Interview with Elizabeth Wein – Author of Code Name Verity

Hidey-Ho!  J Monkeys coming atcha from the post 12-21-12 world!  Yippeeee – we made it!  I’m so excited to bring you an interview with Elizabeth Wein. Her most recent book, Code Name Verity is a nominee for Goodreads 2012 choice awards.  CNV, set in WWII England, is the FABULOUS story of two young women working for the war effort, each in their own way.  It is tremendously well written and something I highly recommend it.  CNV is probably the best book I read in 2012 and I read a bunch of goodies.  My questions are in red below.  Any blue comments in Elizabeth’s answers are my attempts to be helpful to those of you who haven’t read CNV yet.  Welcome Elizabeth!

Interrogation questions indeed! Some of them are hard. I will try to tell the truth.

  1. Code Name Verity is the kind of book that is an amazing read the first time through – I found myself just rushing to get to the end to find out what happened. But it’s also the kind of book you want to go back and reread to see how you missed those clues to what was really going on.  How did you do that?  How did you hide the clues in plain sight like that? Were they there in your first draft or did you go back and put them in later?

code name verityI sometimes think that my one true literary talent is foreshadowing, and that it comes naturally.  Most of the clues are hidden in plain sight because I didn’t put them there on purpose – when I started writing, I truly didn’t know how complex a narrative it was going to be.  I actually envisioned the ‘confession’ as a straight-up confession originally, and a device through which to tell Maddie’s {One of two main characters} story. (Yes, the part that makes you tear up was part of my original plot.)  So a lot of the ‘clues’ were laid down in innocence on my part. I think the only thing I really went back and added in was Verity’s {The narrator for much of the story} comment ‘Oh, he’s good’ when she’s talking about von Linden’s {Gestapo bad guy} assessment of her narrative style.  Because I didn’t know what her actual wartime job was until I was about two-thirds of the way through writing her narrative.  I didn’t know what you, the reader, knows about Anna Engel.  I didn’t know about Isolde.  Or Eva Seiler.  It all came later.  {Anna, Isolde & Eva other characters}

But you see, the first scene Queenie {you guessed it, another character – but this is most of ’em} appears in—when she’s translating for the shot-down pilot—totally foreshadows her war work.  And I wrote that scene without knowing what she’d do in the SOE.  {click to see Google’s definition of this spy-ish organization} (Afterwards I was like, OH RIGHT, OF COURSE.)

I think that the fact that I laid down these clues without realizing what they were, and then went back and threaded them together myself to figure out the rest of the plot, is partly what makes them so invisible.  If I’d been doing it consciously it would be more obvious.

  1. Here on the Scribes, we talk a lot about the Doubt Monster.  Doubt Monster being the nagging feeling while writing, that your prose is terrible, your plot is silly, your characters are insipid and no-one in their right mind would read this drivel, let alone buy it.  Does Doubty trouble you?  How do you battle him?

He was banished during the writing of CNV because I was so sure it was going to be a good book.  And to a certain extent I had nothing to lose at that point.  It was a dark horse of a narrative for me, different to anything else I’d ever written, and I knew it was going to send my career in a different direction if I could pull it off.

However, with the book I’ve just finished, the Doubt Monster was there with fangs drooling over my shoulder.  This will never be as good as CNV.  No one is going to want to read this because the subject matter is so dark.  Everyone who picked up CNV because of the so-called ‘hype’ and got turned off by the so-called ‘technical details’ won’t buy another book of mine and so it will be a flop. Etc.

The worst was just after I’d published my third book, The Sunbird, and was working on the book that became The Lion Hunter.  Someone commented on a chat group I lurked on that Sunbird was boring them.  That basically killed me for about two years.  Why bother?  Just… why bother?  If my writing was making people die of boredom, Just? Why? Bother? I’d thought that Sunbird was the most exciting thing I’d ever written (it’s a spy novel, too).  Also, I thought for many years that it was the best book I’d ever written or would ever write, and to have someone call it boring… Well, clearly I should go become a plumber, if the most best exciting thing I’d ever produce was boring people.

Honestly:  it was the most damaging piece of criticism I have ever encountered.  And it was delivered so casually.  Probably the person who said it doesn’t even remember, or realize that it reached me.

So how do you fight the demon?  (Or the casual critic?) Actually, I’ve become much more immune to it now.  I just keep reminding myself that everybody has different reading tastes.  In fact I find a lot of ‘exciting’ fiction boring myself, because I need my action stories dressed up in lyrical prose, and if the book just races from one action scene to the next it doesn’t keep my attention.  Sometimes I say to myself:  Would you rather have written [fill in the blank] bestselling book, or would you rather have written The Sunbird?  And the answer is ALWAYS The Sunbird.

As far as my current work-in-progress is concerned, I am much better armed, because I have already had positive feedback on the early parts, and it is under contract.  So I just keep reminding myself of these things.

Sometimes I give myself a list of names to go through. The name of a reviewer who loves my work. The name of the heroine of my next book, who makes me happy. And Denis Wissler, the name of an RAF {Royal Air Force} pilot who was (presumably) shot down during the Battle of Britain at the age of 20.  Denis Wissler is a touchstone for me. He was a fairly mediocre fighter pilot and wanted desperately to be a hero.  Apparently he went chasing off after the enemy into bad weather and never came back.  Dead at twenty, because you did something stupid, with your ambition unfulfilled.  And yet how we idolize the Battle of Britain pilots! I remind myself of Denis Wissler when I’m feeling inadequate. I’ve got a pretty successful career and a lovely family and a beautiful place to live, and I’m not dead yet.

