A writer's life
Journalist and author Liza Mundy on writing, the workplace and her new book, "Code Girls"
By Mary Dallao
Liza Mundy spoke at the first-ever Rosslyn READS! Spring Book Festival, which took place Thursday, April 26, at Central Place Plaza. She recently talked with the Rosslyn BID about her new book, "Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II."
Journalist and former Washington Post staff writer Liza Mundy has interviewed a former president, a vice president and many well-known U.S. senators. She has written four books, including a biography of former First Lady Michelle Obama that became a New York Times bestseller and was translated into 16 languages. Yet when asked to name her three best pieces of writing, the first one she mentions is an article about pay phones she wrote for The Washington Post Magazine in September 2001. Published before the cell phone tipping point, it provided insights into the lives of people using pay phones in busy urban areas. To write the article, Mundy spent hours loitering near banks of pay phones—a particular favorite was near the Ballston Metro—listening in on conversations and sometimes identifying herself and asking questions.
"I found that people using pay phones were often in an extreme situation: They'd been robbed, or they needed money from a payday lender, or they were taking two buses to their job and were just stopping to call home in a way that was very poignant," she says.
It's telling that Mundy singles out a nearly 20-year-old piece about anonymous, everyday people as one of her best. It shows her sensitivity to the concerns of others whose circumstances may be different from hers, an interest in fairly telling people's stories, and her reporter's love of "digging around" for information, no matter how unconventional the methods.
When prompted, she does go on to express pride in her 2002 profile of former Vice President Al Gore for The Washington Post Magazine. After she finally got him to sit for an interview, she had to turn the piece around quickly to meet the deadline. It was stressful but she was happy with how it turned out. And she's very proud of her new book "Code Girls," which profiles the young American women whose work cracking German and Japanese codes during World War II helped set the course for the Allies' victory.
Mundy conceived of the idea for "Code Girls" when she came across a declassified N.S.A. history of Venona, a code-breaking project that deciphered Soviet messages and helped expose spies. The history mentioned that many code breakers were women and former schoolteachers. Intrigued, Mundy met with N.S.A. historians to learn more about the women's efforts.
"Code Girls" took three years to write, which Mundy says is the longest she's ever taken to write a book. It was a challenging project: She had to find the women to interview, get documents declassified, and learn more about World War II, its critical battles, and the ins and outs of code breaking. She spent hours sifting through thousands of pages of paper records at the National Archives. Then, she had to tie it all together into a narrative.
The women code breakers of World War II did extraordinarily important, complex work, yet due to the work's secretive nature, their accomplishments went unnoticed and unrecognized for years. After the war was over, many women returned home to resume teaching or care for children and families, and their contributions were largely forgotten. Mundy's book brings their achievements to light.
A central figure of "Code Girls" is Dot Braden Bruce, a Virginia schoolteacher recruited by the Army as a code breaker. Today, Bruce is almost 98 and, as Mundy says, still as plucky and spirited as she was when she came to Washington as a code girl at the age of 22. Although she is careful about not scheduling too much travel, Bruce has joined Mundy at the occasional public panel or literary festival. Mundy enjoys having Bruce accompany her when she can and is happy that she is finally getting some credit.
At the Rosslyn READS! Spring Book Festival, Mundy will discuss how the arrival of these women in Washington transformed the landscape of Arlington. For instance, the women needed housing when they arrived, and many lived in apartment buildings that are still standing today, such as the Fillmore Garden Apartments on Walter Reed Drive and other apartment buildings in the Buckingham area. They worked in Arlington Hall, which coincidentally is not far from Mundy's home (she's been an Arlington resident for 20 years and she loves it).
Working her way up
Mundy says she's always wanted to be a writer: She envisioned the career for herself in high school, and she has never imagined doing something else. After graduating from Princeton in 1982, though, she had a hard time finding writing work. The country was in a deep recession and journalism jobs were hard to come by. She took a job in P.R. in San Francisco, writing press releases, ad copy and brochures. She also ghost wrote a book and did some freelancing. The freelancing helped her land an internship with The Washington Post Style Section, but it didn't lead to a job. Instead, Mundy went to work for a news service and eventually wound up at the Washington City Paper. Her editor was Jack Shafer, now a senior media writer for Politico, and Mundy has fond memories of her time working for him.
"He was a wonderful boss and mentor and, in a way, it was like going to journalism school," she says. "We worked hard on our stories. They were intensely reported and written in a short time period with few resources. It was a hard four years, but it was a great job."
