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Interview with Shaina Steinberg


A man and woman in 1940s dress stare at a sky simultaneously sunlit and moonlit, with palm trees in the background; cover of Shaina Steinberg's Under the Paper Moon

After more than five years when World War II seems to have consumed the imagination of historical novelists, attention is gradually shifting to the long-term effects of the war. Shaina Steinberg’s debut novel, Under the Paper Moon, is part of this trend. The war remains vital, its long-term effects playing out in the characters’ psyches and in flashbacks as well as more concrete details of the plot, but the action itself takes place in 1948 and in Los Angeles—about as far as you can get from the battlefields of Europe. Or is it? Read on to find out more from my latest author interview.


Under the Paper Moon is your debut novel, but you have a long history with the screen industry. Please talk about that and how you made the transition to novels.

 

I wrote my first novel when I was twenty-three. It was absolutely awful. However, it was a good experience. It taught me that I could sit down and work every day. Plus I had to get through all the terrible writing before I could learn how to create anything good.

 

I moved to Los Angeles because my favorite part of writing is dialogue. I think so much of our character is revealed in what we say … and in what we keep to ourselves. I got lucky in that I kept finding work on TV shows. I came up through the ranks as an assistant, and I feel like being in writers’ rooms—especially on procedural crime shows like Cold Case, Bionic Woman, and Chase—was boot camp for how to plot a story.

 

Under the Paper Moon started as a script, but when I finished, I felt like it did not capture everything I wanted to say, so I turned it into a novel. This was really a labor of love. It took eight years to write. In that time, I met my husband, got married, and had a child.

 

You mention at the end of the book that you wrote this story as a kind of alternative existence for your grandmother. Tell us more about her and why you thought she would have liked a different life. And having decided to create an alternate past for her, how did you come up with this particular one?

 

My grandmother grew up in a very strict, very conservative household. To the point that my great-grandparents chose a husband for her, then broke that engagement, all without consulting her. My grandmother wanted to become a nurse and maybe even a doctor. However, her parents refused to allow her to go to school for either of these professions. They told her the only acceptable life path was to get married and have children. Which she did.

 

My grandfather started working for Eastman Kodak in Rochester at eighteen as a janitor. They paid for his education, and he retired as a vice-president. Along the way, my grandmother became the perfect corporate wife, hosting dinner parties and raising six children. Despite traveling all over the world and having a large family, at the end of her life she regretted not being allowed to follow her dreams. She still longed for all the things denied in her youth.

 

I don’t think my grandmother would have become a spy. For one thing, she enjoyed gossip way, way too much. However, I love old movies. There are so many strong, independent female characters. I love the banter between them and the men in their lives. They challenge each other, with women largely being equal in intellect and repartee. I also love noir movies, but I always wish there were more female detectives.

 

I wanted Evelyn’s journey to feel both understandable and emotional. She got into the OSS and eventually became a private investigator because of her brother. Through the war she not only lost people she loved, but she also tested herself and discovered she was stronger than she ever imagined.

 

Where is Evelyn at the beginning of the novel?

 

The book opens in 1948, with Evelyn back home in Los Angeles working as a private investigator. Growing up as the daughter of a wealthy, well-connected man, she once assumed her life would involve getting married, having kids, and volunteering at a variety of charities. It was just what was expected of women of her social class.

 

During the war, Evelyn learned useful skills and felt like she had a greater purpose—her work in the OSS saved lives. When she returns home, she no longer fits into the dictates of society. She works as a private investigator because it’s the closest thing she can find to being a spy. Yet even that does not feel like enough. She’s unsure where she belongs or what she’s meant to do with her life.

 

Part of her present is James Hughes, but they have a past as well. Tell us about him and what he means to Evelyn.

 

James was Evelyn’s first crush. He was best friends with Evelyn’s brother, Matthew, when they were kids. The three of them did everything together. In many ways, James knows Evelyn’s childhood better than anyone, other than her father, and he’s a living link to her brother. James represents all the innocence she had before the war. It takes Evelyn a year to return home from Europe after V-E Day. There were many people she lost, and she feels broken because of everything she saw and endured.

 

James is comforting, without pressuring Evelyn. He doesn’t need or want her to be anyone else … not even the person she once was. There’s something very powerful about being with someone who not just accepts your differences but loves you because of them.

