I have to STOP you right here. Don’t read any further if you haven’t read Code Name Verity, but intend to. And you should intend to!
To be perfectly honest, when I read about Elizabeth Wein that she is a pilot, as well as an author and an American, I went off her a bit. I find it hard to put up with people capable of so many things. And flying sort of trumps many other accomplishments.
But on the other hand, Code Name Verity is one of the best books I’ve ever read, and Elizabeth wrote it, and that must mean she’s not all bad and over-qualified, surely? I overcame my childish notions and asked if we could meet, and she is a lovely woman who laughs a lot. And there is the vintage underwear. She’s interested in vintage underwear. What’s not to like? Well, I’m still a little green about the flying, but other than that I’m happy.
We agree to have lunch when I’m in Stirling and Elizabeth offers to come over from Perth, so we meet at Victoria’s in King Street. Looking at the menu we find we can’t read the blackboard specials without walking up close to the board, so I do a recce. And while we are waiting to order I feel I have to ask Elizabeth what I’ve been thinking of for so long, ‘Why Stockport of all places?’
‘It’s big enough you can make it anonymous, and familiar enough that I can make it convincing.’
‘Yes, it is certainly specific.’
Elizabeth orders soup and a corned beef sandwich on brown bread and tea. Very war time.
‘I meant to take a second look at your book, just to remind myself, but found it wasn’t possible. I ended up reading the whole book again. There was no way I could skim read Code Name Verity.’
‘Well, I like to hear that.’
‘Did you know it was going to be good?’ This feels like an odd question, but I have been wondering.
‘I knew it was going to be good’ (she sounds decisive and so very American) ‘when I got the core idea for what was going to happen. And when the structure also came; it was going to be one person telling the other person’s story.’
‘Which is quite unusual.’
‘There is a scene in Absolutely Fabulous where Edwina comes marching in and she says “idea had, career saved” and I wrote this in my notebook.’ She laughs apologetically. ‘And I knew it would work; write the whole thing right through. There are certain scenes that I wrote right at the beginning, and one of them was the last part of Julie’s section, and then the very end. I had like ten pages of text at that point, and again, it’s written in my notebook “this is going to be so good,”’ she laughs out loud, ‘because I knew if I could pull the whole thing together… I’m not saying it was easy, but I knew that it would work.’
‘Other things came as I was writing. Most of them actually came as I was writing. Where it comes up to people that Maddie was still alive; I didn’t mean it to be a plot twist but it was necessary for Julie to believe…’
‘So in order for Julie to believe, I had to make the reader believe it, too.’
‘I felt she really must be alive because otherwise it would be strange to have a book about two main characters.’
‘Yeah, I didn’t intend the reader ever to think that she wasn’t. I think I was surprised when my first reader thought “she’s dead.” I had never intended that.’
‘On the other hand you have this feeling that because it’s YA, characters are bound to survive and…’
‘I suppose it’s my reputation. There are a lot of people who think certain of my previous characters died an unnatural and early death, but in fact they are still alive. My first readers were people who knew my work, and they were hoping it would be all right at the end.’
‘My handicap is that I’ve not read any of your other books. I’d never heard of you and I was under the impression that this was your first book.’
‘A lot of people think it is. I’d not been published in the UK before.’
‘Whereas people who have reviewed Code Name Verity online, all seem to be very aware of your other books and are great fans. And I thought, right, you’ve got a big following, somewhere and I don’t know anything about it.’ Elizabeth laughs out loud. ‘They are sort of Arthur style books?”
‘They are. The five I have published, they are all about the same family. The first one is set in Arthurian Britain, and the next two are set in Africa, in Ethiopia and Yemen.’
‘I come out in a rash whenever Arthur turns up in fiction, so it’s the last thing I would want your books to be. Do I want to read them? Because you’ve written them?’
‘I’m in the midst of doing an audio recording of The Winter Prince, my first book, and I listen to it and it makes me cringe.’ She laughs quietly.
‘It’s very dark, but there are parts of it I like. I would say that if you like my writing, I’d recommend you start with The Sunbird, which is the third one. They are stand-alones, until you get to The Sunbird, and then you get a kind of follow-up sequel. Actually, you might like A Coalition of Lions, which is the only other book I’ve written that has a female narrator. A lot of people think it is my weakest book, and then there are people who like it the best. So you might actually try The Winter Prince first, because they do refer back to it. It is the one that starts everything off, and it’s intense and it’s dark.’
