Friday, October 20, 2023

Interview With Author Katherine Fennelly On A Family Spy

1. What inspired you to write this book? The discovery of deeply buried secrets in my family motivated me to write Family Declassified.  My curiosity was awaked by a letter I received in 2015 from a researcher at a university in Austria telling me he was writing a book about my grandfather’s work as a spy for the Allied Forces in World War II.  Not long after that I learned from 23andMe that my mother’s side of our family was 98.4% Spies? Jewish ancestry? These were things I had never known and they motivated me to undertake six years of research that led to this book.  

2. What exactly is it about and who is it written for? In Family Declassified I delve into the rationale and consequences of family secrets by studying how a Hungarian sailor with a troubled childhood eventually became a high-level spy for the Allied Forces in Europe.  The research led me to topics such as the training and daily lives of spies, war strategies in the fight against the Nazis, and the treatment of Jews in Central Europe. I also examine why my grandfather abandoned his family after the war and fled to Mexico for 25 years, and how he reinvented himself as a children’s book author, an architect, and a gourmand. A special focus of the book is an exploration of what led him –and many other famous individuals—to keep their Jewish ancestry hidden, including the murder of close family members. The book will appeal to adults with interests in one or more of a panoply of topics: spy stories, family myths and genealogy, Jewish ancestry, World War II war strategies, the history of US intelligence, historical conditions and emigration from Hungary and Central Europe , antisemitism in Hungary before and during the Holocaust, the McCarthy era in the US, the writing of children’s books, American expatriates in Mexico, artists’ camps and leftist politics in New York in the 1920s and 1930s. The thread that draws together these impossibly diverse topics is the story of one man who lived through them all.  

3. What do you hope readers will get out of reading your book?   I hope readers will begin to appreciate the ways in which family histories are invented and passed on from one generation to the next with distortions and embellishments, and how they are shaped by historical events. 

4. How did you decide on your book’s title and cover design?  The title of the book came from my daughter, who knew of the years I spent going through declassified files to uncover the facts of Francis Kalnay’s life and career.  I selected the photograph for the book cover because it has an aura of mystery well suited to my grandfather’s life story. 

5. What advice or words of wisdom do you have for fellow writers – other than run!?   If you are writing a biography or memoir, don’t avoid the inevitable rabbit holes that you will discover as you conduct your research.  Instead, dig into them; they will take you to unimagined places. Have patience and enjoy the journey. 

6. What trends in the book world do you see -- and where do you think the book publishing industry is heading?  What a daunting question!  I can only speak of one trend that became apparent to me as I read hundreds of books and articles as background material for Family Declassified.  More people are writing memoirs than ever before.  The genre permits us to delve into our family histories, to put them into historical and personal contexts, and –in some cases—to promote healing from trauma.  I predict that this trend will continue.  

7. Were there experiences in your personal life or career that came in handy when writing this book? My background as an academic researcher was clearly an asset for this project. Libraries and archives are my “happy places”, and I am proficient at conducting research and summarizing the results. Furthermore, my academic credentials facilitated exchanges with experts on many of the topics covered in the book.  

8. How would you describe your writing style? Which writers or books is your writing similar to?  The heart of my work in public policy has been to synthesize complex topics and present them in a manner that is accessible and interesting to a general audience.   I take pride in being articulate and writing in a clear and confident manner.  I aspire to write like Susan Faludi in her marvelous memoir/biography of her Jewish-Hungarian father, In the Darkroom.  

9. What challenges did you overcome in the writing of this book?  Both the greatest challenge and the most rewarding one was to write a book about someone I barely knew.  It was rewarding in that I came to understand that my grandfather was both a hero and a deeply flawed individual who abandoned his wives and children multiple times.  

10. If people can buy or read one book this week or month, why should it be yours? Quotes from two of my reviewers answer this question. Anthropologist and Jewish Studies scholar, Riv-Ellen Prell wrote: “Family Declassified takes the reader on a remarkable journey of discovery that is part memoir, part biography, and part history of generations of a 20th century Hungarian Jewish family. In an era when family secrets dominate best-selling books, few can compete with the unpacking of the secrets in the life of the author’s grandfather.”

Historian and immigration scholar, Donna Gabaccia wrote: “Katherine Fennelly's quest to understand her talented but difficult and mysterious grandfather does much more than introduce us to the memories and puzzles of an individual family. It also brilliantly conveys to readers the excitement, hard work, persistence and collaborative ethos of historical research.”

About The Author: Katherine Fennelly is an emeritus professor of public policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs of the University of Minnesota with a Ph.D. from Columbia University, where she was on the faculty in the School of Public Health early in her career.  She is known for the breadth and quality of her social science research and for numerous academic publications.  In this book, Fennelly applies her expertise to an investigation of the life of her maternal grandfather. Please see:


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