Author Interview: Elizabeth Wein on Code Name Verity

Elizabeth Wein author photoYou’ve probably already heard of Elizabeth Wein what with her novel Code Name Verity receiving a Printz Honor last year. Her novel is one of my favorite reads from 2012 and also one of the best odes to friendship (not to mention an excellent historical novel) I’ve ever read. I could go on and on about this book–especially because I almost didn’t pick it up. The real clincher was when I (briefly) saw Ms. Wein when she came to sign stock at the bookstore where I worked. It wasn’t a long encounter. And I hadn’t read the book yet. But I picked it up very soon after that. Suffice to say I was dazzled by the story and the characters but also by how everything came together the more I read. Since then I’ve had the chance to meet Elizabeth in real life at BEA (regular readers might remember it was a highlight of my recap!) and also to “talk” to her sometimes on Twitter (twitter is magic). Today I’m absolutely thrilled to have Elizabeth Wein here answering some questions about her novel.

Miss Print (MP): Can you tell us a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?

Elizabeth Wein (EW): I’ve wanted to write children’s books (somehow they all morphed into YA) since I was seven and first started reading novels.  I wrote my first full length opus when I was eleven—it was about 25,000 words long!  It was a time-travel adventure in which a modern girl changes place with her great-great-grandmother for a summer.

I wrote another novel, which was utterly appallingly awful, when I was 15.  My best friend called it “the stupidest book she’d ever read.”  It was an epic fantasy and the denouement involved the heroine playing a flute with her nose.  I am not kidding.

About this time I was also a serious King Arthur fanatic and started inventing the epic journey which eventually became my first novel, The Winter Prince.

I wrote five “spin offs” to The Winter Prince—A Coalition of Lions, The Sunbird, The Lion Hunter, The Empty Kingdom and The Sword Dance (the first two have recently been reissued as e-books from Open Road Media, with the next three in the pipeline.  The Sword Dance isn’t yet published).  They were all originally published by Viking Children’s Books in the past ten years or so, but they weren’t getting very much notice, and my editor at the time suggested I write something a bit more mainstream.  Code Name Verity was the result.

MP: What was the inspiration for Code Name Verity?

EW: Actually, I devoured Holocaust and World War II literature when I was a kid, and when I was about twelve I made up (though never wrote down) a World War II epic which focussed on the fearful and dynamic relationship between a captured resistance teen and her Nazi interrogator.  I just needed the female pilot aspect to put the whole thing into motion over 30 years later!

MP: How did your own experiences as a pilot inform the story?

EW: Partly, the story exists because I got my pilot’s license in 2003 and wanted to learn more about the possibilities available to women pilots throughout history.   The ATA fascinated me.  I don’t think I’d have written this if I hadn’t learned to fly myself, but I should stress that my fictional pilots are much more accomplished than I am!

I think, if anything, it is being a woman in a mostly male-dominated arena that informs the story, and that is a piloting experience that hasn’t really changed much over the past century.  Women are still a minority in the air.

MP: Code Name Verity takes place during WWII and is filled with historical detail. What kind of research did it take to write about this time period? Did you learn anything that surprised you during your research?

EW: Well, I’d already done some of the research for a short story called “Something Worth Doing,” published in Firebirds Soaring (edited by Sharyn November).  It’s about a girl who disguises herself as her dead brother and becomes a Spitfire pilot during the Battle of Britain in 1940—she actually turns up again in a cameo in Code Name Verity as Theo, the Air Transport Auxiliary pilot who first tells Maddie about Lysanders and the Moon Squadron!

I first found out about the ATA, and the SOE (Special Operations Executive), when I was doing the research for this story at the Imperial War Museum in London.  I do a lot of library research whenever I write a book, but one of the things that was fun about researching Code Name Verity was that there was so much hands-on stuff you could get at—museums, ruined fortifications, period clothes and leaflets and logbooks and recipes, and of course, living people who experienced some of these events.  I went to a seminar at the Royal Aeronautical Institute and got to meet four women who had been ATA pilots themselves!

