Kate and I discuss her latest book The Rose Code, writing about the unsung women code breakers at Bletchley Park who helped shorten the war by at least two years, the amount of secrecy required of those who worked at Bletchley Park and the mental and emotional toll on them, and much more.
Kate and I discuss her latest book The Rose Code, writing about the unsung women code breakers at Bletchley Park who helped shorten the war by at least two years, the amount of secrecy required of those who worked at Bletchley Park and the mental and emotional toll on them, her favorite character to write in The Rose Code, and much more.
The Rose Code can be purchased at Murder by the Book.
Kate’s 3 recommended reads are:
Bletchley Park, book, people, war, code breakers, code, work, enjoying, rose, read, girl, incredible, story, women, hear, beth, mathy, life, kate, secrecy
Kate Quinn, Cindy Burnett
Cindy Burnett 00:07
This is the Thoughts from a Page Podcast where I interview authors about their latest works. My name is Cindy Burnett, and I love to talk about books. For more book recommendations, check out my website thoughtsfromapage.com and follow me on Facebook and Instagram at @thoughtsfromapage and on Twitter at @burn555555. If you enjoy these podcast episodes, you should check out the literary salon tab on my website, and sign up for our newsletter. Today I am interviewing Kate Quinn about The Rose Code. Kate 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. The Rose Code is on my recent She Reads Most Anticipated Historical Fiction Books of 2021 and is one of my March Buzz Reads selections. It is a truly captivating book. Welcome, Kate. How are you today?
Kate Quinn 01:18
Doing great. How are you?
Cindy Burnett 01:20
I'm doing well. I'm very excited to talk about The Rose Code. I just loved it. It's such a page turner.
Kate Quinn 01:25
I'm so glad you think that. I'm delighted to hear you enjoyed it - my latest book baby just out in the world. So it's wonderful to hear that people are starting to enjoy it.
Cindy Burnett 01:34
Well it's such a fascinating topic, Bletchley Park and everything that surrounded that. So why don't we start with you just talking a little bit about the book kind of generally what it's about.
Kate Quinn 01:43
The Rose Code is about the unsung women codebreakers of Bletchley Park, who labored in dire secrecy during World War Two in the middle of nowhere in Buckinghamshire, to crack the supposedly unbreakable Axis military codes. And they succeeded so spectacularly that some historians estimate they shortened the war by as much as two years and millions of lives. So I have three fictionalized very different women who are all summoned to work at Bletchley Park in very different parts of the code-breaking process and to become friends, find a traitor, and find out something about their own lives along the way.
Cindy Burnett 02:21
I know there was so much involved in the story. And I was just on pins and needles on every single aspect, like knowing who the traitor was, and the code-breaking parts of it and Beth's relationship with her mother. There was just a lot of really exciting things happening, and I just loved it.
Kate Quinn 02:35
Oh, I'm so glad to hear that. It was definitely a complicated book to research even to write as well, because I am not a mathy person, which does have me wondering, at some points during the writing point, why did I decide to write a book about code breaking? And something so highly technical? And I still couldn't tell you the answer, except that I admire these women so intensely that it felt like I had to at least try to tell their stories mathy person or not.
Cindy Burnett 02:59
Well, I was curious about your research. I mean, that must have been an incredible undertaking to try to understand the code breaking just Bletchley Park generally, the war all of it.
Kate Quinn 03:09
Well, I must have read really hundreds of books and articles and online video demonstrations and the whole nine yards in the researching of this particular book. Not just about the code breaking itself, but life at Bletchley Park, what it was like for the workers off hours, what it was like to be living in Britain under the ration laws, as they're under the threat of invasion. And it really was a quite an incredible time. Though I have to tell you that I still can't tell you entirely how the code-breaking process works. I do not think I would have made a brilliant, genius code breaker like some of the ladies in my book. All I could do in the end was even when the technicalities had me totally out to sea, which they still did no matter how much research I did, was say it's not my job to tell you how to break Enigma codes. But it is my job to tell you how it feels to break Enigma codes. So that is what a novelist like me with a very non-mathy brain tries to focus on in the end.
Cindy Burnett 04:03
Well I have to say that makes me feel better because I would really slow down during those sections and try to understand the scrolling and the turning of the dial, all of that and I was like I can't quite understand it all because it's so complicated. So it makes me feel better that you were having the same issue because you wrote about it beautifully. It was just actually, not to play on words here, decoding what would be happening.
Kate Quinn 04:25
Yeah, I have to I will have to say I do not think as I said I would make a genius code breaker but it was great fun in any case to write about genius codebreakers, because the work really is intriguing even if it is something I still find a mystery in many ways.
