Stephanie Marie Thornton is a high school history teacher and the USA Today bestselling author of A Most Clever Girl, And They Called It Camelot, and American Princess. She is also the author of four novels about women in the ancient world. She lives in Alaska with her husband and daughter.
In this post, Stephanie discusses how rewriting a portion of her new historical fiction novel, A Most Clever Girl, added suspense, what surprised her in the writing process, and more!
Name: Stephanie Marie Thornton
Literary agent: Kevan Lyon
Book title: A Most Clever Girl: A Novel of an American Spy
Release date: September 14, 2021
Genre/category: Historical Fiction
Previous titles: And They Called It Camelot, American Princess, The Conqueror’s Wife, The Tiger Queens, Daughter of the Gods, and The Secret History
Elevator pitch for the book: A thrilling novel of love, loyalty, and espionage, based on the incredible true story of Elizabeth Bentley, a Cold War double agent spying for the Russians and the United States, from USA Today bestselling author Stephanie Marie Thornton.
What prompted you to write this book?
After writing And They Called It Camelot about Jackie Kennedy, I started digging to see if there were any forgotten American women from the Cold War. I came across Elizabeth Bentley’s name and couldn’t believe I’d never heard of her even though I’ve taught U.S. History for the past 17 years.
Bentley was an American spy who, at one time, ran the largest Russian spy ring in America. Yet because she was a female NKVD-spy-turned-FBI-informer, Bentley was overshadowed by Joseph McCarthy and Whittaker Chambers. In fact, the veracity of Bentley’s testimony was substantiated by the FBI’s top-secret Project VENONA, but that wasn’t declassified until 1995, well after she was deemed a hysterical—menopausal woman whose testimony couldn’t be trusted. I decided it was time to polish away some of the tarnish on her forgotten legacy.
How long did it take to go from idea to publication?
I started writing A Most Clever Girl in May 2019 and finished it a year later, right after the world fell apart with the pandemic. Spending those quarantine months revising was actually a really good distraction from the news. The idea for Catherine’s storyline did change over the course of revisions—she didn’t originally show up to Elizabeth Bentley’s apartment with murder on her mind!
Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?
I was surprised to learn that the FBI seal is actually a copyrighted image and its use is incredibly restricted. (Elizabeth Bentley was involved in the Communist Party of America, the NKVD, and the FBI, so I plan to include those organizations’ seals in the book.) I’m used to getting permission before I use poems, letters, songs, etc., but I had no idea that a government seal would be copyrighted.
Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?
The most surprising bit was figuring out that I needed to rewrite the entire 1963 storyline! (After it was completely finished, of course. Realizing that partway through would have been too easy, right?) However, that rewrite ended up saving a ton of words and also upped the entire suspense factor.
What do you hope readers will get out of your book?
I hope readers will enjoy trying to figure out Elizabeth Bentley. She was a tough nut to crack—she made a lot of terrible decisions and told a number of lies, (she might call them variations of the truth), but she was also a patriot who loved her country.
If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?
I love to paraphrase Winston Churchill here—“Never, never, never give up!” Whether it’s drafting a tricky chapter, revising a persnickety character, or even sending a manuscript out on submission, this business isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of grit and perseverance!