Marie Benedict and Kate Quinn Champion History's Hidden Heroines
In 'Smoke Signal,' best-selling historical fiction writers Marie Benedict and Kate Quinn imagine the story of how Agatha Christie crossed paths with one of Britain's top secret code breakers in the throes of World War II.
February 12, 2021
Note: Text has been edited and will not match audio exactly.
Tricia Ford: Hello, I'm your Audible fiction editor, Tricia Ford, and I'm thrilled to be here with not one but two of our favorite writers of historical fiction. I've got Marie Benedict and Kate Quinn here, and we're going to be talking about their joint venture, the Audible Original Smoke Signal, available on Audible now. Welcome, Marie, and welcome, Kate.
Kate Quinn: Thanks for having us. Delighted to be here.
Marie Benedict: Yes, thank you so much for talking with us today.
TF: I'm so excited, I'm going to start with Marie. Marie, you are a very well known, and dare I say prolific writer of historical fiction, focusing primarily on lives of famous women in history. Titles like The Only Woman in the Room, Carnegie's Maid, The Other Einstein, and your Audible Original from this past summer of 2020, Agent 355. All stories I love, love to listen to, they’re great, and your most recent work, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, is a new Audible Original, narrated by the wonderful Nicola Barber. So I'd like you to talk a little bit about this, because it comes into play with Smoke Signal and with this special project that the two of you worked on together. Can you talk a little bit about The Mystery of Mrs. Christie?
MB: Absolutely, Tricia. Thanks so much for asking. With all my novels, I'm really on a mission to unearth important women of history who have these key legacies, and deal with really timely issues. I've long been kind of a crazy Agatha Christie fan, who, of course, we know her immense legacy. She's practically a household name. But when I learned that she actually disappeared in 1926, in circumstances that really seemed torn from one of the pages of her novels, a disappearance that led to, like, the largest manhunt in England's history, a disappearance that was never solved, I became really drawn to her life and her story.
Marie Benedict: "It was one of those circumstances in which the historical facts were much more incredible than any fiction Kate and I could have concocted."
I had this sense that the resolution of the mystery surrounding her disappearance might help us understand how she became the fantastically successful writer that we know today. And that's another theme I'm really passionate about, sort of the origin stories of these really key historical women.
TF: I love the way you reimagine these historical women's lives in such an accessible way. How it's just so easy as a contemporary listener to put myself in there, and that's definitely something I took from The Mystery of Mrs. Christie. I love that mystery that you explore there, and I'm so excited in talking about how that connects to what Kate is working on.
Now, Kate Quinn is another hugely popular writer of historical fiction with a focus on women from history. You'll know her for The Alice Network and The Huntress, among other great novels. And her upcoming title is The Rose Code, coming in March 2021. Kate, welcome. Can you tell us a little bit about The Rose Code, and what we have to look forward to there?
KQ: The Rose Code is about three very different women who are recruited from all walks of life in the start of World War II in England, and they are brought to a very remote country house manor called Bletchley Park, in the middle of nowhere in Buckinghamshire, and they are put to work in dire secrecy along with hundreds, and eventually thousands, of others, men and women recruited from all across Britain, to break the supposedly unbreakable Axis military codes, with which the Axis is winning the war. And I was first drawn to this history because Bletchley Park and its contributions to World War II were immense. Some historians even estimate that without the code breakers of Bletchley Park, making it possible to literally read Hitler's mail and his battle plans, the war could have dragged on for several more years, and [taken] millions more lives.
And then the thing that really fascinated me was the fact that, by the end of this operation, not only was this code-breaking facility a home to thousands of workers, but about three-quarters of them were women. And this does not seem to be a story that had been told before, despite the fact we know the names and some of the titanic male figures like Alan Turing. I wanted to tell about the women, the worker bees, so many of them who were brilliant and unseen and unheard of, after they were gone. And so that is how The Rose Code was born, where I have a fictionalized story of many women whose achievements were very fascinating and very real.
TF: That's amazing, I cannot wait to listen to it. Now, I want to hear the backstory about how the two of you came together to create Smoke Signal. What happened there? Who wants to start?
KQ: Well, I think I can start there. And that is because really it began in the most informal way possible. Maria and I met in real life for the first time at an author event. And as authors do, we were excitedly discussing the books that we're writing right now, and I realized she was writing The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, about Agatha Christie, and I was writing about the women code breakers of Bletchley Park in The Rose Code. And my research had already turned up the fact that Agatha Christie knew some of the Bletchley Park code breakers. So I tell this to Marie, and we instantly go gaga, the way that historical geeks like us do. We had the idea on the spot of, why don't we collaborate on a crossover short story or novella that will feature characters from The Rose Code and from The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, and we can have fun exploring the what-might-have-been mystery that the historical record dropped in our laps.
