Children’s Book Blog: Ask the Author – Elizabeth Wein
New York-born author Elizabeth Wein first made her name writing young adult novels set in Arthurian Britain and sixth-century Ethiopia. In 2012, she attracted universal acclaim with her World War II thriller, Code Name Verity, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Carnegie Medal. Praised for its clever use of unreliable narration, courageous but fallible characters, and meticulous attention to historical detail, the novel tells the story of two young women – a spy and a pilot – fighting to survive in enemy-occupied France. Her follow-up novel, Rose Under Fire, follows the misadventures of a young American pilot who finds herself confined in the infamous Ravensbrück concentration camp in northern Germany.
How did you hit upon the idea of covering the Second World War from the perspective of female pilots?
I started learning to fly in 2002 and it made me want to write stories about aeroplanes. My first short story about flight was a passenger adventure, and then I became bolder and got my passengers to make control decisions; but it wasn’t until I got my private pilot’s license in 2003 that I felt confident enough to write a story about an actual pilot. That story was called Something Worth Doing, and was about a teen who disguises herself as her dead brother so she can join the RAF and fly a Spitfire in the Battle of Britain.
It was in doing the research for this story that I discovered the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) and the women pilots who flew with them. Then, in a visit to the Imperial War Museum in London in 2004 to see an exhibit titled ‘Women and War’, I went looking for women pilots. What I found was women spies – the women of the Special Operations Executive. My number one memory of that exhibit is a placard bearing a photograph of SOE agent Odette Hallowes and her quietly defiant assurance that she was stronger than her torturers.
The ATA women were fascinating; the SOE women were breathtaking. I wanted to write about them both. I hit on the narrative conceit of letting a captured SOE agent tell the story of an ATA pilot; it seemed the perfect combination.
Both Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire are packed full of historical detail. How much research did you have to do, and did you enjoy the process?
For Code Name Verity, I did the research while I was writing. I started with books about the Air Transport Auxiliary and the Special Operations Executive. The research tends to snowball as I go along – for example, the first book I read about the SOE, The Women Who Lived for Danger by Marcus Binney, mentioned Hugh Verity, the special duties pilot who wrote We Landed by Moonlight, my main source for information about the secret Lysander landings in occupied France. Of course, the internet remains a valuable resource; I find that I tend to use books for a general overview and online sources for specific queries (what kind of explosive did the SOE use? When was the ballpoint pen invented? What were the dates for the full moons in 1943?).
I also read fiction published in the 1930s and 1940s to get a feel for the language and details of the time, and watched wartime movies. And yes, I did enjoy it! I had the best excuse in the world for visiting aircraft museums and going out of my way to flying club social events. I got to meet four former ATA pilots at a Royal Aeronautical Society symposium and to try out a Spitfire simulator!
The research for Rose Under Fire was much more daunting – survivor accounts of the concentration camp at Ravensbrück began to pile up on my desk and I was scared to read them. But once I took the plunge, I was amazed at how inspiring and hopeful many of them were. All the touchstone characteristics of the camp inmates in Rose Under Fire are there in the real accounts: the poems, the deep and fast friendships, the self-deprecating humour, the faith, the courage and defiance and inventive creativity. I also visited the Ravensbrück site, now a memorial, and attended a week-long summer school there. That, too, was an experience I was apprehensive about and which turned out to be hugely uplifting – in large part due to the generosity and enthusiasm of the other people on the course.
Did you feel compelled to write Rose Under Fire because you had uncovered more information than could be shared in one novel?
That’s exactly what happened! Of all the SOE women sent from Britain into occupied France, about 20 per cent of them ended up in Ravensbrück; you couldn’t read about their resistance activities without reading about their concentration camp imprisonment and, often, their deaths there. One of the books I read while researching Code Name Verity, called Vera Atkins: A Life in Secrets by Sarah Helm, discussed the aftermath of the war, when Vera Atkins tried to track down missing SOE agents. The story was both harrowing and gripping. I did in fact sow the seeds for a second novel in Code Name Verity – the occasional references to Ravensbrück are very deliberate.
But I mentioned earlier that research has a way of snowballing, and that happened with my Ravensbrück research, too. I was already planning to write about Ravensbrück but had not been aware of the ‘Rabbits’, the Polish women subjected to medical experimentation there, until I started to learn more about the camp. When I realized that the timing of their brave, small-scale rebellion ran in parallel with the setting for my own planned novel, my whole plot changed to focus on their story.
Are any of the characters based on real people?
In Code Name Verity, no. I based some of the events of the story on things that happened to real people, but not the characters themselves.