I kind of want to say that everything I learned surprised me.  I hate to admit this, but until I wrote Code Name Verity I hadn’t really taken on board the difference between an occupied nation, and a nation at war.  Because there is a really big difference.

One thing that made a huge impression on me was the scale of it all.  It’s just amazing how global World War II was – much more so than World War I.  I tried to get some of that across in some of the things Maddie says after she’s lived for a few weeks in Nazi-occupied France.

MP: What draws you to the historical genre as a writer?

EW: Really, it’s just these amazing stories.  I’m not drawn to the genre—I’m drawn to the amazing things that people did, and their ingenuity and their bravery, and I want to tell people about it.  Remember I said my first books were all King Arthur spin offs?  That’s not because it was historical.  It’s because I was madly in love with Arthur.

MP: This is a story about war and flying and suspense, but it’s also very much a story about friends. Did you always plan to have a strong friendship at the center of this novel?

EW: No!  It was only when I got the idea for the huge plot twist and the structure of the novel—I started out to write it and realized that in order for the climax to be effective, these girls were going to have to be real best friends.  So I sat down to construct their friendship.  And once I got going, the whole thing just turned into a huge celebration of friendship for me.  I used real incidents and emotions from my own life, and thought of so many of my own friends while I was writing it.  It was a joy to write because I was so wrapped up in capturing the essence of what it’s like to have a best friend.

MP: Without getting into spoilers, the narrative voice throughout Code Name Verity is fascinating. How did you go about capturing the right “voice” for your characters?

EW: I can’t really take credit for capturing Verity’s voice—her narrative pretty much wrote itself.  I know that’s a cliché, but honestly, she was so easy to write.  Essentially she speaks in the voice of my own journals, so although she’s not like me, she talks a lot like me.

The other narrative was harder to capture because it’s not as literary.  I had to keep checking myself and forcing myself to write in plain English.  Whenever I wanted to wax lyrical I found that using a metaphor about flight or engines usually worked very well!

MP: One of the most impressive things about this novel is how intricately the plot comes together. There are a few big twists and throughout the story there are moments where everything readers thought they knew is thrown into question (or even proven completely wrong). As a writer how did you go about pacing this story? How did you keep track of details? How did you decide at what point to reveal key points to the reader?

EW: Keeping track of details was hard.  I didn’t want to use a diary format but in the end I had to date the entries simply because they were so hard to place in context otherwise.  Then when I got to part 2, which has events taking place simultaneously with part 1, I had to construct a time line.  When I finished the manuscript I ripped it completely apart, rearranged it all in chronological order and read it through that way to make sure all the events aligned properly.

I pretty much knew instinctively what I wanted to reveal and when, but it wasn’t till I got to part 2 and started knocking down all the ducks I’d lined up in part 1 that it really became clear the framework was actually going to work.

MP: A companion to Code Name Verity is coming out soon. What can readers expect in Rose Under Fire?

EW: We’ve got a new (and younger) heroine, Rose Justice, who’s an ATA pilot like Maddie.  The action takes place a little later in the war.  Rose gets lost during a routine ferry flight and ends up in Germany, where she’s taken prisoner and sent to the women’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück.

It’s harrowing but not twisty—a different kind of story from Code Name Verity, with a less brazen heroine.  Early readers are saying it makes you cry “a different kind of tears”!

MP: Can you tell us anything about your next project?

EW: Well, it’s set in Ethiopia in 1935 during the Italian invasion, and there are planes in it.  Believe it or not, it’s more of a “family” story than anything else.  There are two teen protagonists, a boy and a girl.  I’m in the middle of writing it and don’t want to talk about it too much lest it change drastically before I finish!

MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?

EW: “Don’t get it right, get it written!” (—James Thurber.)

Seriously.  An outline helps if you’re struggling.  Write—get something done—get it accomplished.  Then start to polish.

Thanks again for the interview and the chance to wax lyrical about the making of Code Name Verity!

Thanks again to Elizabeth for taking the time to answer my questions.

You can find more information about her books on her website.

If you want to read more about Code Name Verity check out my review! (And if you haven’t read it yet, seriously, go pick it up!)

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