November 03, 2020

Elizabeth Wein

The thrill of the past
Interview by
Printz Honor author Elizabeth Wein spoke with BookPage about the very personal inspiration behind one of the characters in The Enigma Game, her surprising literary superpower and her aviation bucket list.
Share this Article:

A recently orphaned young woman newly hired as a personal assistant. Her charge, a feisty, elderly German woman. A Scottish Traveler concealing her heritage behind her respectable job as a military driver. A pilot from a privileged family just hoping his men survive their next mission. Printz Honor author Elizabeth Wein’s latest World War II thriller, The Enigma Game, follows four protagonists whose lives intersect when they discover an Enigma machine left behind in a Scottish pub by a rogue German pilot. Wein spoke with BookPage about the very personal inspiration behind one of her book’s characters, her surprising literary superpower and her aviation bucket list.

In your author’s note (which I love that you’ve titled “Author’s Declaration of Accountability”), you sketch out some of the origins of this story—movingly, that you began by wanting to write a story about a mysterious old woman having a bond with a young person because of your experience of losing your grandmother, Betty Flocken. I’d like to ask you two questions inspired by this note. First, when and how did the Enigma machine enter the story you were devising? And second, will you tell us more about your grandmother? 

I confess that the Enigma machine was my husband’s suggestion. I was already working out the plot, and I had the idea of a German pilot defecting to Britain. I wanted him to bring some game-changing information or technology with him. I asked my husband to help me brainstorm ideas, and he instantly suggested an Enigma machine.

As for my grandmother, you will have to stop me once I get started! She is my mother’s mother and my namesake and my soulmate. My mother died when I was 14 and my grandmother raised me after that—she lived to be 98. She was my biggest fan and supporter as a writer. She visited me in Scotland every year until she was 95, so my own children knew and loved her too, and we spent every single summer with her in Pennsylvania while they were growing up. It was always a wrench to have to say goodbye at the end of the summer. One of my favorite images of her is from the year the manuscript for Code Name Verity was being shopped around to publishers: standing on the porch of her woodland cottage, fist-pumping as we drove away to go back to Scotland, yelling after us, “GO VERITY! GO CODE NAME VERITY!”

Born in 1916, she had a master’s degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania, which she got in the 1930s, and she worked with children and foster families all her life. The children that she placed kept in touch with her even after they were grown up and had children of their own. She had a way of making every single person who met her feel like the most special person in the world.

Like Jane Warner in The Enigma Game, my grandmother stayed youthful because she stayed interested and engaged in the world. She absolutely lit up whenever anyone started talking politics. Another of my wonderful images of her is sitting on the railway platform at the train station in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, thrilled to be the oldest audience member on that leg of Barack Obama’s whistle-stop tour in 2008. She told me once: “I’m not afraid of dying—I just don’t want to miss anything.” 

The Enigma Game alternates between three distinct narrative voices. How did you arrive at this structure? Was one voice more challenging or more enjoyable to write than the others? 

My original draft of The Enigma Game was all voiced by the same character, and it really limited the viewpoint. Adding in the other two narrators, particularly Jamie, the pilot, gave me much more of an opportunity to give a firsthand account of some of the most exciting action in the book.

I never really stop thinking about the characters I fall in love with.

An unexpected advantage to having three narrators was that when two or more of them were involved in the action, I found that I could use rapid-fire shifts in the narration to simulate three people trying urgently to tell a story together. It was a new narrative effect for me, almost like writing a play, which I found challenging and exciting.

Ellen’s voice—the young Royal Air Force driver and a native Scot—was definitely the hardest for me to write. I didn’t want her to sound like she was talking in dialect, but I wanted her to sound colloquial. Also, of the three characters, Ellen is the one who doesn’t come from a literary background, and I always have to rein myself in a bit when I’m writing a character who hasn’t read the same things I’ve read! 

Several of The Enigma Game’s characters are people of color or from marginalized backgrounds. For some of them, blending into the majority-white British society is easy; for others, it's an ongoing struggle. What kind of research and work did you do to be able to represent their experiences with authenticity? Did you learn anything that surprised you or that you found particularly striking or memorable?

