In honor of International Women’s Day, I am excited to welcome Elizabeth Wein, author of Code Name Verity, (my review of which can be read here) to Turn the Page. Elizabeth very generously agreed to an in-depth interview about her new book and a guest post about flygirls!
One of the things that I set out very consciously to do in writing Code Name Verity was to give my heroines important work that they were capable of doing. I feel that we all need a nudging reminder that many women still don’t get taken seriously in jobs that are traditionally associated with men, and that we need to continually expand our horizons.
I get so mad when people assume that you can’t be interested in flying just because you’re a girl. At my first flying club Christmas party, after I’d started taking lessons, when I introduced myself to another woman at the party the first thing she asked was, ‘And whose wife are you?’ —As though I couldn’t possibly be there on my own. The freedom of the sky, and the sense of accomplishment in knowing how to land a plane myself, are the most hard-won prizes I have ever earned. They shouldn’t be denied to anybody.
Amazingly, because it seems to be a coincidence that 8 March is International Women’s Day and that the first ‘national’ Women’s Day was celebrated in 1910, 8 March 1910 happens to be the day that Raymonde de Laroche of France became the world’s first female licensed pilot.
And as well as International Women’s Day, this week celebrates Women of Aviation Worldwide Week (5 – 11 March 2012). Women of Aviation Week aims to ‘celebrate history, raise awareness of aviation’s opportunities among girls and women, and shape the future.’ This year, women pilots around the UK are honouring that event, along with the 100th anniversary of the American Harriet Quimby’s first flight by a woman across the English Channel, with a cross-Channel fly-out on Saturday 10 March 2012, and many flights by women throughout the country. The Channel flights are leaving from Headcorn – if you live anywhere nearby you should definitely go along to cheer them on!
One of the things that was wonderful about doing the background research for Code Name Verity was discovering more and more about women aviation pioneers. There are so many incredible people out there, living and dead, just waiting to be celebrated. I’ve listed a few of these, along with links to their stories, in Amy’s Q&A. Enjoy being introduced to these marvelous women!
*Interview contains a few vague spoilers about Code Name Verity*
Code Name Verity seems to be a bit different from your other novels. What first inspired you to write the story?
I’d actually written a short story called ‘Something Worth Doing’ (in Firebirds Soaring, edited by Sharyn November, Firebird Books 2009), in which a girl disguises herself as her dead brother and becomes a Spitfire pilot just in time to take part in the Battle of Britain. I wrote this story very shortly after I got my pilot’s license and I was kind of obsessed with flying at the time. While I was doing the background research for ‘Something Worth Doing’ I discovered the existence of the ATA – the Air Transport Auxiliary. The story’s heroine, Theo, actually finishes up by saying she is going to join the ATA, but that’s as far as it goes.
The original seed for Code Name Verity came from this story – I thought I’d like to expand on Theo’s adventures (after all, there were still nearly 5 years left of the war to go) and I had a vague idea of turning her into a flying spy… Like ‘Verity’, I sent Theo to a Swiss boarding school so that I could give her a reason to speak French and German. Her school gets a passing mention in ‘Something Worth Doing’, so even while I was writing it I was setting myself up for something bigger. Very early on in constructing CNV, the ‘flying spy’ character split into two separate roles and two new characters. Theo does actually make a cameo appearance in CNV – she’s the ATA pilot who first tells Maddie about the secret RAF Special Duties airfield, the so-called ‘sister’ of the dead vicar’s son.
So although it’s very different from my other books, Code Name Verity is something I was building up to. It was hugely refreshing to write a novel set in [relatively] modern times!
How did you go about researching the book – in particular Verity’s role? Was it difficult to find accounts on life as a female spy/interrogator during that time?
Oh, haha, so you think I actually researched Verity’s role?
Books, the Internet, movies, museums, some face-to-face communication – I immersed myself in fiction and non-fiction. To start out with, I read a lot of histories about the Air Transport Auxiliary and the Special Operations Executive. Then I read biographies or autobiographies of specific individuals whom I found particularly fascinating. A lot of the secondary characters are meant to call to mind real people, although they’re not truly based on them. Amadeus von Linden, for example, has a counterpart in the enigmatic German interrogator Hans Kiefer, who was based in Paris; the radio broadcaster Georgia Penn is a sort of combination of the SOE agent Virginia Hall and a selection of American women who worked for Berlin’s radio propaganda in English during the war.
