thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

An Interview with Elizabeth Wein, Author of “Code Name Verity”

In books on April 1, 2013 at 10:41 am

codenamecoverElizabeth Wein has had quite a year. Since her World War II-era spy novel Code Name Verity came out last spring, it’s racked up young adult book awards right and left, as well as accolades from publications like The New York Times and NPR.

All that acclaim couldn’t go to a more deserving book: Code Name Verity is a ferocious, dazzling tale of the friendship between two young women who also happen to be ace British spies, and the courage they summon under terrible circumstances. I stayed up late into the night finishing the book all in one gulp, and the next day, I started reading it over again. After that, I still wasn’t ready to let go of the world Wein had created, so I sat down and emailed Wein herself–who graciously agreed to an email interview with Girls Like Giants. Read on for her thoughts on villains, best friends, facing your fears, and what learning to fly a plane taught her about feminism. –Sarah Todd

‘Verity’ (aka Queenie) and Maddie are such distinctive, vivid characters. Were they inspired by particular people you’ve known or read about?

The things they do were inspired by real people—I read a lot about women of the Special Operations Executive and the Air Transport Auxiliary when I was doing the research for CNV, and I made altered use of some of their experiences. But the characters of Queenie and Maddie are totally original and developed as the book developed. They really aren’t like anyone I know—they are just themselves.

Often books about female friendships seem to focus on the jealousies and tensions between women. But Queenie and Maddie’s love for each other is pure–maybe because they become friends during wartime and establish that baseline level of trust from the get-go. Do you have a best friend? What’s your own perspective on female friendships been?

I have had several best friends at different points in my life, and there has occasionally been some jealousy involved (Queenie and Maddie do actually admit that they are sometimes secretly jealous of each other, and Maddie now and then expresses her irritation out loud to Queenie). But basically I *love* having a best friend—several different people have filled that role at different times in my life. Writing CNV was partly a celebration of that. When my closest friends live far away, as they do now, I really miss that easy and close-knit interaction.

Although I wouldn’t say the friendship in CNV is based on any ONE of my friends, the development of Queenie and Maddie’s friendship was consciously patterned on my friendship with Amanda Banks, who was enrolled in the same PhD program as me (CNV is dedicated to her). At the time we lived about 100 miles apart and only got to see each other every couple of weeks, and we really lived for those brief meetings. Also, we were under a lot of stress studying for our PhD exams and struggling with some academic backstabbing issues in our department—add to the mix a dorm fire at 2 a.m. and the two of us having to usher all the undergraduates out from the fifth floor—it wasn’t wartime, but our friendship developed very quickly sunder stress, a small bit of danger, and in spite of physical distance. So you can maybe see the parallels.

Code Name Verity is so intricately plotted. I’m curious what the process of writing and structuring it was like. Did you plot out all the book’s twists and turns beforehand, and then go back so that events were revealed in a certain order? Or did you write the book chronologically, figuring out what happened as you went along?

The latter. I knew the basic plot and I knew the structure—the dual narrative and the climactic moment—but I had NO IDEA what the twists and turns would be beforehand. The coded manuscript, Queenie’s actual line of work, Engel’s personality, von Linden’s family—even the fact that Queenie’s confession of code sets might not be entirely what it seems—I didn’t realize ANY of that until I got there. I didn’t know what Queenie’s mission in France was. Because the plot *is* so intricate, it looks like I did it purposefully, but I confess that a lot of it just fell conveniently into place (I had a lot of “AHA!” moments while I was writing it).

Your book does an excellent job of portraying the Nazi characters as real people without ever diminishing their sadism and cruelty. As readers, we’re never meant to be sympathetic to von Linden–thank goodness. But seeing him through Verity’s eyes, knowing that he’s a former headmaster with a daughter in Switzerland and a soft spot for the arts, we wonder along with her how he lives with himself. What was your approach to writing von Linden and the other Gestapo characters in the book–to understanding how ordinary people came to commit unforgivable acts? 

As with the plot structure, I knew very little about these characters when I started writing the book. I set them up as traditional baddies in the beginning, and in fleshing them out I started becoming aware of their humanity — von Linden’s family and interest in literature, Etienne Thibaut’s complicated situation as a local boy, Anna Engel’s sullen nature hiding a TON of stuff (apart from Maddie and Verity/Queenie, Engel is my FAVORITE). But honestly, I just can’t produce a straightforward one-dimensional bad guy.

With von Linden, there was a definite influence from two books I’d recently read in French: Le Silence de la Mer (The Silence of the Sea) by Vercors (which Verity mentions) and La Jeune Fille Au Pair (The Young Au Pair) by Joseph Joffo. Both portray German officers as nuanced human beings. In Le Silence de la Mer, a French family forced to accommodate a German occupation army officer tries to freeze him out, but find themselves forced to listen to his nightly stories of his past life and hopes for the future as he does all the talking to mitigate their frosty silence. In La Jeune Fille Au Pair, the daughter of a high-ranking Nazi official takes a job as an au pair for a family of Jewish Auschwitz survivors just after the war. She leads a very complex and distressing double life, as she adores her employers and their children, but disappears to Berlin every two weeks to visit her father, now in prison for his role in the mass transportations of Jews to the death camps. This book definitely provided me with a lot of food for thought as well as the inspiration for Isolde von Linden.

