An Interview with Author Cara Black and Her Editor
What made you decide to write a story about a female assassin?
CB: Years ago, I read my father’s copy of The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth, and then I saw the 1973 film. This is the tale of a brilliant for-hire assassin tasked by the OAS with killing de Gaulle. Pitted against him are the government, who flounder in the dark to prevent the assassination attempt until they draft one of their own Parisian police. It’s a riveting cat-and-mouse story—we know before reading that de Gaulle survived, but it’s still so suspenseful, so tense, so delicately balanced. My throat catches every time I rewatch the film, which I do every year. Every time I pass the Montparnasse train station I look up at the Jackal’s window where he was aiming at de Gaulle and calculate the rifle angle. I think that inspired my window for Kate in Montmartre. I wanted to try my hand at writing an assassin story—but with my own spin, one that could include pieces of the WWII resistance history I have hoarded over twenty years of researching the Aimée Leduc novels in Paris.
But there was also a historical template for female assassins in WWII. The Russian army had a regiment of highly successful female snipers. The star female assassin, Lyudmila Pavlichenko, was credited with 309 kills, the highest of a woman and in the top five of all snipers. In 1943 she was invited to the White House, met Eleanor Roosevelt and toured the USA. Of course, the United States didn’t enter the war until after Pearl Harbor in 1941 but I was still intrigued by that what if: What if an American woman had been a sniper in WWII? Why not?
I read a newspaper article in 2010 about the death of a quiet and reclusive elderly lady in a British coastal town. The woman had no known relatives and no friends, but when local authorities entered her home they found she was far from the typical pensioner. They discovered among her possessions a medal from Britain as well as France’s highest wartime honor, the Croix de Guerre. She was Eileen Nearne—aka Agent Rose, one of the female spies dispatched by Britain into occupied France in World War II by the SOE. Eileen Nearne became a clandestine radio operator, was caught and put in Ravensbrück but survived. There are stories like this that beg to be told; women who worked as spies, who signed the Official Secrets Act during the war and never broke their silence.
Kate to me is an everywoman—a daughter, a sister, a mother, a wife—who, due to tragedy and loss in war, seeks revenge and rises to the challenge of using her skill set. In war time, “doing one’s part” is a larger-than-life task, and so rising to the challenge includes becoming a larger-than-life character.
During the Second World War, secret services around the world knew women made perfect agents: in many ways, they were invisible as a man wouldn’t be. As innocent as they might appear while walking with a basket of eggs or mopping a floor, they could escape detection and perform sabotage, set up resistance networks, operate radios, and infiltrate occupied buildings as cleaners, mail couriers, housewives. The possibilities were endless.
Kate is recruited by a British intelligence officer to work for Section D, a deniable branch that specializes in foreign interference and sabotage. How much of your description of Section D is real?
CB: Section D was real, and some of its records have even survived the war and been declassified, although of course many more were destroyed, so it is impossible to know its full scope and nature. I envision a clandestine department that specialized in missions like Kate’s—ungentlemanly war, fought by recruits of Irregulars who performed sabotage and assassinations in Occupied Europe.
What about the technology you mention? Was it real?
CB: All of the technology I mention has a basis in real wartime inventions, although I have taken fictional liberties. At the beginning of the war, in the British race for building airplanes and fighting equipment, many tools were also being developed for clandestine warfare. I became intrigued when I discovered information about the S-phone, very cutting-edge, which the British developed, buried in a Stanford University library archive. I was also fascinated by the way Lee Enfield rifles were adapted to sniper capabilities as prototypes before field and general operational use. There was even a lipstick gun which I was dying for Kate to use, but alas, it didn’t quite fit in the story.
Kate has very little formal training in spycraft but endless creativity for inventing ways to get herself out of jams—for surviving. Where did you get these ideas?
CB: I was inspired by the idea of what skills Kate would have had to develop as a girl growing up on a series of Oregon ranches. Ranch work is a tough job, and would have been even harder in the 1930s. Life was subject to incessant rain, blizzards, falling trees, insect infestation or crop failure. Cattle would get stuck in barb wire, tractor tires puncture, equipment breaks—all these problems need to be solved on the fly, with few resources. One would learn to think on one’s feet, make do and get creative with what’s available. So Kate, who grew up in a rough and tumble environment with five brothers, learns to hold her own and becomes resilient.
This is your 20th book. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers about the
CB: Just write what you’re passionate about. If there’s a what if that won’t leave you, listen