Claire Hamner Matturro interviews Mary Anna Evans, author of The Physicists’ Daughter

CHM: First off, congratulations Mary Anna Evans. The Physicists’ Daughter (Poison Pen Press, 2022) is a terrific book, and I was completely captivated by it. A historical thriller set in New Orleans in the last days of WWII, this novel differs in time frame and genre from your award-winning, popular Faye Longchamp archaeological series, which is set in contemporary times. Naturally, then, I am curious as to why you decided to write this book. The Physicists’ Daughter has all the earmarks of a book written from the heart, so I wanted to ask you to share a bit about the why and wherefores of its creation—where the ideas came from and what inspired you to write it.

MAE: If this book feels like it came from my heart, it is because of my own love of science and my admiration for women who practiced it in the early and mid-twentieth century, a time when they weren’t encouraged (or sometimes even allowed) to pursue an education in the field. I earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics and a master’s degree in chemical engineering in the early 1980s, and we weren’t all that common even then. People who are iconoclasts—stubborn, intellectually driven, and not particularly interested in social convention—make fascinating fictional characters, and those adjectives describe my protagonist Justine Byrne, her mother Isabel, and her godmother Gloria pretty well.

The WWII-era factory setting stems from a visit to The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, where I found myself curious about why the museum was there. Why not Washington, D.C., or some other place more obviously associated with World War II? When I learned that the Higgins boats used during the Normandy landing on D-Day were built in New Orleans (in the building that now houses the museum, in fact), I knew I had my setting, particularly when I learned that Higgins Industries was the first employer in New Orleans to pay women and Black men the same salaries as white men working the same jobs. I knew that if I put my physicists’ daughter in a setting where she would be uniquely able to recognize sabotage, because she had knowledge that nobody expected a woman to have, then sparks would fly.

CHM: The title alone suggests that science, especially physics, will be important. And, yes, the science in the book is central to the main character and to the plot line. You have a scientific background, yet you manage to write The Physicist’s Daughter so that readers (like me) who do not have scientific backgrounds can understand it. You weave the science in with finesse and never seem to talk down or dummy up the concepts. Might you tell us about how you blended hard science into the story, how you found the balance between technical and science-for-laymen, and what type of research you needed to do (if any, given your scientific background).

MAE: My first job out of graduate school was as a community college instructor of physics, and the new guy in any workplace always gets the…um…less hotly-sought-after assignments. Thus, I was almost always teaching people who didn’t want to be in my class. I taught physics for physicians, math for nurses, calculus for business majors, and so on. As it turned out, I found that I enjoyed helping people see that these subjects they didn’t really want to study were, in fact, fascinating.

In a way, this work pointed toward my writing career, because I think the best way to interest people in math and science is to tell them a story. I put a lot of effort into dreaming up real-life examples that applied the subject in question to their area of interest: “Here’s how calculus can help you understand what changes in the stock market are doing to your cash flow,” or “These properties of light apply to the lens of the human eye.” Another thing that helps people understand abstract concepts is to draw them a picture. It helps them bring tricky-to-grasp ideas out of their heads and into the real world.

In a later job as an environmental engineer, I had to write technical reports that would be read by attorneys, bankers, landowners, and others who weren’t specialists in the field but who were interested in what my reports had to say. I was told to write for “the intelligent lay person,” and I’ve always remembered that advice. It’s important to be able to explain things in a way that’s accurate and understandable, yet doesn’t talk down to someone just because their expertise lies elsewhere.

When it came to working the scientific background into The Physicists’ Daughter, I tried hard to show readers the beauty of what I was describing. I’m avoiding spoilers here, but there is a physical process that is key to the mystery Justine is trying to solve. Now I can tell you that the gaseous form of a particular element is ionized and passed through an electromagnetic field that causes the isotopes of the moving gas to split into concentric curving streams…or I can tell you that Justine’s drawing of those streams looks like a rainbow. When I write about science for readers of fiction, I am always going to go for the explanation that is both familiar and beautiful.

CHM: I am an avid reader of historical novels, and one of the things I tend to do early in reading a historical novel is research the history in the book. If I find a gross inaccuracy—say, as I once did, in a novel of the Civil War which referred to five years of warfare instead of four—I abandon the book. Even before delving into your novel, however, I knew the history would be accurate because I’ve been a fan of your work for over a decade and know how precise and accurate your writing always is. Still, my curiosity was piqued by your initial chapters where your main character works for Andrew Higgins in his plant in New Orleans. Eager to learn a bit more, I researched the Higgins plant and Andrew Higgins. Yes, the history is accurate as I knew it would be. Please tell us how you learned about Andrew Higgins and his plant, and a bit more about the history behind the novel. How much research did you need to do on the historical front?

MAE: As I mentioned above, I learned about Andrew Higgins and his plants when I visited The National WWII Museum. He was a fascinating man, an inventor and businessman who was the right person at the right time. President Eisenhower called him “the man who won the war for us.” I read a biography of Higgins and watched a video made several years ago by the History Channel. I found quite a bit of information on the internet, including photos, about the plant where Justine works, which was built on the site of a former plantation and is now used by NASA to build fabulous machines for our era. I also corresponded with a historian at the WWII museum, who has done a good bit of research about the real-life secret project that is at the center of the plot of The Physicists’ Daughter. Based on what I learned from her, I conducted a very fruitful web search that I cannot reveal without spoiling the plot. I will tell you that the search string includes the word “carbon,” in recognition of the fact that Justine works in the Carbon Division, a division of Higgins Industries that really did exist.

This web search turned up multiple documents that were so secret in 1944 that a person who showed them to me would have been executed, and I might have been in some danger myself for simply having read them. These days, they are declassified and available for any old historical novelist to peruse. In those documents, I found the engineering drawings for the device that I believe used the Carbon Division’s mysterious gadgets. This enabled me to put the gadgets in Justine’s hand and tell the reader what it would have felt like to hold them.

Most of the workers in the Carbon Division took its secrets to their graves, even after the information was declassified. Even after my research, I still had questions about the plant’s layout and the details of what its workers did that I just couldn’t answer. My solution to this problem was to write a story that fit within the limits of what I know to be true and used educated guesswork to reconstruct everything else. I guess you could say that I filled in gaps in the known truth with my fiction, but I worked really hard not to contradict things I knew to be true.

CHM: Finally, what comes next? The ending of The Physicist Daughter suggests a series could come from further adventures of its main character. Or, will you return to Faye Longchamp? Or something else wholly new?

 MAE: I tell concerned Faye fans that I left her happy at the end of Wrecked, with a thriving business, a wonderful husband, two great kids, and a beautiful island home. Any time I want to spend time with Faye, I can throw a dead body at her and write the resulting book—and I do plan to do that—but, for now, I’m letting her just be happy.

As for further adventures for Justine…yes! I have turned in the manuscript for the next book, called The Traitor Beside Her. In it, I take Justine, Georgette, and a few other characters from The Physicists’ Daughter (whose names I cannot reveal) to Washington, D.C. There, Justine will work with an elite group of codebreakers…one of whom is an enemy spy who must be caught before the information leak imperils the soldiers fighting The Battle of the Bulge. It will be out next summer.

CHM: Thank you, Mary Anna Evans, for taking the time to answer these questions. Southern Literary Review wishes you all the best with The Physicist’s Daughter.

MAE: Thank you, Claire!

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