In Rose Under Fire, the main characters are all invented, but they owe some of their background to real people. Probably the two most important autobiographies contributing to this book are those of Betty Lussier (Intrepid Woman) and Wanda Połtawska (And I Am Afraid of My Dreams). Betty Lussier was an American ATA pilot who was the goddaughter of William Stephenson, the man responsible for representing Britain’s wartime intelligence agencies in the USA. Wanda Połtawksa was one of the first of the Lublin Transport women to undergo medical experimentation at Ravensbrück, and the originator of the term ‘Rabbit’ for these women. Another influential autobiography for Rose Under Fire was that of Soviet Air Force pilot Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova, Red Sky, Black Death.
There are also a few characters in Rose Under Fire who aren’t just based on real people, but actually appear as themselves – the most notable of these is Dr. Leo Alexander, the medical expert at the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial. He plays a small but important part in the book. He is such a noteworthy historical figure that it seemed ridiculous – and impossible – to invent a character to fill his shoes. It was a big decision for me to include him, because I try hard to keep my fiction fictional – I don’t want readers to mistake it for history.
Aside from the characters, how much of the background information in the stories is true?
Having just said that I don’t want my readers to mistake my fiction for history, I have to point out the paradox of Rose Under Fire: everything Rose tells you about Ravensbrück is true. No doubt I have made errors (there are also a few minor but deliberate errors in the details and timing of events to allow for a smoother narrative flow). But I have tried to paint an accurate picture of what happened there.
For example: the story of clearing out the maintenance shed and painting its interior black for use as a gas chamber is described by a French prisoner in Germaine Tillion’s damning documentary account Ravensbrück. I made up the details of what needed to be cleared from the shed; I made up the idea of the prisoners sneakily painting resistance slogans on the walls and then immediately painting over them. I didn’t make up the that the work crew was shut inside the building in complete darkness so they could see to paint over cracks where the light got in, but I made up the detail of these prisoners emerging from that project with paint in their ears.
All I did was fill in the blanks. Anything that seems too terrible to have actually happened most certainly did happen. Polish prisoners—and others whose identities are lost—were experimented on at Ravensbrück. The fact that readers find this experimentation so utterly unbelievable, even to this day, is testimony to the fact that this story, and so many others like it, still need to be told.
In Code Name Verity, the fictional narrators often confess to crying as they write. Did you find yourself reduced to tears while writing the more disturbing parts of the story? (I certainly cried while I was reading them!)
Oh my gosh, yes! I shed gallons of tears while writing Code Name Verity. But actually it is some of the quieter scenes that made me cry the hardest. I think the scene that affected me most deeply was Maddie’s dream of flying to safety. I’d sketched it out ahead of time and knew that it was going to make me cry. When I got to inserting it in the narrative—and sure enough, I was reduced to body-shaking sobs by the time I’d finished. My husband came in and exclaimed, ‘What happened? What’s wrong?’ And I waved him off and said, ‘Nothing, I’m fine, I’m just writing my book. I knew this scene would make me cry.’
Maddie says that the manuscript is warped with dried tears, and that’s true of the real manuscript, too.
In Rose Under Fire there wasn’t a big tear-inducing climax like there is in Code Name Verity, but throughout the editing process I found myself crying in new and different places. One scene that always gets to me is Rose reciting Edna St. Vincent Millay’s ‘Counting-out Rhyme’, when she first finds herself in the main camp at Ravensbrück and is thinking about springtime at home in the forests of Pennsylvania. Writing the poem ‘Lisette Waits’ also made me sob.
The poetry written by ‘Rose’ in Rose Under Fire is beautiful. Had you written any poetry before?
Thank you! Most of my early writing was poetry, especially in high school. The only creative writing course I managed to get accepted into at university was a poetry class. I suppose my poetry sort of fell by the wayside when I started writing novels, but I still write poems as gifts for loved ones. My first novel, The Winter Prince, includes a ‘play within a play’ all in verse.
The idea of using poems in Rose Under Fire came from Jack Morrison’s sociological study Ravensbrück: Everyday Life in a Women’s Concentration Camp and from Ravensbrück survivor Micheline Maurel’s An Ordinary Camp. Maurel felt strongly that trading her poems for extra food kept her from starving to death during her imprisonment; but also, her poetry is a beautiful and moving record of her experiences. I wanted to replicate that.
Writing Rose’s poems was hard because I am out of practice! I wrote several of them on site at Ravensbrück during the week I spent at the memorial’s annual European Summer School in August 2012. One of the poems, ‘Playing Statues,’ I wrote in my head as proof that I could still do it—and that Rose could do it too. ‘The Subtle Briar’ took me an entire weekend; ‘Love Song and Self-Portrait’ took me less than an hour. There were a few efforts that I had to give up on, as well.
The first stanza of ‘Kite-Flying,’ which appears twice in the novel, sprang into my head between sleep and waking on my first morning at the summer school at Ravensbrück. Once I got my own head firmly into Rose’s headspace, her voice took over.
Rebecca Davies is a journalist and children’s author and completed her middle-grade novel, Shirley Smart and the Nix’s Curse earlier this year. You can read more of her children’s book blogs here
Follow Rebecca on Twitter @TheStoryMonster
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter