One Thing Leads to Another: An Interview with Elizabeth Wein
Check out previous interviews in the One Thing Leads to Another series here.
There’s something about Elizabeth Wein’s writing that makes me cry. I know I’m not the only one who did ugly crying over Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire, and I remember it happening more than once as I worked my way through her Arthurian/Askumite cycle, especially during the trials and tribulations of the singular Telemakos. (And can I take a moment here to beg you, if you have not had the pleasure of reading these books, please do yourself a favor and dive in. You will not be sorry, I promise.) So when I confess that I’m currently sitting in the café I work in while my daughter is at school crying over this interview, wondering what it is about Elizabeth Wein’s writing that brings me to tears so easily, I’m hoping and guessing I’m not alone. There’s just something about her blunt, honest, openhearted approach to the dark parts of life that gets me in the gut; I’m reduced to tears in about ten seconds (or five sentences, whichever comes first.)
Elizabeth’s generosity in answering my questions and her willingness to share both some really difficult experiences and the insights gained from them is pretty stunning, frankly. Thank you, Elizabeth, for talking with me–it was a privilege.
Always Something There to Remind Me
Please describe your teenage self.
I really kind of hate to think about my teenage self. I was such a weirdo.
I had a good excuse. My single-parent mother died in a car accident at the age of 35 when I was fourteen. In the same accident my brother Jared, who was three years younger than me and very close to me, was so severely brain-damaged that he was in a coma for a year (more than 30 years later, he is diagnosed as a spastic quadriplegic and requires constant nursing care). My younger sister and I were also involved in the accident but were uninjured. Afterward we moved in with my mother’s parents, who raised us.
I dealt with this tragedy in a number of ways, all pretty cerebral. Initially, I escaped into the fantasy world of The Lord of the Rings. I read it about twenty times in the space of a couple of years (I don’t know how; I read a lot of other things, too, and I can’t imagine where I got the time). Then I discovered King Arthur. Oh, I discovered Shakespeare, too. I did a LOT of reading. I also had this notion that everyone expected my schoolwork to deteriorate with grief, so I set out with a fierce determination to prove this wrong.
Because of the relocation to my grandparents, I had to switch schools at the beginning of high school, and this was really the event that saved my butt. I ended up going to Harrisburg Academy, an independent school in Harrisburg, PA, where I made some of the best friends I’ve ever known and undoubtedly was taught by the best teachers I’ve ever had (and that includes those I knew in college and graduate school).
I’ve spent a couple of paragraphs describing the background of my teen years but haven’t really told you anything about me. I spent much of my life in a dream world of nostalgia (for the nuclear family unit of my exotic early childhood in Jamaica and England) and creative stories—I was constantly making up my own stories, and it was at this time that I invented the characters and plot which eventually became my first novel, The Winter Prince (now available as an e-book from Open Road Media.)
I used to organize my friends into costumed adventures such as playing at defusing bombs during the London Blitz. My best friend and I memorized the last scene of Hamlet and acted it out, interminably, in my handkerchief-sized back yard, using broomstick handles as swords and enlisting the small girl from next door to play the minor roles. We’d read aloud to each other from The Once and Future King (T.H.White) and The Thirteen Clocks (James Thurber). I was obsessed with The Empire Strikes Back (I was 15 when it was first released); I saw it in the cinema 13 times in 1980, and used to hike around in the woods in my Luke Skywalker costume pretending I was a Jedi in training on Dagobah. But my biggest crush was not any media star but the early 20th century English poet Rupert Brooke, and I memorized just about his entire life’s work and wrote longing poetry in his name.
I drew pretty heavily on the somewhat loopy side of my own teen self in creating the backstory for the first narrator of Code Name Verity; and I drew on the more literary side in creating the heroine of Rose Under Fire.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Why?
I wanted to be a writer—der! I have always wanted to be a writer.
