AUTHOR INTERVIEWS

  • Elizabeth Wein

    Elizabeth Wein

    THE ENIGMA GAME

    BLOOMSBURY

    MAY 2020


    In THE ENIGMA GAME, award-winning author ELIZABETH WEIN returns to World War II with an engrossing story that will intrigue and enthrall readers aged 14+.

    The novel focuses on the relationship between an older woman, Jane, and a younger woman, Louisa, a mixed race girl who is hired to look after her. Staying near a British airfield at the start of the Battle of Britain, they become accidentally embroiled in a wartime plot involving German pilots, bombings and a strange coding machine...

    We asked author ELIZABETH WEIN to tell us more about THE ENIGMA GAME:



    Q: What gave you the kernel of the idea for The Enigma Game?


    A: I've wanted to write a story about codebreakers for some time, and in my head it always featured a relationship between an old woman and a young girl.

    But the real trigger for this book came in 2014 when I was speaking to a pilot at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum. He told me about a pub he'd visited whose beams were full of coins left there by World War II airmen who never returned. The landlord had called these coins 'dead men's money'. That image and that phrase really stuck with me, and eventually grew into the background for this book.



    Q: Your main characters are Louisa, whose parents are British and Jamaican, and an older German woman, Jane. Why did you decide to put an older and younger woman at the heart of this story?


    A: It's definitely because of my relationship with Betty Flocken, my maternal grandmother, who died in 2015 at the age of 98. Betty raised me when my mother died in a car accident in 1978, and she's always been my soulmate, my namesake, and my number one fan. Writing a story about a wonderful old woman who stays interested in the world because of her youthful companions is a way for me to celebrate my own wonderful grandma.



    Q: How did you go about researching the prejudices that both would have faced at this time?


    A: Books and the Internet are my friend! I have a stack of books about Caribbean servicemen and women during World War II, and another stack about the British internment of aliens during both world wars.

    One of the books that I found extremely useful was a novel by Nevil Shute called The Chequer Board, about a diverse handful of people from all over the world who are brought together in a wartime plane crash and whose destinies intertwine. Period fiction is an excellent way to uncover nuances of how people interact and view each other. (It's also a good way to pick up period details about the way people lived.)

    Another wonderful source is the website WW2: People's War, an archive put together by the BBC consisting of 47,000 personal wartime stories - there's a little of everything here, all very personal. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/



    Q: You mention in your notes at the end of your novel that your 'stock in trade' is World War II thrillers - what keeps bringing you back to this era?


    A: It's such a rich mine of human heroism and error, near enough to us in the past that we can relate to it. And as we lose that 'golden generation', I feel it's hugely important to keep their stories alive.

    I've also found that readers and editors want me to give them more - so I try hard to give them what they want!



    Q: And to flying? How much of this story did you research from the air?


    A: I actually did go on some North Sea reconnaissance flights! My husband and I flew from Perth to Aberdeen twice in a small Piper Warrior, and we tracked the coast of Scotland under an incredible array of changing rainclouds and rainbows, right over the cliffs where I imagine the fictional RAF Windyedge would have been, as well as over the real airfield at Montrose that inspired it.

    In 2014 I was lucky enough to get a flight in a 1945 Lancaster bomber in Canada - one of only two in the world that are still flying. It's much bigger than the Blenheim bombers featured in The Enigma Game, but the experience of being in the gunner's turret and crouching between pilot and navigator to gaze out the cockpit window certainly played into my ability to describe Louisa's flight experiences!

    I also did some aviation research on the ground. I went to the RAF Museum in Hendon, London, where I was able to get close-up and personal with a real Bristol Blenheim bomber, including sticking my head inside the cockpit. And I've been to the Shetland airfield where the novel begins. It doesn't really figure in the action much, but I like knowing what these places look like.



    Q: Why did you choose to make Blenheim planes such an important part of the story? How did you research them?


    A: I didn't choose Blenheims on purpose - I was sort of stuck with them, much like 648 Squadron.

    When I was writing Code Name Verity, I'd quickly looked up 'bomber types in use in 1940' or something like that, so I could assign Jamie to fly them - he was a minor character in that book. Several years later, when I started to write about Jamie's squadron, I had no choice but to put them in Blenheims.

    I started my research on Wikipedia and memorial websites - and the Internet led me to my best sources. These are squadron histories and memoirs (Coastal Dawn by Andrew Bird, The Squadron that Died Twice by Gordon Thorburn, Blenheim Boy by Richard Passmore, and Six Weeks of Blenheim Summer by Alastair Panton).

