Tuesday, June 19, 2012

An Absolutely "Wizard" Interview With Elizabeth Wein, Author of CODE NAME VERITY

Two weeks ago, I ragged on my store's crappy summer reading shelf. One week ago, we all banded together and constructed a much better shelf that I am extremely proud of (and yes, you can still go and suggest books). On that list were several new titles that I happened to adore, and one of those titles was Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.

Ms. Wein agreed to answer some questions about her magnificent book for me. Fangirl squealing (on my part) and insightful anecdotes (on hers) ensued.

Shelver: You've talked before about how your own love of flying and airplanes impacted your story. How did you first get into flying?

Elizabeth Wein: My husband-to-be (who I met because we are both bellringers) turned out to have just got his private pilot's license when I started going out with him. Initially I went along as a passenger and a sort of standby amateur navigator. It was an extraordinarily romantic way to date. About 6 months after we started going out (and you have to understand that we saw each other once a month - he lived in the UK and I lived in Pennsylvania), we went on a trip to Kenya to visit a mutual friend. He did a sort of quick conversion to a Kenyan pilot's license and we rented a plane and flew across Kenya.

So then he and a bunch of his friends bought a plane together, but it was based about 5 miles from us and he was the only one who had a current license, so it was pretty much our plane. It was a two-seater Robin 200, a little French plane, painted in the colors of West Ham's football club because its former owner had been a West Ham supporter - maroon and turquoise!

Our flying club was the West London Aero Club at White Waltham, which happens to be the former HEADQUARTERS of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). I didn't know that then.

We got married about 2 years after we started going out, and had our first child a year and a half later, and then the little plane just became a money pit and didn't get flown, so we sold it. And then we moved to Scotland - and when my husband came house-hunting here in Perth he went up to check out the local airfield, and THERE WAS OUR PLANE! It wasn't based at Perth but it was having its annual tune-up here. So it seemed like kismet that we should end up here. My husband continued to fly, renting planes out of Perth, and when I got the advance for my second novel (A Coalition of Lions), I spent it on flying lessons.

Or you could say squandered!

S: I think you would've enjoyed how many times I squealed during that story. A flight over Kenya?! And then finding the plane again after selling it... Oh man.

EW: There are so many amazing coincidences in my life. That is why I put them in my stories.

S: Knowing so much about planes already must've helped a great deal, but my head hurts just thinking about all the work you must've put into researching the details of this book. There are so many little things that have to be just right. You talked in another interview (with Figment) about the 1940s-era slang that you researched and how you were surprised at the amount that was already part of your everyday speech. What were some of your favorite words that you didn't know already?

EW: I would really like to bring "wizard" back into everyday vocabulary as a term meaning "awesome."

Maddie's "daisycutter" (meaning a perfect landing) and "screaming downhill" (diving your aircraft) are two RAF terms I didn't know before that I thought were cool.

Dympna saying "take a pew," when she offers Maddie a seat, was actually suggested to me by Terri Charman, who is the historian affiliated with the Imperial War Museum who vetted the manuscript.

S: Love "wizard," but I'm trying to figure out how to make "daisycutter" a verb... "I daisycutted it"?

EW: I think you just say, "Wizard, that was a real daisycutter!" ie, you skimmed the grass so finely that you sliced the flowerheads off the tops of the daisies.

S: Oh! That makes more sense. Now I just have to find a sly way to fit that above sentence into my life. I'll look so cool.

EW: One of the things I was delighted by was discovering that "bit of fluff," for a pretty girlfriend or a floozy, is RAF slang. It is one of those phrases that is actually part of my vocabulary. Queenie calling herself "von Linden's bit of tartan fluff" is one of my finer uses of 1940s slang, I think!

S: It certainly made me chuckle (and I suspect a lot of other people as well).
Question Numero Tres - I squealed out loud when I read in your book that Verity and Maddie's roles were historically plausible. I had no idea there were female pilots during WW2! Was there anything you came across in your research that flat-out blew you away?


EW: There are always moments when I leap up and run around the room yelling, "I DON'T BELIEVE THIS." I will try to think of a good CNV example.
Ms. Betty Lussier. For her story, click here.


Oh - well - this is a pretty simple one. The German-speaking wireless operator. The incident of "talking down the German bomber" is something that allegedly really did happen. I don't know any details, it probably wasn't a bomber, I don't know what airfield the pilot was tricked into landing at or anything.  But I took that notion and ran with it.

One of the things that *did* blow me away I mentioned in the author's note - Betty Lussier, the American ATA pilot who used to ferry the head of the OSS around. He was her godfather. Because I'd more or less made up Maddie's "Special Duties" ferrying job, and here was someone who pretty much did the same thing - AND she then quite the ATA to work for Intelligence! She is still alive, I believe!

Originally the Georgia Penn character was a reporter, rather than a radio broadcaster. Terri Charman said that the American reporters all left occupied Europe when the Vichy government collapsed, and suggested I have her work as a collaborator - there were actually several American women operating radio shows for the Third Reich minister of propaganda. I had NO IDEA. Various things happened to them after the war - I think one was tried for treason and jailed, one was acquitted, maybe one disappeared. None of them, as far as I know, were double agents. I kind of combined their role with that of Virginia Hall, who *was* an American reporter in Vichy France who also worked for the Special Operations Executive (SOE).

S: That's so neat. Loved Georgia Penn and her little half-spoken "women's code" between her and Verity, by the way. [EW admitted that she enjoyed it, too.]

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That, dear readers, is part one. Tune in tomorrow for even more FANTASTIC goodness. Seriously, some of the best bits are tomorrow - you don't want to miss it.

For more information about Ms. Wein, Code Name Verity, and her other works, please see her website. For a list of Ms. Wein's other interviews, click here. For my review of Code Name Verity, click here.

Oh, and feel free to share the love with Ms. Wein in the comments below. Go!