MATTHEW REILLY is the bestselling author of the’ Scarecrow’ series, the ‘Jack West’ series and numerous standalone novels. His books have worldwide sales of over 8 million copies.
Good Reading caught up with Matthew to find out more about what inspired his new book, Mr Einstein’s Secretary
ABOUT THE BOOK
All Hanna Fischer ever wanted to do was to study physics under the great Albert Einstein.
But when, as a teenager in 1919, her life is suddenly turned upside-down, she is catapulted into a new and extraordinary life – as a secretary, a scientist, a sister and a spy.
From racist gangs in Berlin to gangsters in New York City, Nazis in the 1930s and Hitler’s inner circle during the Second World War, Hanna will encounter some of history’s greatest minds and most terrible moments, all while desperately trying to stay alive.
She is a most unique secretary and she will work for many bosses – from shrewd businessmen to vile Nazis, to the greatest boss of them all, Mr Albert Einstein…
Spanning forty years, this is the thrilling tale of a young woman propelled through history’s most dangerous times. But read it carefully, because all may not be as it seems…
Q&A WITH MATTHEW REILLY
What sparked the idea for this novel?
Well, I’ve always wanted to write an epic, a story that spans decades, and that was what I set out to do with Mr Einstein’s Secretary. I wanted the passage of time itself to affect the story – so as the years pass, the characters and their circumstance change. For instance, nasty German thugs in 1919 might be in positions of power in 1933.
And that period from 1912 to 1948 is packed with so many interesting people, discoveries and events, I wanted to take a deep dive into it.
And finally, I honestly just love Albert Einstein. So I put him in the story.
Mr Einstein’s Secretary is a work of historical fiction – how did you go about reimagining some of the historical figures in this novel?
I did a whole lot of research. In fact, these days, I assume that readers will consult Google when they read a novel like this, so I try to keep the real-life characters true to their real-life personalities.
For instance, for two of the more villainous characters in the book, Werner Heisenberg (the German physicist who ran the Nazis’ atomic research project) and Albert Speer (Hitler’s ambitious architect and armaments minister), I sought out their memoirs and books they actually wrote themselves. Reading their own words was very helpful in finding their ‘voices’.
After the war, Speer, for instance, tried to portray himself as a “good” Nazi. This was something I found very hard to believe – and so I made that a part of his character in the novel.
For Albert Einstein, there are many biographies out there and, helpfully, also many interviews (hence why there are so many quotes from him). His life was very well chronicled, so we know where he was and when—what I like to think makes this book different is that I try to convey just what a gentle, caring and kind human being he was: writing his scenes was some of the most fun I had.
The novel is a departure from your usual action and thriller novels. How did writing this novel differ from your previous books?
Yes, my other novels are usually superfast, action-packed thrillers that take place over the course of a few days. Except for one: The Tournament. It was set in 1546 and featured real historical figures like Roger Ascham, Queen Elizabeth I, Ivan the Terrible and even Michelangelo. It had action, sure, but it was more of a mystery/suspense tale.
The fact is, I had so much fun writing The Tournament, that I wanted to write another historical novel, only this time I wanted it to be much, much bigger: it would be a full-on epic, and it was star one of history’s greatest figures, Albert Einstein.
Turned out, it was just as enjoyable and satisfying to write!
The biggest difference was how long it took to write.
Most of my other books take about a year or so to write. This one took five years. I wrote it on and off around a few of my other books (The One Impossible Labyrinth, Cobalt Blue) and the filming of my movie, Interceptor. This actually sort of suited the story – since Mr Einstein’s Secretary moves from era to era, I wrote it in a similar way: taking a break and then returning to commence writing a new section.
How did you go about developing Hanna and Einstein’s relationship over the course of the novel?
I basically tried to imagine what it would be like for Hanna to have the kindliest grandfather-figure of all time…who also happened to the smartest person who ever lived.
Since I was a teenager, I have been constantly inspired by Einstein, so I just set out to make him a similar inspiration to Hanna.
Is there a particular scene or chapter in the book that was particularly challenging or rewarding to write? Can you explain why?
