For Educators, For Readers, Q&A 2 years ago

#LoveOzYA Q&A with Ellie Marney for THE KILLING CODE

Ellie Marney is a New York Times bestselling and multi-award-winning crime author who goes above and beyond in pursuit of just the right details for her brand of YA crime thrillers.

Her latest novel, THE KILLING CODE, takes place in 1940s America and follows code-breaking girls as they seek to solve a murder.

#LoveOzYA’s Bianca Breen chatted to Ellie about the girls of Arlington Hall. Read the full interview below!

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Hi, Ellie! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with LoveOzYA about THE KILLING CODE! For those who might not know, can you tell us what The Killing Code is about?

Hi, and for sure! THE KILLING CODE is set in 1943, when four codegirls working at a secret cryptanalysis facility called Arlington Hall must join forces to break the code pattern of a serial killer who is murdering government girls in wartime Washington DC.

Basically the book is a murder mystery with codegirls, and gorgeous fashion, and the glitter and tension of the United States capital during World War II!

 Can you tell us a bit about the code girls the story centres around? Who were they and why was their work important?

Well, my girls – secretive Kit, glamorous Moya, tenacious Violet, and bubbly Dottie – are all fiction, but they were based on reports I read about real codegirls during the war. Did you know that seventy percent of the codebreaking workforce was female? It’s true! And many of them were very young – at the UK facility, Bletchley Park, the average age of the girls was nineteen. But people have estimated that through their extraordinary efforts, they brought the war to a close more than two years faster than it would have finished otherwise, and consequently saved more than millions of lives.

 Murder mysteries are your speciality, but what drew you setting one during World War II in America and the girls in Arlington Hall?

I was first enthralled by the idea of codegirls after watching a TV series called ‘The Bletchley Circle’, and then I dived into reading about Bletchley Park…which led me, in a roundabout way, to researching Allied codebreaking efforts in the US. And when I read that Arlington Hall was a real place – that it was, in fact, a finishing school for young ladies before being bought by the US Army as a codebreaking facility – I knew that I’d found my entry point to the story!

 What kind of research did you do to write this novel? Can you share anything you found cool that didn’t make it into the novel?

Oh, there was so much research for this book! It has been one of my most research-heavy novels, without a doubt. I did a lot of reading – there are a number of books about wartime codebreaking, I encourage you to check them out! – and a lot of information is available online. I also read through a number of Oral History Interviews with real-life codebreakers from a series compiled by the NSA (the US National Security Agency) – luckily, it was all declassified in the 1980s-90s.

One of the best things I read was how the codegirls who lived and worked together in such stressful, hothouse conditions would often socialise together – but if they were out together in public, and one of them ordered a Vodka Collins, that was their code that someone was taking too much interest in their work. They would scatter to the bathrooms and all leave separately!

Every codegirl was sworn to secrecy about their work during the war; many of them took the secret of their codebreaking efforts to their graves.

 Your last two books – as well as the upcoming None Shall Sleep sequel – are set in America. What drew you to an overseas setting after writing several books in Australia?

I think I decided to try writing a few stories set in America, and they proved so popular, I was encouraged to continue! But to be honest, a lot of the stories I’ve been attracted to writing lately – about teenaged FBI agents, or female codebreakers – were dictated by location to begin with: the FBI training facility, Quantico, is only in America, and Arlington Hall is the only girls-school-that-became-a-codebreaking facility that I know of!

 What is your writing process like from initial idea to completed draft? Does it change between novels?

My process is usually to spend a lot of time thinking and reading about the topic I’m interested in – to let myself fall down the rabbit hole, if you like. Then if the story seems to have ‘legs’, I’ll continue to find the topic resonant, and scenes and characters and dialogue will just begin to arrive in my brain… I spend a lot of time just writing down snippets of dialogue and scene-concepts before I get started properly. But once I start, I begin at the beginning (with a solid plan) and work my way through to the end without jumping around.

The process will sometimes change between novels – it depends a lot on the material – but over the last ten years, this is the most reliable way I’ve discovered to keep the ‘flow’ going.

 What are you hoping young modern readers will take away from this historical novel?

I’m hoping they’ll see the similarities between their own lives and the lives of wartime codegirls. Yes, there are differences, of course – but I really hope to give readers a sense of solidarity with the girls, and hope readers feel strongly that depth of female friendship which powers the book.

And I hope they like the love story, too!

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