‘But you never kill anyone?’
‘The thing is, in A Coalition of Lions I look as if I kill somebody, but I haven’t, honestly… The reason I made it look that way, was in order for the events, and for The Sunbird to stand on its own, everybody in that book had to think that this other character was dead.’
‘I do have a concluding novel in which this character turns up again, which remains unpublished. I’ll send you the other titles. And if you find The Winter Prince is too awful, stop reading it and go on to A Coalition of Lions.’
I laugh. ‘Thank you.’
‘It’s intense and dark’ (she repeats this so cheerfully), ‘and it’s Arthurian.’
‘So it’s not set in dark damp Wales?’
‘It is set in dark Wales?’
‘No, it’s set in Stockport,’ she giggles uncontrollably. ‘Because who would set a book like that in Stockport? You may well recognise the scenery.’
‘Where did Maddie live?’
‘She lived in Cale Green.’
‘Oh, that’s only a stone’s throw away from me!’
‘She lives in a house that is lived in by a friend of mine, and I’ve only just discovered it housed ATS girls during the war.’
‘One of those weird coincidences that happen.’
‘Yeah, her grandad’s motorbike shop; I can’t remember the name of it now, but there is a shop that sells tires or something on the Stockport Road.’
‘What happened to Maddie’s parents? Do you say?’
‘No, I don’t say. I don’t believe I know what happened to her parents. I had this idea that the mother died in childbirth and I believe she and her father lived with her grandparents. I’m not sure what happened to her father. He probably died in a motorbike accident.’
‘They are her paternal grandparents, aren’t they?’
‘Yes, and I was raised by my grandparents, as well.’
‘Write about what you know.’
‘I never quite figured out what happened to her parents, and there are so many back stories that I know, but this was one of those things that I don’t think she’s dwelled on a lot.’
‘It was not one of her life’s tragedies.’
‘She’s not a dweller, really. Something I wondered about; the scene at the end, about her crying because she was upset. Did you have to make a point of putting that in earlier on, so that Julie would recognise her?’
‘Definitely. Actually, the whole scene at the end, there was an awful lot of set-up. Have you been reading this School Library Journal blog? They’ve got this big discussion, started at the weekend, and it’s all stops pulled out. Everybody is assuming everyone else has read the book. I’ll send you the link. There is a lot of discussion about that implausible gunshot. Actually, I worked really really hard to set it up so that it could be possible.’
‘Even to the point of having it lit, and one of the things was having Julie know that it was Maddie, and having Julie know that she was a good shot.’
‘The first time I barely noticed it, but on re-reading you realise it will be used later.’
‘The foreshadowing, it’s true in my other books as well. And I find myself writing things without realising the significance of what’s coming out, not until afterwards. I didn’t know until I was about, oh jeez, I don’t know, a third of the way through the book, what Julie’s job was.’
‘Not what specific thing she’d be in, but I’d already written the scene where she and Maddie meet, talking down the German airman. I’d already written the part where it says they ask her to stay and help with their questioning, and so that was all there, and in a way it was kind of like waiting for me to discover it. So it becomes foreshadowing, I guess.’
‘It’s the humour in Julie’s writing that makes such a bleak topic so special. I can see that people would argue that you shouldn’t write like that, or even that she couldn’t possibly have done it like that…’
‘There are arguments on that.’
‘But I think that’s what makes the book. Without it it would have been just a normal tale of war.’
‘That voice came dreadfully naturally. It was much much harder to do Maddie. Partly because she’s not as literary, and the reason I made Julie educated was so that I could give her a literary background, similar to what I had. Which is not the same, but I could give her a voice I was comfortable writing. How the humour got there I do not know. I never thought of me as a funny writer. I would absolutely love to be, but I certainly can’t do it on purpose.’
‘I recognised Julie’s style as belonging to somebody I know. And that was quite comforting to find.’
‘I confess that I read reviews, when I probably shouldn’t, and one of the things people complain about is the outbursts. I wrote the manuscript by hand. It’s how I write. The capitals were there in the script, you know, and once you’ve stopped underlining, it’s the natural way to…’
‘There are so many different ways you can see what she is feeling.’
