A: My new work is actually an old work revisited; Fission is a novel based on the true life story of scientist, Lise Meitner.
I first read about Lise in the David Bodanis book, e=mc2. It surprised me that, given her contributions to science, I had never heard of her; even more so given that for a brief period in the 1940’s she was probably the most famous woman in the world. But what compelled me to write fission were the reasons why she is not better known today. It could be called an epic tale, straight out of mythology, except that it’s all true; the story of one woman’s struggle in the face of overwhelming odds; the story of the small and powerless standing up to evil empire. At the end of such stories we expect the villains to be vanquished and the heroism, if not always rewarded, to be at least remembered and honored. What shocked me is that the world preferred to forget Lise rather than honor her. And it was a chance to redress that wrong which inspired me to write fission.
I say revisited, because fission was originally written as a screenplay. While waiting for the screenplay to become the next Hollywood blockbuster, I went of and did some other stuff, including the two Alex and Jackie Adventures. But I couldn’t leave this story to idle while waiting for Hollywood to call me back, so now I’m adapting the screenplay as a novel. Because it is a story that simply has to be told.
Q: Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?
A: The main character is, of course, Lise Meitner. Lise was born in Vienna in 1878. She was amongst the first women to be admitted to the University and to be awarded a PhD in Physics. From there she went to Berlin, and eventually became Head of the Physics department at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. Due to her status as a Jew in Nazi Germany, Lise was forced to flee the country and moved to Sweden, where she discovered nuclear fission and sparked the race for the atomic bomb. After the war, the Nobel Foundation controversially denied her the Nobel Prize for her discovery.
As for the supporting characters, we have Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, Adolph Hitler, Eleanor Roosevelt, President Truman and Kaiser Wilhelm II, to name a few – all famous names that need no introductions from me. And that is why I chose the write this story. Lise Meitner should be as famous as any of them, the fact that she is not motivated me to write fission.
A: Well, my other works – the Alex and Jackie novels – have a blend of fictional characters and real characters drawn from history, although as I’ve written them, even the real characters, such as Cotton Mather and Sir Walter Raleigh, are more fiction than fact. So in that respect, the behavior of all my characters, even the historical ones, were drawn from my imagination.
In fission, although it is a novel, there are no fictional characters – they all really existed and the events in the book really happened, albeit with some artistic license contributed by me. Fission is also different from my other works in that, to tell the story as accurately as possible, I’ve derived much of the narrative from the speeches, interviews and other correspondence of these real people.
Q: Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write?
A: I begin at the end, if that makes sense. Even before I have a beginning or characters, I know how the story will end. And then it’s a matter of propelling the story towards that ending.
I also do extensive research before I write; and I create quite an extensive sketch, perhaps 20% of the finished product, with the main points that I want to cover. So the mechanics of the plot: the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘when’ – those things are known before I write in earnest.
But once I’m deep into the text, I’m often surprised by the ‘why’. If there is a message in the stories – that is not planned but evolves. And even with fission, where the plot has already been fixed by the history, the ‘why’ still surprises me.
Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?
A: Usually, I would say yes. In the Alex and Jackie Adventures, I had Boston and Luxembourg, which I very much wanted to present as characters in their own right. But fission covers such a long period, more than 60 years, and so many locations all over the world, that I can’t say that is true in this case. What it does have instead is a rolling panorama which reflects the times though which Lise lived: Vienna during the grandeur of the Austrian Empire, Berlin during the Nazi years, and so on.
Q: Open the book to page 69. What is happening?
A: You picked a good page, because this is the page where Lise meets Otto Hahn. Besides Lise herself, there is no person more important to the story than Otto. On this page, Lise’s attempt to break into the male dominated world of science has met with a set-back, just one of many that she encountered, but in walks Otto Hahn and makes her an offer she can’t refuse; if she had, I would have no story. The rest, as they say, is history.
Q: Can you give us one of your best excerpts?
A: “My dear Hahn.” Fischer stopped and sighed. “It is a well known fact that women and chemistry don’t mix.”
“But Professor. . .”
“It’s far too dangerous,” continued Fischer. “If a woman gets too close to the Bunsen burner, her hair catches fire – Poof! – The whole place goes up in smoke.”
“Professor, I . . .”
“This is nothing personal you understand,” Fischer waved a dismissive hand towards Lise in a form of apology. “We simply do not have the facilities to accommodate a woman.”
“You know Rutherford is going to win the Nobel this year for his work on radioactivity.”
Otto knew he had struck a nerve: the rivalry and jealously amongst the Nobel contenders equaled that of any sports contest. Otto pressed his argument.
“Professor, Frau Meitner is the only person here in Berlin with experience in radioactivity,” said Otto. “It is a golden opportunity for us to establish ourselves as the leaders in this field.”
“Rutherford?” Fischer repeated.
Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Tom. We wish you much success!
A: Thank you for inviting me. To spread the word about Lise Meitner to as large an audience as possible, we have chosen to publish fission in serial form on the Internet. We’ll follow up with a traditional book publishing next year, but for now, the book can be accessed, free-of-charge, through my web site at http://tom-weston.com or at http://www.facebook.com/tom.weston.readers.