Simon Mawer.

Simon Mawer.

British spy Marian Sutro is back in another historical thriller by novelist Simon Mawer. At the beginning of his last book, “Trapeze,” Marian was just out of school when she was recruited to be a special agent. Now, in the sequel, she emerges from World War II as a haunted woman. One of a handful of surviving British spies, she withstood brutal interrogations and Ravensbruck concentration camp. Marian tries to rebuild a quiet life, but suffers from flashbacks. And it is not long before she’s pulled into the world of Cold War-era espionage. This time, however, she has her own agenda.

Guests

  • Simon Mawer author, "Trapeze," and "The Glass Room," which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize

Read An Excerpt

Excerpted from TIGHTROPE by Simon Mawer, published by Other Press on November 3, 2015.  Copyright © Simon Mawer. Reprinted by permission of Other Press.

Tightrope

Transcript

  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Bestselling author Simon Mawer is the author of 12 books. His novel "The Glass Room" was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Mawer is also a trained biologist and write about science and scientists in some of his novels. His new book about a fictional spy explores the roles of nuclear physicist during World War II and the Cold War. His new book is titled, "Tightrope," and Simon Mawer joins me.

  • 11:07:32

    MS. DIANE REHMYou are always welcome to be part of the program. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send your email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Simon Mawer, it's good to see you.

  • 11:07:52

    MR. SIMON MAWERIt's great to be here.

  • 11:07:53

    REHMThank you. Marian Sutro, she is quite a character, one who appeared in "Trapeze." Clearly, you did not want to let go of her. Tell us why.

  • 11:08:09

    MAWERWell, it was not an intention to write a sequel.

  • 11:08:16

    REHMIt was not.

  • 11:08:17

    MAWERIt was not planned. No, no. It was when I had finished "Trapeze" and I was still very fond of my character, although she appears to be in a rather sticky situation at the end of "Trapeze." But I was very fond of her and I posed myself the question, which of course applies to people who were in her position, what happens afterwards?

  • 11:08:50

    MAWERA number of the agents who fought with the French resistance, obviously, a number of them survived the war and it is an interesting point when you've reached some sort of peak of experience, what is it like to go on into peace. And having posed that question, I wanted to try and answer it.

  • 11:09:13

    REHMAt the same time, you begin this book, "Tightrope" with Marian as an aging woman and she is looking quite a big different from the way she looked at the end of "Trapeze."

  • 11:09:40

    MAWERCertainly, yeah. And, of course, again, this is sort of reflection of the present situation. There are still one or two of the agents alive and they are actually older than Marian is at the beginning of "Tightrope," but they are aging, obviously. They're old. And it interested me, the idea of somebody having got to, more or less, the present looking back or me looking back on her life and how you end up in this position that she's in.

  • 11:10:21

    REHMWe are given reflections of what she endured at Ravensbruck, horrific scenes.

  • 11:10:32

    MAWERYeah. It's very difficult, of course, to deal with things like that. I mean, there are many books that have been written. In fact, very recently a major history of Ravensbruck has been published, written by Sarah Helm, which is a serious work of history, nonfiction. I think in fiction, it's extremely difficult to try and deal with such things so all I did was give little -- have done is give little glimpses.

  • 11:11:03

    MAWERAnd she actually appears as a witness in the first Ravensbruck trial, Marian Sutro does, obviously. She's fictitious, but the first Ravensbruck trial that took place was real. But I felt very wary of dealing in too much detail. It's a very difficult to write fiction about and I think it works better to just give little glimpses, yeah.

  • 11:11:32

    REHMGlimpses. Marian is actually based on several real life spies of World War II.

  • 11:11:44

    MAWERInspired by, say, yeah.

  • 11:11:46

    REHMInspired by. And were you looking at their lives and how they fared after the war and the kinds of things they did ultimately become involved in?

  • 11:12:04

    MAWERInitially, yes, but there is a sort of sense, obviously, as you get into a novel, the character sort of takes over. And I think that's really what happened. I mean, that isn't to say that the writer is, in some way, out of control. People -- sometimes writers talk about this in a sort of mystical sense. I don't mean that. But the narrative develops its own momentum so although I might have been inspired by that post-war story, I don't know of any of the surviving agents who ended up doing what Marian did

  • 11:12:46

    REHMAnd what does Marian do?

