Contemporary nonfiction writers give an unwritten promise to expose unknown facts about people and events, however, international best selling author, Larry Loftis delivers titillating secrets of larger than life characters. In his biography Code Name: Lise, Loftis shares the incredible life of World War II spy, Odette Sansom.
Loftis takes his time in selecting who will be the topic of each of his biographies. He seeks out real people with extraordinary talents and jaw-dropping experiences. His careful selection is based on his passionate enthusiasm. With Code Name: Lise, his intrigue with Odette Sansom generates a curiosity in the readers’ deep desire to find out what covert events occurred.
Lofty Cover Design
The cover image of her in uniform and the snappy line of her being “WWII’s most highly decorated spy” spark readers’ curiosity.
J Wilder Bill: What elements of color, imageries and tag lines do you pull together in devising such an intriguing cover design?
Larry Loftis: As for the image, you’d have to ask the cover designer, Lisa Litwack, at Simon & Schuster. For the subtitle, it was simply the best way to describe who she was.
Loftis captures the visceral qualities novel writers study for years before crafting in his nonfiction storytelling. It is as if he played a personal role in the relationships and spy capers.
J Wilder Bill: How do you create the sensation of the reader becoming a participant in the scenes?
Larry Loftis: Verisimilitude, as it is called, is the goal of every novelist, and should be the goal of every narrative nonfiction writer. Conveying that feeling of “being there” is a combination of research (knowing minute details for every scene) and literary craft (i.e., active verbs, pacing, and attention to all the senses, particularly sounds).
His biography provides a rollercoaster experience. He builds anticipation, and retains conflict with plot intensity fit for a hero’s journey.
J Wilder Bill: How much leverage or tweaking do you incorporate into the time line of historical events?
Larry Loftis: If you mean by “leverage” or “tweaking” inserting fictional elements, the answer is none. Every event/scene is historically accurate, which is why end notes are vital to any work of scholarship. Having said that, where I break chapters is up to me.
The best illustration comes from the master himself, Alfred Hitchcock. “Action,” he said, is when we see a couple go into a cafe, sit at a table, and suddenly a bomb explodes.
“Suspense” is when we see the bomb placed under the table, the couple arrives and sits there and we can hear the bomb ticking but the patrons can’t. To break the scene (or chapter, in my case) here is what provides suspense as the viewer or reader screams to find out what happens.
Lofty Character Building
The personalities in Code Name: Lise show motivation and vulnerabilities. They are affectionate and clever.
J Wilder Bill: How much of your imagination and personality do you utilize in creating relatable people, and how much of each personality is based on historical records?
Larry Loftis: Again, the work is nonfiction so I add nothing. As I detail in my Preface to the book, every word of dialogue is verbatim from primary sources. And as for physical descriptions, these also came from primary sources, mostly the SOE files at the UK National Archives.
By way of example, when Odette first sees Hugo Bleicher, I describe what she sees … a man with plodding, “elephant-like” steps.
I didn’t create that; “elephant-like” was exactly how Odette described his movement in her debriefing in 1945 (in her personnel file the National Archives).
J Wilder Bill: When laying out Sansom’s mistakes and weaknesses, do you hold a duty to relay the truth over protecting her and her heirs’ reputations?
Larry Loftis: If a work is nonfiction, there’s no gray area. Either something is true or it’s not; either it happened, or it didn’t. Someone’s reputation is irrelevant.
The tricky part, of course, is when sources differ as to what happened, or what was said. It is then that I apply the rules of evidence (where it’s handy to be a lawyer) to determine which source most likely has it right. If it is unclear, I have to indicate that (i.e., “It’s unclear whether …”).
Each scene unfolds with atmospheric settings and the thoughts of each notable figure. Loftis’ biographical accounting of how the people relate to the difficult circumstances is relayed seamlessly and with heartfelt emotions. The significance of their mission to salvage the world is palpable.
J Wilder Bill: Which comes first, the setting for establishing the scene, or do the bullet points of a person’s life determine the mood of the setting?
Larry Loftis: Thank you. That’s a very insightful question, and one I’ve not before been asked. I think every person brings to any setting their own personality, background, and idiosyncrasies. As a result, I don’t think it’s possible to separate or segment the two, scene versus person.
A perfect example is Arnaud, Odette’s and Peter’s radio operator. Countless sources described him as a fierce person (champion boxer and wrestler) who suffered no fools. He was intense and a hothead. So how he reacts to any occurrence is quite different from how Peter, for example, would react.
Now couple that knowledge with actual dialogue recorded in primary sources and you have a dynamic scene which is 100 percent historically accurate.
Larry Loftis is an attorney who took a leap of faith in following his dream to write.
J Wilder Bill: For every aspiring writer sending out queries and proposals, what is the best approach for catching the attention of an agent or publisher?
Larry Loftis: In short, a commitment to excellence. First, your query or proposal won’t even make it to the “consider” stack if there’s a typo or grammatical error anywhere in it.
If a writer has not worn out the pages of The Elements of Style (Strunk and White), the Chicago Manual of Style, and The Oxford Guide to English Usage, it’s probably best to start there.
Second, you should have two or three qualified people critique it before you send it out. Who is a qualified reviewer? Ideally, someone who has several published works of their own.
After that, someone who is skilled with literature, which is subjective, of course. This is not an English major (if you claim to be a writer, your grammar should be flawless already), by the way, or even a professional editor (most of whom are not writers themselves), but someone who has read enough good literature to recognize mediocre writing from outstanding. My beta-reader (reviewer) has a background in graphic design, but she’s a better commentator on writing than any professional editor, in my experience.
Thank you, Larry Loftis for presenting a valuable historic figure with such fascinating storytelling skill. You introduce readers to a woman who might have become overlooked. Your writing style draws the reader in, and offers a gift to the individuals you personify.
Larry Loftis: The pleasure was all mine!