Originally, when I was seven and first fell in love with reading, I just wanted to make stories like the ones I was falling in love with: A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, The High King by Lloyd Alexander, Elidor by Alan Garner. I grew increasingly ambitious as my reading matured—by fifteen I’d read more than once, and was in love with the heroes of, I Claudius by Robert Graves, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, Hamlet (obviously), The Once and Future King (obviously), The Mabinogion (yup, that medieval collection of Welsh legend), and most of John Steinbeck (I was a big fan of his Monterey Chronicles and nearly died of joy when Lleu Llaw Gyffes, the hero of the 4th Branch of the Mabinogion, turned up in passing in Sweet Thursday).
I wanted to write like these authors. I wanted to be as good as them—I wanted to be that creative, to produce stories and words that were as heartbreaking and riveting. It’s really as simple as that. Reading was my escape and my salvation, and I wanted to contribute to the eternal library.
What were your high school years like?
I can’t emphasize enough how my high school changed and saved my life. It was due to two things—friends and teachers. I found myself surrounded by a group of fantastic friends; for the first time in a long time I had a “crowd,” who went to movies together and had sleepovers and hung out in the local mall; I had a “best friend,” and I had a really close friend who lived a block away from me; and most of all, I was in a group of kids who tolerated all my weirdness. My teachers were all hugely encouraging. I felt I had found a friend and mentor in my algebra teacher Kathy McCorkle (she was young, her mother had been a friend of my grandmother’s in college, and in many ways I felt that she partly filled the gaping hole in my life left by my mother’s death. I could actually talk about things like sex and death with her). My English teacher, Randy St. John, is quite possibly the greatest intellectual influence of my life (he wrote in my yearbook “You are a master of hyperbole,” but I still believe it—and he invited me back to give the Harrisburg Academy commencement speech in 2008). The influence of my beloved French teacher, Mme. Annette Berman, who was involved as a teen in the French Resistance against the occupying Nazi government, can’t even be measured.
I loved my school. I still love my school.
What did I do for fun… I was a pretty straight-laced kid. I lived half a block away from the mile-wide Susquehanna River and I bicycled up and down the flat bike path that ran along it for three miles. I skated on the local lakes when they froze in the winter, wearing, and proud of, the black figure skates my mother had forced me to buy so that my brother could wear them when I outgrew them (I never did, and he couldn’t). Except that I wasn’t as athletic as Rose from Rose Under Fire (and I didn’t start flying till I was 37), my high school years were much like hers, wholesome and full of camp songs and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay: I canoed down the Juniata River, I swam in the “Conewago Grove” lake in the summer, I dragged all my friends along to Halloween parties and on bicycle adventures.
What were some of your passions during that time?
I played the flute and I really loved being part of the Harrisburg Youth Symphony Orchestra. I loved Mozart and Ravel. We’d played “Pavane for a Dead Princess” in the Youth Symphony and through that introduction to Ravel I discovered “Rapsodie Espagnole,” still one of my favorite pieces of music in the world. We went on tour at some point and got to listen to the National Symphony Orchestra playing “Bolero” at the Kennedy Center and I don’t think I’ve ever heard as fantastic a performance, starting so softly you could scarcely hear it and swelling by the end to a volume that made you feel the blood thumping in your head—we were all falling off our seats by the end of it. I was in the school’s drama club – played Viola in Twelfth Night and Gwendolyn Fairfax in The Importance of Being Earnest— and I was in the chorus of the Harrisburg Community Theatre’s production of HMS Pinafore, along with my best friend’s dad! I wanted to be an illustrator as well as a writer, and I took painting and drawing lessons at the Art Association of Harrisburg. Favorite movies… I have to admit it, The Empire Strikes Back kind of changed my life. I took Advanced Chemistry as a direct result of Luke Skywalker’s failure to complete his schooling. See above for books read!
I was a serious Anglophile—my family had lived in England back in the “golden age” of my childhood, and I longed to return there. My favorite TV shows were all Downton Abbey precursors—Upstairs Downstairs, Brideshead Revisited, Flambards. I was a huge fan of Chariots of Fire, too.
