By Victoria Gill
Members of the Washington College and Chestertown community gathered in the Rose O’Neill Literary House on Nov. 5 to listen to the most recent Sophie Kerr Writer-in-Residence, Jason Fagone, read from his most recent book, “The Woman Who Smashed Codes.”
Fagone is a critically acclaimed creative nonfiction writer and long-form journalist. He has written pieces on topics such as competitive eating, gun violence, and the discovery of underwater gold.
“[Researching Elizebeth’s story was] a transformational thing for me. It was not just a book project, it completely changed my career and my life,” Fagone said.
“The Woman Who Smashed Codes” was published by Dey Street Books in 2017. It begins with the author’s note, where Fagone explains how he found the project of the book before stating “this is a love story.”
According to Fagone, he was inspired to write the book when researching historical information about the National Security Agency and its founder William Friedman.
Friedman and his wife, Elizebeth — who is the focus of the book — were well known during their time as code breakers. Together, they were able to uncover secret messages of crime mobs, enemy spies, and the Nazis during WWII. The book’s love story revolves around the relationship of William and Elizebeth in conjunction with their duty to their country.
“This was her constant complaint: men from the government are constantly showing up at her doorstep wanting her to solve puzzles for them, and they won’t go away unless she solved them,” Fagone said.
Associate Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House and Associate Professor of English Roy Kesey addressed the freshness this line brought to the story.
“[Fagone wanted] to find a story that hadn’t been written before, in the context of a woman who has been erased from history despite her accomplishments overshadowing her husband’s. He may not have been able to erase her. He went out of his way to give credit to her. There’s this whole structure to not let that happen,” Kesey said.
“He’s a really, really high-end creative nonfiction writer and long-form journalist. He’s published in all of the top venues that we could all hope to be aiming at,” Kesey said.
According to Kesey, Fagone’s three books bring a captivating strangeness when looking at the social culture of America.
“Most of us have an affinity of puzzles of one kind or another,” Kesey said. “Anyone who has ever been ten is interested in spies and codes and codebreaking. Solving puzzles is a source of pleasure for us, and puzzles at large has been crucial to the survival of the species.”
According to English Department Chair and Director of Writing Dr. Sean Meehan, the Writer-in-Residence position serves as an immersive experience for the writer into the campus community.
The department decided to try a different model, where the residency was more involved with the students as opposed to just a single reading, which means a longer visit, according to Dr. Meehan.
Dr. Meehan said that the intention with the residency was focused on the newer Journalism, Editing & Publishing minor. He believed that Fagone could amplify the kind of opportunities available for students and explore journalism but not reduce the subject to just one kind of model.
“As much as possible, whenever we have a writer come to campus, I look ahead and say ‘how can I connect,’” Dr. Meehan said of trying to connect what he is teaching in classes like the English junior seminar to writers who are coming to campus in order to get students engaged with them.
“I always want to emphasize to students to attend events, but also take it a step further usually and assign something that week,” he said.
Dr. Meehan assigned the preface of Fagone’s book to his section of the English junior seminar and framed his class discussion around the context of writing to a more public audience, not just academic. He asked his students what academics could learn from Fagone’s writing style, and what he does differently as a journalist which could not be used in academic writing.
Primarily during Fagone’s reading, he presented the importance of reporting with the equilibrium of academic research, which are one in the same. He spoke of his year-long search in the National Archives for what Elizebeth Friedman was up to during the years of WWII.
His focus of the talk was to reveal a broader scope of people about this woman who codes and how men overshadow her in her discoveries and triumphs.
“At first it was really confusing,” Fagone said. “The more I learned about her the more it became very exciting. While I started reading what little there was available about Elizebeth, the bare outlines of her life were very tantalizing.”