‘Who reads the book?’
‘I think it’s got a girl, kind of twenty something, following. Teens are enjoying it, but I think it’s mostly young women who are really eating it up. I have had kids come back to me and say that’s the best I’ve ever read, and you can’t do better than that, when it’s the target audience.’
‘How come it’s young adult rather than just a straight novel?’
‘Well, all my other books are YA. I think of them as YA. There was never any question that it wasn’t. There has been some discussion of my other books. If you read The Winter Prince the narrator in that is like 30 years old, and a lot of people have wondered why that one is a YA. I think it’s maybe because it’s fantasy.’
‘My own response to this is basically they are young adults. If you do the calculations, by the end Julie is 21. She doesn’t get sent to France before then, because you had to be 21.’
‘What age is Maddie in 1938?’
‘So she is going to be 23 then?’
‘Yes. But I don’t really like to say,’ she laughs. ‘When I think about the sorts of books that I loved as a teenager, like Rosemary Sutcliff, Eagle of the Ninth, and the Earthsea books by Ursula Le Guin. The characters are all in their twenties, and you don’t think about it.’
‘I would have loved it if Code Name Verity had been around when I was a teen. There weren’t any books like it.’
‘This is the thing. I wrote the book that I would absolutely have eaten up, when I was 15 years old.’
‘Mm, at that stage I read Mary Stewart, because that was what you got.’
‘Featuring a girl around 20, with a bit of romance, and a bit of adventure.’
We talk about Mary Stewart, and the age she is, and how wonderful it is she is still around.
‘She’s the same age as my grandmother, and my grandmother is still alive.’ Elizabeth sounds understandably happy about this. And then we move on to other old people, before she apologises, ‘I have distracted you.’
‘No, I want people to go off on tangents. How has Code Name Verity done for sales?’
‘I don’t really know how it’s sold in the UK. It’s done very well in the US, and in both places it’s been received critically very, very well.’
‘It’s shortlisted and longlisted for a tonne of awards, and it’s turning up in all the best of the year lists, and it’s been mentioned in a couple of the major, major newspapers, which has never happened to me before. The Toronto Star, who are very very loyal. UK newspapers; not The Times,’ she laughs, ‘The Independent, The Guardian and The Daily Mail, The Scotsman. So it’s been getting reasonable attention. It’s shortlisted for the Scottish Children’s Book Award and longlisted for the Carnegie. So it’s doing well, but it seems to be more of a cult hit in the US. It’s a much more British book than an American book. But, you know, I’m not complaining.’ She laughs.
‘What about doing events?’
‘I have done some, but probably not as many as I would have liked. I was at the Edinburgh Book Festival.’
‘I know. I missed you by one day.’
She laughs. ‘And I was at Cheltenham which was lovely. I’m always open for more.’
‘I really don’t know what happened to your Manchester event.’
‘I was so sad about that.’
‘It sounded perfect and I thought it was going to be great and it just vanished into thin air.’
‘Allegedly, not enough people signed up for it.’
We talk about awards, and I say Elizabeth ought to win the Stockport award next year. That would be appropriate. What she deserves is more ‘cashing in,’ exploiting local aspects of the book. (“Are you listening, Stockport?”)
‘Is your next book going to be similar, if I may put it like that?’
‘Not, really. There are similar aspects to it; it is a journal. An epistolary. It is another ATA pilot, she’s a bit younger, it’s later in the war, it doesn’t have the intrigue, it’s not a spy novel, she doesn’t get lost. Well, she does; she ends up flying over enemy territory, and is escorted onto German airspace and on to Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp. So it is more piloting. And it’s very intense,’ she laughs apologetically. ‘The whole time I’ve been writing it, I’ve asked myself who’s going to want to read this. I am starting to get feedback, and people are really liking it. I’ve certainly done my best, and people seem to be enjoying it,’ she laughs, ‘they’re coming back to me and saying “I love it.”’
‘It is good, and I need that, because I was so unsure. I wasn’t sure of my own authority in telling this story.’
‘Will there be even more like these, or will you move on to something else?’
