War Era Historical
It's the story of three very different women recruited to work at the mysterious Bletchley Park during World War II, where they join the fight to break the unbreakable Axis military codes, and deal along the way with loss, love, friendship, betrayal, and the shadowy presence of a traitor in their midst. I like to think of it as “The Imitation Game meets The Crown”!
Where did the idea for this story originate and what about Bletchley Park appealed to you as a writer?
Bletchley Park's history has fascinated me since reading Robert Harris's wonderful novel Enigma, which first introduced me to the pressure-cooker world of the WWII codebreakers. These men and women—recruited from all walks of life to a remote country estate in Buckinghamshire—labored under incredible stress and secrecy to crack the supposedly uncrackable ciphers used by Germany and Italy, and they succeeded so well that some historians estimate they shortened the war by as much as two years (and millions of lives). Yet their heroic work was unknown for decades thanks to being classified; everyone who had worked at BP was simply asked to go home after the war, and never talk about what they had done. Which they all did, keeping their huge secret with the kind of success that is boggling to our minds today in a world now dominated by social media and the 24-hour news cycle. I was fascinated by the idea of a war story where the fight was all mental and intellectual, rather than physical.
In terms of research, which resources proved the most useful to you in writing The Rose Code?
There are hundreds of excellent non-fiction books about Bletchley Park, and I swear I tried to read them all! “The Secret Lives of Codebreakers” by Sinclair McKay is an entertaining, comprehensive book for anyone looking to get an overview of BP and how it functioned, and there are many memoirs written by codebreaker veterans once the secrecy ban lifted—“Enigma Variations” by Irene Young, “Secret Days” by Asa Briggs, and “Dilly: The Man Who Broke Enigma” by Mavis Batey were three standouts.
The book centers on three female Bletchley Park code breakers. Without giving too much away, what can you tell us about Osla, Mab, and Beth?
I chose three narrators for this book because I wanted to show as much of the codebreaking process as possible, and having only one woman's eyes would limit us to only what she saw, since secrecy was so tight—even inside Bletchley Park, you weren't supposed to tell your co-workers what you were working on. I also wanted to show a variety of social classes and education levels in my heroines, because BP truly was a melting pot where a secretarial school graduate might find herself working beside a duke's daughter! Therefore I have shy middle-class spinster Beth, very much the beaten-down daughter-at-home under a domineering mother—sharp East-Ender Mab who is keen to improve her lot in life via education, hard work, and a gentlemanly husband—and beautiful, effervescent debutante Osla who wants to prove that a rich girl can work hard and do her part for the war just as well as anyone else. These three wouldn't ever have crossed paths in the normal scope of things, but working at Bletchley Park throws them together, with results that will echo throughout the war into the years afterward.
Ha, yes—lots of historical cameos in THE ROSE CODE! Most of them I didn't have to make up, either, because many many important historical figures had ties to Bletchley Park. Alan Turing, computer-science genius of the 20th century, worked at BP and is shown as a colleague of one of my fictionalized heroes. Winston Churchill paid the codebreakers a historic visit, so I had a chance to show the occasion where he famously thanked them for their secrecy as well as their work, calling them “the geese who laid the golden eggs, but never cackled.” Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, worked in naval intelligence and liaised with BP; he gets a mention. Valerie Glassborow, codebreaker at Hut 16, is shown in her youthful days long before she became the grandmother of Kate Middleton. And speaking of the Duchess of Cambridge, I have a slew of royals appearing in THE ROSE CODE: Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret get cameos, and so does the handsome Prince Philip of Greece. In those days, before he married Princess Elizabeth and became the Duke of Edinburgh, he was just a young British naval lieutenant...who just happened to date an ex-debutante turned codebreaker named Osla!
Female friendships are not always easy, and I loved how this story allowed you to explore and showcase the complexities of those dynamics. Was this something you intended this story to illustrate and if so, why did you feel it important?
From the beginning, I envisioned this story as one of a broken friendship. The first page starts post-war, with two women getting a coded letter from a friend they haven't heard from in years, begging for help—this forces them to get in touch with each other despite great unspoken animosity, and embark on a mission that reopens many old wounds. The central question of this book is about how these women became friends, and what destroyed that friendship, and can they salvage it when a mystery from their Bletchley Park years reaches out and makes them join forces whether they like it or not. I'm not a fan of the stereotype where female friends are always cat-fighting, but friendship can be hard—especially when it's complicated, as it is for my three women, by things like national oaths of secrecy and all-important war-work. It's not men or romance that come between my heroines; it's the question “How do you protect your friends while at the same time keeping your oaths?” And all three of my women make mistakes in trying to keep faith with that question; they stumble and fall, but in the end they must rely on each other. I hope readers will enjoy their complicated bond.
