Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Question Behind The Cipher

My second novel is out today.  You don’t know how good it feels to say that.

Scratch that—they are plenty of writers reading this blog, many of them familiar with the heady brew of pride, relief, and gratitude that comes with seeing your book on a physical shelf.  They also know that when you start on the path toward that moment, the road ahead feels long and lonely.  Certain questions haunt you.  Are my characters interesting enough?  Can I actually tie all these plot strands together in thrilling fashion?  And will anyone be interested in a novel about a math riddle posed in 1859, known as the Riemann Hypothesis?

Okay, that last question was particular to me. 

You see, The Cipher took root in my mind when I read about a teenager in India who had possibly solved the Riemann Hypothesis, which many call the greatest mystery in math.  It deals with prime numbers, and the article noted that because modern encryption systems are built on prime numbers—and the fact that, basically, no one understands them—unraveling the Riemann Hypothesis could also unravel all of our electronic secrets. 

It turns out the teenager hadn’t solved the ancient math riddle.  But I thought:  what if he had?  And what if, suddenly, he had a key that could unlock any piece of encrypted information?

I knew it was a book I wanted to write.  The plot came almost fully formed to my mind.  But it was about a math problem from 1859.  And it involved a government agency called the NSA—one that few, at the time, were familiar with.  It felt . . . obscure.  The doubt loomed:  is this going to feel important to people?

I set out to write anyway, because that’s what you do—you write about the things that move you.  It’s the only way to go.

So I dove in.  I researched encryption and the NSA, and I made the characters as interesting as I could.  I drafted a novel in which the chapters are designated by prime numbers.  I could only hope people would find the subject as fascinating as I did.

Just as I was beginning to think the NSA was, indeed, a strange subject for a YA novel, something happened.

Edward Snowden hit.  Suddenly, the NSA was the subject of a national conversation.  In the flood of news that followed, there were reports of the NSA going to great lengths to break Internet encryption systems, just as it does in The Cipher.  My editor and I traded furious emails, watching with a kind of horrified fascination as various elements of the novel were reflected back in real life.

Any doubt about the subject matter of The Cipher being too obscure was erased.

It has only kept up since then.  Apple has made an encrypted iPhone, responding to popular worry about digital surveillance.  Hollywood released the Imitation Game, another fascinating (and unlike mine, true) code-breaking story.  On Sunday, a documentary about Edward Snowden and the NSA, Citizen Four, won an Oscar.  Yesterday it aired on HBO.

Today, The Cipher could not feel more timely.  My biggest question, then, has been resolved.  As for the others, you tell me:  are the characters interesting enough?  Did it thrill you?  Did the twists and turns keep you turning the pages?  Now that the book is out there in the world, I’m eager to hear the answers.


  1. Wow! Perfect timing!

    Congratulations on the release of CIPHER! (And btw, I would be interested in a math mystery from 1859, even without Snowden.)

  2. Haha, thanks Dianne! It really is a fascinating subject.

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