Cindy Burnett 04:39
The other part that was so interesting was the compartmentalization - that somebody would be working on some tiny little section, the next person would be working kind of on the next step of that so that they didn't even know sometimes exactly what they were doing other than they were obviously trying to break codes but they weren't sure what their role even was in the whole process.
Kate Quinn 04:58
They had this huge insistence on secrecy. And that didn't just mean that the workers were told you cannot tell anyone in your life what you do what you're doing when you're on shift here, and that includes your parents, your siblings, your spouse, your children, you cannot tell anyone. That is maybe something we can understand given security. And given that what a high war secret this was, but the fact is, is that the Bletchley Park workers couldn't even talk to each other about what they did. If you worked in hut six, you knew what you did in your room of hut six, you did not know maybe even what the other rooms of hut six did. And you certainly didn't know what went on in hut eight. So you had people who were all working side by side under incredible stress and secrecy. And they couldn't even talk to each other or talk to their roommates, who they were billeting with who were also working at the park, unless they were literally in the same room in the same department. And I found that quite incredible. And the fact is, is that the secrecy was kept so very well.
Cindy Burnett 05:58
I mean, it's just fascinating. And I think that really stayed with most of those people. Because you know, a lot of people I didn't seem like who worked at Bletchley Park ever really talked about it during their lifetimes, long after the war was done.
Kate Quinn 06:10
They were more or less told, thank you for your service, go home now that the war is over, and never talk about this again, please. And most of them did that. And we didn't even start hearing all that much about Bletchley Park until the 70s, which was when 30 years have passed. And that's more or less the time/space allowed that is sort of like the statute of limitations, as it were. And then some people started to talk about it, started to see some books about it. And people started to be able to tell their families a little bit. But even so, many people didn't even feel able to do that. They felt that their oath was something that they should keep for life, and therefore they did not talk about it ever. And I think we find that particularly astounding, given that nowadays, we live in the world of the 24-hour news cycle, social media where people are updating constantly, where am I, what am I doing at all times, to the world to complete strangers. And here, all these complete strangers just were handed this huge secret and then told to keep it for the rest of their lives, and they did. And I think that's an astounding factor to a modern audience as the kind of work that they were doing.
Cindy Burnett 07:15
I agree completely. And the other thing that I thought you represented so well, was what it would be like to work at Bletchley Park, and then try to live your everyday life, when they had the very few moments that they had of everyday life, that you couldn't say anything. So then people would be questioning you and you had to just kind of play dumb and the men particularly that were there that they would a lot of times kind of get harassed for not volunteering, wanting to fight, and when in fact, they were doing very important work.
Kate Quinn 07:41
Yeah, that was one of the things I really found one of the biggest conundrums and as you say, it especially affected the men, because they're doing this hugely important war work, which they can't talk about. And then when they go off duty, they might find themselves harassed or spit on or just sort of socially shamed even by their own families. Because it's like, why aren't you in uniform? You're a young man, why aren't you fighting and they can't even defend themselves. But the women it's a little better because it's assumed they're doing some kind of war work. It is definitely true that even though the Bletchley Park code breakers weren't going into the field in very dangerous ways, the way spies did or operatives, they were still operating under incredible mental and emotional stress. And that's the kind of thing that really does take its toll. Even if physically they were quite safe.
Cindy Burnett 08:29
Bletchley Park from your story really grew like when the women first arrived, it was pretty small. And then over time, it expanded enormously.
Kate Quinn 08:39
Yes, and that's one of the things I found very impressive about it. Like in the beginning, Bletchley Park was just a room, a few rooms full of Oxford and Cambridge graduates, who were scratching away on notepads in this very ramshackle fashion. And then they kept recruiting more and more people quite often by word of mouth, or by trustworthiness. It just kept growing until you had these huts all around the mansion. And then you had outstations. And then you had more and more machines that were trying to shortcut the work. And by the end of the war, you had literally a code-breaking factory with thousands of people involved over many outstations. And they're all working as their own little cogs in the machine. And they're literally just taking in encrypted material from the Germans and from the Japanese. It's feeding in and it's going through this massive code-breaking factory, and it's coming out as usable intelligence on the other side, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and it's just one of the most impressive things I've ever studied really.
Cindy Burnett 09:40
It's just mind boggling, but it makes perfect sense that it would have grown over the time of the war, but I guess I just never thought about it. It's one of those things that make sense when you hear it, but it isn't something you've pondered before. And I just thought that was another interesting thing that I came away with.
