Jennie Rooney was a Cambridge University history student when she first came across the story of Melitta Norwood. She was perusing the archives of 20th-century intelligence under the guidance of Professor Chris Andrew, MI5’s official chronicler.
Jennie Rooney’s book Red Joan is inspired by the story she found but isn’t based on the true story, there are quite a few differences between the two.
The reality saw 87-year-old Norwood in her front garden in London facing the world’s media after it was revealed she was a spy – four decades after she used her job at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Association to pass classified information to the KGB. She was finally unmasked when files were brought to Britain by a defector. The “granny spy” went on to inspired Rooney’s novel, and then the film of the same name starring Judi Dench and Sophie Cook, which is now out on digital release.
We asked the author what changes she made from Norwood’s story and why she chose to use it for inspiration rather than base her book on it.
What first grabbed you about Norwood’s story?
Jennie: The photograph of her standing in her garden, clutching her statement, was the seed of the novel. I was struck by the strength of her conviction that what she had done was for the greater good.
Her appearance was so innocuous, so familiar, that it could have been my own grandmother. It changed my conception of what it means to be a ‘spy’, the popular conception being so deeply tied into the ‘Cambridge Spy’ archetype – public school men embedded in the establishment. Instead, here was someone, a woman, with whom I could identify in the sense that she looked familiar, and whose reasons were genuinely held. It was an image I couldn’t get out of my head until I had written the novel.
The book is inspired by rather than literally based on her story, what made you take this approach?
Jennie: I’m not a biographer. The details of her story are extremely interesting but were not what I wanted to explore. Spying for Russia is generally assumed to be an unpatriotic activity, and there was something about the familiar image of this ‘grandmother in the rosebushes’ which made me want to explore what it might have taken for someone without any pre-disposition towards Communism (middle class, English, essentially apolitical and conventional) to do as she did if presented with the possibility. I wanted to explore 1930s/40s Communism without the benefit of hindsight, and knowing where it all ended. I could not shake the feeling that, in a very particular set of circumstances at a very particular time, any number of people might have done as she did.
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Was there anything, in particular, you knew you’d had to include?
Jennie: I wanted to include excerpts of realistic MI5 material from when the security services were following a number of atomic spies in the 1950s. I spent days in the National Archives researching these, and I found the tone of the material fascinating. It takes you back to another time, with people literally hiding round corners to watch their subjects, and tapping telephones, and then long typed reports of interviews. As soon as I saw these files, I knew I wanted to include a flavor of some of these. As well as this, I always knew there would be a scene in front of her house, clutching a piece of paper, and displaying a chink of steel in her conviction that she had done something for a greater good.
Red Joan has been called a whydunnit rather whodunit, do you think that’s a fair description?
Jennie: Yes, that’s exactly what it is. The answer to ‘whodunit’ is answered more or less on the front cover of the book, so it was always going to be a question of why would she do it, and how would she justify it?
Do you think the story still has something to teach us today?
Jennie: I hope so. Politics is not black and white, and there are endless nuances. I have been delighted to have so many readers saying to me that they were surprised to find that they thought they might have done what she did if they were brave enough, and it had surprised them to think so. Reading novels allows you to be put in someone else’s head for a while, and to explore a different life. It is an act of empathy, so to that extent, any novel will have something to teach us.