  • 11:12:49

    MAWERWell, the thing is, she went into the war experience, obviously, motivated by idealism. She's half French and as most of them -- all of them felt outrage at the invasion of their country and she wanted to do something about it and something as direct as possible. After the war, of course, the nice, simple, ugly choice that was presented during the war is gone. After the war, after the second world war, we move into the Cold War.

  • 11:13:29

    MAWERAnd, of course, all during the Cold War -- and I think it was black and white, everything was shades of gray and she's not trying to maneuver her way through this and she sees and feels part responsible for the atom bomb project because her brother was involved. But she also went to Paris in order to get one of the French nuclear scientists out of Paris. That's in "Trapeze." Now, after the war, we actually got the reality.

  • 11:14:02

    MAWERThey've made the bomb and she feels some sort of guilt and she feels that she can do something about it. And it becomes quite complex. It is a complex issue. I remember it. I'm not writing history any longer. I'm writing my memories of that period where, yes, you can try and draw clear distinctions between the East and the West and call them the baddies and the goodies, but actually, it was nothing like as simple as that and that's what much of the book is about.

  • 11:14:46

    REHMSimon Mawer, he is the bestselling author of 12 books. His novels include "Trapeze" and "The Glass Room," one of my favorite novels of all time, which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. If you'd like to join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. In this new book, you reveal how Marian was actually captured, how she parachuted into France and then was captured, interrogated and brought to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. What a scene.

  • 11:15:52

    MAWERYes. I mean, it was an experience that some people had, very few, and quite startling. And actually what "Tightrope" is involved in is partly, certainly initially, dealing with all of that experience and what we could call now, of course, post traumatic...

  • 11:16:18

    REHMStress.

  • 11:16:18

    MAWER...post traumatic stress disorder, a word, a phrase that didn't exist in those days. And then, that's another...

  • 11:16:25

    REHMUsed to be called shellshock or something of that sort.

  • 11:16:26

    MAWERShellshock and then combat fatigue, yeah.

  • 11:16:30

    REHMYeah, but she relives all of that in her own mind.

  • 11:16:36

    MAWERYeah. She does indeed and obviously in her conscious memory, but also subconsciously. These things come out, yes, in dreams and experiences.

  • 11:16:47

    REHMDreams.

  • 11:16:50

    MAWERYep.

  • 11:16:51

    REHMSo absolutely difficult to ignore because though they happen when one is asleep, they infect or infest one's waking life.

  • 11:17:09

    MAWERYes. And indeed the memories do actually come into her real life. She does suffer some of the symptoms, a fugue, which are reflections of what happened to her in the past.

  • 11:17:29

    REHMInteresting that you would use a musical term.

  • 11:17:34

    MAWERWell, it's the psychiatrists that use term. I mean, a writer loves that sort of thing.

  • 11:17:41

    REHMInteresting. All right. We're going to take a short break here from our conversation with Simon Mawer on his new book "Tightrope" and when we come back, he's going to read for us from a chapter entitled "Cold." Stay with us.

  • 11:20:02

    REHMWelcome back. Simon Mawer is here with me. By the way, his last name is spelled M-A-W-E-R. His novels include "The Glass Room," which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and "Trapeze." His newest is called, "Tightrope," and picks up with his primary female character, Marian Sutro, who spent time in the female concentration camp of Ravensbruck.

  • 11:20:46

    REHMI want to give you a brief update on President Obama's comments, who spoke from the White House about the shootings in San Bernardino. He said, he could offer no information on the motive for the shootings, just that the terrible event occurred. President Obama says, it's possible the shootings are terrorist related, but we don't know. He says, it could be workplace related. And the FBI is investigating. He assures the American people, investigators will get to the bottom of yesterday's shootings.

  • 11:21:37

    REHMAnd now, turning to you, Simon Mawer. Would you be good enough to read for us, your beginnings of the chapter entitled, "Cold"?

  • 11:21:49

    MAWERYes, Diane. Just to say that at this stage, Marian has actually come back from the first Ravensbruck trial in Hamburg. So this is after the war and she has appeared as a witness. She comes back. This is a woman who was in France during the war and has had a number of different names. And that becomes significant in this passage.