A year later or so, Marie emails me with, "Well, what about that? Do you think you'd have time to do that? Maybe we could." I was all gamed to do it, so we started talking about how we were going to get this done, and what it will be about. That's the seed of where Smoke Signal began. And once we started working on the details of the story, we found out there were even more intersections than we realized. Because in The Rose Code, I write about a real-life Soviet spy in Bletchley Park, and then Marie finds out quite independently that Agatha Christie at one point lived in a building full of Soviet spies.
MB: It was one of those circumstances in which the historical facts were much more incredible than any fiction Kate and I could have concocted. When I took a close look at Agatha's life during this period of World War II, really looking at what she was doing, what she was writing, where she was living, I almost couldn't believe it. She had written one of her only spy thrillers, in which she actually mentions Bletchley, about a pair of middle-aged former spies, these characters called Tommy and Tuppence, who were looking for more in the way of war work, which Agatha was looking for too. At this point, she was serving as a pharmacist. She really felt like her talents were being underutilized.
She was living in this now-famous Isokon Building, which, as Kate mentioned, was literally riddled with Russian spies. Staying and living and visiting the hallways of the Isokon Building were Arnold Deutsch, who was the notorious spy handler, the whole Kuczynski family of spies, including Ursula, who recruited the nuclear scientist, Klaus Fuchs, who helped the Soviets get the atomic bomb, and a whole host of well-known British communists. These people were living next door to her, passing her in the hallways and lobby, and they were dining and drinking with her in this common building restaurant that they all frequently inhabited. There was so much material to work with, to envision that the sort of marriage of what Kate's people were doing and what Agatha might have wanted to do. I really felt like history gifted us with far more material than we ever expected we would have to work with.
TF: It's amazing. It's such a fascinating part of history. I wish I could have been there in that dining room, watching. I love those scenes in Smoke Signal of Agatha sitting there, observing, it's just so perfect. So perfect. I so enjoyed the story. For that reason, I get to live that history just a little bit. Now, how did you guys do it? I'm curious, especially in this day and age where communication is difficult. Did you assign different parts? One of you I'm assuming wrote the Agatha Christie part, and the other wrote the other part? Can you talk a little bit about that?
KQ: We really had a very easy process. With this, we first talked about what history gave us, which was a multitude, far more than we could ever even cover. And we sort of made an outline of how the story would fall together, and then it was quite easy because she was writing from Agatha's point of view, and she of course knew Agatha very well, having finished The Mystery of Mrs. Christie already. I was writing from the point of view of one of my Bletchley Park heroines, who was a former debutante-turned code breaker named Osla.
And Osla is my voice for this, and I realized there was a way in which I could make Osla and Agatha intersect, which was quite historically possible. And so I wrote Osla scenes, and then Marie wrote Agatha scenes, and we literally just played hot potato with the document, sending it back and forth. And I would write my scene and send it to her, and she would then chalk it up with some red, and I would make corrections on it, and then I'd send it back to her with, "All right, now it's your turn." And that really worked quite well. We had a blast doing it, and it fit in around all of our normal other deadlines, so it was just pure fun.
TF: Wow, that sounds amazing. I'm very happy to see your narrator choices here: Nicola Barber and Saskia Maarleveld. At what point in the process did you know that they would be returning to narrate?
MB: It kind of goes back to when we first decided that the story, the novella, Smoke Signal, would really work well with Audible. We originally were looking at doing this more as just a promotional fun piece, and it was so much fun to write it. But then I had done Agent 355 last summer, and just had a really great experience writing it sort of with an eye to it being listened to with the support of the Audible team, and of course incredible narrators, with a wonderful reach. So it seemed like a natural fit for that, and then of course the opportunity to really weigh in on who those narrators would be was really exciting for Kate and me.
We both were asked who we'd like to narrate Smoke Signal, and I think that number one on both of our lists were the narrators of The Mystery of Mrs. Christie and Nicola Barber, and Saskia Maarleveld who has narrated, I think, not just The Rose Code, but all three of your World War II novels. Right, Kate?
KQ: Yes, she has. I was thrilled to have her back. It's one of those things too where a narrator, just like an actress, wants to find a voice for a character, so we knew right away in the chain of emails when it started being the discussion about narrators that it would be great to have the narrators who already very much knew the voices of the women they will be asked to do for this particular story, for Smoke Signal. And so we were delighted that it just turned around super easily and both of our fabulous narrators happened to be available.
TF: That's amazing.
MB: Yeah, providing such, such wonderful continuity for listeners who may have listened to The Rose Code or The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, and come to Smoke Signal that way or vice versa. And for me in particular, it was really wonderful being able to interact and chat with Nicola, sort of about the evolution of the character, you know, she narrates an Agatha that's 20 years, plus years younger than the Agatha that appears in Smoke Signal, and she's been through a lot, and it was fun to weigh in on the performance aspect of it, and how that might change her narration and the voice that she uses. It was just a wonderful piece of the puzzle that it all came together.