    I also found a documentary video called The Forgotten Bomber, which included aircrew interviews and footage of Blenheims in flight - and there is also a three volume series of outtakes from the documentary called The Blenheim Story. The Blenheim Society at blenheimsociety.com has also been useful!

    The Blenheim wasn't a glamorous aircraft like the Spitfire or the Hurricane, but it was the RAF's workhorse at the beginning of the war, and there is a lot of information about Blenheims out there!



    Q: Why did you want to bring in Jamie Beaufort-Stuart from Code Name Verity as a pilot to this novel, and to tell his back story?


    A: When I decided to involve a bomber squadron in the plot, it was irresistible to me to tell Jamie's story. Jamie is a lovely lad and his backstory is intriguing - when he's introduced in Code Name Verity we know that he's already an air war veteran. I didn't want to make up a new character when I had this one ready and waiting to take up the tale!



    Q: How important is it for you that your novels include real events from this era, or that they are as closely based on historical facts as possible?


    A: As a fiction writer, I like to explore the 'what ifs' of history. I want to tell an original story, but I want to base it on things that really did or really could have happened. So yes, in my worldbuilding I include events that are closely based on historical facts. In creating the plot, though, I fill in the gaps.

    I sometimes find that readers feel the events in my books are unbelievable. I guarantee you that if I have a sympathetic villain who leaves a prison door unlocked, or an enemy pilot who secretly lands at a foreign airfield and is allowed to go free, or a character who steals a plane, it is based on something that either did really happen or something that nearly happened.

    My job, as a storyteller, is to explore the alternate universe where life's rotor dials line up in a different sequence to the ones we know, through plausible actions and choices made by fictional people.




    Q: How close have you got to an Enigma machine, which plays an important role in this story?


    A: I have actually had the chance to press the keys and watch the letters light up, on a working wartime Enigma machine owned by the fascinating expert Dr. Mark Baldwin. Dr. Baldwin tours the world giving lectures - drenigma.org/ - and generously sharing his wartime relics with his audiences.




    Q: How long do you spend researching and writing each of your novels?


    A: I'd say it takes about two and a half years on average to research and write a novel, but there are other factors that go into it - I now know a lot about World War II in Britain, so I don't have to do quite so much research on a novel using that setting!




    Q: Where is your favourite place to write, and what are you writing now? Are you struggling with any research, as you can't go out and about to do it?


    A: I have a summer house in my garden that is very rustic - a bit like a writing retreat. Although I do most of my writing at the kitchen counter, I love to write in the summer house too!

    I'm currently working on another historical novel about flying. This one takes place in the 1930s. I'm trying to concentrate on the plot and not worry too much about the details; I'm lucky in that there's a lot available on line, and I did manage to get hold of several books I needed before I began to write.

    There's one book I'd really like to look at that is available at the National Library in Edinburgh in Scotland - I was planning to make a day trip there in March, but unfortunately the lockdown means that I haven't been able to do that! I figure I can get a draft done while I can't go out, and hopefully I'll be able to fill in the gaps later.




    Q: What are your favourite escapes from writing - in usual times, and lockdown escapes?


    A: In normal times, I still feel a bit like a tourist in Scotland, even after living here for twenty years, and I love to be out and about - in the air, on foot, on my bike, or even in a car. There are castles, wildlife areas, beaches, public gardens, and mountain glens all within a very short distance of where I live, and I love to explore these places.

    During lockdown, I've become very domestic with my displacement activities! I've been knitting, baking, gardening, and sorting books. Even scanning old family photographs! As Anne Morrow Lindbergh says in her inspirational book Gift from the Sea, 'When I cannot write a poem, I bake biscuits and feel just as pleased.'



    Q: Are there any books you've managed to read during lockdown that you'd like to recommend to our YA readers?


    A: I read For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway for the first time in 40 years and I really, really loved it. I know it is problematic in a lot of ways but I managed to ignore the sexism and male-bonding and fell in love with the adventure and characterizations.

    I'm just beginning Monica Hesse's recently released They Went Left, about a concentration camp survivor searching for her lost brother after the end of World War II, and it is excellent.

    I'd also recommend Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, now that I'm thinking about it - it's quite short and it is full of wonderful meditations for creativity and work that I suspect will feel strangely relevant just now. I'm going to read it again - I keep it sitting on my desk at all times!


    Thanks for these great questions - I hope readers enjoy my answers, and I hope they enjoy The Enigma Game!







