In March, The New School hosts the 2020 National Book Critics Circle awards, which honor literature published in the United States in the previous year. The awards are presented in six categories — autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry — and are the only U.S. literary awards chosen by critics themselves.
The following interview with Sonia Purnell, a 2020 finalist in biography, is part of a series of NBCC interviews conducted by New School creative writing students.
In her biography, A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, Sonia Purnell captures the life of Virginia Hall, an American woman enlisted as an intelligence agent for the British during World War II. From the start, Virginia has all the cards stacked against her. Not only is she a woman living in a time where women are seen as far less capable than men (to put it mildly), but she is also disabled, having lost her leg in an accident, and relies on a rudimentary prosthetic.
But Virginia is not one to accept defeat. She rises above the odds, joining Britain’s Special Operation Executive (SOE), and is shipped off to Nazi-occupied France in the hope of kick-starting the resistance. Constantly surrounded by danger, and knowing that at any point the barbaric German Gestapo could capture her and torture her to death, Virginia establishes a vast spy network, setting the stage for D-Day and France’s liberation. Despite major setbacks, including a last-ditch escape over treacherous the waist-deep snow of the Pyrenees mountains into Spain, Virginia braves unimaginable perils to succeed in her mission to free parts of France and in so doing help to establish the foundations for modern special forces operations.
A page-turner from beginning to end, the book explores themes of resilience and rejection, setbacks and victories, and the courage it takes to succeed, to carry on when the whole world seems to be against you. We are not simply told Virginia’s story; we are given front row seats to view the world from Virginia’s eyes. We are invited to partake in the adventure, watching as a woman of no apparent importance overcomes massive amounts of prejudice to do the impossible.
Taylor Sue Leonhardt [TSL]: Despite being a biography, the prose reads like a work of fiction. The opening reads like a tragic drama, where our protagonist, Virginia Hall, is the promised woman who lost her leg and with it the hope of a rich and romantic future. Then the book switches to a spy novel, where our hero faces daring adventure, nail-biting close calls, and a relentless villain. How did you bridge the gap between these two tropes to craft a cohesive (and amazing) narrative?
Sonia Purnell [SP]: As I researched her [Virginia] life, her story, it never failed to astonish me, it never disappointed me. It was always much bigger, much more epic than I could imagine or hope for. In a way, I was led by her story: her early life in well to do Baltimore, her mother had this great social ambition for her. But from the start Virginia did not want to go along with her mother… She is similarly ambitious but not for a husband as was expected of her but for a career, and the more adventurous the better. The story kinda lulls you along for a short while but very quickly you get the idea that we are being introduced to a spirited, determined and decidedly unusual young woman. For me, the pivot point, however, is the tragic accident where she shoots herself in the foot, this appalling, painful event. Her whole life changes and she truly becomes a force of nature.
TSL: Naturally this accident, this moment when she loses her leg would cause a tremendous amount of setbacks. Throughout the book, we see Virginia get rejected again and again. Has Virginia’s story changed your own relationship with rejection?
SP: Hugely. I think about her every day. We all have setbacks, don’t we? Probably not as big as Virginia’s, but we all have our troubles and tribulations. When I have mine, I think about her now. I think: “she wouldn’t just give up and grumble, she would have found a way forward.” She was a great problem solver and she just kept going. She kept picking herself up and getting back into the ring, and I find that to be extraordinary. It’s still tougher for women to get right up there, the glass ceiling still exists, and we get pushed back but what Virginia’s told me is to get yourself up and try again, just keep trying never give up. You will be amazed at what you can achieve.
TSL: In Chapter One, “The Dream,” we are first introduced to Virginia’s mother, who wants nothing more than for her daughter to marry rich. I am reminded of old novels about the upper-middle class, such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice where a daughter’s only purpose was to fulfill a mother’s social ambition.
SP: Well that’s so funny you said that. I did have Jane Austen in mind when I was thinking of the mother, you know, and the Bennetts and Mrs. Bennett trying to get all her daughters married off successfully. And that still goes on a little bit today. You know not to the same extent, but I know some very ambitious mothers who want to see their daughters marry well-to-do young men or at least young men with excellent prospects. It’s a universal theme — even now in a time when women are perfectly capable of making their own way there is still sometimes the sotto voce parental question: Can he provide for her if necessary?
TSL: You open with a prologue and close with an epilogue, two difficult things to pull off, and yet it’s done so successfully. Why did you decide to frame the book in this way?
SP: I didn’t want to start the whole book with “she was born and did this” and so on, I wanted to start the book with the flavor of what this woman was like. I wanted to hook you in and give a flavor of what’s to come. I also wanted to show a broad sweep of history… These massive global events, including the biggest exodus [in France] of all time, and guess whose right in the middle of it? Our girl from Baltimore, driving an ambulance with her prosthetic foot. I wanted to establish right then that her life was going to be epic: it was an epic life at an epic point in history.
It was important to me to lure readers in, to give them the flavor, and then say “hey you haven’t seen nothing yet.” At the end, I had hoped that people would become really curious about all these other stories, these other real-life vivid characters. I didn’t just want to drop them when they left her story, as I knew people would be curious to hear of their fate too. I also knew it was important to reveal (and perhaps to reassure readers) that she was finally recognized by the CIA, even if it was mostly after her death.
TSL: The book explores themes of identity, the ways Virginia must strip herself, to become a non-self, a “woman of no importance.” The chapter “Good-bye to Dindy” is about this final act of burying your identity. Similarly, when writing this, your own identity must hide as you play the part of the narrator. In what ways do you manage the tension between preserving your own identity to lay out the facts objectively and the fact that it’s your voice telling the story, that it’s ultimately your version of Virginia?
