Alisa M. Parenti is the author of the new novel Betrayal: The Ethel Rosenberg Story. It focuses on Rosenberg, who, along with her husband, Julius, was convicted of spying for the Soviet Union and executed in 1953. Parenti is a journalist based in Washington, D.C.
Q: What inspired you to write this book about Ethel Rosenberg?
A: My interest was initially sparked by a story on 60 Minutes about the Rosenberg spy case. In that piece, Ethel Rosenberg's brother, David Greenglass, admitted that his testimony against his sister was false. That was the key piece of evidence in her conviction, and resulted in her death sentence and execution.
It struck me that Ethel Rosenberg was betrayed not just by her family of origin, but also by the justice system, by the nationalistic fervor of the time, and by a society that diminished women in general.
Q: What did you see as the right balance of fiction and history in the book?
A: I think the fictional elements should help bring to life the events that actually occurred. To me, the historical truth is central. It's the blueprint of the narrative. Fiction is the color between the lines.
There's not much written solely about Ethel, so I drew from letters she wrote while incarcerated at Sing Sing. The history in the book takes us from one event to the next, and I fictionalized her reactions to those events.
In the Notes section at the end of the book, I delineate chapter by chapter what's fact and what's fiction.
Q: Can you say more about how you researched Ethel Rosenberg's life, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: I spent a couple of years reading everything I could about the Rosenbergs and the case, and I learned so much.
For example, I didn't know that Ethel Rosenberg organized workers at one of her first jobs, at the National New York Packing and Shipping Company. Ethel was fired as a result of her unionizing efforts, and a judgment in her favor was one of the first of the then newly-formed National Labor Relations Board in 1936.
It's also surprising how Ethel's sons and grandchildren continue her legacy.
The Rosenbergs' younger son, Robert, founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children, which raises money to pay for activities for children of jailed activists. Since its founding in 1990, the Fund has distributed more than $7.5 million for those children's camps, art and music lessons, school tuition and more. Currently Ethel's granddaughter, Jenn Meeropol, is the executive director of the Fund.
Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: I always wanted to highlight the core theme of betrayal in the title, and my intention is for this to be truly Ethel's story.
This is also featured in the design of the book cover by my sister-in-law, Lisa Parenti. There's quite a bit of bird imagery throughout the book, and she had the idea of capping the birdcage with the Capitol dome, representing the pressure of the government upon Ethel.
I really wanted the book to present a multimedia approach, with fictionalized artifacts telling the story on several different levels. I think Lisa really elevated the experience for readers by creating newspaper stories, a telegram, a military rejection letter, and more.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Right now I'm working with the publisher on the hardcover version of the book, which comes out in September. I've also started recording the audiobook version. That's been more fun than I expected! I listen to music from the late '40s and early '50s and look at historic photos to get in the right frame of mind.
I'm also loving catching up on reading other books. This Q&A blog alone has led to a large tower of books TBR!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I have an unfortunate addiction to true crime books which has, on occasion, made my husband worry about his safety.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb