library, and UK intelligence agency GCHQ. Visit her at www.amybutlergreenfield.com.