Would you be willing to share a difficult teen experience or challenge that you feel shaped the adult you became?
I’ve mentioned my mother’s death, but one of the things that very nearly broke me as a teen was the “loss” of my brother – who was still alive, but was physically destroyed. After a year in a coma he “woke” up, but he was still so desperately incapacitated that he basically couldn’t do anything but indicate “yes” or “no” by raising his eyebrows. Over the years he slowly regained consciousness and the ability to communicate via a speech device, but. BUT. Not the same person – an active, gifted child trapped in a body that no longer worked, suddenly awakening to find himself institutionalized, grieving for his mother’s death. Hard stuff.
You will find, if you read my fiction carefully, that it is full of damaged brothers. Not even Jamie escapes unscathed. A really fine example is the short story “Something Worth Doing” in Firebirds Soaring, edited by Sharyn November, in which the heroine’s younger brother is run over by a truck and she takes on his identity so she can become a Spitfire pilot.
In other news, my father came out to me when I was 16. That was confusing and initially I was very unhappy about it. His introduction of me to the gay men’s scene of the West Village in New York City by taking me to a New Year’s Eve party at which I was the only female and the only teen was probably not the smartest thing he ever did as a father. I wrote a short story about it as an adult, called “New Year’s Eve” in Tony Grima’s collection Not the Only One (the wonderful character “Barry” in that story is based on my father’s wonderful partner, the hugely talented William Henry Grant III, who recently lost a valiant battle against cancer.
What about a positive experience or accomplishment that had an impact on your adult self?
This was pretty much well into my advanced teens, but when I was a sophomore in college (19 – a little older than Rose) I finally got to make that trip back to England. I did a semester in London and re-established links with dear friends of mine and of my parents from 15 years earlier. Those relationships have lasted for the rest of my life; and indeed, I married an Englishman and eventually moved to the United Kingdom as a permanent resident. That trip (part of the Yale in London program) was definitely life-changing, and my roommate in London, Katherine Kirkpatrick, is now herself an award-winning author of YA historical fiction – at the time we both just really enjoyed each other’s company because we loved the same books and we both wanted to write teen fiction! Katherine was responsible for handing my first novel in manuscript form to the editor who eventually published it. Becoming her friend, the independence of traveling and living in a foreign country, and my whole Yale in London experience, drew me out of my somewhat introspective teen self and was my launch into adulthood.
What advice, if any, would you give your teen self? Would your teen self have listened?
My advice to my teen self would be: PLEASE have a Plan B. You will be a writer whatever else you do, but HONESTLY you need a Plan B.
Halfway through high school I gave up an invitation to be a school correspondent for our local newspaper because I was so sure I wanted to write fiction that I didn’t even want to try my hand at journalism. WHAT AN IDIOT.
If I’d taken geology in my freshman year instead of my senior year in college, I might have considered a double major in English and geology. Missed opportunities and interests not followed, roads not taken, abound in my life. At this distant point in time it feels like it’s all worked out in the end, but how much easier would my life have been if I’d had another skill set to fall back on?
I don’t know if my teen self would have listened. Probably not. Unfortunately, we have to figure out most of these things for ourselves.
Do you have any regrets about your teen years? Anything left undone or anything that might have been better left undone?
I just regret that I was so very wrapped up in myself. I wish I would have been less introspective and more aware of other people’s needs and interests.
My “left undones” are too fearful to talk about and all involved not being there for people who needed me—so that’s pretty much connected to being too wrapped up in myself. LEARN TO GIVE. (Re-reading this, it has flashed upon my consciousness that this is what Maddie says her greatest fear is in Code Name Verity: “Letting people down.” I did not do that on purpose.)
What, if anything, do you miss most about that time?
I really don’t. Maybe the voracious reading. But I wouldn’t want to go back there. I am much happier now!
