Larry Loftis is the author of the book Code Name: Lise: The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII's Most Highly Decorated Spy. The book is now available in paperback. Loftis, an attorney, also has written Into the Lion's Mouth.
Q: You note that you first learned about Odette Sansom, the subject of Code Name: Lise, while researching other potential book topics. What drew you to her story?
A: I write nonfiction thrillers, which sounds like an oxymoron, but you can do them if you have enough action, suspense, intrigue, and cliffhangers.
The problem is that 99.5 percent of spies do one great thing, or have one great or dramatic experience. If you want a nonfiction story that can be crafted as a thriller, you need about 20 of those things ... which means that I have to find the needle in the haystack. Odette's story was one of them. As Kirkus Reviews said, "Every chapter ends with a cliffhanger."
Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that particularly surprised you?
A: A quality nonfiction book about World War II always starts with the National Archives (Kew in the UK, NARA in the U.S.), because that's where the official records are kept. After that, you basically have to read everything ever written about your character and the people involved: autobiographies, biographies, interviews, etc.
So for my book, that meant not only Odette, but Peter Churchill, Hugo Bleicher, Major Buckmaster, and the SOE [Special Operations Executive].
And what surprised me would be a spoiler to reveal, so I'd better not say.
Q: What does Lise's story say about the role of women in espionage during World War II?
A: During World War II, the Germans began rounding up men in occupied countries for forced labor in Germany. The SOE desperately needed women—who had far less chance of being nabbed—to act as couriers.
The problem in France, however, was that Germans and Vichy officials could recognize a woman who spoke French with a British accent ... which in all likelihood meant that she was a spy. What they needed was the one in a million like Odette, someone who could speak French without an accent.
But it was a terribly dangerous job. SOE couriers in France had the second highest fatality rate of any Allied soldiers or operatives: 42 percent. Only Britain's Bomber Command had a higher rate (45 percent).
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: As with most World War II stories, there were many heroes in Code Name: Lise: Odette, Peter Churchill, Arnaud Rabinovitch (their radio operator), Paul Frager (French Resistance), and Father Paul Steinert, a German priest who ministered to Odette and Peter while they were incarcerated at Fresnes Prison. All risked their lives to help each other.
In writing nonfiction thrillers, my goal is to educate (about true World War II stories and events), while entertaining. Many fiction readers will not touch nonfiction books because they find them dry or boring; my hope is that they will read and enjoy my books as much as they do any novel.
And for the hard-core nonfiction readers, I hope they will plunge into the end notes to digest and enjoy the scholarship behind the writing.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have my third nonfiction espionage thriller coming out in March 2021. It's about an American female spy who worked for the OSS (forerunner of the CIA).
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Many people ask me if I have met or talked to Odette's relatives. Indeed, I correspond almost daily with two of Odette's granddaughters, Nicole Miller-Hard (who lives in New Zealand) and Sophie Parker (who lives in England). In fact, the paperback edition of Code Name: Lise has an Afterword with stories and photos from them. They truly have been a blessing to me, and are wonderful cheerleaders for the book.
On my website you can watch the piece that The Today Show did for the book and story. It was particularly special for me because Nicole brought her entire family over from New Zealand for the taping, and she and her two daughters (Odette and Francesca) are interviewed as well. Nicole also brought a number of family photos of Odette, which the producers seamlessly weaved into the interview.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb