I am a coward.
I wanted to be heroic and I pretended I was. I have always been good at pretending
So begins Elizabeth Wein's extraordinary new thriller, Code Name Verity. Set in the landscape of World War II Britain and featuring women pilots and spies, the intricate plot involves espionage, Nazis, the Resistance, and occupied France, a harrowing, riveting, and deeply emotional read adults as well as teens are certain to enjoy. Wanting to know more about this outstanding title I asked its author, Elizabeth Wein, a few questions:
Your book is amazing, but also hard to describe without compromising the reading experience. I gave it a brief shot above, but would love to read what you, the author, would say to get folks curious and eager to buy the book.
This is what I say when people ask me to describe it: "It's a World War II spies 'n' pilots thriller about friendship. And the pilot and the spy are both girls. And it's the BEST DARNED BOOK I'VE EVER WRITTEN."
Then I have to apologize because I refuse to say anything about the plot, or even the narrator's real name. "But it's really exciting! It's about women flying in the Air Transport Auxiliary! And parachuting into occupied France with the Special Operations Executive! There is friendship! Intrigue! Cool planes! Scary Nazis! And explosions!"
Paradoxically, I've discovered you can lift huge sections of text from Verity's narrative without giving anything away. So maybe she could speak for herself?
I want to update my list of "10 Things I Am Afraid Of."
I am no longer afraid of getting old. Indeed I can't believe I ever said anything so stupid. So childish. So offensive and arrogant.
- Cold. (I've replaced my fear of the dark with Maddie's fear of being cold. I don't mind dark now, especially if it's quiet. Gets boring sometimes.)
- Falling asleep while I'm working.
- Bombs dropping on my favorite brother.
- Kerosene. Just the word on its own is enough to reduce me to jelly, which everybody knows and makes use of to great effect.
- SS-Hauptsturmführer Amadeus von Linden. Actually he should be at the top of this list, the man blinds me with fear, but I was taking the list in its original order and he has replaced the college porter.
- Losing my pullover. I suppose that counts under cold. But it is something I worry about separately.
- Being sent to Natzweiler-Struthof.
- Being sent back to England and having to file a report on What I Did In France.
- Not being able to finish my story.
- Also of finishing it.
But mainly, so very, very stupid. I desperately want to grow old.
Your earlier book series, The Lion Hunters, is what might be termed historical fantasy set as it is in an alternate world blending Arthurian lore with the Ethiopian Aksumite Kingdom. What drew you to World War II for this novel?
In fact I was obsessed with World War II long before I became obsessed with Arthurian legend. I read a ton of Holocaust literature when I was in junior high, and made up an epic resistance story which had at its heart the same adversarial relationship that Verity has with her interrogator. It was a long time ago but it felt incredibly right and familiar to me to be back in the head of an imprisoned resistance agent.
I indulged myself in several goofy inside references to this unwritten story in Code Name Verity -- Verity's clothes, especially her remarkable sweater, were deliberately borrowed from her long-ago prototype.
Airplanes are a significant part of Code Name Verity; was it your own delight in flying them that inspired the novel or something else?
Definitely the flying! I got my private pilot's license in 2003, paid for with the advance for A Coalition of Lions, and immediately began swooning over vintage aircraft. A month after I got my license I wrote a short story about a girl who disguises herself as her dead brother and becomes an RAF Spitfire pilot in the Battle of Britain ("Something Worth Doing," published in Sharyn November's Firebirds Soaring, 2009). That story became the seed for Code Name Verity.
One of the many pleasures of Code Name Verity is the beautifully realized setting --- World War II Britain and occupied France. How did you research that? Was there anything you came across that you were dying to use and just couldn't?
Well, World War II Britain is easy for me, because I do sort of live in the mortal remains here. The debris of the war is all around me. Every house on my street has got iron stubs in its garden wall where the rails were cut down for scrap iron. There are concrete anti-landing defenses on the nearby beaches. There is an almost-intact German prisoner of war camp about 7 miles away from my kids' school -- my son and I were snooping around it two days ago. My first flying lesson was at the airfield that used to be the ATA headquarters.
France was a little harder. You'll notice that most of the French action of Code Name Verity is set indoors. But yes, I've bicycled through the fields around Poitiers and chatted with French ultralight pilots about landing sites!
I also read novels and watched movies made or published during wartime. Period fiction is a brilliant way to get a feel for setting, for everyday details and language.
I can't think of anything offhand that I wanted to use but couldn't -- I just hoard the extra details for the next book.
And then there are the characters who are absolutely beautifully rendered in all their compexity. Is there anything you want to say about them?
I want to say that I am totally incapable of inventing a straightforward bad guy. I try, but then as soon as I make up his name I start wondering what his civilian credentials are, where he grew up, whether he's got family. I love putting in the details -- "he has a gold signet with a tiny sapphire in it." He's an intelligent guy; how does he justify to himself what he's doing? How does he justify it to his wife?
I also want to say that the chain-smoking Anna Engel, the sulking Nazi slave-girl secretary everyone thinks would look great in a red cocktail dress, is one of my favorite characters in the book.
"People are complicated," Verity says. I like making up the complications.
Finally there is the remarkable plot that keeps so many up all night unable to stop until they reach the last page. Is it possible to speak to it without giving anything away?
'Absolutely Every Last Detail of my work falls under the Official Secrets Act, and I will be thrown into prison for he rest of my life if I ever tell you anything about it,' Queenie told her mother. 'So stop asking.'
I will say, though, that the art of foreshadowing comes so naturally to me I now consider it a talent. When she first makes her appearance in Maddie's life, 'Queenie' has just managed to lure a lost Luftwaffe pilot onto a British airbase by doing a convincing impression of a German air traffic controller. The radio officer in charge makes a comment to Queenie about the hapless pilot: 'He won't go home a hero, will he! Must have no sense of direction whatsoever.' Then he asks the German-speaking Queenie if she'll help question the prisoner. The whole conversation is doom-laden with irony in light of what happens to Queenie later on. That's kind of how plot comes to me -- I don't realize it's there until some character makes a throwaway comment and then I see exactly where the story is going.
What are some books you love and were any of them touchstone texts as you wrote Code Name Verity?
I have a couple of long-standing favorites that influence everything I write (I read them both for the first time when I was seven): A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett and The Horse Without a Head by Paul Berna. I guess if you were going to combine the two, Code Name Verity is what you'd get.
It's easy to see how Verity is influenced by Sara Crewe, the proud, well-read, privileged and starving heroine of A Little Princess; in fact, Verity herself says so a couple of times.
The Horse Without a Head takes place in post-war France and pits a group of poverty-stricken schoolchildren against a gang of armed train robbers. It's set in an industrial railway village on the outskirts of Paris, and it's the bedrock foundation for my details of mid-twentieth century life in France. (The plot-critical stolen key to the Billette Works factory in this book turns up in disguise in Code Name Verity.)
It's sort of cheating to send you somewhere else for a full answer to this question, but I've written an in-depth essay on the literary influences behind Code Name Verity for the Booksmugglers, here.
Well, if CNV is the grown-up version of Part 1 of my pre-teen World War II epic, the next book is going to be Part 2, which I'm afraid to say has always been set in the Ravensbrück women's concentration camp. I know a lot more about Ravensbrück now than I did when I was 12, however. The heroine is another ATA pilot. It's not a sequel, but it follows CNV chronologically and is set in the same world, as it were.
The book won't be as gut-wrenching or as twisty as CNV; but in many ways it is much darker, and is proving harder to write.
Thank you, Elizabeth!