Every Day I Write the Book
You’ve described your first five books, often called the Arthurian/ Aksumite cycle, as “King Arthur spin offs” which begin with a reimagining of the tale of Arthur’s illegitimate son Mordred, and then move to the story of Mordred’s son Telemakos as the action moves from Britain to Ethiopia. Those books, published as fantasy, seem on the surface to have little in common with your most recent historical novels Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire, both harrowing tales of female pilots during WWII. Could you talk about how you made the transition from fantasy to historical, whether your approach or writing process changed dramatically, and whether there are characteristics that all your books have in common, regardless of genre label?
My Arthurian/Aksumite cycle, quite technically, is not fantasy. There is no magic or supernatural element in any of these books and they are all set in as accurate a historical period as I was able to make them. But of course they feel like fantasy, partly because of the Arthurian connection, partly because they are set in such a faraway time and unfamiliar culture, and partly, I think, because the hero-quest themes of my stories are associated with fantasy. In an article for The Horn Book published in their March/April 2009 issue, “The Art of the Possible: A Balance of Research and Imagination,” I wrote:
The Sunbird, the first book in which half-British, half-Ethiopian Telemakos Meder plays a starring role, was lauded by one institution as “Outstanding Historical Fiction” while another named it among the year’s “Best Fantasy.” How appropriate, or ironic, that Telemakos has his story told in a half-breed and illegitimate blend of two respectable literary genres. It is a need in me to merge history with fantasy, to strike a balance between research and imagination, to marry the real with the possible—to consider the improbable, but not impossible—not what was, but what might have been.
I’ve never been a big fan of genre label. When my Arthurian/Aksumite cycle was first published, my editor at the time, Sharyn November, rightly reckoning that my books didn’t really fit into any genre and that this was actually affecting sales (and not positively), attempted to coin a new term specifically fitted to my style: historical suspense. And I don’t think anyone would disagree that if that label had stuck, it would have been equally appropriate for my recent novels Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire.
And that brings me to the second part of the question: the connection between my earlier books and my recent books. The connection is, quite simply, they are mostly spy novels. The Sunbird is an extremely straightforward spy novel, in which Telemakos is given a mission and a mystery to solve. He’s captured, tortured, but through his endurance he discovers the clues that allow him to bring down his tormentors’ regime. In The Empty Kingdom, Telemakos is held prisoner and through a series of coded letters attempts to smuggle out critical information he uncovers while held captive. Any of this sound familiar to readers of Code Name Verity?
The big difference between my early and later books is, of course, the 1500 years of human existence between them. There was no transition from fantasy to historical—the research and the process of imagining the world has been the same for all my books. Simply, some are set in the sixth century and others are set in the twentieth century. Having said that, writing Code Name Verity, and to a lesser extent Rose Under Fire, was liberating for me because of how fluid I was able to be with the style and framework of the tales. It was a huge relief, and a lot of fun, to be released from the more formal voice of the Dark Age epic storyteller and to take up the voice of a twentieth century girl – or three! After all, I was a twentieth century girl myself, once.
The feminist perspective, too, is of course a difference—Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire are my first consciously and blatantly feminist books (though not my first female narrators—Goewin, Arthur’s daughter, narrates A Coalition of Lions, my second book). I think that this new angle is the result of having a teenage daughter. Watching my daughter mature into what is still very much a one-sided man’s world has made me take up arms. DO NOT get me started on the subject of high-heeled platform shoes.
You’ve written elsewhere about your love of poetry, referenced various poems in your work, and included a number of beautiful original poems in Rose Under Fire. (The Winter Prince also features a play within a play, with lines all in verse.) How did your love of poetry develop? Is there a poem or poet that sparked that love? Does your process of writing a poem differ significantly from writing prose?
I am told that this is the first poem I ever made up, at the age of two:
There used to be a farm,
There used to be a barn,
Now there is nothing but a big pile of dirt.
I love this. It represents an obsession with archaelogical ruins and nostalgia and the past that I have carried with me all my life. In fact, I know exactly what farm I was talking about!