‘After that one I am going to write something which I shouldn’t talk about, but I have a plan for another book which has to be written by the end of next September.’ She laughs. ‘So yes, there will be another flying book.’
‘You can’t have too much flying.’
‘Not according to some people. Some think there’s too much technical stuff. I find it fascinating. All I can think of is they mean when they are talking down that pilot, or where Maddie is trying to explain why she can’t land the plane. I confess it baffles me where the technical details are supposed to be.’
‘There could have been more as far as I am concerned.’
‘I took some out! I probably should not read the reviews, but enough people have said the same things.’
‘Maddie makes such a good role model.’
‘Her section was hard work for me. Her voice didn’t come out, and I wanted it be different from Julie’s, and I wanted to keep it different from mine. One thing I did in writing that part, was anytime she wanted to go into a metaphor, I would limit it to her talking about airplanes.’ Elizabeth laughs. ‘I brought my bag of show and tell…’
‘Because it’s so much fun. The first thing is Maddie’s pilot’s notes, and I didn’t have a copy of these when I was writing the book. The best I could come up with was a picture of a page. I’d read descriptions of it, I knew how big it was and what its general design was, and I found a picture of one of these pages in a magazine.
On the right are the proper pilot’s notes, so if you were going to be flying on a proper mission, rather than a delivery, you would have this book, you would have the full information.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve left it behind when showing it in a school,’ she laughs delightedly. ‘I have librarians ringing me up and saying “you’ve left your pilot’s notes here. You know that’s a treasonable offense.”’
‘This is so interesting.’
‘And, absolutely nothing to do with the book; this is an escape map.’
‘Sort of fabricky.’
‘Yes, it’s printed on silk, it shows northern France. But most of the UK has been blanked out.’
‘I keep showing it off, letting children pass it round, which is why it’s become quite frayed around the edges,’ she laughs. ‘And here is my gas mask.’
‘I could see the top sticking out. You’ve even got the bag.’
‘I’ve got the bag. I’ve got the mittens. Those are my original ones which I knitted while I was writing the book. It got to the point where I had to put them in the book.’
‘It feels wrong to like war books, but I do.’
‘I do, and I did as a kid. I guess you’re looking for the best in yourself and that’s why you read. You want to see how people were feeling, the hardship and how they came through it.’
I try to put Elizabeth on the spot about Julie’s incident while crossing the road, but she will have none of it.
‘When she arrived in Ormaie, there is a row of dead bodies hanging from the balcony of the Town Hall.’
‘She walks out of the Town Hall having successfully found the archive reference and written it on her hand. She walks out and she is looking back over her shoulder, and she is mightily distracted by the row of dead bodies hanging, and she crosses the street and she looks the wrong way.’
On that cheerful note we leave WWII and I ask Elizabeth to sign my books. She gets out her pencil case (!) and shows me the ‘earliest Biro I could find, and that’s probably early 1950s. And this one is just weird, it writes red and blue,’ she say as she makes it sign my book in red. And she does some underlining and something I would like to think of as code.
So that’s me satisfied.
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Great interview and a terrific book!
Thank you, Katherine! I’m a little relieved you liked it, after giving you such a hard sell last summer!
This might be my favorite interview yet!
Thank you! All you have to do now is read all the rest. I like to think my victims are interesting and that they make the interviews good, too.
A great interview that will be well referred to at our April book club meeting.
A question if I might:
I have 2 Granddaughters who are voracious readers & I think they’d love your “Code Name Verity”.
I can’t seem to budge them from their obsession with Fantasy & Series.
Any suggestions ?: They are 15 & 16. Both lovely girls.
T H A N K Y O U !
Kingston, ON K7M 2G8 Canada
Thank you, Eleanor.
Are you wanting to know what your granddaughters might read next, or how to persuade them to read Verity? Because I suppose telling them that the Bookwitch says it’s the best book of 2012 might not work?
Without knowing what they have already read, it’s hard to suggest. But you can’t go wrong with Meg Rosoff. Hilary McKay would be wonderful too, as long as they don’t think the covers look too young. The contents won’t be.
The trick is to know what they do like. I mean exactly, which books they like. Then find something not too far removed and then continue to move sideways in the right direction. (On occasion I have threatened to disown my children if they don’t read a certain book.)
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