  • 11:22:19

    MAWERThe cold had something to do with it. That's what she claimed afterwards. Although the psychiatrist insisted that the visit to Hamburg and the reawakening of old memories was to blame. But she felt it was the cold. It was cold and so she walked. It had been cold in Germany when she'd escaped from the camp, when she and two others had made a run for it. Then, they'd walked to keep warm and to find someone who could help them. And that was what she did now. She walked and walked, to keep warm. And when it came to nightfall, she knew that she must find somewhere to hole up for the night or else she would die, there on the pavement, somewhere in suburban London.

  • 11:23:06

    MAWERIn Germany, the three of them had discovered an abandoned hut in the forest and they'd managed to survive clinging to one another for warmth. But, now, there were no woods and no hut, just the road with buses and cars driving cautiously over the icy slush and rows of semi-detached houses and, there at the crossroads, a hotel with three stars to its name and an indifferent girl behind the reception desk, who admitted that, yes, they did have a room. But if she didn't have any luggage, she'd have to pay in advance: One pound, five shillings for a single room, three and six extra for a private bathroom. Would she be wanting a bathroom?

  • 11:23:51

    MAWER'Oh, a bathroom. Yes, please.' She searched in her handbag for the money. 'You'll have to sign the register.' 'Oh, of course.' The register was a large, official book with dark brown binding. The book of life inscribed with the lives various and disparate, to which she added while the receptionist watched, Genevieve Marshall, and the address, 31 Rue des Ombraies (word?) Paris. 'What's that?' the receptionist asked. 'You French or something?' 'Ah, yes, I'm French.' 'You don't sound French.' 'I do when I speak it.' And she gave a little demonstration. The girl sucked her teeth, understanding nothing. 'If you're foreign, you'll have to give us your passport.

  • 11:24:52

    MAWERThere was a moment's desperate search in her bag. 'I -- I've lost it.' 'Then you can't have a room.' 'But I've nowhere else to go.' She felt panic, as though she were standing on the edge of something -- perhaps tears, or perhaps madness."

  • 11:25:15

    REHMWhoa. And that is Simon Mawer reading from his new book, "Tightrope." How Marian survives that cold and how that cold permeates the rest of her being throughout life is really remarkable.

  • 11:25:41

    MAWERYeah. It does. Yes, she's, I think, in many ways a desolate character trying to find her way. But she does. I mean, she battles against this and is finally brought back in a way into what has become her home, which is the world of espionage. And that's, I suppose, the sort of irony in the book, that actually having got through the war, having tried to come to terms with the peace, she actually finds herself drawn back into the world of intelligence and spies.

  • 11:26:26

    REHMTell me what has brought you -- you were not trained as a novelist. You did not start out life as a novelist. You had a whole other life before you became a novelist. What brought you especially to this focus on the Second World War?

  • 11:26:51

    MAWERThere are lots of questions you just asked.

  • 11:26:54

    REHMI know. I know.

  • 11:26:56

    MAWERAlthough I came quite late to actually being a published novelist -- I mean, I was 39, which compared with a lot of my contemporaries is quite late on -- but actually I'd always wanted to be a novelist. I mean, my ambitions to write novels actually dates from when I was about 11 or 12. It's just that I didn't get down to it. One of the fatal things -- one of the big problems about novel writing is that you've got to get the words on the page and it's a lot of words. And when you've not done it before, it becomes a very daunting task. It did take me quite a lot of years before I really addressed the issue and actually...

  • 11:27:40

    REHMAnd you also had to earn a living.

  • 11:27:43

    MAWERThere is the problem of, you have families and things like that, yes.

  • 11:27:48

    REHMHow did you do that?

  • 11:27:49

    MAWERI was a teacher. I was a biologist from university. And the obvious, I hate to say this over the air, the obvious thing for me to do as a prospective writer was to go into teaching. Because teaching gives you long holidays. At least it used to when I -- I don't know, it's probably changed now. But that's -- that was very useful -- I enjoyed teaching. And I think I'm not too bad a teacher. But that was the prime reason. I could earn a living. I could have my family. And I would have a reasonable amount of time for writing.

  • 11:28:32

    REHMDid your biology and understanding thereof work its way into your novels?

  • 11:28:41

    MAWERYeah. In fact, when I was at university -- British universities are much less flexible than American universities, they certainly were 40, 50 years ago -- and I did try and change from biology to do English, but wasn't successful in that.

  • 11:29:00

    REHMReally?

  • 11:29:00

    MAWERBecause my background in languages -- I was at Oxford and they wanted a language background, because, a lot of Anglo-Saxon, it was that sort of academic old-fashioned English course. I'm eternally grateful that they didn't allow me to do it.

  • 11:29:17

    REHMBecause?

  • 11:29:18

    MAWERBecause I value enormously my scientific background, my scientific training. I think it informs my novels. It is something that I have great commitment to -- my great commitment to the idea of communicating science. And I think it's terribly important that it is communicated well and imaginatively.

  • 11:29:46

    REHMGive our listeners a sense of how your understanding of science works its way into "Tightrope."

  • 11:29:56

    MAWERInto "Tightrope." Well, I suppose in the obvious sense that I sort of understand the basic science behind how to make an atom bomb. And that was both in "Trapeze" and "Tightrope." And there is something startling about it. Also, as I do in "Tightrope," there's the question of the hydrogen bomb, because that was the next step. The atom bomb, obviously, the development took place during the war and the hydrogen bomb came after. And both of those things are horrendously, frighteningly logical. And you can produce them -- particularly the atom bomb -- with startling ease. The materials are quite complicated but the actual process is remarkably easy. And that is a terrifying thought.

  • 11:30:59

    REHMAnd Marian is haunted by the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. She becomes not only antiwar, but almost sympathetic to the Russians.

  • 11:31:19

    MAWERYeah. This was not uncommon. And I think we've got enough distance on this now to, I think, change the way we look at some of these events. Directly contemporary with her story in real life, was the -- Klaus Fuchs, the atom spy who was actually part of the British contingent to the Los Alamos Project. Now, I remember, when I was a child, Fuchs was considered a traitor, and just outrageous. Actually, he was a man of very genuine, heartfelt belief. He believed that this ability to make an atom bomb should not be kept as a military secret by one group or one country.

  • 11:32:12

    REHMWhy?

  • 11:32:13

    MAWERBecause he thought it was unsafe.

  • 11:32:16

    REHMUnsafe?

  • 11:32:17

    MAWERUnsafe.

  • 11:32:18

    REHMFor one country to have that power...

  • 11:32:21

    MAWERYes.

  • 11:32:22

    REHM...and that secret.

  • 11:32:23

    MAWERYes. And, indeed, you've only got to look at the real history now to see that was quite true. We walked on a knife edge for a long time when the Americans and then subsequently the British -- but the Americans, in the 19 -- the late 1940s, early 1950s, there was a very, very strong movement to use atom bombs, for example, in the Korean War. The military wanted it. There was even a proposal to actually cut off China from North Korea by exploding a row of atom bombs across the north of North Korea and, you know, those sort of things going on, because that proposal was based on the idea that you could do it because the Russians didn't possess the weapon.

  • 11:33:10

    MAWERSimilarly, Lord Bertram Russell -- who's considered one of the great, well, philosopher, mathematician, which he was, one of the great advocates of peace, campaigned for nuclear disarmament and everything in the early 1950s -- he advocated a preemptive war against the Soviet Union. And he said, you have to do that before they get the bomb. Once they've got the bomb, we're lost. Because then we've got two armed camps with the bomb.

  • 11:33:45

    REHMYou realize that my silence is one of stunning shock.

  • 11:33:53

    MAWERYeah. Well it's all documented. And I get Lord Bertram Russell -- I couldn't resist it when I discovered this -- I get Lord Bertram Russell into "Tightrope." Yes.

  • 11:34:03

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Tell us about Vera Atkins.

  • 11:34:13

    MAWERYeah. Vera Atkins was an extraordinary woman.

  • 11:34:16

    REHMA real-life character.

  • 11:34:18

    MAWERShe was real. She was the woman who was in charge, really, of the female agents. She had more responsibility than that within SAO -- SOE, sorry -- during the war. She continued after the war. She had a variety of jobs after the war and lived for quite a long time. But she was a remarkable woman because she came across as a typical Englishwoman. She spoke beautiful English. She behaved like an Englishwoman. And actually she was a Romanian. So she, herself, came out of this sort of strange world of assumed identity.

