The Spy with the Red Balloon, one of my favorite books of the year, is out today! Siblings Ilse and Wolf Klein have a big secret: they can do magic. And then the government finds out and blackmails them into service, Ilse by helping with the atom bomb project and Wolf by going behind enemy lines to sabotage the German nuclear program. Soon they're both in danger, and have to figure out how to help each other (and fight Nazis) while remaining true to themselves and their beliefs. This book combines so many things I like - it's a World War II spy story, a smart girl story, a sibling story. There's lots of science AND magic, complicated interpersonal dynamics, and big philosophical questions playing themselves out in people's everyday lives. And it features a realistic cross-section of characters of different races and religions and sexualities who are too often left out of historical fiction.
I loved The Spy with the Red Balloon so much that I got author Katherine Locke to come answer all my questions about it. (Disclaimer, I guess: Katherine and I are good friends but I wouldn't tell you I liked a book if I didn't!)
I love math and physics so my first thought is to ask about THE EQUATIONS, but I guess you did not ACTUALLY write magical equations. So instead: how did you decide on that form for your magic?
There was a point where I tried to teach myself math and physics so I could actually invent magical equations. About a month into that, I realized that this was a very bad idea and I needed to just write the book. I did teach myself a limited amount of physics and chemistry so that when Stella and Ilse were speaking, it sounded as legitimate as possible. (I manipulated the Student Handbook and school rules in high school to get out of physics, and trust me, I regret that now!)
I decided on it pretty early when I was writing The Girl with the Red Balloon after doing quite a bit of research on time travel and realizing that magic that moved people through space could, by that very same logic, move them through time. If such an equation could be developed.
I got into the weeds a few times with it when I was working on Girl but it wasn’t until Spy when I had to actually think about how they would have developed and understood this magic. There’s magic in Spy that is very very close to how Ellie gets to East Berlin in Girl, and sometimes I like to think about all of the research work, what was lost, what was found (and by whom), that happens between 1945 at the end of Spy and 1988 in Girl.
This book's companion, The Girl with the Red Balloon, was written/published first but set later. What were some of the challenges involved in fitting this story within the framework you set up in the previous book? Was there anything you established in Girl that turned out to be particularly troublesome when writing Spy?
Hahahahahahaha. Ahahahahahahaha. *catches breath* AHAHAHAHAHA.
Yes. I had to ret-con a lot of my own work. I did not intend to write another book in this world, so I had to go back and look through all the magic that is in normal use by 1988 in Girl and decide where they were in 1945. I’d established in Girl that the magic was pretty new in 1942, so I had a time constraint--if it was very new in 1942 in the war zone where they were using it, then it couldn’t be so well established, widely known and fully realized in 1943 in the US where I set half of Spy. Additionally, I’d pitched a Manhattan Project book to my editor (who is a history nerd in the best of ways, so she was excited about that). I needed to think about the evolution of magic, what would be desired by the US military for the Project, and what would be needed in reality in the ‘field’, so to speak.
Additionally, the magic system had a lot of constraints. So if random people’s blood was magical and caused them or whatever their blood touched to levitate, how did they go undetected? What happened to those who menstruated? How did they draw blood and write without their pens levitating, or the materials levitating as they did so? How did they stop blood from clotting? From going rancid? How long did an equation last?
It was a lot of work.
I often get frustrated with dual narratives because I end up much more interested in one half of the story than the other, but you did a great job here keeping both Ilse's and Wolf's stories interesting and giving them parallel pacing without it seeming contrived. What was your technique for planning that out? Did you make a big combined timeline?
This was also a lot of work! There were times that I felt Wolf’s timeline was naturally more compelling because he felt like he was in the most immediate danger, which tends to build immediate empathy and connection with readers. The book began as Ilse’s book, so I didn’t want to lose her and her voice. She was my entry into the story, and I truly love this character. I wanted to make sure she sang too.
I reverse outlined the book and put them on notecards, taking care to match up arcs. When Wolf gets into [REDACTED TROUBLE], a similar situation happens to Ilse, heightening their tensions and their storylines at the same time. Either they had to match completely, or they had to be the inverse and the reaction had to be devastating. So for example--this isn’t a spoiler because it’s in the cover copy--Ilse’s at a dance when her brother’s plane is shot down. The colonel sends someone to find her, and Ilse’s horrified that while she was having fun (or at least, thinking she could have fun), her brother went missing.
I worked that out physically with notecards first, and then rearranged my book (via Scrivener) to match that, before I exported to Word (my preferred medium to work).
There aren't many WWII novels with Jewish main characters that aren't centered on the Holocaust. Why was it important to you to do that here?
My grandfather was the son of Jewish immigrants (from what is now western Ukraine but was then Poland), and he fought in WWII. His unit helped liberate Dachau II, a sub-camp of Dachau. From what we’ve been able to track, some of our relatives died at Dachau. None of my relatives who stayed in Europe survived the Holocaust. Dozens of Jewish boys who escaped Germany before 1942 made it to the US, and enlisted to go home and fight the Nazis. Jewish-American soldiers fought in WWII, and they fought at even higher risk than Christian-American soldiers. If they were captured, they were often killed or sent to concentration camps like Berga.
