All the Facts: Interview with Nonfiction Espionage Author Larry Loftis
History is created one moment at a time, by the choices we make. For a nonfiction writer, studying a person’s choices in the aftermath, requires thinking their thoughts, knowing their character, and feeling their emotions. A writer is fortunate, when they finish the book, to truly understand and connect to their subject of interest.
Nonfiction writer, Larry Loftis, specializes in WWII espionage. Dedicated to his craft, Loftis only selects candidates who meet specific criteria. His most recent best-selling book is about one such woman, Odette Sansom.
The blog is featuring CODE NAME: LISE this month and we have an extraordinary opportunity to hear directly from Larry Loftis. In this interview, Loftis shares details about the research process, the months following the publishing, and a few thoughts about Odette’s mission.
MK: Odette’s legendary statement to all of those who interrogated her was, “I have nothing to say.” Contrary to her statement of silence, Odette’s life and work said everything to the Gestapo, the F Section back in England, and her fellow prisoners. What would you say about Odette’s actions telling the story of life?
LL: You raise a good point. Throughout WWII, none of the F Section agents were turned, and none talked. Notwithstanding starvation, beatings, and torture, all of these brave men and women held fast, many until their dying breath. That dedication to country and cause is quite the lesson for young people today.
MK: Captain Jepson and Buckmaster believed Odette to be a force before she even became a spy. How do you think people in our own lives stoke our raw potential into a burning flame? Has anyone in your own life fanned the flame for you to become a diligent biographer for world class heroes?
LL: Selwyn Jepson, F Section's recruiting officer, was no doubt perfectly suited for his job. His ability to spot potential spies—who, like Odette, often seemed the most unlikely candidates—was uncanny. And make no mistake, Odette had her drawbacks (her SOE evaluation noted that she was temperamental, hasty in her decisions, and arrogant), but what Jepson noticed was that Odette was a born fighter, and quite fearless. And he was right. And since her father had already been killed by the Germans, her mother had lost her home to them, and her brother lay wounded in a military hospital, Odette's flame could not have burned brighter when she joined the SOE. Of course Buckmaster and the SOE staff trained her for the job, but she was hellbent on fighting the Nazis.
As for people in our own lives, we all have mentors, teachers, and encouragers. In terms of my progress as a writer and biographer, it was not a single person, but a single experience: Law Review. Law school (at the University of Florida, in my case) is tough enough, but the Law Review experience honed not only my research and writing skills, but the underlying commitment to excellence. To give an example, in a law review article, every sentence requires a footnote or end note revealing the source (i.e., a court opinion) for the comment. Opinions don't count and there's no forgiveness for error, so you work has to be correct with every word.
MK: In the preface of CODE NAME: LISE you describe the immense let down after your first book was completed. You were sure there could not be a better story out there than Duskow Popov’s spy career. After finding the treasure trove of Odette and Bleicher’s history is your faith restored that great stories are being made every day? Why or why not?
LL: I write nonfiction thrillers about WWII espionage. My let down was not that there were not many great stories throughout history, but that there are exceedingly few stories with what I need: a) a WWII spy who did not just one amazing thing, but dozens of things, all involving drama, suspense, intrigue, danger, and cliffhangers; b) a spy who has a sizeable file in the relevant national archives, with numerous other primary sources to complete the picture and provide actual quotations; and c) such figure must not have had a comprehensive biography already written about him/her.
In short, I'm looking for a needle in the haystack. To illustrate, since finishing CODE NAME: LISE I have been through (often buying multiple books and national archive files) at least four potential WWII spies who will not work. That research has taken about a year. I think I have found my next character, although there is yet another hurdle: the national archives in the two relevant countries have kept classified a portion of this person's file. I have requested permission to see the files but both countries have denied my request (I'm currently appealing those rejections, in one case appealing to an administrative court of appeals).
But this process goes with the territory.
MK: CODE NAME: LISE is unique to this blog because it is the only nonfiction title being reviewed in 2019. You have said in past interviews, “If you find a great story, sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. In Odette’s case that is true.”
LL: The axiom that "truth is stranger than fiction" is well-known, but anyone who has seen much of WWII espionage knows that this is accurate. Admiral John Godfrey, Britain's Director of Naval Intelligence during WWII, wrote in his war diary that WWII provides more compelling and exciting stories than any writer of fiction could produce. Interestingly enough, Godfreys' personal assistant tried to prove him wrong. His name was Ian Fleming.
MK: Mr. and Mrs. Peter Churchill lived a love story forged by a love of country, daily self-sacrifice, and a relentless sense of duty. How is their love story more relatable and universal to all readers than a tale of passion might be?
LL: I think you put your finger on it: Peter and Odette's love was forged in the heat of battle, so to speak. They had the same love of country and sense of duty, and dedication to those virtues set the stage for their personal relationship. But I'd take it one step further: the SPINDLE circuit included not only Peter and Odette, but also Arnaud, their volatile but lovable radio operator. The three had so much respect for each other that Odette said before capture that she was certain that any of them would give his/her life for one of the others.
Incredibly, her comment was almost prophetic, as she almost gave her life for refusing to disclose to the Gestapo the whereabouts of Arnaud. She loved Arnaud. Not in the romantic sense, but in the sense of what the Greeks called phileo adelphos—brotherly love (origin of the city name, Philadelphia, by the way).
And therein lies a lesson within the story: We all have Arnauds in our life. Family or friends who have endless undesirable traits, but who—like Arnaud—would do anything for us at a moment's notice. A true friend.
And so we love them. As it should be.
MK: Thank you so much for your insight into nonfiction writing. Good luck as you continue to promote CODE NAME: LISE worldwide!
Larry Loftis is the international bestselling author of the nonfiction spy thrillers, CODE NAME: LISE —The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII's Most Highly Decorated Spy, and Into the Lion's Mouth: The True Story of Dusko Popov—World War II Spy, Patriot, and the Real-Life Inspiration for James Bond, which have been translated into multiple languages around the world. Prior to becoming a full-time writer, Mr. Loftis was a corporate attorney and adjunct professor of law. He can be found on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and at LarryLoftis.com.