I also love the vowel rhyme, the repetition in the first two lines, and the prosaic thud of dust to dust in the consonance and rhythm of the final line, with its climactic thumping spondaic and iambic feet. And look! I have just analyzed this ridiculous thing into the ground, because that is what I do best.
You know, poetry runs in my head more than prose. Also at two, I was able to recite Ludwig Bemelmans’s Madeline, which is of course also written in rhyme. Lots of picture books are! I think that I loved the sound of metrical and rhyming language from the time I learned to talk. And some of my best-loved children’s books were, in fact, poetry books: The Big Golden Book of Children’s Poetry, (edited by Elsa Jane Werner), Around the Seasons (Eleanor Farjeon), Treasury of Poetry (edited and illustrated by Hilda Boswell), Maurice Sendak’s Nutshell Library, The Crystal Cabinet: An Invitation to Poetry, edited by Horace Gregory and Marya Zaturenska. As an older reader I discovered individual poets, and I kid you not when I say that as a high school teen I was a huge fan of (and could recite) Edna St. Vincent Millay, Rupert Brooke, Robert Louis Stevenson, A.A. Milne, Sara Teasdale, T.S. Eliot, and Shakespeare. By the time I finished college I’d accumulated more poetry textbooks than any other single type of reading material. The only creative writing course I got into in college was a poetry class (taught by John Hollander).
Although I choose the words I use for fictional prose almost as carefully as for poetry, and am as consciously aware of the sound of my prose as I am of my poetry, the obvious difference between writing prose and writing poetry is, of course, the brevity of the poetic form. You have a limited amount of time and space in which to say everything you want to say. So you double up on meanings, repeat sounds for emphasis—
Carol (A Song or Hymn of Joy)
One flame of sun
wept through my head
the name of one
But I shall die
one morning, too,
so why should I
(Carol was my mother’s name. I wrote this in my senior year in high school, three years after her death.)
I think it is fair to say that I find poetry more difficult to write than prose. Normally I produce about one poem every two years or so. Writing fifteen in about six months, as I did for Rose Under Fire, was both cathartic and exhausting! It took me a whole weekend of solitude just to write “The Subtle Briar,” the poem Rose considers “the most complex and ambitious poem I’ve ever written.”
In a similar vein, you earned a PhD in Folklore at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and many of your books were either inspired by traditional tales like King Arthur and The Odyssey, or are peppered with literary references that range from Peter Pan to Dickens to Scheherazade to Kipling to the poet Robert Burns. How do your reading preferences and literary training influence your own writing, and do you consciously incorporate references for effect or do they seep in based on your background (or both)? Which books or authors have had the greatest impact on you personally?
I actually used to really love reading books where the author referenced other books. Edward Eager’s books leap to mind—not only were they among my favorites as a child reader, but I loved his constant literary references. That’s how I discovered the works of Edith Nesbit. So there’s a little of wanting to pass that on, and also of wanting to “be like” the writers I admire. As a teen reader I was a devotee of Alan Garner, who draws heavily on both oral and written tradition. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I discovered there was a ballad on which Elidor was directly based, right down to the details of the children’s names and the motif of kicking a football over the church (which, NO LIE, I only just realized is also a motif I used in Rose Under Fire, as a Scottish wedding ritual). It was Garner’s The Owl Service which made me go out (at fifteen) and read the medieval Welsh collection of folktales known as The Mabinogion. References to the “Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion” and T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” are sprinkled liberally throughout all my writing.
So yes, some references are there in my writing on purpose, for effect, and some seep in by accident. There was some discussion on one of the YA listservs last year about my uncredited use of the line “the still point of the turning world” in Code Name Verity. This appears to be original to Eliot (from “Burnt Norton” in “Four Quartets”), but it’s one of those lines so stuck in my head that it didn’t even occur to me it was modern poetry. I thought it was from Ezekiel or Homer or Dante or Shakespeare at the latest (that’ll teach me not to memorize poetry!). In my defense, much of Eliot’s poetry is patched together from Ezekiel or Homer or Dante or Shakespeare—again, a feature of his poetry that I deeply admire.
