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Doctor-author Leffler's latest takes detour through WWII history

| Sunday, May 1, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Author Maggie Leffler poses for a portrait Wednesday April 13, 2016 in Oakmont.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Author Maggie Leffler poses for a portrait Wednesday April 13, 2016 in Oakmont.

Maggie Leffler is a physician, a mother of two and a runner — time-consuming pursuits for anyone.

She also writes, stealing time in those fleeting hours when she is not in demand, exercising or sleeping.

“I write a lot at night and on the weekends,” says Leffler, who will appear May 6 at Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont to promote her new novel, “The Secrets of Flight” (William Morrow, $15.99) “I'm definitely a night writer and have always been a night writer.”

And a deliberate writer by necessity, given the available time she has to write. Leffler started “The Secrets of Flight” in 2009. The genesis of the story came quickly via a writing group she belonged to at the Carnegie Library of Squirrel Hill. There was an age disparity in the group, and Leffler created two characters — Mary Browning, 87, and Elyse Strickler, 15 — who start to collaborate on the older woman's untold life story.

“The inspiration wasn't necessarily just that the average age of the group was older than I was at the time,” Leffler says, “but it was more inspired by the experience of showing up at the library for the first time to join a group of complete strangers, who would be critiquing something very personal to me. I wanted to put a teenager in that uncomfortable situation and take it up a notch by having everyone in the group be much, much older — and then see how she would take it.”

The second strand of the story was inspired by a forgotten group of pilots during World War II. In 2009, Congressional Gold Medals were awarded to Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) by President Barack Obama in recognition of their overlooked service. When Leffler saw a photo of the ceremony, she immediately saw a potential story element.

“Something about the picture intrigued me so much,” Leffler says. “I thought, ‘This is Mary's back story and this is what I want to explore.' ”

Leffler tracked down a few WASPs, including Florence Schutsy-Reynolds of Connellsville, and began to sketch Mary Browning's history. She gave the character another identity, Miri Lichtenstein, a young Jewish girl growing up on Beacon Street in Squirrel Hill. The character eventually leaves Pittsburgh for Texas to train as a pilot, causing no small of amount of grief among her family.

What originally was intended as an examination of family and the differences in generations became a much more complicated, but satisfying, writing project.

“The detour into historical fiction was unexpected,” Leffler says. “I sort of conceived where the book ended and knew what my starting point was, but the middle of the book kept changing.”

As Leffler wrestled the center of the novel into shape, she realized another element had come into play: her own family's history. When Leffler's parents were adults, her mother discovered she was part Jewish.

Writing the novel became a vehicle for the author to “connect with the part of my heritage that I never really knew about,” Leffler says.

“But I also wanted to explore the nature of family secrets and what they do to the individual keeping them. For Mary, she really can't be free of her guilt until she lets go of everything she's got locked away.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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