SP: The starting point in nonfiction always has to be the facts. And where your skill comes in as a writer, I guess, is how you put those facts together, how you interpret and explain them. What I want to do is use those facts and mold them into a story that will actually be more revealing to people, ultimately more informative through context, characterization, real dialogue when someone has later written it down. Emotion is important too. For instance, there’s a scene where she’s on the plateau, and she’s waiting for a parachute drop of vital arms, ammunition, money and even food, and no one knows when or even if it’s going to come. Tension is building… She promised these planes and they’re not coming… The situation could turn any moment. She is a woman alone with dozens of men she has only just met, who don’t know for sure that she is not their enemy but really a friend as she says.
I just tried to put myself into that position; it’s like method acting. I went up to the plateau and I looked at the mountains and I worked out the way the wind would come, and then I could tell the directions the bombers would come from…I listened to tapes of the sound of the bombers’ engines, I paced the exact place the containers would drop, visited the waterfall where they were discarded afterward, and watched the light retreat from the vast mountain skies. I was trying to put myself in her place and time and position, drawing on every account, letter, photograph, every shred of evidence of what it was really like. And then I tell the story, drawing in deep breaths as I write and hoping I can convey an idea of the peril, the excitement, and the hope… That’s what I hope to add as a writer. Here’s a series of facts and here is what I hope I can add with all the tools I can muster.
TSL: Similarly I noticed that Virginia herself is so thoroughly fleshed out, at times it as if you are reading her mind, laying out her thoughts, and yet since she has hidden herself so well that you described the research in this way: “Virginia and I have been playing our own game of cat and mouse.” How do you go about crafting a character from the scraps so that readers can feel that they know her?
SP: You say scraps, but it is more like a mosaic. Her niece was helpful for things like finding out what her laugh was like, that sort of thing really helps, but you do also rely on luck. I was lucky. I discovered lots of descriptions of her, often through working out all her code names, as her companions didn’t know what her real name was. And so for years and years no one realized that these people were describing Virginia. Few had been as mad as I was, sitting down with a vast map of France and plotting it all out, and realizing “oh my god, it’s Virginia.” Peter Churchill [a fellow spy], he described conversations with her, he wrote them out from memory. So you just take all these little nuggets, the things she said here and there, and you get the flavor of what kind of character she was: the impact she had on people, the force of the character. So it was those kinds of things — including personal letters between the members of the resistance she led into battle — that enabled me to flesh her out and realize that she was a force of nature.
TSL: In these writings that you found, did anyone mention the leg?
SP: No it’s funny, people very rarely mention the leg; it’s very revealing isn’t it? It tells you she went to great lengths so that it wouldn’t make any difference with people. There was one man, Antoine, who wrote about it saying “the same extraordinary woman who I had known hiding brilliantly with her artificial leg with big strides,” but other people don’t mention it at all. They say she was a very attractive, striking, radiant, beautiful woman. But the one time it really came up, I found it quite a difficult moment emotionally… There was a mention of Virginia being by the stream on a hot day, and she tells the woman she’s with, “I’m thinking of bathing, I’ve got to warn you, I have this prosthetic leg.” It’s a very difficult scene and in the end neither woman bathes, obviously there’s a bit of embarrassment, but that’s the only time in all the places I searched that anything like that ever came up.
TSL: It must have been isolating for her.
SP: Yes, but as she was already quite isolated due to her disability, that in the end helped her to become a truly great spy. The isolation that made life challenging in peacetime was probably what saved her in wartime. It meant that she was so self-reliant, compared, say, to Alain, the boastful, handsome man who everyone in London assumed was a dashing daring agent when actually he was a quivering wreck. He depended on booze to get him through and that’s because he had been alone or surviving on his wits before. So he drew comfort from women and wine — but this both undermined him as a spy and of course his and everyone else’s security.
TSL: The most depressing chapter is, possibly, “The CIA Years,” because in it, after all that Virginia went through, after all the hard times and the defeats, after everything she did to help win the war, she is still not recognized, and is going through the cycle of rejection again and again. How did you come to accept that you must write this bittersweet ending, because it’s the truth and yet still provide the reader some hope?
SP: Virginia is a hero; I think Americans should be proud of her. The epilogue tells us she’s beginning to be recognized, that the CIA admits they got it wrong, and that some operations today are biased on what she pioneered in France in the 1940s. That shows that there was a point to it all but I found that the CIA chapter the most difficult to write. I found the HR documents so unjust, and the way she was treated… It’s horrible. I’ve seen in my own life these things happening. It sometimes happens to the best and bravest woman because there is jealousy. It’s a very difficult and toxic situation. What made me think, “oh, it’s okay,” her life was bearable, was that she had Paul [Virginia’s partner/husband] and while they were still fairly healthy, I think they really enjoyed each other. Her niece said that he “lightened her life.” I think that he did, he was jokey and fun and made her laugh. Thank goodness for him.
TSL: You do have to write the truth even if it’s not as satisfying as you want it to be.
SP: But that’s life, that’s real life. This isn’t make-believe where everything ends up perfect, because actually an awful lot of heroes don’t have the glorious ending that you would like, that you might put in the novel. That makes her sacrifices even more extraordinary, more poignant and, yes, emotional. She didn’t seek glory, but she did seek respect and she wasn’t given enough of that while she was alive. I aim to try to reverse that with the book.
This interview was first published on February 28, 2020, at the Creative Writing at The New School blog, thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School.
Taylor Sue Leonardt is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at The New School. @TS_Leonhardt
Sonia Purnell is a journalist, biographer, and is also the author of Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition, and Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston ChurchilI.