Elizabeth Wein on Flying, Friendship, and Theme Songs

Elizabeth Wein’s new novel, Code Name Verity, is set in WWII-era Europe and follows the tale of two unlikely but intense friends: Maddie, granddaughter of a bikeshop owner, and Queenie (a.k.a Verity), a daughter from an aristocratic Scottish family. The two girls work as a pilot and spy for the British war effort—and when one of them gets captured by the Gestapo, she’s forced to spill secrets about her compatriots . . . and her best friend. We recently got a chance to ask Elizabeth some questions about writing this amazing novel—check out our interview below, then start reading Code Name Verity on Figment now!

Describe Code Name Verity in five words.

Wartime thriller: spies, pilots, friendship.

Code Name Verity has a really interesting structure: It starts off with the plane crash that leads to Verity’s capture and then jumps backward and forward through time. Which part of the book did you write first?

I wrote the novel from beginning to end as you read it—first Verity’s part and then the part describing the aftermath of her narrative. I planned it that way and stuck to doing it that way, for the simple reason that I really consider it Maddie’s story from start to finish. So Verity tells Maddie’s story up to the end of part one, leading to the crash, and then the narrative picks up where Verity leaves off and finishes Maddie’s story while describing how Verity’s Resistance circuit tries to find her after the crash.

The timelines of the two parts do overlap, and when I got to the point of writing part two, I had to sit down with a 1943 calendar (complete with estimated phases of the moon) and jot down exactly what happens on every single day. I didn’t ever want the book to feel like a journal or diary, but it became necessary to insert some touchstone dates. So each day’s entry in Verity’s section gets brief secretarial headings (presumably written in by Anna Engel, Queenie’s Gestapo keeper) encrypted with dates, and part two gets the occasional date inserted into the text for clarification.

Once I’d finished a complete draft of the novel I took the manuscript apart day by day, rearranged it entirely in chronological order, and read it all the way through that way, looking for screaming errors. And I did find them. As well as making the two parts align, I had particular trouble juggling the work schedules of Verity’s captors, Engel and von Linden (I didn’t take weekends or days off into account when I wrote the first draft), and also had to be very careful about when the Moon Squadron (a special unit that flew missions in Nazi-occupied areas when the moon was full) was able to do their secret full-moon flights to France. Moonrise and moonset don’t happen at the same time every full moon, so I had to take that into account as well!

It sounds like I should have been tearing my hair, but in fact I really enjoy doing this kind of obsessive technical structuring of a book, which if done successfully, no one should ever notice. It’s the map-reader in me.

We’ve heard you have your pilot’s license, just like Maddie. From the way Maddie talks about flying, it seems like an important part of your life. What’s been your most thrilling piloting experience? Have you ever flown over any of the locations in the book?

My most thrilling experience was, hands-down, when my instructor casually asked me if I’d ever flown a loop, gave a demonstration, and then talked me through two more aerial loops myself. It was in a Cessna 152 Aerobat and was not an official part of my training. Looping the loop was the moment at which my brain went: Oh, THIS is why I wanted to learn to fly. Oh, THIS makes sense. If I die now I will DIE HAPPY.

But my most memorable piloting experience was actually a bit tamer than that. It was when I did my first solo navigation exercise over eastern Scotland. It was in December and there had been hoarfrost gathering for three days. This is what I wrote in my notebook afterward:

It was indescribably beautiful up there. The whole landscape was covered in frost—everything softened, as with snow, but clearly visible at the same time. There was high cloud, so no sun—the light one dreams by . . . And in the river valleys, in the pools and hollows, in the folds of hills, pillows of fog like great heaps of cotton wool among the rimed trees and roofs and fields; and on the mountain tops to the north, shining fields of rose and gold where the oblique midwinter sun caught the snow. I flew to Blairgowrie and to Crieff and back to Perth. When I got back to Perth . . . [there] was this great soft, thick white bank of low-lying fog was moving onto the runway. I could just see the numbers and landed fine—I wasn’t ever scared or nervous—but it was eerie. I didn’t have time to be nervous—by the time I realized how bad the fog was, I was safely down.

