If you’re looking for a novel that will take you into the world of a real-life spy who ran one of the largest espionage networks in America, A Most Clever Girl is definitely a book you need to check out. The story revolves around the truths and embellished facts told by Cold War spy, Elizabeth Bentley. While the FBI attempted to convince Elizabeth to work as a double agent, she pulled a plot twist by defecting and bringing down “the golden age of Soviet espionage in America.”
In this interview author, Stephanie Marie Thornton shares one of the most interesting finds she made while researching for the novel, how female spies were perceived during WWII and the Cold War and a sneak peek into her next novel.
When did you first come up with the storyline for your latest historical novel, A Most Clever Girl: A Novel of an American Spy?
I came across a reference to Elizabeth Bentley when I was researching Cold War spies and was intrigued by this woman whose story is virtually unknown today. Everyone knows about Joseph McCarthy, but his accusations regarding communists infiltrating the U.S. government were based on hot air. Elizabeth Bentley—whose many testimonies were secretly confirmed by the FBI via Project VENONA—was vilified and then forgotten due to the fact that no one could corroborate her accusations and because she was seen as a hysterical, menopausal woman. Project VENONA was declassified in 1995 and now we know the truth of Bentley’s story, which I felt needed to be told. That said, we also now know that Elizabeth Bentley sometimes embellished the facts—both in her memoir and during her testimony—which is why I created Cat Gray’s storyline. Someone has to keep Elizabeth on her toes!
During your research process, what was one of the most interesting finds you made regarding real-life spy, Elizabeth Bentley?
I was shocked to discover that, at one time, Elizabeth Bentley actually ran the largest Soviet espionage network in America. Some sources claim that when she finally informed on her contacts to the FBI she actually ended the golden age of Soviet espionage here in America!
Do you feel like female spies were better at carrying out their missions than their male counterparts?
Female spies like Elizabeth Bentley were definitely better able to fly under the radar when it came to spying during WWII and the Cold War because no one suspected women to be hiding sensitive documents in their knitting bags. This was before the era of James Bond, so I don’t think people expected that regular women would take up espionage as a way to serve their country.
If you were a spy during WWII, what would your code name be?
Probably something low-key and historical. I’m a big fan of Jane Austen and JANE seems like a perfect code name. (Most of the characters in A MOST CLEVER GIRL have code names lifted from literature.) So, let’s go with Agent Jane!
Where did you write the majority of this novel?
This was my lockdown novel, which meant it was mostly finished and revised in the sunroom of my house.
What was the most difficult scene to write?
There were a couple but without giving any spoilers, I’ll stick with the first scene. I knew I needed a big moment to introduce Cat Gray to Elizabeth Bentley, but I went through several versions before my wonderful critique partners suggested having Cat show up at Elizabeth’s house with murder on her mind. That was when I knew I had a winner!
Do you feel it’s harder to write dialogue for historical or fictional characters?
Both. It can be easier if you’re able to access those historical figures’ actual conversations, diaries, etc. because that gives you a feel for their personalities and how they spoke. However, it can be more difficult because you need to make the dialogue feel authentic while still adhering to known history.
I love the playlist that you included in the book club kit. Did you listen to any of the songs while writing the book?
Actually, no! I’m a high school history teacher, so I’m surrounded by noise all day long. (Who knew 150 teenagers could be so very, very LOUD?) When I write I need absolute silence so I can focus.
If you could spend the day in any era throughout history, what era would you choose and which historical figure would you want to meet?
My first historical love is ancient Egypt, so I’d head to the New Kingdom and meet Pharaoh Hatshepsut, Egypt’s first successful female pharaoh. Her story was almost wiped from history and I wrote about her in my second novel, Daughter of the Gods. I’ve always wanted to know how much I got right and what else she might have experienced that has been lost to time.
In addition to writing, you are also a high school history teacher. What do you enjoy the most about teaching and how do you balance your two careers?
I love seeing students enjoy learning about the past—we put Genghis Khan on trial, cut off heads during the French Revolution, and do all sorts of other fun simulations. History is so much more than dates in textbooks! As for balance, I’ll get back to you on that! Right now, I operate under the mantra that I can sleep when I’m dead!
Are you working on your next novel, and if so can we get a sneak peek?
I’m definitely working on Book #8 right now! It’s a mother-daughter story that spans both the French Revolution and the Regency period. That’s a huge jump from Cold War America, but I am absolutely loving it!