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For today’s Saturday Spotlight we are really pleased to welcome bestselling author, Sarah-Jane Stratford!
Red Letter Days by Sarah Jane Stratford blends romance, politics, and history. This story is very relevant today with unproven accusations, a Red Scare, and no due process. Yet, this book is not about the current political situation in America today, but about the dark era in the 1950s called McCarthyism where writers, actors, producers and directors were accused of being Communists.
The story begins with the main character Phoebe Adler striving to make it as a screenwriter. Unfortunately, it turns into a living nightmare after someone accuses her of being a Communist. After finding herself being blacklisted she decides to ignore the subpoena of the Un-American Activities Committee, HUAC, and run away to England. This is partly influenced by her desire to not name names and the need to continue to have a paycheck to support her ill sister, Mona. In England she meets Hannah Wolfson who is a successful TV producer that hires blacklisted writers. The main focus is the production of the TV series “Robin Hood,” an adventure story for children, but with symbolic plotlines.
Interestingly, there is a sub-plot that involves a mystery. Phoebe is not safe since she is hounded and harassed by FBI Agent Glynn. He wants to arrest her and bring her back to America to appear before HUAC, and will do this by any means possible, legal and illegal. For both Phoebe and the reader these scenes create anxious moments as danger lurks in every corner. Those in the FBI have their own agenda and will do almost anything to promote it showing that FBI should stand for Fear, Beware, and Intimidate.
There is also a peripheral story of how women must face barriers to work outside the home. In London, just like America, working women are looked down upon, expected to marry, have children, and not take jobs away from men. Through Hannah’s eyes, readers can see the struggle and guilt working mothers had to face within the family as well as society. Phoebe, on the other hand has a relationship with someone who seems very willing to accept that she can work and find the time to be involved with a man.
Although politics is a backdrop, the story is very character oriented. It shows how the riveting characters connect and disconnect with one another as readers decide who is trustworthy and who is not.
Elise Cooper: What did you want to explore in the book?
Sarah-Jane Stratford: I wanted to show how women were involved with and affected by McCarthyism, after reading about the Red Scare. My main character, Phoebe, like so many others, did not know how she was named as a Communist. Many did not know who named them whether activists, union leaders, teachers, or members of the NAACP. All got accused and hurt. I also wanted to explore the relationship between two women and how they could survive and thrive under adverse circumstances.
EC: How would you describe Phoebe?
SJS: She is a classic 1940/1950s working women. A smart, ambitious, outspoken, and tough New York woman who is plucky. She is willing to go against the grain.
EC: How so?
SJS: Like so many others, she was put in a tough situation. There were not many women who were screenwriters, but she was determined and focused on succeeding. Because she considered herself apolitical she was blindsided by the accusation.
EC: There is a mystery element to the story?
SJS: Everyone must decide who is trustworthy and who is not. This drove people apart and ruined friendships, even marriages. The level of paranoia became so high because people were targeted and followed. People even had to watch their words. This is why I put in the book, “They can blacklist someone because someone else points a finger, but they can’t shut down a show without proof of what they’d call a crime.”
EC: In the book the FBI tore up personal pictures, basically kidnapped someone, entered without a warrant, were abusive, and harassed. All true?
SJS: The phone tapping and harassment were based on real events. In fact, phone tapping was rampant. Agents could enter people’s houses and search for anything incriminating. People were actually followed. Of course, I exaggerated with Phoebe for the point of the story. I do think the higher echelon of the FBI had an attitude, ‘by any means necessary,’ using the excuse that they were protecting the public.
EC: How would you describe Hannah?
SJS: She is based on a real person, Hannah Weinstein, who headed her own production company in London in 1950. She managed because of her talent, but also had capital and was able to create her own company. She is powerful, outspoken, determined, and an accidental activist. She produced shows that were entirely scripted by blacklisted writers. She wanted them to have a career and a voice. I did make changes between my character and the real Hannah, but to her personal life. This is why I changed her surname, but her work and actions are all very real.
EC: What about Hannah’s husband, Paul?
SJS: He is based on Hannah Weinstein’s ex-husband. I hoped I showed how through adversity marriages can fall apart and a person’s real character can come out.
EC: Paul was a hypocrite?
SJS: He is based on those liberal husbands who did not like the idea of women working. He gave Hannah guilt for working and not being around a lot for her children even though he wasn’t around a lot for them. He never saw this as a problem. Hannah realized she was not cut out to stay at home; yet, had admiration for those women who did. She did constantly question herself as a working mother, mainly due to Paul’s comments.
EC: What was the symbolism of the “Robin Hood” TV show?
SJS: The real Hannah saw it as very symbolic. “Robin Hood” steals from the rich to give to the poor. The shows explored ideas of how to treat others, and to support one another. Blacklistees saw “Robin Hood” as an outlaw in his own country. It was very much what happened to the Jews in Germany. One day they were living their normal life and the next day, boom, they were not citizens but subjects with no rights. There was the attitude: ‘You are Other. You are different. You are evil.’
EC: Did you watch any of the TV shows?
SJS: Yes, and I found them very entertaining and great adventure stories. The stories were very sophisticated with a high-class production. There was an underlying non-political message they wanted to get across to children that included to be open-minded, be a person who helps others, and push back against bullies.
EC: What about the relationship between Phoebe and Reg?
SJS: Phoebe is mistrustful of him. She doesn’t know who she can trust. She wants a relationship and also a profession. Reg sees her as special, smart, and funny. Since he comes from a working-class background he understands that women had to work. Because of this he is more accepting of Phoebe striving to have a career.
EC: What do you want readers to get out of this book?
SJS: An entertaining story. But also, that those with political beliefs that run against the status quo should not be persecuted by their government. This went against everything America stood for and was unconstitutional. I showed through Phoebe how Americans were pulled before Kangaroo Courts, made to answer for their beliefs, and when they chose not to, they were put in prison for contempt of Congress. This was outrageous.
EC: A shout out about your next book?
SJS: It also takes place in post-war London. The story explores working class women, girls coming of age, and how females tried to find their place in society
When two brave women flee from the Communist Red Scare, they soon discover that no future is free from the past.
Amid the glitz and glamour of 1950s New York, Phoebe Adler pursues her dream of screenwriting. A dream that turns into a living nightmare when she is blacklisted—caught in the Red Menace that is shattering the lives of suspected Communists. Desperate to work, she escapes to London, determined to keep her dream alive and clear her good name.
There, Phoebe befriends fellow American exile Hannah Wolfson, who has defied the odds to build a career as a successful television producer in England. Hannah is a woman who has it all, and is now gambling everything in a very dangerous game—the game of hiring blacklisted writers.
Neither woman suspects that danger still looms . . . and their fight is only just beginning.
Book Beginnings / First Chapter First Paragraph / Tuesday Teaser!