    ROSE UNDER FIRE

    PUBLISHED BY ELECTRIC MONKEY

    JUNE 2013


    Elizabeth Wein, whose earlier novel Code Name Verity was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, has returned to the same era as Code Name Verity for her new novel, Rose Under Fire, but with a different heroine, Rose Justice.

    Wein wanted a heroine who was younger than the character Maddie in Code Name Verity, and who was a poet, but she still wanted to complete Maddie's story "because people wanted to know what happened to her after the events and that she was okay".

    Like Maddie, Rose is an ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary) pilot who is ferrying an aircraft from France to the UK in 1944 when she is captured by the Germans and sent to the Ravensbrck concentration camp. There, she suffers horrendous conditions during the final months of the war before managing to escape.

    Wein started to write Rose Under Fire as soon as she had finished writing Code Name Verity, she explains, "Because to me it felt like a story that was half finished. I knew that many SOE (Special Operation Executive) agents ended up in Ravensbruck, so that was the second half of their story."

    Many did not get to write their own stories and writing this for them is a constant refrain in Rose Under Fire. In the book's Afterword, Wein stresses that while Rose's story is made up, Ravensbrck is not. She writes, "My book is fiction, but it is based on the real memories of other people. In the end, like Rose, I am doing what I can to carry out the last instructions of the true witnesses - those who went to their death crying out, Tell the world."

    The fact that Ravensbrck was a women's camp made its dynamics and social structure very different from the other camps but it was just as brutal and Wein's description of what happened to many of them is unflinching.

    As an author, Wein says, "I do try to engage with what I am writing and try to become my characters, I even act out scenes (in private), but I don't have an inkling of what these people experienced and I can't recreate it so this book was really, really hard to write."

    She decided to have her narrator writing from a hotel room, after the events of the story had taken place. "That was my window into getting into her head and that I could do," she says. "I could pretend I was in a luxurious bedroom writing about what I remembered. At one point Rose writes, 'Even now, when I am well fed, I can remember what it was like to be starving', so I can take a step away from the actual events."

    As well as its role in imprisoning SOE's, Ravensbrck' had a factory where the prisoners made fuses for the V1 'flying bombs' or 'Doodlebugs' that Wein also wanted to bring into her novel. "It was inevitable that if you're talking about this part of the war, you'll get on to Doodlebugs because they were such a big feature then.

    "Pretty early on in the plot I had decided that Rose would be lost somewhere in Europe because she had gone after a Doodlebug. They were in everyone's consciousness - and then I found out that they were making fuses for them at Ravensbrck, so the plot came together."

    Ravensbrck was also unusual in having prisoners who were experimented on - 'Rabbits' as they became known - and they feature strongly in Rose's story as she befriends a group of women who, like the real women from the camp, tried to protect the 'Rabbits' to ensure that they would survive and that their story would be told.

    Friendship is important in this book, but friendship was also vital for Rose's survival says Wein. "I read about one of the French survivors who said they would never have survived without their friends; you needed people to help you, to watch your food bowl while you went to the bathroom, for example, because if you lost your bowl you didn't eat."

    Wein extensively researched Ravensbrck to get a 'sense of place' which she says "is really, really important to me for everything I write, my books are really grounded in the place they are set.

    "I spend a lot of time looking at maps and photographs for each of my books and with Rose Under Fire, at Google Earth. What happens is that I get such a strong sense of place in my head that when I finally visit those places they match up although I may find I have left things out, like the red tiles on the floor of the shower room at Ravensbrck.

    "There were other things that I found about during my research that I hadn't even thought about; apparently people exchanged recipes like crazy, for example, it was a favourite discussion topic. People wrote down recipes all the time and exchanged them, and people wrote poetry too, but the number one literary item of discussion was recipes!"

    Not much of the original Ravensbrck buildings remain. It was used by the Soviets as an army base for 50 years, from 1945 to 1994, as Ravensbrck was in East Germany , so most of what exists was the army base. It was eventually turned into a memorial site in 1969 and the cell blocks, gates, guard quarters and SS headquarters remain although the actual prisoner barracks are gone; there are impressions in the ground where they would have stood.

    Wein didn't actually visit Ravensbrck until she had written most of Rose Under Fire, when she attended a 'summer camp" there. "It sounds harrowing but it was a wonderful experience," she says. The camps are held every year and students study different topics. "Last year it was essentially memory and the perception of images and how this has changed through the generations, and the effects of the media on memory, so the focus was on the Holocaust in general and other media developments."

