Interview: Alison Weatherby and 'The Secrets Act' - Danger and Daring Do in Bletchley Park
Updated: Sep 5, 2022
Who doesn’t love a good Spy thriller? Absolutely no one, that’s who! And boy-oh-boy, do we have a cracker of a thrill read to bring to your attention today. The Secrets Act is a stonkingly good book, a page-turner if ever we’ve read one.
We were lucky enough to speak to the author of The Secrets Act, Alison Weatherby, to find out all about her YA historical mystery and her creative process. Let’s not waste any more time on an intro as the interview is right there. Just down there.
Only a few centimetres from this full stop.
Flick your eyes down a bit and you’ll find it.
It'll own cost you half a calorie worth of effort and it'll be totally worth it, we promise.
Imagining History - Could you tell us a little more about your book The Secrets Act?
Alison - The Secrets Act is a YA historical mystery set at Bletchley Park in 1941. Ellen arrives at Bletchley with dreams of doing extremely important work, finding a friend like her, and escaping from the watchful eye of her parents. She meets Pearl, a messenger at the Park who also loves solving puzzles and ciphers and has fallen for the wrong fellow. When Pearl’s crush is killed in a motorcycle accident and his messenger bag goes missing, Ellen agrees to help her friend find out what really happened. The investigation leads them to uncover shocking secrets and question who they can really trust.
What inspired you to tell a spy story set in World War 2?
The Secrets Act didn’t start out as a spy story at all. I visited Bletchley Park with my family and was inspired by the young women who worked there. I found it astounding that, because of the Official Secrets Act, they couldn’t tell anyone what they’d done for decades after. I always wanted The Secrets Act to be a friendship story between two slightly different girls who loved puzzles. It eventually grew into a spy story after I did more research on the Cambridge Five spy ring – a group of spies in the UK who passed secrets to Russia during the war. The group was too juicy not to include it somehow!
Where did the idea of the characters Pearl and Ellen come from? Were they based on real people who worked at Bletchley Park?
A lot of the characters in The Secrets Act were inspired by real people. Ellen is one of the few characters not based on a specific person. She’s a bit of a mash-up of several girls I read about who worked at Bletchley, but I knew I wanted her to be exceptionally smart, a bit of an outsider, and a lover of books and puzzles. Pearl was based on the youngest employee at Bletchley who was 14 when she started as a messenger, taking memos and secret papers from office to office. Because workers at Bletchley did not know what others did or even how their work impacted the war effort, I needed a character who knew a bit more than the average worker. As a messenger, Pearl knows everyone at Bletchley and also has many opportunities to eavesdrop, which is highly valuable.
How did you go about researching the real-life history behind the book?
Because I live in Dublin, I wasn’t able to visit Bletchley Park a lot, but did visit and spend time at the museum there. I read everything I could on Bletchley and listened to a lot of interviews and oral histories on the Bletchley website. These were incredibly helpful in understanding how people talked back then – their unique word choice and cadence – giving insight into what motivated them, what they did for fun, and what they wore or ate. I also spent a day at the Imperial War Museum’s research rooms, where I was able to read diaries, letters, and other personal affects from people who worked at Bletchley Park.
What was the most fascinating piece of trivia you learned during your research?
The piece of trivia that inspired the book and I still think is so amazing is that 75% of Bletchley’s wartime employees were young women. I’ve also read that the efforts at Bletchley helped to shorten the war by at least two years, which means that these young girls – most in their late teens and early twenties – worked hard, long hours in often less than ideal conditions and were able to crack what was considered an unbreakable code. I’m in total awe of those women.
How do you balance the need for historical authenticity versus telling a good story?
Honestly, I found that really challenging at times, as it was very important for me to stay loyal to the people who worked at Bletchley Park. Also, their real lives were so interesting and it was tempting to include all the stories (which would’ve made for an insanely long book). Thankfully, my wonderful editor reminded me that while The Secrets Act was historical, it was also fiction, and I should take the liberties I needed to make the story work. It was definitely a balancing act!
With that in mind, how did you create the feeling and atmosphere for the reader that they are in the 1940s, without getting bogged down in historical detail?
It was very important for me to visit Bletchley around the time of year when The Secrets Act takes place. Details such as the dampness of the air, the chill of the wind, or the light on a foggy morning can do a lot to create an atmosphere. But I also wanted to be in the huts to see how cold they were, to hear what they could hear when in the mansion, for example. I wanted the reader to get a sense of the historical setting like they would from a movie, so I was sure to outline clothing, hairstyles, food choices, and other details that would paint a picture of life at Bletchley. To avoid getting bogged down in history, though, you have to know all the details, but not write about all of them. For example, I knew exactly what model motorcycle Richard rode, what his jacket looked like, and how many pockets he had in his bag. I knew whether he had a helmet (he did not) or sunglasses (not needed) or gloves (yes). I knew what cologne Richard wore, what brand of hair pomade he preferred, and what he ordered at a pub. I didn’t include nearly all those details but knowing them helped me create a realistic, rich portrait of their world.
That’s incredible! So, what are you working on next?
My next book is set during WW2 as well, near Dover. During my research for The Secrets Act, I became fascinated with the Women’s Navy, or Wrens, and the Wireless Stations that were dotted all over England to intercept enemy radio transmissions. In this book, Vera, a Voluntary Interceptor, takes a position at a Y-Station in a lighthouse north of Dover. When she arrives, she learns that the Wren she has replaced was found murdered in the tunnels underneath Dover Castle. She soon is roped into helping her friends solve a murder, while also uncovering the truth behind the secrets that haunt her.
Sounds awesome! We’d love to have you back on the blog in the future to find out more about your next book.
A big thank you and a gloriously epic high five to Alison for taking the time to answer our questions.
You can find Alison on Twitter at @aliwea
Check out The Secrets Act here: @alisonweatherby | Linktree