TF: I love that. I love the serendipity there, how it all works together, and it really makes Smoke Signal this little extra cherry on top for fans of those original works, because we've all experienced when a story ends, how you kind of want it to go on, and want to revisit those characters, and this is just the perfect little treat for that. I really enjoyed it, and in this case at this time, because I've not yet listened to The Rose Code, it's just amped up my anticipation of that, and I can't wait.
Now there are a few details in the story that I think we can talk about without giving too much away. One of the little side stories that I loved was the group of code breakers having a book club called the Mad Hatter Literary Society, and I'm dying to know if that's a real thing. Or is that something you made up for the story?
KQ: Well, I really enjoyed the whole story, not just when I was researching Bletchley Park of the code breaking that they did, but the play. The work and the play. Because these were people who labored under a lot of stress and a great deal of secrecy, they realized very quickly they would need to blow off steam. So there was a really rich recreational life at Bletchley Park, and there were so many clubs. There was a drama club that did a review every Christmas. There was a chess club, which was really great because they had a lot of champion chess players there. Chess players, as it turned out, make great code breakers. They had a Highland Dancing Club, where they would dance on the lawn in front of the mansion. And there was a cinema club. So these are the things that I found just wonderful for detail. I did not find a literary society per se, but I do know that a lot of the Bletchley Park people were voracious readers, and there were so many books of the day that we even still know today.
Kate Quinn: "When you read historical fiction, the real magic there is not just that you're traveling to the past, but that you're revealing that and realizing that the people in the past really are just like us in very many ways."
Agatha Christie, by this point, she's very far from the uncertain young woman who is still forging her career. In The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, she's a superstar by this point, is putting out a book a year, and I thought, being a book lover myself, and my readers also being book lovers, it would be very unlikely if there was not a literary society, or a book club of some kind at Bletchley Park. So that's how the Mad Hatters were born. I'm even the one who came up with the name the Mad Hatters, because they very much find themselves thinking of Alice in Wonderland when they come to Bletchley Park, and how it all feels like you're down the rabbit hole.
So they call themselves the Mad Hatter tea parties when they get together, and they enjoy their books, and they read books like Gone With the Wind, which was a huge seller of the day, and classics, like Jane Austen novels, and they also read Agatha Christie novels. So that was a great deal of fun, and it gave me an opportunity because A, who doesn't like a book club? And B, it seemed like a way to do a little bit of tribute to the research, where you see the code breakers not just when they're at work, but when they're at play, and it's so much fun.
MB: I can't wait for readers to find this book club. The Mad Hatters are such this zany group of super brilliant but extremely diverse characters, and it's just a joy to be in their literary society alongside them. I think readers are absolutely going to fall in love with them.
KQ: The literary society has a lot of fun, but when I... It was such great fun for me in Smoke Signal to throw Agatha in there. Because Maria and I are authors, we are used to, you know, we've talked to book clubs all the time, and we've made speeches to groups of people. This doesn't always come easily, because writers are introverts. So we had fun with the scene in Smoke Signal where Agatha Christie gets to interact with the Bletchley Park book club, and her real reaction is horror. She's like, "Oh, my God, I do not want to be here, please let me go back to my study and be alone."
And there's the little bit of fun we had there, because I think we've all been there on both sides. At least all writers have been, certainly Maria and I have both been where we're the person with the book saying we want to pepper the author with questions, and then we're also the author standing there going, "I'm feeling a little bit shy and my knees are shaking here." So that was a lot of fun as well because we've been on both sides of that equation.
MB: It's a little bit autobiographical, in that sense.
TF: Well, who better to aspire to identify with, and what better way to make a character as big as Agatha Christie, a real-life historical woman, who's at the level of being purely mythic, to humanize her in that way. I love that, because I, too, identify with her reluctance to be in the spotlight in that way. I love that little human interaction there, and that window into the personality of Agatha Christie.
This next question, we'll kind of press pause, whether or not we want to share this as part of the interview, is if you guys are going to be working together again?
MB: So I would say, never say never, right? I wouldn't say that we've mapped it out, specifically, but I would grab any chance in the world to work with Kate again. It was really so much fun, so easy, so magical. And of course, I'd love any, if it's about Agatha Christie, I'd love any chance to write about her again. She, as you mentioned, she's so much more than that silver-haired matron that we kind of all envisioned her to be.
She's not just brilliant in putting together these unsolvable mysteries, but she's a very complicated human being too. And we really get to see that part of her evolution from her early days as a young woman into her middle years in Smoke Signal. So, boy, never say never, and anytime Kate wants to write or write about Agatha Christie or anybody else, I'm there for it.
