Nine brilliant Hungarian exiles, all products of a dazzling, pre-Soviet Budapest, are at the heart of Kati Marton's The Great Escape.

Your subjects suffered from a sense of exile. You also left Hungary in 1957. Do you share their sense of exile?

I came here as a small child, not speaking English, having been ripped from the comfort of my home in Budapest. I witnessed my parents' arrest; in the case of my mother I opened the door to the AVO [Hungarian KGB] when they came for her. This book was not an academic exercise for me—it felt very personal. My parents brought home to me that great sense of longing for the Camelot I never knew. They talked about Budapest when it was a world capital, before the darkness. But they never talked about the darkness. That I had to find on my own.

Your subjects were all Jewish. Is this specifically a Jewish story?

These men really were Hungarians, but there's no question that being secular Jews played a big role, because they were double outsiders, Hungarians and Jews. But they were proud citizens and builders and shapers of the city, as was my family. From 1938, my parents' lives became hell because, as Jews, they went through the terrible humiliation of thinking they are 100% citizens of their country, proudly so, and then suddenly being treated like lepers.

How important was Hungarian cafe society?

It was akin to the Athenian agora as a civilizing place where ideas were exchanged. They all pined for that in exile. John von Neumann talked semiseriously about opening a cafe in Princeton, so unhappy were they that there was no place to go and test your thoughts against other brilliant people. And I don't think Starbucks quite filled the void.

Was the book prompted by the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian uprising?

No, that was serendipity. I wanted to get back to my roots and to recapture Budapest in its halcyon days between 1880 and 1914. But in 1956 Hungarians demonstrated that to be Hungarian and Communist are two incompatible things, because Hungarians are too fiercely independent, too quirky, too creative, too eccentric to ever fit the mold of communism. These nine men exemplify all those qualities. The qualities they had in common were tremendous drive, tremendous insecurity, a sense of—as one of them said—"innovate or die," and an ability to adapt to changing circumstances magnificently. I saw it as a story that hadn't been told, and I wanted to tell it because it's in my bloodstream.