Author Profile: Jan Eliasberg

As a child, Jan Eliasberg could be found on her living room floor, reading the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review. She dreamed of writing, discovering her voice, finding stories to tell, and just maybe, getting her own books reviewed one day.

“I think of myself as a storyteller,” she said. “Whether I’m directing a film or television show, writing a screenplay, teleplay, essay or novel, what drives me is my passion for the story and the characters.”

Academically and professionally, Eliasberg has been, to use her words, “blessed.” She graduated magna cum laude from Wesleyan University and completed two MFA programs: one in directing from the Yale School of Drama and one in fiction through Writers at Warren Wilson College. “I can’t imagine better training…crafting stories about fierce women who’ve been erased from history – [it] is a privilege.”

Eliasberg has also written and directed for television; she was hand-picked as the first female director on Miami Vice, directed for CBS, ABC, and NBC, among others. Additionally, she wrote the pilot for FX’s Salem and W.A.S.P., a WWII drama about women pilots.

World War II also serves as the temporal setting of her debut novel, Hannah’s War, which was loosely inspired by the real-life story of Dr. Lise Meitner, who proved to be central to the physics needed to create the atomic bomb.

“I was torn with Hannah’s story between writing it as a screenplay and writing it as a novel. Now, having written the novel, it’s been bought for film and I’m adapting it as a screenplay.”

The novel, which she wrote without an advance, was a leap of faith. Eliasberg said that initially, she “had no idea whether it would even sell.” Then, by way of a bidding war, Little, Brown bought it and the whole process was “a dream come true.”

While she has written contemporary fiction, Eliasberg says that she has an affinity for the more historical side of the genre. “I love research,” she said; but she also said that stories with social and political relevance are of great interest to her. “History holds a million stories but, as a society, we are used to exploring history from a cis, white male point of view,” Eliasberg explained. “To explore history with a female gaze allows one to uncover great stories and extraordinary characters from a different perspective, sometimes characters like Dr. Lise Meitner whose story has never been told. That’s incredibly exciting to me.”

One day, while reading through New York Public Library’s microfilm collection, Eliasberg found a paragraph that would soon turn into a very exciting literary adventure–

The key component that allowed the Allies to develop the bomb was brought to the Allies by a “female, non-Aryan physicist.”

“Who was this woman? And why isn’t her face staring out of every science textbook?” she wondered, and began researching the bomb and the physics behind its inception. All this research led to a Dr. Lise Meitner, a Jewish-Austrian scientist working with colleague Otto Hahn, a German chemist. Right as they were about to split the atom, Austria was annexed, Meitner was forced to flee, and Hahn was desperate to continue their research. It was she who discovered, after sending postcards back and forth about various experiments, that they had actually split the atom. But the scientific papers couldn’t be published with her name, lest they be discredited as “Jewish Physics.”

“I wanted to explore the ripples of Meitner’s discovery as they progressed from theory to weapon,” Eliasberg explained. After discovering Meitner’s story and becoming fascinated by Los Alamos as a result, she realized that there were two parts to the story, both equally fascinating. “I knew there was an amazing espionage story to be told in Los Alamos and the notion of putting Lise-now-Hannah at the center of that story, and the center of that love triangle was simply irresistible.”

Ten years of research and hundreds of outlines later, framing Hannah’s story as a screenplay and as a novel, then reworking it all over again, Eliasberg was able to draft the novel in approximately six months.

Of course, the book changed with each revision. For example, there was once a chapter set in Chicago that explores how Hannah was recruited to work at Los Alamos. It’s currently on the cutting room floor, but if the novel goes through another printing, Eliasberg said that she “will definitely put the chapter back in the novel.” [sidenote – I would absolutely LOVE to see that, there’s already so much mystery, I think this would be a fascinating way to uncover more of Hannah’s complex character development!]

At the center of the book, and perhaps one of the most satisfying revelations of it, is the exploration of identity. Meitner’s story, and indeed, Hannah’s War, shows how one person can change history. But through the character of Jack, Eliasberg also considers what it means when you either have to, or choose to, hide one’s true self. “If there is an interrogation, it’s always more interesting if the interrogator is harboring his own secret,” teased Eliasberg. “And Hannah is so brilliant, it seemed to me that she’d be trying to figure out Jack’s identity to get as much leverage in the situation as she could possibly get.”

This two-way interrogation is fascinating because it makes the story that much more nuanced. In a sense, it creates a bit of a love-triangle, but a very unique one. As a reader, it’s so easy to get caught up in the descriptions of Hannah’s interactions with Jack–with whom she can empathize with his personal dilemma around identity–and with Stefan–with whom she shares a love of science and a desire for “Tikkun Olam,” a desire to “heal the world.”

A major reason why Hannah’s War is so enjoyable are the characters, and the care Eliasberg clearly put into crafting them. They are what move the story forward, but they are also excellent examples of Eliasberg’s skill as a storyteller.

“There is so much I love about Hannah’s War – the bravery and journey of the characters first and foremost… If you can stay open to the research and stay away from pre-conceptions, there are amazing revelations to be found – I suppose those moments are the ones I love the most.”

Eliasberg plans on writing more in the future. For other eagle-eyed viewers, Hannah’s cousin Sabine makes a surprise appearance (sort of) at the end, and Eliasberg plans on writing a companion story for her. “Everyone who read the book was desperate to know what happened to Sabine so I decided I wanted to figure it out. I’ve been working on outlines and research for that book.” In addition to that book, as aforementioned, Eliasberg is working on a film adaptation of Hannah’s War.

All updates on Eliasberg’s work can be found on her website: Her site also has information on where she will do appearances/readings and Q&As. In fact, she is also available for ZOOM Q&As, due to the fact that she loves speaking with book clubs and participating in those discussions.

Jan Eliasberg was glowing with pride at her first book signing for Hannah’s War at New York’s Corner Bookstore.

My official review of Eliasberg’s book, Hannah’s War will be available tomorrow, October 10, at 12 p.m. MDT.


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