KQ: I really do think it might be fun to collaborate again, absolutely. It was such a joy. And it's something that we don't have perhaps a specific idea yet, or I don't know, maybe we do, because neither code breakers, nor mystery novelists give away their secrets, and neither do the ladies who write about them. So you'll just have to follow us on social media and see what we come up with.
TF: That's the perfect answer. That's very funny. Writers about mystery writers don't give away secrets. I love that. Now, one thing that I want to talk about a little bit more specifically, is how you, in general for Smoke Signal and beyond that, in your past work and your future work… Obviously, Agatha Christie is bigger. It's easy to imagine why you would want to write about someone like her. But where have you found your other historical characters, women from the past, that you've wanted to write about? How have you discovered those women?
KQ: Well, I think for me, and Marie and I have talked a lot about this in the course of writing these books, and just in the course of general fangirling and gabbing away, is that it's finding the women of the past who have done some truly amazing things, and shining a bit more of a spotlight on those women and their achievements, which may have been, if not entirely lost to time, perhaps a bit more lost to time than they deserve to be. I mean, Marie writes about some very famous ladies like Churchill's wife, Clementine Churchill. This is definitely a name we know, or Hedy Lamarr, who was a famous movie star. But both of these women were so much more than a politician's wife and a movie star. They had achievements that were somewhat swallowed by other things.
I've often found women like the Bletchley Park code breakers, who are sort of these faceless women who were not perhaps even big names in their day, but they did still achieve astounding things, and that is the kind of thing that I want to write about, because, you know, they deserve to be celebrated. And their achievements deserve to be celebrated as well, to inspire the women of the present as well as to do honor to the women of the past.
MB: Absolutely. In some ways, Kate and I are kind of like archaeologists excavating these women, whether they're known or unknown, from the detritus of the past, where they've been lost to time. Whether they've just been marginalized, or whether that forgetting has been more intentional on the part of some people of their time period. It's also really important that we bring out these women's stories and their contributions, so we can understand their legacies, and really understand how indebted we are to them. But also to understand that these women dealt with issues that are still timely today, and we can learn from them.
Just take out Osla and Agatha in this circumstance, right? They're both these brilliant women. Underestimated by their societies for very different reasons. Agatha, while brilliant, is an older woman, and so she's kind of marginalized for that reason. Osla is this very bright but beautiful debutante, so people have a preconception about her abilities. And both of these women were forced to kind of use that underestimation to further their own goals and their sense of purpose. And that's just one example of the kind of issues that historical women were struggling with, that modern-day women are still dealing with. And I really hope and feel that these historical women can serve as an inspiration to us as we kind of muddle through our own issues. Some more modern-day issues that we deal with.
TF: Amazing. I love one of the quotes from the book that talks about that commonality that Agatha and Osla have. I love that connection between these women, just a beautiful thing.
KQ: We really did enjoy exploring that, as they say, they're very different on the outside. And yet two fundamental things they each deal with Agatha for herself—and this is something even more explored in The Mystery of Mrs. Christie than in Smoke Signal—she's the woman novelist who's trying to do it all. She's trying to be a wife, she's trying to be a mother, she's trying to be a sister, a daughter. And she's also trying to have a career. I mean, I don't know a single woman writer who does not struggle with that balance today, much less in the 1920s or the 19 teens.
For Osla, it's the idea where she has a job that she really enjoys, but she struggles to be taken seriously, she struggles to make her way up the ladder, and not just be dismissed as some silly girl. Women trying to be taken seriously in the workplace, that's still something that many women struggle with today.
So it's the idea when you're reading historical fiction. I think this is what draws me to it, and I know it draws Marie to it as well. It may take place in the past, where people eat strange things and wear weird clothes, but basic human feelings and basic human struggles remain more similar than we ever think. When you read historical fiction, the real magic there is not just that you're traveling to the past, but that you're revealing that and realizing that the people in the past really are just like us in very many ways.
TF: That is so true. And I think it speaks to the draw of historical fiction for so many of us. I know it's a hugely popular genre for Audible listeners, and a go-to for when people want to discover a new story to really dive into, and become transported by, it's just ideal. Historical, but at the same time fully imagined worlds, are so easy to escape into.
MB: There's something I think about, that distance of history that allows us to see issues that might be very prevalent in our own lives—that distance allows people sometimes to identify and then extrapolate into their own lives in really interesting and meaningful ways. I really hope that's true of Osla and Agatha as well.
TF: I think it is, I think it is. I want to thank you both for talking with us today for this conversation. Getting the two of you together has been super exciting both for your project, for Smoke Signal, and for this conversation.
Thank you everyone, for joining us today and for listening. As a reminder, you can get The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict on Audible now, as well as The Rose Code by Kate Quinn. And Smoke Signal is available in Audible Plus for all Audible listeners right now.