I mostly read and listened to memoirs and interviews. Because I was learning about an Indigenous nomadic population in Scotland and imprisoned Germans on the Isle of Man and Caribbean men and women who lived and served in World War II in the United Kingdom (not to mention the background for the Royal Air Force squadron I was setting up), my subject matter felt really scattered and not as comprehensive as I would have liked. Among other things, I found out about Caribbean soldiers in Scottish logging units, and the horrific voyage of a group of British residents who happened to be German as they were deported to Australia, and a government report on a Black population in Wales in the 1940s. I also read contemporary wartime fiction by Nevil Shute, and a book of Una Marson’s poems (she was a Black Jamaican who produced a wartime radio program for the BBC, “Calling the West Indies,” later called “Caribbean Voices”)—and none of these things actually made it into the book! But details from these many different lives leaped out at me, and it is in combining and weaving them together that I have tried to give authenticity to my imaginary characters.

I should add that my young narrator Louisa’s experience of leaving behind a childhood in Jamaica to come of age in a colder climate, and of losing both her parents at a young age, are based on my own experiences. Like Jane Warner and Louisa, I, too, am an immigrant to the United Kingdom.

The one thing in all this background research that really sticks out in my mind in its shocking ignorance and unfairness—truly, above everything else—is how Lilian Bader, a Black British woman serving in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force during the war, found herself being taunted as a Nazi by a group of evacuee children who had never seen a Nazi or a Black woman.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Enigma Game.

Though The Enigma Game stands perfectly on its own, fans of your previous books Code Name Verity and The Pearl Thief will notice familiar characters appearing here, including one character whose previously vague backstory is explored in much greater detail. What is it like for you to revisit familiar characters in new circumstances like this? Can readers hope that this isn’t our last experience with them?

I never really stop thinking about the characters I fall in love with. Their backstories keep spinning in my head—how they grew up and what they’ll do next, and in some cases, how they’ll die—and although I encourage readers to bring their own interpretations and ideas to my texts, I do tend to have a “canon” idea of what happens to everybody. So the chance to explore these characters in new circumstances is never anything short of a pleasure for me. Although I feel the need to make up new worlds, I am sure I will revisit some of these characters in years to come. 

The coded messages that Louisa deciphers from the Enigma machine are often ambiguous, which gives readers a chance to figure out their meanings along with the characters. How did you design messages that struck the right balance between clarity and ambiguity?

I think that designing literary coded messages might be one of my superpowers! (It’s certainly a wonderful way to pretend that you are “working” when you are actually fooling around with puzzles.) I really enjoy doing it. In my book, The Empty Kingdom, I wrote a sonnet constructed entirely of lines from The Odyssey which was also a secret message from one character to another!

The hard part about the messages included in The Enigma Game was trying to avoid making assumptions about language. Here in the U.K., the Big Dipper is called the Plough. But what is it called in German? Trying to hit that balance between clarity and ambiguity is an art—but not really any different than a mystery writer leaving a trail of clues for the reader. I suppose you could think of them as clues! 

Classical music plays a significant role in the way characters communicate in The Enigma Game, including everything from social bonding to secret communication. Was music ever actually used in this way during the war? What are some musical pieces would you want to hear if you travel back in time and space to a World War II-era pub like the Limehouse?

I haven’t come across a specific story of music being used to hide code during the war (though poems were used), but music was certainly a powerful weapon. The example that leaps to mind is Dmitri Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, the “Leningrad” Symphony, which he wrote and performed during the siege of Leningrad as an open statement of defiance, and which was distributed and performed throughout the world in solidarity against the Nazis. Think also of the scene in Casablanca where everybody starts to sing the French national anthem!

Jazz was so hated by the Nazi propaganda machine, and so loved by the general population who listened to it, that the Third Reich had to come up with an allowed and watered-down version to stop people using it as a political weapon. It turned political anyway, and hundreds of German young people—the “Swing Youth”—were imprisoned and killed just for listening to music.

The appeal of writing about the past for me is very simple: I just want to create a history for the abandoned and disused things around me.