Kate Quinn 09:54
Yeah, that really was something that I ended up quite enjoying myself as I was depicting the changes in the park. I do think the early days especially are the most hair raising and the most interesting because that's when they don't have enough people, when they don't have enough of anything, really enough supplies and of brains and hands to do the work. They don't have enough of enough support at the Admiralty level or the political level because people are saying, like, why should we be trusting these group of weird people off in the middle of Buckinghamshire, who are suddenly calling out of the blue and telling us exactly where to look for U-boat wolf packs? Why do we trust these people again? And then it's like, alright, after a while, it's like we're getting that call from Buckinghamshire, I don't care what they're saying - do it. They prove themselves after a while. But those early days were really hectic and really hard and really quite frightening. Because nowadays, we look at the war, and we have the benefit of hindsight. And we know it's like, oh, you know, Britain never gets invaded. Hitler never crosses the channel. But at the time, at the beginning, when the women were just starting at Bletchley Park, invasion was a very real threat. And many or even most Britons really kind of assumed that the chances that it would happen were pretty good. And that's an incredibly frightening thing to be living with and working with and just having to keep calm and carry on. But they were living under that threat. And so the early days of Bletchley not only were very ramshackle and very difficult in terms of technically what they were doing. But it was also frightening because of what was going on in the world around you and what you thought would happen in any moment.
Cindy Burnett 11:27
Yes, it's always interesting, like you said, hindsight is 2020. But to think that they really were for a long time operating under the assumption that they were going to be attacked and invaded on their own land. And so I'm sure that kind of made it a double pressure.
Kate Quinn 11:40
Yeah, the proof that I had of that was that I was literally reading reports about how in a particular section its like, oh, there were choices made about who would go and get special passports made, which meant that they would essentially try to take the code-breaking operation up into the hills or on the road.
Cindy Burnett 11:57
Oh, that's so interesting. Well, how did you even get started on this topic? Like what made you decide to write about it?
Kate Quinn 12:03
Well, I'd always been interested in the codebreakers ever since I first read a novel about Bletchley Park, which was Robert Harris's Enigma. And that is a wonderful, wonderful novel. And so I really was interested to learn more, and I've done some reading on it, on and off over the years. And I was really surprised to learn for all that we hear about some of the tremendous male figures who worked there, chief of whom is probably Alan Turing, the father of computers in many ways you might think, he was one of the great brains of Bletchley Park, you didn't hear so much about the ladies. And yet the women of Bletchley Park were about 75% of the operation by the end of the war. And so they were filling every possible niche that could possibly be filled. And they were doing some really incredible work of the kind that they wouldn't probably be able to find after the war was over. And then also, I was really fascinated by the sort of personality of the park itself. Bletchley Park was a place that it was described as sort of like a wacky university campus. It was this place that was full of important work being done, but it was this sort of cheerful, zany atmosphere at times, there's a lot of brainpower. There's a lot of kind of oddball people who work there. There was an understanding that, all right, we have to hire odd balls, because sometimes odd balls are great codebreakers, but you just let them be odd and let them do their work. So you have a kind of unique atmosphere where women are finding their voice, they're finding jobs that couldn't find it in other places. They have an ability to be heard in a way that women probably don't normally find in the 40s in their workplaces. And you find a place too where people who are perhaps a little off the norm or the beaten path can be accepted. Many people remembered it very, very fondly, despite the pressure of working there and the secrecy. And I loved the juxtaposition of that - the incredible work being done and the hardships and the secrecy and yet the high jinks, the pranks, the clubs, the you know, the games that happened and it just seemed like it would be a wonderful place to set a novel. So after I was, and my novel, The Huntress, had come out and I was looking for a new topic, this one just seemed like it might maybe it's day had come and so I ended up plunging into it.
Cindy Burnett 14:17
Well, I'm so glad you did. Do you have a favorite character that you wrote in this one?
Kate Quinn 14:21
Oh, that's a good question. I am very fond of my codebreaker named Beth, who begins the book as a wallflower, a spinster, a girl who is very much under the thumb of her bullying family, who probably would have had no kind of life at all. She has been very thoroughly flattened. And she has been told she's stupid. She's been told she has no prospects, and she accepts all of these things. And yet, when Bletchley Park moves in into the manor house down the road, and the operations come up, she ends up recruited and an entirely new life starts for her. And I love the idea of the wallflower that blooms. It's a wonderful trope in romances, it's wonderful trope in almost any book, in literary fiction, in anything. And so Beth is very much the wallflower who blooms, but it's not a romance that brings her out of her shell. It's not even a friendship. But what really does it is the work because Beth, as she figures out, has a great capacity to see patterns and a great capacity for things like crossword puzzles and mental tricks and mental games. And this girl who can barely look a stranger in the eye without blushing, who can who hates crowds, who doesn't like to be touched, and doesn't want to be ever intrude on anybody, you put this girl in front of a supposedly uncrackable German code, and she suddenly turns into a firecracker and she realizes this is what I can do. And I can do it better than almost anybody. And I love the idea that an intellectual passion can bring some, can be the thing that catalyzes an entire life. And so I'm very, I was very fond of Beth even though she's a bit of an odd duck in a lot of ways.