I mean, you can remind yourself of a world of global suffering and bad writing to try to make yourself realize how lucky you are, but in moments of bleakness I find the single name of Denis Wissler gives me the specific and concrete kick upside the head that I need.

  1. What is the most surprising thing that has happened in your writing career?

I’ve had to think hard about this, because little surprises happen all the time. But I think it must have been an incident that happened a couple of years ago at the pantomime, the annual Christmas weirdness that goes on in theaters all over the UK.  At intermission, a tall kid in his mid-teens came running up to me as I was returning to my seat and said, ‘You’re Elizabeth Wein, aren’t you? I just want to tell you how much I love your books!’  Now, you have to understand that at that point my books weren’t even published in the UK and nobody had any idea who I was, so I was kind of stunned.  ‘How do you know my books?’ I asked.  And he told me that he and his family had been sitting next to us in a booth in a restaurant a few years earlier and I’d made a comment about the book he was reading – he must have been about eleven then.  It was one of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, I think The Book of Three or The Black Cauldron, and I’d said how neat it was to see a kid reading one of my own childhood favorites.  We’d got to talking and I’d written down the names of my own books on a napkin or something for him.  In the intervening years he’d tracked them down and read them – and then recognized me at the theater and was brave enough to say so.

  1. What would you do if you couldn’t be a writer any longer?  What are you writing next?

Is that one question?!

Well, I always say I’d be a plumber, but realistically I’d probably go for curatorial work or historical interpretation or something like that.  I have a degree in Folklore & Folklife.  But I don’t think I’d stop writing, even if for whatever reason I wasn’t getting published any more.

My next book is about another ATA {click here for info about the Air Transport Auxiliary} pilot, an American girl this time, who ends up in a concentration camp.  It takes place a little further along in the war than CNV and features a few of the characters from CNV.  There just happen to be details about my next book, posted recently, on my LiveJournal blog here.

  1. Author Jane Haddam says that anyone who seriously annoys her gets bumped off in her next book.  How do you incorporate your real-life experiences into your stories?

Haha, I don’t bump off annoying people, but I DO turn them into slimy characters.  Paul, the Resistance agent with the wandering hands in CNV, is an amalgam of all the creepy guys who have ever made a pass at me (his moves and one-liners are all real. Yeccch). 

I also use real-life experiences as details – the rainy day bike ride and the flat tire in CNV are based on a real experience – Maddie’s ‘Aerodrome Drop-Off Principle’ is actually my own ‘Theory of Airports.’ Things like that – little stuff that helps color the story.

  1. What was your biggest misstep in your writing career so far?

I can point to a lot of little stupid things I’ve done, but I’d say that probably not immediately writing a follow-up book to The Winter Prince was extremely dumb.  Instead I used the excuse of finishing my PhD, getting married and having kids, to put a ten-year gap between my first and second books (The Winter Prince, 1993, and A Coalition of Lions, 2003).  I totally lost the momentum that the early success of The Winter Prince gave me.  I’m not going to do that again.

  1. With a nod to Verity, what’s the most dangerous or risky thing that you’ve done?

Undoubtedly it was the flight across Kenya, from Nairobi to the Indian Ocean, that I made with my husband (then boyfriend) and a couple of friends in 1994.  He was not a very experienced pilot, we were in totally unknown territory, we were flying because it was too dangerous to go by land to the place we wanted to visit (tour buses were being regularly attacked by bandits).  There was no radio communication most of the way and if we’d had to make an emergency landing we could have easily died of thirst.  Etc etc… But I was a lot younger in 1994 and was wholly trusting in my husband’s abilities and sensibilities.

I have a short story about this flight, called ‘Chasing the Wind,’ in Sharyn November’s first Firebirds anthology.

 There, food for thought!  Thanks so much for this invitation – I love chatting about CNV, and really appreciate the wonderful reception it’s getting from readers!   All the best, e wein

Thank you so much Elizabeth!  You can find out more about Elizabeth’s books at her website: ElizabethWein.comI look forward to your next book, which doesn’t look at all too dark for me!

Elizabeth will respond to comments as she gets a chance – she’s on the other side of the pond so, a bit of a time difference.  And Code Name Verity should be on everyone’s TBR list!  There’s still time to gift it to your friends from Amazon.  Here’s a link to make your last couple of shopping day’s easier! 


4 thoughts on “Interview with Elizabeth Wein – Author of Code Name Verity”

  1. Thanks for being here, Elizabeth. I’ve heard such wonderful things about Code Name Verity, I’ll have to get a copy! I love what you said about the “foreshadowing coming naturally.” I don’t necessarily write mysteries, but I’m always surprised when my story takes some little twist or turn and I don’t know why until later. I think that’s half the fun of writing. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us and good luck with the WIP!

  2. Thanks for the WIP wishes – with the next one I’m still waiting for the connections to hit. I feel sure they’re out there, though, and plowing ahead with the writing!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.