Saturday, June 18, 2022

Mary Anna Evans

Mary Anna Evans is an award-winning author, a writing professor, and she holds degrees in physics and engineering, a background that, as it turns out, is ideal for writing her new book, The Physicists’ Daughter. Set in WWII-era New Orleans, the book introduces Justine Byrne, whom Evans describes as “a little bit Rosie-the-Riveter and a little bit Bletchley Park codebreaker.” When Justine, the daughter of two physicists who taught her things girls weren’t expected to know in 1944, realizes that her boss isn’t telling her the truth about the work she does in her factory job, she draws on the legacy of her unconventional upbringing to keep her division running and protect her coworkers, her country, and herself from a war that is suddenly very close to home.

My Q&A with Evans:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The Physicists’ Daughter does a lot of heavy lifting in terms of signaling what this story is about, and it does all the work of characterizing the protagonist. Justine Byrne’s identity was shaped by her physicist parents, and that is a very consciously placed apostrophe. Both of Justine’s parents were physicists, which was an unusual state of affairs in 1944.

From the time Justine was born, they began teaching her to see the world like a physicist, logically and thoughtfully. When they die in a car accident when Justine is only 17, she is prepared to tackle the daunting task of taking care of herself in an era when this was very hard for a woman to do alone. World War II is raging, so she is able to find a good job at a munitions factory doing Rosie-the-Riveter-style work…but it’s clear to someone with Justine’s background that her boss is lying to her about the work she’s doing. It’s also clear to her that someone is trying to sabotage that work.

Nobody expects Justine to have the knowledge and skills that she does, so she is the perfect person to take on the task of uncovering a spy and a saboteur. As I like to say, the Nazis are no match for the physicists’ daughter.

What's in a name?

In a historical novel, it’s important to give characters names that are appropriate for the time period, but it’s also important that the protagonists’ names not be too odd-sounding for modern readers. Thus, an important secondary character in this book is named Mavis, but I judged that modern readers would not imagine a young woman with this name.

One way to deal with this issue is to use timeless names, so an important character is named Charles, a name that’s less used now but is not totally out-of-step with our time. Georgette seemed to be a time-period-appropriate name for an American girl of French descent who was probably named for her father. For those who know their fashion, Georgette also evokes a lovely, soft, dressy fabric often used in the mid-twentieth century.

Justine’s name also has French origins that suit the New Orleans setting, and it evokes justice. Crime fiction, for me, is a constant exploration of justice, and Justine is herself driven to seek justice. Also, I have always sympathized with the poorly treated character of Justine in Frankenstein, so there’s a Mary Shelley allusion wrapped up in my protagonist’s name.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

I’ve always loved historical novels and science, and I’ve always loved New Orleans. I was still in my teens when I chose a physics major for my bachelor’s degree. Considering those things, I’d say that this was the book I’ve lived my whole life to write, so teenaged me wouldn’t be surprised by it at all.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I don’t want to be difficult, but the middles of books are the hardest part for me to write. Once I have the premise of the book clear in my head, the opening chapters write themselves. If they didn’t, it would be a sign that this might not be the book for me.

The middle is more of an exploration. I know where I’m going, but it's not always easy to see how to get there, while still keeping the narrative compelling enough to draw the reader through to the exciting climax.

The ending, like the beginning, writes itself. It’s as if I’ve spent a couple of hundred pages setting up the dominos and, when the time comes, I push the first one over. It’s my theory that if writing the ending isn’t easy, then the middle of the book hasn’t done what it needs to do. That means I need to go back and work on it some more before I write the ending.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Justine has my logical approach to life and my devotion to the people I love. We both like to look at the world and try to figure out what makes it tick.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

For this book, I must credit mid-twentieth-century mathematicians and scientists—all of them, certainly, but especially the women. I’m not sure it’s possible for us to understand the obstacles that stood in the way of women like Marie Curie, her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and Lise Meitner. After Justine’s time, we saw more women of color in math, engineering, and science, like Chien Shiung-Wu, Maryam Mirzakhani, and Mae Jemison, and they faced incredible obstacles.

It was a momentous century. Women were often shunted aside, but they were there. They persevered.
Learn more about the author and her work at Mary Anna Evans's website.

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--Marshal Zeringue