  • 11:35:00

    MAWERAnd why she ever got into SOE is a bit peculiar. I mean, she just happened to be around. She spoke a lot of languages. She clearly understood the idea of deception because she was deceiving almost everybody around her. I don't think she ever deliberately said, no, I am not Romanian, but she was. And she was a remarkable woman. She was the person who was responsible for the female agents, particularly, of SOE. And she appeared to be under immense self control. She never betrayed any emotions.

  • 11:35:48

    REHMShe seems almost unsympathetic, as Marian is not only coming back into some kind of civilization but, you know, tells her to keep calm, that things will get better. But there's not a touch of warmth in those comments.

  • 11:36:19

    MAWERI get the impression, from my reading, that she had held herself in so much that it had become habitual. She was the epitome of British stiff-upper-lipped -- except she wasn't British. But this was part of the assumed character. Very interesting.

  • 11:36:40

    REHMWhy is it that Marian has to assume so many different names?

  • 11:36:46

    MAWERI spent a lot of my teaching career teaching in international schools and I saw people growing up with the sort of mixture of cultures, and this is always interesting, the mixture of languages as well. And I think that -- I think this is part of it, her childhood. Who exactly is she?

  • 11:37:12

    REHMThat is the question. Simon Mawer, his new book is titled, "Tightrope." I look forward to hearing your questions, your comments. Give us a call, 800-433-8850.

  • 11:40:01

    REHMWelcome back. Simon Mawer is with me. We're talking about his new book "Tightrope" in which he continues the journey with Marian Sutra, his character who came out of Ravensbruck Prison in his prior novel "Trapeze." Here's an email from Kevin in Hagerstown, Md. "Are you familiar with Nancy Wake and her history as an agent with the French resistance and the British Special Operations Executive in World War II. Her story deserves to be much better known."

  • 11:40:53

    MAWERYeah, I feel that the story of all of these women actually deserves to be much better. Nancy Wake is well known amongst those who are interested. She was Australian. And she was remarkable. She was living in the south of France with her husband who was French at the time of German invasion. And she sort of muscled into the clandestine world, and was finally recruited by SOE. An astonishing woman who lived long after the war. She didn't -- not that long ago she died a few years ago.

  • 11:41:34

    REHMAll right. Let's take a caller in Cleveland, Ohio. Bob, you're on the air.

  • 11:41:41

    BOBYeah, you know, you were talking about the folks, the scientists didn't think one country should have a monopoly on nuclear energy. But, you know, if the -- and there was this one other couple, not the Rosenberg's, American couple who were communists and they had helped give the bomb to the Soviet Union. And then they had immigrated to the Soviet Union because they were -- so they wouldn't get caught. And then they tried to come back to the west. They were saying that they felt responsible for the war in Korea because they had given -- the Russians were now on power with the United States, so they felt, you know, they felt that they could invade a country, not the Russians, but the communists could take over a country like Korea.

  • 11:42:37

    BOBI mean, if those scientists hadn't given Russia the atomic bomb, don't you think it would've prevented a lot of later mischief that maybe today North Korea wouldn't be communist? Maybe Eastern Europe, it wouldn't have been as communist as long as it would have?

  • 11:42:56

    REHMAll right.

  • 11:42:58

    MAWERWell, yeah, you're asking me to do a whole lot of sort of what might...

  • 11:43:04

    REHMPost.

  • 11:43:04

    MAWER...what might have happened...

  • 11:43:05

    REHMQuite right.

  • 11:43:06

    MAWER...which is -- which could be subject of fiction, I agree, and is quite interesting, but it is fiction. I lived my life as a child in a military family. My father was actually commanding an Air Force base which had nuclear bombers. When I was about 17, 18, just about to go to university, these things were very real in my life. And my father was an intelligent, liberal man who was nevertheless part of this great machine, which was opposed to the great machine that the Russians had on the other side.

  • 11:43:49

    MAWERMy argument in favor of that situation, both sides having the nuclear weapon, was somehow we got through. And we didn't use it. And when I say we, I mean both the Soviets and NATO.

  • 11:44:04

    REHMBecause there was that so-called balance of power.

  • 11:44:09

    MAWERYeah. And when you read about some of the proposals that were going on early on before the balance was achieved, read the history, it is terrifying how close we came.