Julie’s literary background in Code Name Verity should not be confused with my own literary background—hers is carefully tailored to reflect her time and her reading tastes. She’s a fan of Orwell and Kim and Treasure Island and Hesse—me, not so much.
But I should probably also mention here J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I first read it when I was eleven (lugging the red morocco bound hardback boxed edition of all three volumes back and forth to school with me each day—the other kids assumed I was reading a dictionary). I’ve already admitted that I proceeded to read it approximately twenty times throughout my teen years. Although I don’t consciously quote or refer to Tolkien in my fiction, on re-reading him as an adult I am astonished at how much some of my earlier work, The Winter Prince in particular, echoes the rhythm of his writing.
There are some intense recurring themes in your work–friendship, power, and family relationships, to name a few—but the one I’m most fascinated by is your exploration of fear. You’ve said that fear and courage are themes that runs through all of your books, and I wonder if you would talk a bit about how those themes manifest and why they resonate so strongly with you?
I think that fear is the most powerful destructive force in the world. I can bear the thought of a child who is in pain better than I can bear the thought of a child who is afraid—far worse than knowing my eight-year-old daughter was about to be operated on for appendicitis was being unable to calm her utter screaming terror at the prospect of the operation.
When I was writing The Sunbird, in which the eleven-year-old Telemakos is treated with hideous brutality for several weeks, it was very important to me when I sat down to write about his ordeal that he approach it without fear. It was the only conceivable way for him to deal with his captivity at the Afar salt mines and survive them. So I consciously gave him a plan: he had to choose captivity over dying of thirst. He made a rational decision and took responsibility for the consequences. Then, I gave him a job: he was able to listen and collect information even while he was imprisoned. And finally, I gave him hope: almost throughout his entire ordeal, he believes he is going to be rescued. And he is rescued.
I was in the middle of writing The Lion Hunter, the sequel to The Sunbird, when the events of September 11, 2001 occurred. Watching my world appear to collapse around me, and the reactions of those who died and those who survived and those who had to deal with the changed world left behind, I became aware that the emotional opposite of fear isn’t bravery. It isn’t power. It isn’t hope. It is love.
Love is the single thing that conquers fear, that is stronger than fear. Strangers holding hands and leaping to their death. Family members calling each other on their cell phones to say goodbye and tell them how much they love them.
And it changed the course of the novel for me. It really did. I realized that my child characters weren’t ever going to be able to live without fear; that my own children weren’t going to be able to live in a world without fear. That’s the world we live in now. And we have to battle it, all the time. I said earlier that fear is the most powerful destructive force in the world—but it’s not going away. So I write, I hope, to show my readers how to live with that and go beyond it—how to combat it. The line that gets repeated as an instruction to Telemakos in The Empty Kingdom, over and over, is “Do not be afraid.”
Think of Scout singlehandedly stopping the lynch mob who come to storm the jail in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee—she does it by turning the faceless men of the angry mob back into individual humans, reminding them of their children—her schoolmates—and kindnesses they’ve done her. Love is the opposite of fear.
One of the things that I really noticed while doing the research for Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire was how much daily life just has to continue even though you’ve got bombs dropping around you or you’re hiding from the Gestapo or whatever. It’s pretty obvious in The Diary of Anne Frank, but I think we tend to forget that it applies to everybody. I was particularly impressed by small throwaway anecdotes like the local airman who described going on Sunday walks and picnics with the French Resistance contacts who were hiding him, or the Ravensbrück survivors who had been children there, talking about games of Tag where instead of being “out” you were considered “gassed.” How much the ordinary continues no matter how horrific your living conditions become. You see it also if you read literature coming out of Afghanistan or Iraq—teens worrying more that their parents will catch them smoking than that they’ll be caught and jailed by the secret police.
I tried to convey some of that—how we adapt to living with fear—in small things in my books: Verity’s pleasure in the down quilt that’s given to her in prison, Maddie and the Jamaican airman playing cards while they wait for their secret flight out of France, Rose getting annoyed on arrival at Ravensbrück because her nylon stockings have been torn. Because you do just go on living as long as you can.