I made up the specific women’s jobs of Special Duties taxi pilot and prisoner-of-war interrogator. Based on the research I’ve done, I feel sure that people with the skill sets of these characters would have been exploited to the fullest in exactly the way they’re exploited in the book. It is true that the RAF used the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force to do flight crew debriefing interrogations, and the SOE used their female trainees as ‘honey traps’ to catch unsuspecting male trainees who might blab about their job. An SOE girl in civilian clothes would go up to an unsuspecting colleague in a pub, coo over him until he tried to impress her by telling her he was training as a saboteur, whereupon he’d be booted out of the SOE. My feeling about Verity’s role is that she drew on these precedents as much as I did, then added her own flair and instinct. (And Eva Seiler’s role as ‘Berlin’s Interpretive Liaison with London’ is completely made up. But I think that’s pretty obvious.)
Another thing I kind of learned from inference was Nazi torture techniques. I just didn’t want to do this research. I decided early on that anything nasty I could think of involving household objects a Gestapo torturer could probably think of too. Not surprisingly, in the course of other research I came across almost every horrible thing I’d come up with on my own. So I didn’t look them up, but unfortunately I didn’t really make them up either.
Code Name Verity is a story about strong female friendships. That, and the lack of romance, sets it apart from a lot of books popular in the YA market right now. What made you decide to write a story that focused on a platonic female relationship?
I didn’t intend 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 denouement of the plot. 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 circumstance keeps you apart most of the time – and I did it on purpose, because it was a pleasure to remember my friends and honour them that way.
Then, after it was done, my beta readers and I all sat around going, ‘Wait a minute – there aren’t any books out there about female friendship!’ And we’d try to come up with some. And I think it really does fill a gap, because it is so wonderful to have a best friend, it’s something girls can really relate to, and it’s not something that YA literature is focusing on at the moment. You know what people keep mentioning when we have this discussion? Anne of Green Gables. But I think even in that, Anne is really the boss, engineering the friendship. I’ve tried to create a friendship where the girls are equals and complement each other.
One of the things I tried to do was to leave sexual orientation out of it—because it doesn’t matter. It’s the friendship that counts.
Verity and Maddie are both very distinct characters, passionate and intelligent young women. Are they based on/inspired by anyone you know if particular? Someone in your life or a figure from history perhaps?
Maddie and Verity are really both just out of my own head. They grew clearer and more complete as I wrote the book – as did Anna Engel, who never gets enough air time in reviews – and then I went back and filled in the gaps to make them consistent.
Both girls’ wartime stories are based in part on real people (see links below). In Verity’s case, they are the SOE agents Noor Inayat Khan, Alix d’Unienville, Violette Szabo, and Odette Hallowes; in Maddie’s, the ATA pilots Lettice Curtis, Diana Barnato Walker, and Betty Lussier.
Verity’s ancestral home is influenced by a book called A Childhood in Scotland by Christian Miller.
Do you see more of yourself in Verity or Maddie? Or rather – given the choice, would you be a spy or a pilot?
There is a little of me in both of them. I am probably more like Maddie in that I am not as bold or as daring as Verity, but on the other hand I think I have Verity’s mean streak. The further I got into the book the more I found myself exclaiming aloud, ‘Maddie, you are just so nice.’ I think she really is the nicest character I’ve ever made up – my characters are usually a lot more devious and vindictive.
I will say that writing as the voice of Verity came more naturally to me than any other character I’ve ever written. That combination of self-deprecating sarcasm and earnest enthusiasm is very much the informal voice of my own journals. I’ve never caught it before – it’s a little different from my public (on-line!) writing voice.
Given the choice, would I be a spy or a pilot? That’s an easy one. I am a pilot.
I went to a CIA recruitment meeting in my final year at university, but all I can remember about it is that they gave out free cookies. That is pretty much the sum total of my spying career.
Are there any small or major plot lines that were abandoned along the way that you can share with us?
Given that this book is so spoilerifcally-loaded most reviewers don’t even give out the narrator’s real name, that would be a hard question to answer if the answer was ‘yes’ – but in fact the finished product isn’t hugely different from the work-in-progress. Originally the American radio-broadcaster woman was a reporter, and I had to change that for reasons of historic accuracy. There was one scene that I cut where Verity was imagining the ghosts that would inhabit the Gestapo headquarters in Ormaie if it was ever turned back into a hotel (I’ve tried to find it for you but I can’t – it wasn’t very long and it was rather gruesome, so that’s probably not a bad thing).
Code Name Verity has been released with two quite different covers. Egmont with a female face in shadow and Hyperion with two hands tied together at the wrist. I personally love both, but do you have a favourite? Which one do you feel really captures the spirit of novel?
