The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Elizabeth Wein

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Elizabeth Wein


Summary: We loved Code Name Verity and when author Elizabeth Wein popped into Bookbag Towers we had some searching questions to ask her.
Date: 22 April 2012
Interviewer: Robert James
Reviewed by Robert James

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We loved Code Name Verity and when author Elizabeth Wein popped into Bookbag Towers we had some searching questions to ask her.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Elizabeth Wein: I see myself at 16. Then I shiver.

If I try to look further, I see a person who looks a lot like Queenie - on the inside more than the outside - an avid reader, enthusiastic to the point of loopiness about the things she's interested in, not sure yet what she wants to do with her life. Looking for adventure. I do confess that this is a book aimed more at girls than at boys.

  • BB: Who do you relate more closely to in Code Name Verity, Queenie or Maddie?

EW: I think there's a bit of me in both of them, but I guess the answer has to be Queenie. Her bookish childhood, university background, love of pretense and pleasure in writing - that's me. I have never in my life created a character whose voice came so naturally to me.

I had to work harder at Maddie's voice to keep it consistent. Maddie is a nicer person than me - sometimes when I was working on her part I'd put my pen down and exclaim aloud, 'Maddie, you are just SO NICE!' Most of my characters have a mean or jealous or devious streak. Maddie's straightforward generosity surprised me.

  • BB: Agreed, Maddie is staggeringly nice!

I've read several articles talking about Code Name Verity being your debut book - which is rather wide of the mark! That said, it's certainly brought you to the attention of many people who haven't heard of you before. Do you think there's a particular reason for its phenomenal success compared to your earlier books?

EW: There are two clear answers to that, and I think they work together with equal weight:

1) It's the best book I've ever written. 2) It's being more aggressively promoted by the publishers than my other books.

It's really only the Brits who use the 'debut' word, and that's no doubt because I've never had a book published in the UK before. So British booksellers and librarians and the general reading public are very unlikely to have heard of me (though a few savvy reviewers have pointed out that it's NOT DIFFICULT to search Google or Amazon before calling this a debut novel… and my other books ARE mentioned on my website and on Goodreads…)

A third answer is 'online buzz'. I think this has made a huge and amazing difference for Code Name Verity. My most recent book previous to CNV was The Empty Kingdom, published by Viking in 2008. That's only four years ago, but my impression is that book blogging was in its infancy then. There weren't any online reviews for the book. Virtual galleys weren't available. Online literary exchange - in particular Goodreads, Facebook, and Twitter, in addition to the bloggers and readers themselves - has had an enormous effect on Code Name Verity's early success. It's so easy to promote the book online.

I ran an on-line launch for The Empty Kingdom in 2008 and it was such an original idea at the time that the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators paid me to write an article for the SCBWI Bulletin about it. It really wasn't very long ago, but there's nothing original about this idea now. (The mortal remains of that party are viewable here, but it's a ghost of its former self.)

  • BB: I think the 'online buzz' factor is awesome. (Although as a blogger, I would say that!) I'm thinking back to my own childhood and teenage years and how much I woud have loved it if I could have found likeminded readers then!

Your love of planes shines through Code Name Verity, and I wasn't particularly surprised to find out you had a pilot's license. In the same situation, do you think you could have coped as well as Maddie does?

EW: I really, really hope so. A large part of a pilot's training is ritually practicing what to do in an emergency (so in fact I've actually done the same firefighting maneuver as Maddie, but only in practice). I feel obliged to point out that Maddie is a much more experienced pilot than I am; but practice for emergency situations is handled as a drill, to get you in the habit of going into a set routine the moment you recognize a problem.

The only recurring dream I have about flying is of having to land a broken plane. Amazingly, these dreams are never nightmares. I usually have to land in some really dumb place like the top of a car or the roof of a narrow boat, and I always manage to pull it off successfully. I like the confidence of my dream world emergency landings, all the more so because in real life practice emergency maneuvers scare the pants off me. And practice forced landings are the worst.