Cindy Burnett 16:01
I agree, though, I liked that, that what made her come out of her shell was her intellect versus some other person. I thought that was a great way to do it. And I felt for her because she had a bit of a road to hoe, but I really liked her.
Kate Quinn 16:13
Yeah, I did enjoy her a lot. And she's based with her code-breaking abilities on a number of real female cryptanalysts. And it was great fun to research them in creating my fictionalized hero in Beth.
Cindy Burnett 16:25
And I'm sure just sort of in awe of some of these women and what they were able to accomplish. It's just amazing.
Kate Quinn 16:31
Yeah, it really was, I kept thinking, man, I would love to take you ladies out to lunch and just pick your brain if you would agree to talk to me, which you probably wouldn't, because you would say, Official Secrets Act. And that would be the end of the story.
Cindy Burnett 16:43
Well, I love titles and covers. So I'd love to hear a little bit about how your title came about. And then you're absolutely beautiful cover how it came about.
Kate Quinn 16:50
Oh, that's definitely a fun discussion. The Rose Code came about as a title, just sort of from the beginning. I knew that the end of this book was going to and no spoilers here, involve a last ditch effort after the war to break one last code. And so therefore, there was going to be a particular code that is a problem. And then that meant that I would need to give a name to it because all the ciphers at Bletchley Park were given names. Now, most of them were given names of things like colors, like there was red for I think Luftwaffe. And once they ran out of colors, which they only started using colors because that's the colored pencils they were using, they started naming them after birds or after marine mammals, the Navy codes have been named after shark, dolphin, porpoise, things like that. So they were using animals, they were using colors, and there was some bit where they were using flowers. So I thought, well, a rose code, why not? I mean, so I decided my fictional code would be called the rose code. And then that made a nice little sort of metaphor I could thread throughout as far as the rose being a great symbol. And then, you know, when we looked at the cover, and we started having discussions on it, I was like really the thing I wanted was, I wanted something that would show mental effort and not just be a girl looking wistfully off into the middle distance, the way sometimes you can see a lot of covers that look that way. And there's usually a plane in the sky. And it's like, I think we've seen enough plane in the sky, World War Two covers with a girl looking wistfu., I'd kind of like to see something that shows intellectual effort on her part. And it really was right out of the gate almost perfect. There was the girl who has her back to the viewer. And she's looking at the bomb machine, which is one of the code-breaking machines. And she very much has a whole look about her attention. She looks like she's working. She looks like she's concentrating. She does not look like she would relish a tap on the shoulder. Or for someone to ask how are you doing today? She looks like she's got a job to do. And I loved that about it right away. I and I thought to it had a nice tie in to the book because one of my second, my second heroine in the book named Mab is a tall brunette who does work the bomb machines in Bletchley Park. And so I decided this definitely on the cover is Mab. She is definitely a tall brunette. And she's in front of the bomb machines, which didn't actually glow gold the way they do on the cover of the book, but I prefer to think that that's more the way they look at her imagination as she's watching them.
Cindy Burnett 19:18
Well, that's exactly what I thought about was Mab. And that makes me think about your great descriptions of like trying to plug that machine in and everything sparking and then how they were in their underwear sometimes because it was so hot in there. I just loved all of that. It was just fabulous. I know you're in the process of getting this book out into the world. But I always love to look ahead a little bit and I know you and Marie Benedict have written an Audible Original together so I'd love to talk a little bit about that. And then are you working on anything else at the present?
Kate Quinn 19:44
Yes, I can talk a little bit about the Audible I'm doing with Marie Benedict first. It's titled Smoke Signal. It will be out in February. And that came about very naturally because Marie and I realized quite by accident that her work in progress and mine had a natural historical crossover. She was writing about Agatha Christie, and I was writing about Bletchley Park. And we knew from history, I happen to know historically that Agatha Christie was friends with one of the top code breakers at Bletchley Park, and that she had a certain crossover with Bletchley itself that was very intriguing. And so Marie and I decided to write a short story that would essentially explore what could have happened in that situation. How Bletchley Park's codebreakers could have crossed paths with the great mystery writer herself. And so that ended up being the Audible Original known as Smoke Signal.