The different covers are aimed at different audiences, British (the shadowy girl and the rose and the spitfire) and American (the two hands tied together), and it’s really interesting to me how often the British cover appeals to the Brits and the American cover appeals to the Yanks. I love them both as well, and in many ways the British edition is definitive to me (the text of the American edition has been very slightly edited to make it more accessible to an American audience). But I have to confess that I like the American cover best. It’s possibly just because I’m American myself. I like that the hands tied together is technically a scene from the novel. The girl and rose and Spitfire of the British cover are all disassociated images, though each has significance within the book (Verity’s SOE Resistance circuit is named ‘Damask’ after a local rose-grower).
Another reason I prefer the American cover is that although technically it’s not Maddie’s and Verity’s hands that get tied together in the book, the imagery suggests a strongly forged link between the girls. The US cover also incorporates some actual text from the book laid over the image. I think the overall result is very powerful and hard-hitting. My husband’s reaction to this cover was, ‘It looks like a book about bondage!’ To which my response was, ‘AND?? Verity writes her entire narrative with her ankles tied to her chair!’
*coughs to announce impending spoiler:*
There is one very wonderful subtle thing about the UK cover (the feminine one) that I want to point out – the circling of the name ‘Verity’ in red. And also, the underlining in red on the back cover of ‘We are a sensational team.’ There is a behind-the-scenes third hand at work here in addition to Verity’s and Maddie’s.
Is there a period of history that you particularly love? If you could live during any time, when and where would you choose and why?
Well, my wonderful grandmother was born in 1916 and I am a little envious of the incredible changes to the world that she has seen in her lifetime. Motorways, transcontinental aircraft travel, radio, colour 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. There have been terrible things too, obviously, but I think that to have lived through most of the 20th century and into the 21st must be a most wondrous thing.
You could really do worse than growing up as my grandmother did, in middle-class America in the early twentieth century. This would also place me to be involved in the Second World War, technically… Although Europe in World War II is a place and period of history that I am fascinated with, I am grateful that I did not have to live through it myself.
As a child I longed to be a Victorian girl in London or a pioneer girl in the Western United States (being deeply influenced by Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess and the Laura Ingalls Wilder books). But as I grow older I become increasingly aware that the time and place I’m living in now is really pretty ideal. I am very lucky to have ended up in Scotland after the arrival of latte and the 6-month-long strawberry-growing season.
Can you recommend any must see/read books or exhibitions/museums for readers inspired to find out more about female pilots/undercover agents etc?
The ATA Museum in Maidenhead leaps immediately to mind. There is a special permanent exhibit there dedicated to the women of the ATA (the exhibit is called ‘Grandma Flew Spitfires’).
There is also an exhibition called ‘Women in Aviation: World War II’ going on at the moment in New York City at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum (it’s on the Intrepid aircraft carrier) – this exhibit closes 8 July 2012. I will miss it, but maybe some interested readers will get a chance to go!
The Imperial War Museum, London, has a permanent display on Special Operations and spies during World War II as part of their ‘Secret War’ exhibit.
For a harrowing non-fiction read about the women of the SOE, try Marcus Binney’s The Women Who Lived for Danger or Sarah Helm’s A Life in Secrets: The Story of Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE
Giles Whittell provides an accessible account of female ATA pilots in Spitfire Women of World War II
There’s also a great award-winning documentary film about the women of the ATA available on DVD. It’s called Spitfire Sisters
Many of these recommendations are also listed in the bibliography included at the end of CNV.
Can we look forward to any more novels based around early female pilots and/or during war time?
I’m at work on a book about another ATA pilot, this one a young American girl who comes to the UK to contribute her piloting skills to the Allied war effort. I’m really enjoying drawing on my own childhood in Pennsylvania (and my grandmother’s!) to add detail to my heroine’s background. The book begins about 6 months after the end of CNV, with the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day (6 June 1944).
Thanks for all these TERRIFIC questions which I’ve obviously enjoyed answering. It’s been a pleasure to make a small contribution to International Women’s Day. And thanks so much for the opportunity to talk about Code Name Verity and to spread the word about women aviators this week.
A massive thanks to Elizabeth Wein for agreeing to answer so many questions and sharing a little about her own flying career, her grandmother and introducing so many inspiration women on this important day.
For those interested in learning more about some of the SOE agents and ATA pilots and a few other people I’ve mentioned, here’s a list of links:
Alix d’Unienville (SOE agent) (but she’s still alive and her Wikipedia entry doesn’t tell you anything about her life after her escape attempt that was foiled by the Gestapo in 1944). This link tells more about her life, but it’s in French. This is the not-so-great English translation of the previous link.
Odette Hallowes (SOE agent), who has just been put on a UK First Class postage stamp!