After the City Paper, Mundy returned to The Washington Post as managing editor of the Sunday Magazine. Eventually, she transitioned to being a staff writer for the magazine, which was more in line with her interests.
Mundy loves everything about writing: She loves reporting; she loves gathering and synthesizing information to make it appealing to readers; and she loves the back and forth with editors to make a piece as good as it can be.
"A good editor is firm and smart and supportive," she says. "I tend to write long, so a good editor definitely cuts my pieces down and helps me crystallize my thoughts and work through drafts so that ideas get honed and sharpened. My editor at the City Paper, Jack Shafer, is known to be a contrarian thinker. He challenged my thinking, and that was very valuable to me at that point in my career. And now, I'm always happy to have my thinking challenged."
On being a professional woman and #metoo
Throughout her career, Mundy has written widely on issues that may be of particular interest to women. Her 2012 book, "The Richer Sex," which was named one of the top nonfiction books of the year by The Washington Post, discusses how a new majority of female breadwinners is changing sex, love and family. She's also written pieces for Atlantic Monthly, Politico, The New York Times, Slate and The Washington Post about topics such as powerful older female politicians, the use of makeup on women in news broadcasts, the history of women in the Senate, and the forgotten women who helped create the field of cybersecurity.
So, with all this knowledge of women, research on women and experience as a successful professional woman herself, does Mundy have any insights into the status of women in the workplace today?
She's quiet for a minute, thinking. When she graduated college in the 80s, she says, she thought the playing field was level because Princeton, a formerly all-male college, had gone co-ed, and it felt like workplaces and colleges were opening up.
"I thought the job was done," she says. "But looking back at the workplace, I realize it wasn't a level playing field."
"At this point in my career, I've been reporting on some of the same issues for a startlingly long period of time," she adds. "It's hard to tell if we're making progress."
Mundy says she remembers working in The Washington Post newsroom during what she calls "the first round of reporting on sexual harassment issues"—namely, the Paula Jones lawsuit and the Monica Lewinsky situation, which she says resulted in a "flurry of chaos" in newsrooms.
"I was trying to get up to speed on what was happening and trying to persuade editors why this mattered and having all sorts of discussions in the newsroom about awkward issues," she says.
These days, for women like her who have been in the workplace for 20 or 30 years, the current moment of #metoo revelations prompts honest reflection on barriers and unfairness they faced at work.
"I think we can all look back on our careers and identify barriers that we had to overcome," she says. "I certainly have had times in my career when I felt I was treated by colleagues in ways that were gender-related that maybe weren't fair to me at the time. So, I'm happy to see some of these behaviors being exposed and rooted out."
When Mundy worked at The Washington Post, one of the most prestigious jobs to have was foreign correspondent. If anyone looked closely, she says they'd notice that most foreign correspondents were married men with children and wives who would follow them around the world.
"At the time, it was very difficult for a married woman with children to get her family to do that," she says. "So, women who were foreign correspondents tended to be either single or part of a husband-wife team. Being a foreign correspondent was a really important path to top positions at the paper, though, and that was apparent to me. I knew this path wasn't available to me, but I felt that if I said something about it, I wouldn't have gotten any traction on it."
Mundy says that for part of her time at The Post, working from home was not an option because reporters could not file their stories remotely (although eventually this did change). For a while, she worked part-time: four days a week as opposed to five. She was producing as many inches of copy as her male colleagues, but being perceived as "part-time" did not help her career.
"Someone told me explicitly: 'If you go part-time, there are all sorts of jobs in the building you won't be considered for,'" she says. "I did it anyway, but there was still a [negative] perception."
But despite the challenges, Mundy has loved her career as a reporter and book author. She's persevered, and she sees this as the key to her success.
"As a writer, having an ability to persist in the face of rejection and failure is really important," she says. "It's not as if there's been relentless rejection and failure in my career, but there definitely were periods of time where I felt I was unfairly rejected for jobs. All writers experience that, but I think recognizing that it's a normal part of the process is important. You have to fly through the turbulence and take the long view. You know: 'She persisted.' I think it really does come down to that."
To learn more about Liza Mundy and the book "Code Girls," visit her website.
Photo at top: A journalist and author of four books, Liza Mundy spoke at the April 26 Rosslyn READS! Spring Book Festival. Photo by Nina Subin.