Cindy Burnett 20:40
Well, I can't wait for that. I had no idea that Agatha Christie knew anybody at Bletchley Park and that she had been there. I guess she visited at one point, correct? I guess what you're doing your Audible Original about? I just didn't know any of that. So I can't wait to listen to it.
Kate Quinn 20:53
No, that was great fun. And we had a lot of fun with that. Agatha didn't go to the park itself, because that was sort of off limits to civilians. But she knew some of the code breakers socially. And there was concern from British intelligence, that she knew more about the park than she could she should have. And how did you find that out? So they sort of deployed some of their people to try to probe her to figure out how do you know about this place and what do you know. And so that's, that's where Marie and I decided to focus the story on what the answer could possibly be.
Cindy Burnett 21:25
Oh, that's so fun. Well, I can't wait to listen. And then are you working on your next book yet? Are you just enjoying The Rose Code heading out into the world?
Kate Quinn 21:32
No, I am working on the next book. No rest for the wicked. I am working on the next which is tentatively right now titled The Diamond Eye, and that is about Lyudmila Pavlichenko, who was the greatest female sniper of all time. She was a Russian girl, a library research assistant and a budding historian, a single mother, who was only 25 years old at the time when Hitler invaded her country, and who joined the army and went to war to fight the Nazis and ended up becoming a sniper and taking out 309 of them in the course of her career. And she has an incredible story, which even has an American connotation because she was sent on a goodwill tour to America, where she just happened to become best friends with Eleanor Roosevelt because why not? It was such an incredible story. I could not believe that no one has written a novel about her yet. And so I'm delighted that it gets to be me.
Cindy Burnett 22:27
I've never even heard of her. It sounds like she lived like three lives in her life.
Kate Quinn 22:31
It really does. She had an incredibly diverse life. And she was just this wonderfully friendly, bookish, erudite girl. She's a librarian who became a sniper. I mean, that's you just can't get more interesting than that. I've really been enjoying diving into her story. And not quite done yet. But I'm hoping to have a rough draft by the time, before The Rose Codehas been out too long in the world.
Cindy Burnett 22:55
Well, I will look forward to that one in the future. It sounds fabulous. So and just what an amazing story. She kind of sounds like Wonder Woman in the flesh.
Kate Quinn 23:04
Yeah, she really is. And I'm, I'm so enjoying writing her.
Cindy Burnett 23:07
Well, before we wrap up, I would love to hear what you've read recently that you really liked.
Kate Quinn 23:11
I've read a couple of really great five-star reads so far this year, even though we're not that far into 2021, one of one of them being The Invisible Life of Addy LaRue by V.E. Schwab. It's just this marvelous magic realism tale about a girl who lives forever, but is remembered by no one. And that's all I'm going to tell you about it because it's so good I don't want to spoil anything more. Another one that came out not long ago is The Children's Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin. And that is this really gripping historical disaster epic about a real storm that blew down out of nowhere on the prairie. And it's specifically this book follows two school teacher-sisters who are isolated in their prairie school houses, and they are each going to be faced with how to protect their students in the middle of the storm. And I literally could not put this book down while I was reading it, it just devoured me. So that was another one that I really enjoyed this year. Next on the list, which I really can't wait to dive into because I've been waiting for that for it to come out is Yellow Wifeby Sadeqa Johnson. That's my next up. And that is about an enslaved woman who's fighting for her freedom from the infamous historic jail called the Devil's Halfacre. So that's what I've got on my TBR right now, and two of those I've read already. They're fabulous. And Yellow Wife is next in the queue. And I absolutely can't wait.
Cindy Burnett 24:31
I just interviewed her not too long ago. And she is just fantastic. And yes, that book is what a story.
Kate Quinn 24:38
Oh, I can't wait that I want it's already next on the list. So now I'm really going to be diving in as soon as I can.
Cindy Burnett 24:44
And I need to read Addy LaRue too. Everybody keeps talking about it. And I have it from Libro.fm, but I just haven't had a chance to listen to it yet. But I'm dying to because it just sounds fabulous. Well, Kate, thank you so much for joining me today on the Thoughts from a Page Podcast. I really appreciate your time.
Kate Quinn 24:58
No, my pleasure absalutely. I'm so glad you enjoyed The Rose Code and thank you for having me up to burble about it.
Cindy Burnett 25:06
Thank you so much for listening to my podcast. If you liked this episode, and I hope you did, please follow me on Instagram at @thoughtsfromapage, tell all of your friends about the podcast and rate it wherever you listen to your podcasts, I would really appreciate it. Kate's book can be purchased at Murder by the Book where I work part time, and the link is in the show notes. Thanks to K.P. Regan for the sound editing, and I hope you'll tune in next time.