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INTERVIEW: Christine Wells

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Today I welcome Christine Wells, author of The Juliet Code, to the blog.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
While in the process of researching The Traitor's Girl, which was about World War II spies, I came across the story of Noor Inayat Khan. Noor was a wireless operator who worked for the British Special Operations Executive in occupied Paris during World War II. Everyone thought she was too gentle to survive such dangerous conditions but she managed to elude the Germans and operate effectively for months until she was betrayed. When German counterintelligence kept her prisoner in a mansion in Paris she made several attempts to escape and fought her captors so viciously that they deemed her a dangerous prisoner and kept her handcuffed in solitary confinement.

I wanted to tell a story about an unlikely spy, a woman who is flawed and makes mistakes, but who struggles and ultimately prevails.

How extensively did you plan The Juliet Code?
For this novel, I began with the premise, the inciting incident and an idea of the key turning points, but I didn’t plan Juliet extensively. In fact, it took a different direction from the one I intended when I began.

What were some of the major challenges and obstacles that you overcame while writing this book?

A major challenge for me was getting my head around ciphers and coding—in particular, the Playfair Cipher used by the Special Operations Executive during the war—and trying to then simplify and explain the process in the book. I didn’t want to let The Juliet Code get bogged down in detail because first and foremost, readers are interested in the story. Hopefully, I struck the right balance.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?

I was keen to match up an SAS officer with a former Special Operations Executive agent in The Juliet Code but at the time I began the book I didn’t realise that the Nazi officer on whom I based the character of Kieffer had not only incarcerated Noor Inayat Khan but he had also ordered a group of SAS paratroopers to be executed and their identities obliterated in a manner contrary to the Geneva Convention. One SAS man escaped execution and it seemed a perfect way to give Mac, the SAS officer, a personal stake in hunting Kieffer after the war.

I love the covers of your books. Do you get much of a say in how they’re designed?
I hear from readers that they love my covers and I feel very lucky because I don’t have much say in their design. I might give a physical description of the protagonist but that’s about the only input I have before the cover is sent to me. I am then able to comment but I haven’t felt the need to ask for changes in the three I’ve had with Penguin. The cover artist has done a wonderful job every time.

What are some of your favourite books that you’ve read recently?
Most recently, I read and loved Sally Hepworth’s The Family Next Door, a suburban mystery along the lines of Liane Moriarty’s books with that fine balance of sharp insight, humour and gut-wrenching sadness. I also enjoyed Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan, a thriller featuring a female barrister protagonist that I thought extremely well researched and authentic.

What are some of your favourite non-fiction books?
I absolutely love Of Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War by Leo Marks — Marks is a delightful storyteller who inspired the character of Felix in The Juliet Code. I totally fell in love with Leo when I read this memoir. I also devour Ben McIntyre’s rollicking tales of espionage and special forces, such as Operation Mincemeat and A Spy Among Friends.

Do you listen to music as you write, and if so, what?
I only listen to music as I write if I’m finding it difficult to block out other noise, and then I listen to Mozart.

Can you tell us more about your Author’s Note, and your true-life inspirations for Juliet, Felix and Mac?

I’ve spoken a little about the inspiration for Juliet above. As I’ve mentioned also, Juliet’s love interest, Felix Mortimer, is based on Leo Marks who was in charge of decoding wireless transmissions for the British Special Operations Executive during World War II. He wrote a poem for the agent Odette Sansom to use as a cipher key, called ‘The Life that I Have” which later became famous. He was the son of the owners of the bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road (made famous by a novel of that name) and after the war he became a playwright and scriptwriter.

My tough Scottish SAS captain, Steve Mcintyre (“Mac”) was inspired by a real SAS paratrooper who escaped the Nazis by using his watch spring to pick the lock on his handcuffs. I so admired the mix of supreme toughness, strategy and guile of the SAS men in World War II that I knew I had to write about one of these extraordinary men. Mac also serves as a foil to the more intellectual heroism Felix shows.

You can read my review of The Juliet Code here.
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