So about two years ago I decided to write my next book about an obscure spy named George Koval, and I was super excited about it, and you’ll see why in a second.
Born in Iowa in 1913, the son of immigrants from Belarus, Koval grew up in Sioux City and graduated high school at 15. Soon after, his family disappeared. Only later—decades later—did friends learn he and his parents had moved to the Soviet Union. By this time a committed communist, Koval earned a chemistry degree in Moscow. At some point after graduation, he was recruited by the GRU, the Soviet military intelligence agency, and trained as a spy.
Early in 1940, Koval stepped off a boat in San Francisco. Using his real name and his prefect Midwestern English, Koval resumed life as an American. When drafted soon after the start of World War II, Koval’s test scores were so high, the Army sent him for advanced technical training—having no idea, of course, the man already had a science degree. Army buddies later described Koval as friendly, funny, and a damn good shortstop. Like any trained spy, Koval showed no interest in politics. The only odd thing about the guy, friends said, was that he never had to study.
Then, in 1944, Koval got the kind of lucky break spy agencies rely on. The Army assigned him to the Manhattan Project, and sent him to the top-secret Oak Ridge plant in Tennessee, where Oppenheimer’s scientists were enriching uranium for the world’s first atomic bomb. Koval’s job was to monitor radiation levels in the plant, giving him clearance to go everywhere, see everything.
Historians think he was sending reports to the GRU all the while, but they’ve found no evidence, no decrypted telegrams. We do know he was honorably discharged after the war and that he moved to New York City. In 1948 he told friends he was thinking of going on vacation in Europe. Then he vanished.
Just a year later, Soviet scientists tested their first atomic bomb, years ahead of the CIA’s estimate of when they’d be ready. American intelligence agencies realized spies had stolen atomic secrets, and began looking for suspects. The FBI began investigating George Koval. But by then he was back home in Russia.
It’s an incredible story. You’ve got this elusive hero/villain caught up in an historical event of epic importance. I was sure I had the material for an amazing non-fiction book. As a first step I made a Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI, asking for Koval’s file. And they sent me the whole thing on a CD!
It was a gold mine. Or so I thought, until I started to plow through the documents. The file has over 1,000 pages of notes and interviews by F.B.I. agents, but no one the agents talked to seemed to know Koval very well. And the few promising parts, and most of the names of potential characters, were blacked out by government censors.
I started calling experts on Cold War espionage, and everyone referred me to a scholar named Robert Norris. Norris generously shared his knowledge of the Koval case, which he too finds fascinating, but he ended our conversation with a distressing caution: “The problem is, we don’t know exactly what information Koval gave the Soviets, and we don’t know if it was important.”
That sent me into a mild panic. I called my fantastic editor at Roaring Brook, and started pitching really bad alternative book ideas. She talked me down, urged me to take another look at our original idea of a Manhattan Project spy thriller.
And as I kept reading, a new cast of characters began jumping out. Like Ted Hall, a physics whiz-kid who graduated Harvard at 18 and was shipped directly to Los Alamos—and decided, on his own, to share bomb plans with the Soviets. Like Ruth Werner, a KGB agent in Britain who smuggled radio transmitter parts in her kids’ stuffed animals. And Knut Haukelid, a Norwegian Indiana Jones on skis, who was instrumental in sabotaging Germany’s atom bomb operation. And Moe Berg a retired baseball player sent on a secret mission to Switzerland assassinate Germany’s top physicist. And of course the brilliant and tormented Robert Oppenheimer (if Shakespeare could write a play about one figure from American history, I’m thinking he might go with Oppenheimer).
And there are many more, a cast of thousands! Well, dozens. Anyway, the book became a kind of global thriller about the race to make—and steal—the world’s first atomic bomb. It’s unlike anything I’ve tried to write before, and it bears very little resemblance to the book I set out to write.
But that’s what makes this job so fun.