'Fly the plane' isn't something I made up specially for Maddie to remind herself when she needs to stay calm - it's something every aviator is supposed to remember. But honestly - anti-aircraft guns? I don't know if I'd cope as well as Maddie. I would certainly use stronger language than she does.

  • BB: Your POV for a large part of the narrative shows Queenie talking about herself in the third person. It's drawn a lot of comments, partly because it's quite unusual and partly because you handle it so wonderfully. Did you always know you were going to write those bits from that POV?

EW: I did decide early on to do it that way, for all the reasons Queenie gives - mainly that we were telling the story from Maddie's point of view and it would have been awkward to introduce another viewpoint character. What I had trouble with was figuring out what to call her in her role as Queenie - or rather, what she should call herself. I thought it would be weird for her to call herself by her own real name, and I also liked the idea of messing with Anna Engel's brain by fooling her into thinking the narrator hadn't turned up yet. And then I realized that it would be kind of neat if the narrator didn't mention her own name throughout her narrative.

I have never been entirely comfortable with 'Queenie' as a name for this character, though it is useful and appropriate for many reasons, and when she says, 'I am not Queenie any more,' it makes sense to me. In my head I call her by her real name, the name she calls herself. 'Scottie' is another pseudonym I (and she) considered, but it's less of a disguise and wouldn't have worked so well for messing with Engel's brain.

There is a point at which Queenie slips up and talks about herself in the first person during her embedded story - it describes a traumatic experience for Queenie which Maddie doesn't witness, though she is on hand to pick up the pieces immediately afterward. It seemed right for Queenie tell this particular experience from her own point of view, so the slip is purposeful on my part but not on hers.

Most reviewers have been extremely careful about not revealing Queenie's real name. This is incredibly touching to me, because the name itself isn't a spoiler. It feels like sympathetic magic - almost as if by, protecting her identity, you are declaring your allegiance to her - as though she were a real person. It awes me that people feel so strongly about this.

  • BB: One quote that I've seen loads of people use is the one which Queenie uses to describe herself and Maddie - 'We are a sensational team.' Who's your favourite team, or group of friends, in YA fiction?

EW: Gaby's Gang in The Horse Without a Head by Paul Berna, first published in 1955. There are 10 friends in this multicultural, variously aged gang of poverty-stricken post-war French children, boys and girls, each with a distinct personality. Gaby Joye is the oldest and the leader; the story is told from the point of view of Fernand Douin. The absolute hero of the novel is the girl Marion Fabert. The gang gets inadvertently involved with a high-profile train robbery which ends in a showdown between kids and gangsters in an abandoned factory. Marion saves the day, and her friends' lives, by setting a pack of sixty dogs against the armed gangsters.

I've read The Horse Without a Head innumerable times in English and twice in French. It is one of my top ten favorite books EVER. The setting, a gritty industrial railway village on the outskirts of Paris, pretty much gave me the framework for my invented French city of Ormaie in Code Name Verity.

Here are my two Goodreads reviews of The Horse Without a Head - the second complements the first.

Since Gaby's Gang is pretty obscure, here's a favorite pair of friends from contemporary YA fiction: Saffy and Sarah from Hilary McKay's Casson family books. McKay is my favorite contemporary children's writer and although only Saffy's Angel focuses on Sarah and Saffy, I love the fierce, supportive friendship these two continue to develop as they grow older throughout the rest of the series.

  • BB: Hilary McKay is one of those authors I keep meaning to try and somehow forgetting about! Will definitely keep an eye out for Saffy's Angel. Gaby's Gang, which I hadn't heard of, sounds great as well!

What advice would you give to someone trying to get their first novel published?

EW: NETWORK. I can't stress enough how productive it is to get to know other writers, to go to workshops and conferences where you have the chance to meet editors and agents, and to learn to take constructive criticism. Every single one of my publishing breakthroughs has been because someone I knew helped me out - handed my manuscript to the right editor, or gave me a recommendation, or asked a friend for a blurb. Join a writers' group and/or a reading group; go to author readings and book festivals in your area; find out if your council or town has a local writer in residence. Building a network of friends and industry contacts is essential to getting published, no matter how talented you are.