  • 11:44:21

    REHMAll right. Let's go to Jane in Pensacola, Fla. You're on the air. Jane? Jane?

  • 11:44:32

    JANEYes.

  • 11:44:33

    REHMGo right ahead, please.

  • 11:44:36

    JANEI just wondered if the woman in his book is a reference to a -- she denies that she's from Romania. And I'm wondering if the -- in "My Fair Lady, there is a reference to trying to make a Eliza Doolittle appear as a Roman empress -- a Romanian empress. And I just wondered if those references to one historical person in history -- well, a historical person and that's the same person that this man is referring to in his book.

  • 11:45:18

    MAWERI think what you're seeing is sort of a Western European view of Central Europe and Eastern Europe, which has this sort of strange hold on us still. I mean, I find I love Central Europe since the Iron Curtain's gone down and we can -- we're now sort of all one. I have traveled extensive -- well, extensively, I've traveled quite a bit, and it's a fascinating part of the world, but it's a part that fires the imagination. And I think this is where this reference comes from, this idea of being Romania or something. The Austria, Hungary Empire.

  • 11:46:02

    REHMHere's a tweet, "Will Simon be the voice on his own audiobook? He's a great reader. I hope so."

  • 11:46:14

    MAWERWell, thank you very much. Yes, I think it was once suggested, and then I thought of the hours and hours I'd have to sit in a studio reading, and I thought, maybe I'll leave it to a professional. And I'm not, no, the voice.

  • 11:46:29

    REHMWell, read for us now if you would.

  • 11:46:33

    MAWERWell, this is a section from slightly earlier on than the bit I read before. This is actually during the Ravensbruck trial. "It's a bloody miracle this trial is being held at all, someone confided to her. He was a young Army officer in the Intelligence Corp, part of the war crimes investigation team. Apparently Ravensbruck Camp itself was in the Soviet zone, and so the Soviets had the right to hold any trial there might be. But because of the British interest, it was the SOE agents really, the officer said. There was an agreement that it could take place in the British zone. These of course are the zones are Germany after the war, one of the final acts of allied cooperation."

  • 11:47:25

    MAWER"So you are particularly important to us, the officer added, trying to reassure her, trying to still the subversive voice of panic that shouted within her. But don't worry, just tell your own story, that'll be enough. When her turn came, she took the stand in front of the firing squad of 100 sets of eyes. She told the court who she was and who she had been. And she swore to an almighty and omniscient God she did not believe in that she would tell the pure truth, although the truth appeared anything but pure."

  • 11:48:08

    MAWER"Then the prosecuting counsel bewigged and begowned like a barrister, but with a funereal manner of a doctor at a death bed, began to ask her questions. When did she arrive at Ravensbruck? How had she come to be there? Which hut was she quartered in? What work had she done? Which work detail was she assigned to? And the panic died. She spoke steadily and clearly. Stenographers recorded the words assiduously while the accused stared glassily into space as though bored by the proceedings. Outside it snowed."

  • 11:48:58

    REHMWho was the accused at that moment?

  • 11:49:03

    MAWERI think there was 16 of them. There were -- a number of them were women. There were men. It was sort of approximately equal numbers because it was the women's camp, Ravensbruck.

  • 11:49:14

    REHMOf course.

  • 11:49:15

    MAWERAnd they actually sat in rows and they had numbers hung around their necks for identification purposes, so you could say number five and you didn't have to know the name. Yes, I mean, extraordinary. Extraordinary event. One of many.

  • 11:49:38

    REHMDid you go back through those records?

  • 11:49:42

    MAWERI did in fact, yes, I did read some of them. They are published. Obviously they're now openly available. The records of the trials, yes. Very repetitive, a lot of it, and harrowing of course.

  • 11:49:56

    REHMHow were the women treated at Ravensbruck?

  • 11:50:02

    MAWERIt's a -- that's a big question. We have a very limited sort of common view about the concentration camp system obviously. We're dominated by Auschwitz. We're also dominated by film that came out of, for example, Belsen during the liberation of Belsen. What one has to remember is that there was a huge, huge number of these camps all over the place, and that they were providing slave labor. The camps that actually were specifically designed for killing, the extermination camps, were relatively few. Obviously one of the Auschwitz camps was. And then things like Sobibor and Treblinka. But they were quite separate from most of the camps. Ravensbruck was a camp in which they wanted to keep people alive to work.