Your two previous books, The Alice Network and The Huntress, were geographically diverse. The Rose Code unfolds on a much smaller stage. Was it difficult to write a story so largely contained in the English countryside and if so, how did you seek to keep things interesting?
It was tough, yes. The codebreakers operated under incredible mental and emotional strain, but physically they were very safe, as they were forbidden to take on any missions that would lead them into danger zones overseas, and since Bletchley Park was never targeted by bombers during the war. And though their work was critical, pencil-scratching away at sheets of paper inside stuffy little green huts is hard to make quite as cinematic as, say, dropping bombs from a biplane or smuggling messages in an occupied-zone spy-ring! So I tried to hone in on the mental arena where the work was done, and the grueling toll that could take which is every bit as racking as more physical danger. And I twined in my second timeline, which is where the mystery unravels, and which takes place in 1947 as London dizzies itself over the coming wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip—that gave me the opportunity to add in some post-war glamour and danger!
Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories and I always wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Is there a character, scene, or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing The Rose Code?
This book was far, far too long in its original draft, so there was quite a lot that hit the cutting room floor. Less in the way of whole scenes, more in the way of paragraphs of description, conversations that were trimmed or combined with others, and nerdy flights of awe about the codebreaking process. As for the biggest change I made? Originally there was a whole Inception-style third timeline involved, but it made the whole book waaaaaaaaaay too confusing, and I streamlined that entire narrative into the post-war thread instead. Much better all around.
Authors sometimes stumble across unexpected details in the course of their research. Did your research for The Rose Code lead to anything that surprised you and if so, did that material find its way into the story?
There were so many funny anecdotes about life at Bletchley Park, I wish I'd had room to include them all. I slipped in as many as I could: a codebreaker pitching his tea mug into the lake after a fit of inspiration; another codebreaker who cycled to work in a gas mask because of hay fever; BP men sunbathing nude on the lawn by the mansion; a prank where a lord's daughter rode a wheeled laundry cart down a hall right into the gentleman's loo; highland dancing and madrigal singing and chess playing taking place off-hours in the Recreation Hut...the list of hi-jinks and quirky anecdotes was literally endless!
Oooh, fun. Holliday Grainger would be a great Osla—as Robin in the CB Strike series and Lucrezia Borgia in “The Borgias”, she has exactly the right mix of beauty and fun, plus a lovable quality that makes you want to be her best friend. For Mab, a tall confident brunette with fierce eyebrows, I'd take Jane Russell circa “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, or for a more modern-day actress, Cara Delevingne who does beautifully with characters who have a lot of softness under a formidable Resting B*tch Face. For withdrawn Beth who blossoms from wallflower too shy to look anyone in the eyes to star cryptanalyst utterly confident in her own abilities, I'd take the wonderful Soairse Ronan who could play that switch beautifully. As for the men, Anthony Stewart Head (Giles from the “Buffy” series) would be a natural for the absent-minded codebreaker who recruits Beth for his team; Eddie Redmayne would be a gangly ray of red-headed sunshine for the girls' irrepressible codebreaker friend Giles; Allen Leech (Branson from “Downton Abbey”) would be a swooner as the quiet war poet who sweeps one of the heroines off her feet; Mena Massoud (“Aladdin”) would be great as the cheerful Harry whose Arabic-Egyptian-Maltese descent makes him a standout at BP...and for Prince Philip, sorry, there isn't anyone but Matt Smith who played the role in Seasons 1-2 of “The Crown.”
What do you hope readers take from their experience of The Rose Code?
I hope they come away awed by the dedication and intelligence of the real Bletchley Park women, who contributed to the war effort in a way not often allowed to females of that time—and did it so spectacularly well.
What’s next for you? Any new writing projects in the wings?
Yes, I'm already 30,000 words into a new book. It has the working title right now of THE DIAMOND EYE, and it stars WWII-era Russian war heroine Lyudmila Pavlichenko. She was a single mother in her mid-twenties, a history student, a mild-mannered library research assistant who joined the army when her homeland was invaded by the Nazis. She became a sniper and racked up 309 kills, making her the most deadly female sniper in history—with the nickname of “Lady Death.” If that's not enough to make her a fantastic heroine for a novel, this woman was sent on a goodwill tour to the United States where she became close friends with none other than Eleanor Roosevelt. I can't wait to bring her story to the page!
About Kate Quinn:
Kate Quinn is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of historical fiction. A native of southern California, she attended Boston University where she earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Classical Voice. She has written four novels in the Empress of Rome Saga, and two books in the Italian Renaissance, before turning to the 20th century with “The Alice Network”, “The Huntress,” and “The Rose Code.” All have been translated into multiple languages. Kate and her husband now live in San Diego with three rescue dogs.