The classic wartime example of Morse code as a musical message is Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, whose dramatic opening beats spell out the Morse letter “V” (dit-dit-dit-DAH, short-short-short-long), which was the Allied victory symbol. The symphony was used as a symbol of resistance throughout the war, and with French words added to it, it was broadcast on the BBC’s secret radio station just before the invasion of Normandy. German classical music was also often embraced as a wartime symbol of defiance; the story of an English violinist refusing to take shelter in an air raid during a concert, her Bach concerto soaring above the noise of the bombs, really sticks with me.

My idea of the off-duty airmen's informal music sessions in The Enigma Game was inspired by the author Lucy Boston’s wartime concerts for a local flight squadron between missions. Living alone and approaching middle age, Boston wanted to do something for the war effort, so she opened her home to the young soldiers stationed nearby to give them a brief respite of comfort and culture when they weren’t risking their lives in combat.

What would my own wartime concert include? I would have to struggle to narrow it down. Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and “Ode to Joy” from his 9th, Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides Overture,” “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” “White Cliffs of Dover,” “In the Mood”—honestly I’d just listen to whatever they were playing! 

You’ve become renowned for your World War II thrillers and iconic female protagonists. Could you talk a little bit about the appeal of writing about the past, particularly about World War II? What keeps you returning to this moment in history?
The appeal of writing about the past for me is very simple: I just want to create a history for the abandoned and disused things around me. Living in Europe, we are absolutely surrounded by the detritus of World War II. Every North Sea beach in England and Scotland is littered with anti-aircraft bunkers and miles and miles of concrete defensive tank traps. Unexploded bombs turn up on a regular basis in farmers’ fields and building sites. Civil defense warnings are still visible in faded paint on city walls; the iron railings of my own front garden were chopped down as wartime surplus and the stumps still remain.

The war always fascinated me. My high school French teacher, Annette Berman, was a courier and translator in the French Resistance when she was a teenager. For three years in her French class, she told us breathtaking stories of her wartime heartbreak and triumph. My husband’s parents were both teenagers in England during the Blitz, and their stories, too, feel immediate. Yes, I am writing about the past, but I feel that I have a living connection to it. Given Madame Berman’s wartime experience, it seems perfectly natural to me to write about heroic young women!

What makes me keep returning is that I keep finding out more, and it’s all so interesting. The research for Code Name Verity led me to the women’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück, which led me to write Rose Under Fire; the research for Rose Under Fire led me to a British interception of a Luftwaffe bomber, which led me to write The Enigma Game; the research for The Enigma Game led me to that horrific British prison ship bound for Australia, full of German civilians. What about the teens on that ship? THAT would make a story. There is always more!

Your love of aviation and especially for the aircraft of World War II is evident in many of your books, including in The Enigma Game, and you hold a private pilot's license. Do you have a bucket list either of planes you’d love to fly or of places or routes you’d love to fly?
You’d be surprised at how doggedly I have gone about checking items off this bucket list!

I have actually managed to get flights in an Avro Lancaster bomber and a Westland Lysander (the star aircraft of Code Name Verity), though not at the controls! And I have my name on a notification list for flights in the world’s only airworthy Bristol Blenheim, the star aircraft of The Enigma Game, when they allow passengers. In fact, I’d paid for a flight in a Dragon Rapide (a 1930s-era passenger plane) alongside that Blenheim, which was supposed to take place in May 2020. Not surprisingly, that flight has been indefinitely postponed.

I have a separate bank account that I’ve been saving in for a Spitfire flight—the iconic British fighter plane from the Battle of Britain in 1940. You can get a flight in a specially made “two-seater” training Spitfire over the cliffs of Dover, where much of that battle was fought, and you CAN take the controls. So watch this space.

I’ve also kind of doggedly set about flying the routes that my characters take. I have flown on several occasions along the east coast of Scotland and the North Sea there, the airborne setting for The Enigma Game. I have flown over Holy Island and Bamburgh Castle, as Maddie does in Code Name Verity at the beginning of the war.

Originally, I got my pilot’s license because I wanted to fly across North America. Nothing to do with the war! That hasn’t happened yet, but maybe it’s on the list for a retirement project.

Author photo by David Ho.

Get the Book

The Enigma Game

The Enigma Game

By Elizabeth Wein
Little, Brown
ISBN 9781368012584

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Interviews

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!