 

By the time we reach the end of the first chapter, Evelyn has been reunited with Nicholas Gallagher. What do we need to know about him, his relationship with Evelyn, and his circumstances when the book begins?

 

Nick also grew up in Los Angeles, but his childhood was the exact opposite of Evelyn’s. While she was wealthy and loved beyond all measure, his parents abandoned him when he was twelve. Nick had to learn how to survive on the streets. That experience made him hard and emotionally reserved. Until he met Evelyn, he thought love was just something written in poems. They worked together as spies during the war and fell in love along the way. At the end of the war, Nick does something Evelyn finds unforgivable.

 

When Evelyn runs into Nick, three years after she last saw him in London, it is a huge surprise. She did not know he was in Los Angeles, and never expected to see him again. This reunion brings up old feelings. The love is still there, but so is the heartbreak of his betrayal.

 

The first of the wartime chapters takes place in London in March 1942. What takes Evelyn there, and how does her being there bring her into contact with Nick?

 

Both Evelyn and her brother, Matthew, learned how to fly airplanes before they could drive. There was a huge need for pilots in Britain in 1939, so Matthew signed up for the RAF before America joined the war. His plane was shot down over France, and he became a German POW. Evelyn is not good at sitting around, waiting for news. She joins the OSS because she wants to find her brother herself. Barring that, she wants to help end this war as soon as possible, so he can come home.

 

Evelyn lucks out in having General Henry Gibson as her commanding officer. He sees something in her and trains her to become a spy. He also puts her on Nick’s team. At first, Nick does not want a team. He hates the idea of being responsible for other people’s lives, but in time, the whole team becomes a family. They work well together because they know and trust each other more than anyone else in the world.

 

With Evelyn and Nick, there is an initial attraction, but both are focused on their work for the OSS. Six months after they first meet, they are on a particularly grueling mission where everything goes wrong. During that time, they realize life is short and they should seize any happiness they can find. During the next two and a half years, they have a passionate, loving relationship that ends in heartbreak.

 

The need to resolve a murder dominates the 1948 plot, and eventually links the two halves of the story in ways we won’t divulge. But how do Nick and Evelyn get involved in trying to solve the mystery?

 

Both Evelyn and Nick are connected to the murder victim, George Palmer. Nick is hired to (unsuccessfully) protect him. Evelyn is hired by Palmer’s wife, who thinks he is cheating on her. On the night of George’s death, Evelyn follows him to the apartment of a young woman. There she hears gunshots and sees blood spray across the window curtains. Rushing inside, she sees Nick fleeing out the back door. In the apartment, Evelyn finds George’s body and calls the police.

 

Evelyn covers for Nick with the cops. Though she’s still fiercely angry at him, she does not believe him capable of murder. Instead, they decide to team up for one last case—to find George’s Palmer’s killer.


Grayscale photograph of a multistory building with a high central tower ending in a point; Los Angeles City Hall in 1931

LA is your home as well, but it must have changed a good deal since 1948. How did you re-create the city of the 1940s?

 

So much of the city from the 1940s still exists. For example, my house was built in the 1920s. It’s common to think of Los Angeles as a young city, which of course it is when compared to places in Europe or even many cities on the East Coast. However, young does not mean without history.

 

The art and architecture of City Hall is from the 1920s. Look up at the ceiling in the rotunda of the Central Library, and it is breathtaking. The Griffith Observatory still carries its art deco past. Plus so much of the city has been memorialized in film. Sometimes, being in a place feels like stepping into an old movie. Part of what I love about Los Angeles is that the modern day coexists with the past, without losing the vibrancy of either.

 

Are you already working on another book?

 

Yes! There will be more Evelyn and Nick in May 2025. The second book in the series is called An Unquiet Peace.

 

Thank you so much for sharing your time with us, Shaina.

 



A woman with long brown hair, wearing a bright blue top, smiles at the camera; headshot of Shaina Steinberg




Shaina Steinberg, a screenwriter, is the author of Under the Paper Moon. Find out more about her and the novel at https://www.shainasteinberg.com.


Photograph of the Los Angeles City Hall in 1931, public domain via Wikimedia Commons; photograph of Shaina Steinberg from Kensington Books, reused with permission.

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