I really wanted to explore that time period through a different lens, through the lens of American Jews who know what’s happening over there, are pacifists, struggle with the blindness of patriotism, and have a great deal to lose: they are Jewish, they are American, they are queer, and they do magic.
I also really really want to see more historical fantasy and historical novels where Jewish people are heroes without being victims in the same breath. The Klein siblings go through a lot in Spy, but they’re never victims.
This book is fantasy but obviously it's very grounded in real history. What was your research process like, and specifically what kinds of resources did you use to help you tell the stories of people who are so often overlooked in history and historical fiction, like people of color and queer characters?
I traveled to Oak Ridge, Tennessee and went on the tour of the nuclear facilities and town there, as well as visiting the museum. I read a lot of books and watched movies. I had a pretty good background on nuclear weapons as I worked in nuclear weapons abolition activism for a year after college, but I knew more about the work on the Gadget at Los Alamos than I did about Oak Ridge. I read a lot of books about spies during WWII, the Manhattan Project, the women on the Manhattan Project, the Nazi science programs, etc. I listed all the books I read, and included my author’s note and photos from my trip here on my website.
I also read Manhattan Project Voices, where there are interviews and oral histories with women who worked on the Project. I am immensely grateful for the historians who’ve taken the time to collect those stories.
On the whole, WWII must be one of the most well documented and well researched times in history, from every angle. I wanted to include Stella after reading about how Dr. J. Ernest Wilkins was excluded from the Manhattan Project in Tennessee because of Jim Crow laws. I knew both Klein siblings were queer (Ilse is bi, Wolf is demisexual/ace-spectrum), and I did research around that. (Contrary to what some may believe, queerness is not an invention of the last fifty years.) Queer people and Black people and disabled people and Jewish people and Christian people and depressed people and anxiety people and neurodiverse people and young people and old people all participated in the war effort. It is disingenuous to write books that do not reflect that.
Will you ever write a female character without an L in her name? Ilse, Polly, Stella, Lola, Lily. Ellie and Aly in previous books. Surely you're almost out of names. (Okay, I guess that's not a real question. Hahaha.)
It turns out, I am not out of L names.
(I am trying.)
(but not very hard.)
If you could pick any (real or magical) job/assignment to have had during World War II, what would it be? (I want to be a Bletchley codebreaker, personally.)
You would be a great codebreaker. I would be very bad at it.
I would like to be Lily (from Spy) though. I think I would have been good at keeping boys in line and punching Nazis.
You write across a lot of different genres/audiences - is it hard switching back and forth? Are there themes you find yourself returning to across different projects?
I definitely write a lot of Jewish characters! I also write a lot of Jewish characters/characters in general struggling with trying to do good in seemingly impossible situations. I love writing siblings, so I frequently come back to that. I am really interested in the ways that times of high conflict make someone realize that they’ve always had the tools to survive. They didn’t gain them through the struggle, they’ve always had them. If that makes sense. So conflict as a way of illuminating our resilience as people and individuals.
As for switching, I don’t find it difficult. I try not to write two YA books at the same time, but I can write a YA contemporary and a MG fantasy at the same time. They’re different books for me, and they keep me interested and thinking. I like the puzzle aspect of stories and I have a short attention span. Jumping around and trying to challenge myself with every new manuscript keeps me happy.
In addition to writing you have a full time dayjob and freelance. Any favorite tips for finding the time/energy for writing or other creative work while still paying the bills?
Set aside one day a week where you don’t do work (which...I admittedly did not do this week) because you need to refill that well. Daydreaming about stories, or going to plays or art museums or walking around a park or talking to friends is refilling the well and that is creative space, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time.
Get up early before work, if you can, and write while your brain is the freshest. I edit at night because I can do that after work, but I can’t make new words after I work all day. So I do those in the morning. Figure out when and where you work best, and commit to it. I’m bad at writing for just 15 mins here and there, while I have friends who write whole novels that way. I need at least two hours straight through. And I work typically 20 minutes on, 5-10 minutes off, 20 minutes on again.
And sleep. Seriously. Your brain needs time to rest and repair.
Which of your cats would be the best spy?
Okay. I’ve been thinking about this the entire interview while I worked on the other questions. I think the important thing to remember here is that there are many types of spies and they all work in different ways. So I think all of my cats would be great spies, but for different things.
But the dream team would be Cora and Pilot. Cora is very loud and you would think she’d be a bad spy, but she’s really good at climbing on top of you and distracting you, while yelling at you, so you may not see Pilot going to work in the background. He’s very quiet, and very light and small, and very sneaky. They’re a good team.
[Note: If you'd like this question/answer to make more sense, go follow Katherine on Instagram. There's lots of good cat content.]
The Spy with the Red Balloon is out now! Go read it! And if you'd like to read its companion The Girl with the Red Balloon via your library, check out the Big Library Read.
Katherine Locke lives and writes in Philadelphia, PA where they're ruled by their feline overlords and their addiction to chai lattes. Their debut YA The Girl with the Red Balloon was a 2018 Sydney Taylor Honor Book and a 2018 Carolyn W. Field Honor Book. They secretly believe most stories are fairytales in disguise. You can find them online at KatherineLockeBooks.com and @bibliogato on Instagram and Twitter.