Just Can’t Get Enough
Question for Elizabeth Wein from Charles de Lint: Hi Elizabeth. Your interest in flying seems as strong as your interest in writing but I get the impression that you came to flying later in life. If the opportunity had arisen earlier, do you think you would have made flying a career and writing the hobby?
I was 7 when I decided to be a writer, 27 when I sold my first book, and 37 when I started taking flying lessons. So yes, I came to flying later in life.
I can imagine being called on to use my skill as a pilot, for charity work or war work (indeed, I would really love to join the Civil Air Patrol if I had a bit more time and experience), but even now I don’t have the ambition to become a commercial pilot or an instructor. I mean, there’s nothing stopping me making flying a career and writing a hobby now.
But I can’t imagine a life in which writing is a “hobby” to me. I can perhaps imagine a life in which flying and writing are balanced, and indeed I love that idea—but I was born a writer; I had to work to become a pilot. Getting my pilot’s license was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Flying does not come naturally to me; words and stories do. And while I have to work at both of them to get them right, I don’t feel that I’ve missed an opportunity or that I’d have lived my life differently under other circumstances. No regrets! (Except that I don’t have more time to keep my license current.)
Elizabeth has contributed a question (questions, really!) for the next author in the series, Maggie Stiefvater. Watch for an interview with her in a couple weeks!
Elizabeth Wein has lived in Scotland for over ten years and wrote nearly all her novels there. Her first five books for young adults are set in Arthurian Britain and sixth century Ethiopia. The most recent of these form the sequence The Mark of Solomon, published in two parts as The Lion Hunter (2007) and The Empty Kingdom (2008). The Lion Hunter was short-listed for the Andre Norton Award for Best Young Adult Fantasy and Science Fiction in 2008.
Elizabeth’s next novel for teens was a departure in a totally new direction. Code Name Verity, published in 2012, is a World War II thriller in which two young girls, one a Resistance spy and the other a transport pilot, become unlikely best friends. Code Name Verity has received widespread critical acclaim. Among its many laurels it is shortlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal; it is a Michael Printz Award Honor Book, a Boston Globe/Horn Book Awards Honor Book, and an SCBWI Golden Kite Honor Book. It is also a New York Times Bestseller in young adult fiction.
Born in New York City in 1964, Elizabeth moved to England when she was three and started school there. Her father Norman Wein, who worked for the New York City Board of Education for most of his life, was sent to England to do teacher training at what is now Manchester Metropolitan University, where he helped organize the Headstart program there. When Elizabeth was six, Norman was sent to the University of the West Indies in Jamaica for three years to do the same thing in Kingston. Elizabeth loved Jamaica and as a child was fluent in Jamaican patois; but in 1973 her parents separated, and Elizabeth and her younger brother and sister ended up back in the USA living with their mother Carol Flocken in Harrisburg, PA, where Carol’s parents were. When Carol died in a car accident in 1978, Carol’s parents took the children in and raised them.
Elizabeth went to Yale University, spent a work-study year back in England, and then spent seven years getting a PhD in Folklore at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where she held a Javits Fellowship. While in Philadelphia she learned to ring church bells in the English style known as “change ringing”, and in 1991 she met her future husband there at a bell ringers’ dinner-dance. Tim is English, and in 1995 Elizabeth moved to England with him, and then to Scotland in 2000.
Elizabeth and Tim share another unusual interest – flying. Tim got his private pilot’s license in 1993 and Elizabeth got hers ten years later. Together they have flown in the States from Kalamazoo to New Hampshire; in Kenya they’ve toured from Nairobi to Malindi, on the coast, and also all over southern England. Alone, most of Elizabeth’s flying has been in eastern Scotland. Her interest in flying is what sparked the idea for Code Name Verity and for her new novel, Rose Under Fire. Elizabeth and Tim have two children.
–Julie Bartel, currently reading Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl