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 cafe 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.