  • 11:51:11

    REHMAnd yet at one point in the book Marian watches as a guard stomps on the head of another prisoner.

  • 11:51:25

    MAWEROf another prisoner. Yes, well, that's -- obviously they were extraordinarily violent people. And it was an extraordinary violent environment in which fear was the sort of motive force for running the camps.

  • 11:51:39

    REHMDo you know whether an incident like that ever happened?

  • 11:51:45

    MAWEROh, yes, many. Yeah, but, I mean, people survived, and indeed SOE agents survived it. One of them who survived Ravensbruck, the last one, is still alive.

  • 11:52:02

    REHMYou've spoken with her?

  • 11:52:04

    MAWERI haven't, no.

  • 11:52:05

    REHMYou have not?

  • 11:52:06

    MAWERNo. No. But there is one still alive. She's in her 90s.

  • 11:52:10

    REHMAll right. Let's go now to Tommy in Flint, Mich. You're on the air.

  • 11:52:17

    TOMMYYes. You said a minute ago that some guy thought it would be safer if both sides had the weapon. And during the Cuban Missile Crisis, three submarines were off the coast of Cuba. One of them was told to launch the special weapon, which was a nuclear tipped torpedo, and was going to attack an American aircraft carrier. And if that had happened, it would've been World War III.

  • 11:52:43

    MAWERYes. But it didn't, and it wasn't. And, I mean, I'm not saying for one moment that one wasn't in a position of extreme danger at that point. Of course one was. But it didn't happen. And who's to say what would've happened under other circumstances?

  • 11:53:07

    REHMExactly. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I think it's important to point out that in this novel Marian does try to build a new life. She marries, but she's not loyal. Why not?

  • 11:53:28

    MAWERI wanted to -- I wanted to develop her character. And I'm not saying here. This is one of the problems with novels. Novel writing one is writing a character, not how everybody behaved. This is not a general formula. I was exploring her character, developing this character, and it seemed to me that it was a realistic idea that somebody should be less than devoted to one person, possibly having difficulty in committing to one person after her experiences, the way she -- the way her life has developed.

  • 11:54:14

    REHMBut isn't it rather extraordinary that she becomes involved with a Russian?

  • 11:54:25

    MAWERPossibly. But she saw him as an extremely attractive guy. He was actually -- he's actually -- I mustn't give too much away. We don't want plot spoilers. But he was actually in the Ravensbruck trial. And of course then he was an ally. You see, this is the idea that I wanted to get across, that you've gone from being allies, although of course allies is a very curious relationship during the war. And everything changed after the war. And you sort of stumbled into the Cold War situation. And I wanted to have somebody, in a sense, breaking this barrier or with a foot in both camps. And she does that.

  • 11:55:09

    REHMSo it's symbolic. She is in her behavior rather symbolic.

  • 11:55:16

    MAWERYes, there's an element of that, yes. Yeah, and she does have, you know, relationships with a number of people. Yeah. I had in mind one of the SOE agents in that respect as well who -- her own story, this woman's story is -- one, she was Polish. And she survived the war, but she was actually murdered in London in 1952 by one of the men she had some sort of relationship with. So, you know, you have got a -- I was picky. Writers are dangerous people to know.

  • 11:55:55

    MAWERNovelists I mean. Because they use things, you know. We're all the time scavenging and putting things together. And you construct characters out of bits; bits of your memory, bits of what you read, all sorts of things.

  • 11:56:12

    REHMNow, I understand that because this book opens with Marian as an elderly woman, she will not likely figure into any future novel. Do you have another character in mind?

  • 11:56:37

    MAWERWell, I'm working on something at the moment, yes. But like all such things at the relatively early stages of it, I'm thinking to myself, God, this is no good. One does, you know.

  • 11:56:51

    REHMOne always does.

  • 11:56:52

    MAWERYes. That's one of the downsides. And I am working on something, yes.

  • 11:56:58

    REHMGood luck.

  • 11:56:59

    MAWERThank you very much.

  • 11:57:00

    REHMSimon Mawer, his new book is titled "Tightrope." And thanks all for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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