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Posts Tagged ‘Spies’

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. Read the rest of this entry »

“The Americans” & the Personal Politics of the Cold War

In F/X, Spies, Television, The Americans on March 18, 2013 at 8:03 am

Phoebe B.

Alert: Quite a few spoilers ahead

My mom still tells stories about desk drills during elementary school. She remembers how students were told to hide under their desks in order to protect them from nuclear war. These drills were part of living with the ever-present (yet invisible) threat of communism and in a nation seemingly always—and perhaps already—on the verge of the nuclear war.

I was born in the early 1980s, as Reagan considered programs like “Star Wars,” but my memories of the Cold War, communism, and nuclear terror are few and far between. Mostly, all I remember is the thaw, the end, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. I even had a former classmate who had a piece of the wall, something she got when she visited the place where it once stood.


F/X’s new period drama The Americans, which premiered a few weeks ago, begins in 1981 shortly before Reagan is shot. The series follows the lives of two married Soviet spies, Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Kerri Russell), living in the suburbs of D.C. and working as travel agents by day and spies by night. The series opens as an attempt to kidnap a defected spy goes awry. After Philip and Elizabeth miss dropping the spy on a boat set for Russia, the duo must keep him in their car in their garage with two kids at home. To make matters worse an FBI agent moves in across the street.


From the outset of the series, the personal and political are inextricably and terrifyingly intertwined. Indeed, even though Philip prefers to keep the defected spy alive, once he learns that the spy raped Elizabeth when she was in training, Philip immediately kills him. It is the first moment in their marriage where Elizabeth seems to sense that he loves her. It is also a telling moment for their relationship: Philip will betray his country to protect her. However, this moment also foreshadows Philip’s desire to be Elizabeth’s knight in shining armor, to fight her battles, and it seems a quality Philip picked up in America–a vision of marriage designed by decades of film and television. However, their marriage, at least for her, has always been political: a cover and Elizabeth, as the more ruthless of the two, certainly does not need any knight-like protection. But for Philip, it is and has been more than just another job. As the drama unfolds, so too does the marriage between the two spies become increasingly complicated, confused, and real.

Few representations of spy craft—especially on television, save perhaps for the short-lived Rubicon—have embraced the small details, discomfort, and daily life of spies and the tolls of living a lie. Safe to say, Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage is not a typical one. Yet it feels amazingly real in its complications and confusions (perhaps without the murderous bent). For instance, Philip’s sense of betrayal at Elizabeth’s long-term affair with Gregory or his desire to protect her, even though she is beyond capable of protecting herself. Even their decision to take the day off and have sex in a hotel, rather than at home, seems like a long-term couple maintaining adventure in their romance and relationship.

But unlike a typical married couple, Philip and Elizabeth’s differences have potentially dire consequences for themselves, the Soviet Union, and the United States. From the outset of the show, the key difference between the two has been their relationship towards America: Philip “likes it too much” whereas Elizabeth holds on to her communist values. She witnesses him becoming American, whereas she is merely playing the part. This division is most apparent is Elizabeth’s dislike of the mall as emblem of 1980s capitalism, while Philip revels in taking his daughter shopping; in the pilot Philip even considers a pair of cowboy boots. This distinction proves dangerous as Elizabeth’s remark to a superior about Philip’s American proclivities gets him tortured by his own people, as their handler attempts to root out a Soviet mole. Elizabeth’s betrayal of Philip is tremendous, not just because of the physical consequences, but because it reveals that he mistook their partnership for a marriage, a strange brand of office romance. Last week’s betrayal was heartbreaking both for Philip but also because of Elizabeth’s changing feelings towards her husband, which are transitioning from job and cover to romance.

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