Code Name Verity places a lot of emphasis on courage and fear. Both Maddie and Queenie encounter situations in which they have to face their worst fears and summon up the bravery to make incredibly difficult choices. What made you want to write about women and courage? And where do you think their courage comes from?

Well, truthfully, I don’t really write about women and courage—I write about people and courage. My other five books all feature characters who have to endure equally fearful trials—Telemakos, in The Sunbird, is an eleven-year-old boy who suffers just as much as Verity and proves himself just as clever and courageous. So it’s not really a surprise that my girls are brave too!

Actually, I think that fear, and facing fear, is a big theme throughout everything I’ve ever written. My books The Lion Hunter and The Empty Kingdom are all about learning to live with fear. The assurance, Do not be afraid runs through The Empty Kingdom with the same repetitive insistence that Fly the plane, Maddie runs through Code Name Verity—and it means essentially the same thing. Do what you have to do. Don’t let fear stop you.

I think the reason I find this such an important theme is because it is such a theme in our lives—I grew up in the shadow of potential nuclear war, and my children are growing up in the shadow of global terrorism.

The events of September 11, 2001 made me very aware that the opposite of fear isn’t really bravery—it’s love. The last words of the September 11 victims, calling from their cell phones to say goodbye, were “I love you.” Not “I don’t want to die,” but “I love you.”

So, um, yes. I’ll stop now ’cause I’m making myself cry! But yes. That’s what I write about. People living with fear and beating it.

I understand you’re a pilot yourself. Can you tell us a little bit about what flying means to you, and why you wanted to write a book about a woman pilot in particular?

Getting my pilot’s license was the hardest thing I have ever done, for a number of different reasons. One of these was that when I started taking flight lessons I had a two-year-old and a four-year-old in the house. They were in daycare two and a half days a week, and that’s when I fit in my lessons. How I fit in the intense study (there are 8 written exams) I do not know, to this day, but I do remember once becoming so frustrated with the background distractions that I scribbled all over the book I was trying to study and threw it across the room (it was the navigation manual).

I find, living in Scotland, that women are more complacent about fitting into traditional stereotyped roles than I have experienced in other places. It irritated me that as the mother of very young children I was expected to lose interest in anything else. A friend at the time bemoaned the fact that she’d always wanted to play the saxophone and now she never would. It made me so mad! Why the heck should having children stop a free and independent grownup from taking saxophone lessons? And the first time I went to a flying club social evening as a student pilot, someone who hadn’t met me before asked me “whose wife” I was—assuming I couldn’t possibly be there as a pilot myself.  Gah. ARE WE IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY OR NOT???!

So being a woman and a pilot did cast a new light on feminist issues for me. Like Maddie, I was given tons of encouragement from all my instructors and fellow pilots, but also like Maddie, I was a bit of an anomaly. And I got to explore those issues, which are very much part of my sense of self now, in Code Name Verity.

That’s kind of separate from the joy of being in the air and the sense of accomplishment in knowing how to fly a plane—but the ground work is actually just as important.

Is there any talk of making Code  Name Verity into a movie? And in your dream-casting world, who would you want to play Maddie, Queenie, Anna, Jamie, and other key characters?

The movie rights for CNV have been optioned by Anonymous Content, a management company, who will work on putting together a package (studio, director, actors, etc) around the book. We’ll see what comes of it! I have to stay away from the dream-casting question because I don’t want to jinx it or type-cast anybody’s role. Careless talk costs lives!

Where can fans of your book find more of your work? And do you have any book recommendations that you think people who loved Codename Verity might enjoy?

My books and all my short stories are listed on my website (www.elizabethwein.com), but unfortunately they’re mostly out of print so they’re hard to get hold of. There are usually used copies available on Amazon but I’ve also found that eBay carries a fairly steady supply. My first book, The Winter Prince, is available as an audio book.

Readers of Code Name Verity should check out Sharyn November’s short story anthology, Firebirds Risingthe last story in this collection, “Something Worth Doing,” tells the story of the “vicar’s son” who Maddie mentions a couple of times, as well as Theo Lyons, the ATA pilot who first tells Maddie about the Moon Squadron.

Here’s a great trio of World War II spies-n-pilots books for readers who enjoyed CNV: Amy McAuley has a wonderfully well-researched novel about teen girl Special Operations Executive agents in The Violins of Autumn. Sherri L. Smith’s Flygirl tells of a black teen girl pilot who joins the WASP during World War II – this organization was the American equivalent of the ATA. And completing the trio, Tanita S. Davis’s Mare’s War is a moving and evocative novel describing life in the only all-black women’s regiment stationed in Europe during the war.

And of course… Rose Under Fire, my next book, will be available in the UK as of 3 June, and in the US and Canada in September!

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  1. […] click the following link to read an interview with Elizabeth Wein talking about Code Name Verity on the Girls Like Giants […]

  2. […] Girls Like Giants’ interview with Elizabeth Wein […]

  3. Reblogged this on Ale's Book Blog and commented:
    YES!

  4. […] In this interview, Wein talks in-depth about the […]

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