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Spies in Cambridge

The inspiration for a novel is a wonderful and rare thing. It may strike like lightning in the shower, be a headline in a newspaper or visit you in a dream as was famously detailed by Stephenie Meyer as the beginning of the Twilight Saga. That bright idea that evolves and grows and becomes a story that has to be told.

Jennie Rooney’s novel Red Joan tells the story of Cambridge graduate Joan in the late 1930’s and her friendship with two Russian’s Sonya and Leo. It is a very human Cold War thriller and the spark of it’s genesis came from a true story. We asked author Jennie Rooney to tell us more about the inspiration for her novel.

Over to Jennie:

‘The inspiration for Red Joan comes from the story of Melita Norwood and her outing in the press at the age of 87 as the KGB’s longest-serving Cold War spy. I was nineteen at the time, and had grown up only a few miles away from where Melita Norwood lived for fifty years. Being a teenager, I still retained a healthy scepticism towards the idea that anything of any interest could ever happen in the suburbs, in particular, those close to where I lived. However, standing on the front step of one of the seemingly innocuous 1930s semis which I knew so well was a woman with a remarkable story. At first I was struck by her resemblance to my grandmother, but I soon realised that this was simply a limitation on my part in thinking that old people were – well – just old, and that was all there was to it. The more I looked at her, the more I thought she looked a lot like many other people’s grandmothers too. But the more I read about her, the more I knew that this little old lady was pretty unique.

It turned out that Melita Norwood had been personal assistant to the director of the British Non-Ferrous Metals Association from 1937 – 1972, and throughout those thirty-five years, she succeeded in passing to Russian intelligence a huge volume of highly confidential information, the most significant being the latest scientific research on how to build an atom bomb. After her retirement, the Soviet government recognised her contribution by awarding her the Order of the Red Banner – the highest decoration available to a civilian – along with an all-expenses paid trip to Russia and the offer of a Soviet pension, and she was acknowledged as having generated more significant intelligence than any of the Cambridge Five. But, unlike them, she never once breathed a word of it to anyone.

Melita Norwood had been shopping at the Co-op when she was first approached – prompting the great headline in The Times: The Spy Who Came In From The Co-op – and the fact that she was still a Communist and distributed the Morning Star to subscribers in her neighbourhood added to the story, but it was her stoicism which seemed to me the most remarkable thing about her: her refusal to compromise on the fundamental belief that what she had done was for the greater good of humanity. She said she didn’t agree with betraying one’s country in general except in specific circumstances, but that she felt obliged to do it because she believed it was necessary to make the world a fairer place. She also said that, if the same circumstances as were present in the 1930s were to arise once more, she hoped she would have the courage to do it again. The story of Melita Norwood changed my view of the world. It made me think in a new way about what it would take to make someone betray their country. Not just about who they might be and why they might do it, but also what they would have to sacrifice in order to be true to what they believe.

However, as the title suggests, Red Joan is not about Melita. Melita Norwood came from a Russian family, was not particularly well-educated, and remained a committed Communist until the end of her life. And that wasn’t the story I wanted to write. I wanted a protagonist who was more ambivalent in her beliefs, who was torn by the choices she had to make, someone who found herself in a position where she simply did not know what to do, who had the opportunity to make the world a fairer, safer place, according to her own idea of morality, but in order to do so she would have to betray her country, her family, herself.’

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If you’d like to learn more about Red Joan and Jennie Rooney you can follow her on Twitter!

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