If you're hoping to write for children, join the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

SCBWI International

SCBWI British Islesregion

[http:// SCBWI Scottish region]

The Writers & Artists Yearbook also has a very informative website

Finally, this site is a little weird-looking, but it has useful links to all the fantasy-related conventions going on in the UK in 2012. If you write any kind of genre fiction you'll find that conventions are a great way to meet authors (both published and unpublished) and many other people in the publishing industry

  • BB: A massive thank you for that wonderful advice!

Are there any books you'd recommend to people who enjoyed Code Name Verity while they wait for your next book?

EW: There's a book about a teen who joins the SOE coming out in June which I'm excited about myself. It's called The Violins of Autumn by Amy McAuley.

Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith, is a well-researched look at a teenage girl who becomes a pilot for the WASP (Women's Auxiliary Service Pilots) during the war in the US. Tension is added by the heroine's subterfuge of being a black woman 'passing' as white.

I find Garth Ennis's six volume graphic novel series on World War II, Battlefields, to be exquisitely good, though maybe not to everyone's taste. My very favorite episodes are Vol. 1, Night Witches, and Vol. 6, Motherland, which are both about a fictional Russian female combat pilot, Anna Kharkova.

There are two books by Kathryn Miller Haynes, The Girl is Murder and The Girl is Trouble, which may appeal to people who enjoy CNV. I haven't actually read these myself (The Girl is Trouble doesn't come out till July 2012), but they sound like the right stuff - mysteries set during World War II with a no-nonsense teenage heroine.

Finally, Mare's War by Tanita S. Davis is neither about spies nor pilots, but is a beautifully crafted and gently courageous story of another teenage black woman, this one underage but otherwise legitimately enlisted with the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. Her unit is sent to wartorn Europe as postal workers. Mare's War is a Coretta Scott King Award winner and deserves a good deal more attention than it gets.

Tamar by Mal Peet is another post-CNV reading recommendation which I have just downloaded to my Kindle. It looks brilliant.

  • BB: Thank you so much for all of those! (Although I have a feeling I'm about to hit Amazon or the Book Depository pretty hard; this is undoubtedly going to end up being an expensive interview!!)

Do you listen to music when writing? If so, what was the soundtrack for Code Name Verity?

EW: Stuck in my head for six months:

'The Last Time I Saw Paris' (words by Oscar Hammerstein II, music by Jerome Kern, 1940)

Stuck in my head for two months:

'Dream a Little Dream of Me' (words by Gus Kahn, music by Wilbur Schwand and Fabian Andre, 1931)

Maddie's comment that this song was a welcome relief from 'The Last Time I Saw Paris' was really Maddie voicing my own thoughts!

The actual soundtrack I associate with the book:

Felix Mendelssohn's 'Hebrides Overture' - Die Hebriden. Maddie mentions it, obliquely, as being part of the soundtrack for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. If CNV ever gets made into a movie, I think it is the perfect music to accompany it - Scottish-themed music by a German composer, with the Colonel Blimp association thrown in.

I didn't actually listen to any of these while writing, but in fact played it all on the piano (and sang along to the pieces with lyrics) when I was taking a break from writing.

Although it's not contemporary, I also have a strong association with CNV for Nanci Griffith's album Flyer. 'Don't Forget About Me' just crystallizes, for me, the friendship at the heart of the novel. I listened to this album again and again while driving as I was writing the book. (I only have it on cassette so I can only play it in the 16-year-old car!)

  • BB: What's next for Elizabeth Wein?

EW: I am about halfway through a sort of follow-on novel about a different ATA pilot. It takes place the year after CNV and ends up in the Ravensbrück women's concentration camp and then at the Nuremberg war trials. The plot isn't as complex and twisty as CNV but the project is feeling over-ambitious at the moment, which may be because it is JUST. SO. HARD to write about Ravensbrück.

However, this is a book I have been itching to write since I was about 10. So I guess it's time.

  • BB: Sounds amazing! I can't wait to read it.

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me, Elizabeth! Very best wishes for the future.

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This interview was kindly given to us by the ever-generous Ya Yeah Yeah.