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Codebreaking and spies

Codebreaking and spies

Look out for THE ENIGMA GAME by award-winning author ELIZABETH WEIN, an engrossing wartime story involving German pilots, spies and a strange coding machine that could change the course of history...

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, spies and a strange coding machine that could change the course of history...

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.

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 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 - - 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!


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