Oh, for sure: the Auschwitz scene. [Spoiler ahead:] This is a very impactful scene where, as Albert Speer’s secretary, Hanna tours the construction site that will become Auschwitz. As she stands behind Speer, she listens to an engineer describing how efficient the ovens will be at cremating the remains of murdered human beings.
I always planned to put this scene in the novel.
In my research into Auschwitz, I discovered that the makers of the dreadful ovens there put their names on plaques on the front of the ovens. I found this appalling. Who would do such a thing?
Like many of us, I’ve seen movies like Schindler’s List that portray the events that took place during World War II at Auschwitz, but I’ve not seen a story that shows the building of the place, of the ghastly thought and planning that went into constructing the apparatus of industrial-scale mass murder.
My novels are pieces of entertainment and I always try to entertain – but I also like to bring up things like this, so we never forget.
The novel is set in both post World War I Germany and America. How did you approach writing about these two very different countries during this period?
This is an integral part of the novel. I wanted to emphasize just how rapidly – and amazingly – by 1920, America had outgrown Europe. While the Old European powers had been bickering and fighting among themselves, America had been growing … massively. While Old Europe had its historic buildings and boulevards, New York and Chicago had skyscrapers.
This is the great shock Hanna experiences on her arrival in New York. It gets even better when she goes out on the town with a group of young women, unchaperoned!
You’ve written many bestsellers – what’s the key to your writing success?
I just try to keep challenging myself to do better!
For 25 years now, I have set myself a single task with each new novel: make it better than the one that came before it.
Make it faster (each new ‘Scarecrow’ or ‘Jack West’ novel). Make the plot more intricate with a super-twisty time-travel story (The Secret Runners of New York). Reinvent superheroes (Cobalt Blue). Make it the best student-teacher story I can imagine (The Tournament).
With this one: make it the most blisteringly fast-paced epic anyone’s ever read.
Do you have any other writing projects in the works?
I sure do. After the success of Interceptor on Netflix, I’m very keen to direct another movie, so I have four screenplays all ready to go.
As for novels, I had an idea for – once again, make it better than the last one – a new kind of detective thriller. I’ve been writing that and simply loving it. Seriously, I’m so fortunate. I can’t believe I get paid to do this.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Contest, Ice Station, Temple, Area 7, Scarecrow, Hover Car Racer, Hell Island, Seven Ancient Wonders, The Six Sacred Stones, The Five Greatest Warriors, Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves, The Tournament, The Great Zoo of China, Troll Mountain, The Four Legendary Kingdoms, The Three Secret Cities and The Secret Runners of New York.
Short stories: Time Tours, The Mine, Altitude Rush, The Rock Princess and the Thriller Writer, The Dead Prince, Roger Ascham and the King’s Lost Girl and Jack West Jr and the Hero’s Helmet.
Following rejections from all the major publishers, Matthew famously self-published Contest in 1996, printing 1000 copies. He produced a big-budget-looking novel which he sold into bookshops throughout Sydney, one shop at a time.
‘I knew Contest had the goods,’ Matthew said, ‘and I just wanted to get it noticed. I knew that publishers checked out bookshops so that’s where I needed my book to be.’
In January 1997, Cate Paterson, then a Commissioning Editor from Pan Macmillan Australia walked into Angus & Robertson’s Pitt Street Mall store and bought a copy of Contest. She tracked Matthew down through his contact details in the front of the book. Interestingly, those original self-published editions of Contest have now become much sought after collectors’ items. One recently sold on eBay for $1200!
Cate was thrilled to find Matthew working on his next novel, Ice Station. Based on Contest and the first few chapters of this new novel, she signed Matthew for a two-book deal with Pan Macmillan Australia.
Published in late 1998, Ice Station was an instant hit, delivering a new style of action thriller to Australian readers. It was snapped up by major publishers in the US, UK and Germany.
Matthew Reilly: ‘Ice Station was a direct response to Hollywood action movies. I figured that when you make a movie, you are limited by your budget. Put simply, it costs big dollars to make big action scenes. But when you write a book, you can create the wildest and biggest action scenes you like and it doesn’t cost you a cent. The only limit is the limit of your imagination!’