    It was while she was there that Wein wrote a number of the poems included in the book. She says, "They were the hardest things to write. When I was writing the novel, I just left a space for them, 'need a poem about sky', or 'poem about food'.

    "I was a poet before I was a novelist so until my early 20's most of my output was poetry and then I started focusing on novels. So this was hugely productive for me, having 15 poems in a book, but it was hard writing them because Rose the poet was younger than me and her style was different, so I found I had to reign myself in."

    Wein is now writing "another flying book", set in 1935, which is based on the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. "My earlier books are set in Ethiopia so it makes sense for me to return there," she says.

    "I don't know what my next area of interest will be but I think I might be done with the second World War; I have my own sense of having lived through it via Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire and now I feel it's over. It's been about four years for me and I feel there is a beginning and an end to that writing period in my life."




    CODE NAME VERITY

    PUBLISHED BY ELECTRIC MONKEY

    FEBRUARY 2012


    It is WWII and a Scottish aristocrat is being held by the Gestapo in occupied France. Code Name Verity is her story and that of her friend, a pilot called Maddie, as they each recount what came to pass during those fateful weeks in Occupied France.



    Q: You're an accomplished pilot - is that what sparked the idea for Code Name Verity?

    A: Yes, my husband had a private pilot's license and I bought my first lesson in flying after I sold my second book. I got my pilot's license in 2003, although I haven't flown as much as I would have liked since then.



    Q: The women in your story have to compete quite hard to get near an aeroplane - have things changed since then?

    A: At one point we were going to a lot of aircraft shows and watched these old wartime planes limping into the air. I started finding out more about these aircraft and thought it was so unfair how women didn't get to fly them.

    I went on to write a short story about a woman who disguises herself as her brother and takes his place in a Spitfire. Then I learned about the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary) and discovered that women did fly for the RAF, delivering damaged planes etc, so when I revisited the story for Code Name Verity, I had my starting point.

    Unfortunately though after the war the sense of equality many women enjoyed soon evaporated. Many stopped flying, or working on the land or in factories, and went back to the home.

    It took a long time after that for women to begin to catch up - the first commercial female pilot wasn't appointed until 1961.



    Q: Much of the story is set in France during the Occupation; did that need a lot of research?

    A: I haven't spent a great deal of time in France although I have been to the region where the book is set, around Poitiers. What sparked my interest in France during the Occupation was my French teacher in high school. She had been a member of the French Resistance and told us a little about it - stories like cycling along with dynamite in her basket. I was about 12 and started to read everything I could about WW2.

    For this book I also read an amazing account by a respected French novelist who was Roman Catholic but also had Jewish ancestry. She was sent to Auschwitz in 1942 and gave her two daughters - who escaped - an manuscript which they only read years later and it turned out to be a detailed account of people in France and what they were doing during the Occupation. She was especially critical of the French upper classes.



    Q: How did your two main characters, Queenie and Maddie, develop?

    A: I visited a 'Women at War' exhibition at the Imperial War Museum and what struck me was the evidence of women as spies and saboteurs.

    My original idea for Queenie was to make her a complete coward who gave everything away but as I got into the story the characters ran away with me and I realised that she did have backbone at the point where she and Maddie talk down the German pilot.



    Q: The book is written as personal accounts by Queenie and Maddie - why did you use that approach?

    A: It just felt like the right way to approach it and I have read a number of first hand accounts and biographies of wartime pilots and agents. But there were many who didn't want to write about their experiences and of course, many of them died during their service. If you read films like Carve Her Name With Pride about Special Operations Executive agent Violette Szabo, you realise that they all end the same way - go over there, do a job, they're tortured and they die.



    Q: You have written many books set in the past - why do you feel historical fiction is so important?

    A: I think it does a disservice to describe this book as 'historical fiction'. It's a thriller, and what these girls show is that you can take control of your own lives. There are still not that many female pilots and women still confront many of the sexist things that Maddie did all that time ago. Some of the things that are said to me and some of the situations I've been in are used in the book.

    Code Name Verity is about people trying to take control of their own lives and that is still relevant today. But it's an adventure first - although you might learn something about history in the process.



    Q: Will you return to any of these characters in another book?

    A: I thought about it but the main characters are too old really; I like writing for the YA readers but returning to these characters would take it into the adult market.

    Instead I decided to return to the same period, about six months later, just after the invasion of Normandy in 1944, and the character is American and a bit younger and, through a series of mishaps, ends up interned at Ravensbruck, a German concentration camp for women.