The fog could have killed me—but it didn’t. The experience of that combination of beauty and menace is something I found very useful in writing about Maddie’s wartime flying. The very next time I went flying was when I found it snowing in the cockpit—you could feel these icy pinpricks on your face and hands.  Both of these experiences went straight into Code Name Verity almost intact—Maddie’s flight to Aberdeen in Scotland is directly based on this wonderful flight, over landscape I know like the back of my hand from the air. It was sheer self-indulgence to write it.

Maddie and Queenie’s friendship is the center of Code Name Verity. Have you had a similarly important friendship in your life?

I’ve had several. I tend not to let go of any of them, and they all know each other. I pick up new ones when circumstance (usually geographical distance) makes the friendship less intense. “Make new friends, but keep the old; one is silver and the other gold.”

I didn’t mean the book to be about friendship when I started to write it. The unbreakable bond between Maddie and Verity was something that was necessary to the plot, so I set out to describe how they became friends. But as I was writing, and describing that bond, I came to see the whole project as a real celebration of friendship and of being best friends. I put a little bit of all my friends in there—things we’d done together, the way you work so hard at being together even when you live far away from each other—and I did it because it was a pleasure to remember my friends and honour them this way.

The book is dedicated to my friend Amanda, who recently fought her own successful battle against breast cancer. A different kind of war.

I wrote a more extensive blog post for the Book Trust on the theme of friendship in Code Name Verity, though not about my own friendships.

If you could pick a theme song for Maddie what would it be? What about for Queenie?

Maddie’s song is a Nanci Griffith song called “Don’t Forget About Me,” on the album Flyer. I know it’s not contemporary with World War II, but I can’t even hear it without thinking about Maddie—a song about the dependability of a fierce and loving friendship.

If you want a true companion
Don’t forget about me.
Don’t forget about me
When your heart’s in the shade;
When there’s no one to hold you
And you’ve fallen from grace;
When those spotlights come blind you
And you can no longer see,
I’ll be right there beside you,
Don’t forget about me.

Queenie’s song is undoubtedly “The Last Time I Saw Paris” (words by Oscar Hammerstein II, music by Jerome Kern, 1940). It’s partly because of how often the song is referred to in Code Name Verity itself, but also because I think it works really well as a metaphor. And also because I had it stuck in my head the WHOLE TIME I WAS WRITING THE BOOK.

A lady known as Paris, romantic and charming
Has left her old companions and faded from view;
Lonely men with lonely eyes are seeking her in vain,
Her streets are where they were, but there’s no sign of her,
She has left the Seine…

The last time I saw Paris, her heart was warm and gay,
No matter how they change her, I’ll remember her that way.

Your Lion Hunters series is set in the medieval ages of Arthurian legend, while Code Name Verity brings the reader into the madness of WWII. If you could live in any time period, which would you chose?

Probably 50 years earlier than my own. My wonderful grandmother, who raised me, was born in 1916 and I am a little envious of the incredible changes that she has seen in her lifetime. Transcontinental air travel, radio, color and sound in film, computers and the Internet, huge breakthroughs in medicine and in women’s and civil rights, man’s landing on the moon—this has all occurred during her lifetime. I think that to have lived through most of the 20th century and into the 21st must be a most wondrous thing.  You could do worse than grow up as my grandmother did, in middle-class Pennsylvania in the early 20th century.

But the timescale would inevitably place you to be involved in World War II, and though I’m fascinated with it, I’m not so sure I’d want to have lived through it. I’m grateful I wasn’t there at the time.

I am also fascinated with the late 19th-century American West of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I don’t know if I have the strength and drive to have lived the life of a pioneer woman, but I wouldn’t mind visiting as a time traveler.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *