February 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Straighten Up and Fly Right: Elizabeth Wein’s new spy thriller will break your heart | Under Cover

Photograph by David Ho

Your novel Code Name Verity begins after a British plane piloted by Maddie crashes into Nazi-occupied France. It’s tough to talk about the story without giving too much away.

When I’m trying to sell it to people who know nothing about it, I just say, “It’s a spies-and-pilots thriller. It’s about the Air Transport Auxiliary and women who worked as pilots and spies in this little-known world of the Special Operations Executive. It’s about a friendship between these two women.” But I really don’t go into detail. I may tell them that they’re going to need a box of Kleenex.

After Queenie, a spy for the French Resistance and Maddie’s best friend, bails out of the burning plane, we slowly find out more about their past as her captors torture her to confess. Was it emotionally draining to write the story?

I took out shares in Kleenex. I have never cried so much over a book that I’ve read or that I’ve written. Even though I knew what was going to happen, every time I’d write a particular scene it would hit me as though it were the first time I knew about it. Then when it was over, just anything could set me off. You know, mentions of songs in the book. I went to one of my kids’ band concerts, and they had this jazz band that was playing “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” and I burst into tears. And I’d look at a picture of the Eiffel Tower, and I’d burst into tears. I was really very emotionally traumatized by writing it.

Did being a pilot yourself help the story?

I couldn’t have written the story if I hadn’t become a pilot. I don’t know if I’d have had the inspiration. I certainly wouldn’t have had the knowledge. And I really enjoy sticking in little bits of my own experience. When Queenie describes Maddie’s flight in Scotland, where she’s looking at the snow-covered Highlands and it’s snowing in the cockpit, that’s actually a pretty straightforward description of many of my own flights.

What else did you sneak in?

I sneaked in a lot of personal stuff, but a really good example is the slimy Resistance guy.

You mean Paul, the letch with the roving hands whom you’ve graciously given some heroic qualities?

Yeah. He is a conglomeration of all the passes that have ever been made at me. Every slimy thing he does to Maddie has been done to me.

Maddie and Queenie exchange a list of their biggest fears. What are yours?

In no particular order: nuclear war, global warming, forgetting things (maybe this is why I write historical fiction, “Lest we forget”), the cat (I worry about him biting people or blinding my daughter by jumping on her head and accidentally scratching her in the eye. No, really), and the Yellow Bolt. That’s how my grandmother refers to a lightning strike that came in her bedroom window and exploded an electric fan standing at the foot of her bed. It’s a catchall term I use for the Big Disaster that hasn’t happened, but is lurking around the corner.

Does your novel have a message for readers?

The message is that if you are a girl, you can do anything. I really didn’t want my female characters to feel stopped by the fact that they were female. I wanted them to be able to control their lives, to do what they were good at, and what they wanted to do regardless of what society’s expectations were. I think that’s a good message for modern girls, as well, and that they need reminding about.

Rick Margolis About Rick Margolis

Rick Margolis was executive editor for SLJ.