What Is Elizabeth Wein Writing For?

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Although I became “a reader” rather late, I’ve had the good fortune of encountering some truly wonderful books and remarkable authors whom I have enjoyed again and again over the past two decades. I only recently discovered Elizabeth Wein, however, and have just begun her acclaimed novel, Code Name Verity, which was recently voted #1 on the YALSA Top Ten Teen Books for 2013, but am quite confident she’ll be one of those novelists I return to time and again.

I have to say, so far the experience has been wonderful. One that has me salivating for her other books. I have some catching up to do, after all.

For the past three months, Code Name Verity has been on my To Read list and it only recently moved onto my Reading Now list. A novel about World War II that has been called “an Allied Invasion of Two,” Code Name Verity focuses on two young women (one a pilot, the other a spy) who seem to defy norms on so many levels. If the beginning is any indication, I’m sure this book will soon move to my You Have To Read This list.

So, how lucky am I to have had Elizabeth Wein write a special guest post for this week?

If you Google the novel and attempt to read a review, chances are you’ll come across dozens that start with an apology of sorts, something like – I find myself in a very precarious position for to divulge much, if any of this very clever plot will undoubtedly reveal too much and spoil . . . and so on. As a matter of fact, good luck finding a reviewer who doesn’t admire the crafting of the story enough to hold back, despite a seemingly intense desire from most of them to spew about all the things they loved.

Marjorie Ingall from the NY Times wrote that it’s a book “you have to read twice. The first time you just devour the story of girl-pilot-and-girl-spy friendship and the thrill of flying a plane and the horrors of Nazi torture and the bravery of French Resistance fighters and you force yourself to slow down, but you don’t want to, because you’re terrified these beautiful, vibrant characters are doomed. The second time, you read more slowly, proving to yourself that yes, the clues were there all along for you to solve the giant puzzle you weren’t even aware was constructed around you, and it takes focus and attention to catch all the little references to the fact that nothing is what you thought.”

Another reviewer writes: “For all the intricacies of its plotting, this novel is rooted in character.”

This seems apparent from the opening sentence, for the novel begins:

I wanted to be heroic and I pretended I was.
I have always been good at pretending.”

I for one was hooked by that opening and have been drawn deeper and deeper into the novel the further I’ve gone. I, too, will refrain from revealing too much of the plot, though, for it’s something that deserves to be experienced and felt for the first time by the reader.

The word “exceptional” is one that I tend to avoid tossing around, much like the word brilliant, but there are times when it seems not merely apt but necessary. According to the Merriam-Webster’s definition, something is exceptional when it is not usual, when it is unusually or uncommonly good, rare.

I have encountered a handful of books about World War II (The Book Thief, Night, Catch-22, The Boy Who Dared) that I have found to be rare, not the subject matter as much as the execution, due to the combination of story and of character, but also due to the quality of the writing.

I love character-driven books and voice-driven books. I also love plot-driven books. But sometimes, I believe, in the labeling of those sorts of novels what gets lost (or at least de-emphasized), but what is every bit as essential, is the author’s deft touch.

Even in my relatively short interaction (so far) with Elizabeth Wein’s work, I am immediately cognizant of her very skillful and clever handling, not just of the material, but of the words with which she paints her very moving story.

The novel is, according to some, uplifting. But don’t mistake that to mean that it’s not sad as well. After all, the NY Times reviewer did use the phrase “while you’re bawling your eyes out.”

Isn’t that what we want from a writer? I know, I do (it’s something I also aspire to create as a writer). A depiction that isn’t just one thing or another (isn’t just funny or mysterious or sorrowful), for that’s what life really offers us, moments of sadness, moments of hope, moments that make us shake our heads and wonder who could do something that awful, and other moments that have us nodding to ourselves, smiling, saying, yes, I wish I had more of that in me.

Of course, I won’t know for sure until I get to the end of Code Name Verity if this is one such book, but by all indications it will be.

Although books tend to be marketed for adults or for young adults, there are more and more these days that fall into the realm of crossover novels, books with young adult protagonists and story-lines that appeal to that audience as well as to adults. From what I’ve read so far, I can see why Wein’s novel appeals to both. I did notice a few disclaimers in my research, though, making readers aware that some of the torture scenes are a bit graphic so the novel may be a bit too intense for some YA readers. You’ll have to make that call for yourself.

All I know is what I’ve read has been exceptional and I can’t wait to read the book twice, just as Ingall suggests.

A Young Elizabeth Wein Typing

A Young Elizabeth Wein Typing

Even if she hadn’t written such an acclaimed novel, even if she hadn’t written other novels set in Arthurian Britain (which I love), even if she hadn’t been short-listed for the Andre Norton Award among others, even if she didn’t have a PhD in Folklore and her very own pilot’s license (I mean, is this she interesting or what), I would still be quite envious of (and a fan of) Elizabeth Wein who has spent the past decade living in Scotland, one of my favorite places on the planet. Well, okay, I do also admire her for being a writer whose work is described as “hauntingly beautiful.”

I recently asked Elizabeth, What Are YOU Writing For, and below is her response. I think you’ll find, as I did, a humble woman, one who writes for several very worthwhile reasons.

What are you writing for? (from Elizabeth Wein)

I started out writing for myself.  I am the most selfish person I know. I write the books I wanted to read when I was a teen, and couldn’t find. Now that I’m an older, more cranky reader, I write the books that I want to read as an adult and can’t find. And I seem to be stuck in an eternal twilight of having the brain of a sophomore, so that’s the stuff I keep writing. Sometimes a college sophomore—sometimes that less sophisticated version, the high school sophomore.

But a thing that has surprised me, in the past three or four years, is that I’m also writing for my daughter, Sara, who’s a teen now herself. She’s always been aware of my work as an author; she’s always been on a first-name basis with my characters, as though they’re distant cousins she’s never met—you still count them as family.

My third young adult novel, The Sunbird, is dedicated to Sara; I told her the plot, chapter by chapter, as a bedtime story in serial form when she was three, while I was in the middle of writing it. She read it herself when she was ten but found it hard going. She read it again when she was twelve and found it surprisingly accessible.

She read my most recent book, Rose Under Fire, at fifteen. It is her favorite. There are a number of reasons for this (she likes the heroine, it has a straightforward plot, I’m a better writer than I was ten years ago), but I think that the bottom line is this: she has become my target audience. I’m not just writing the books I wanted to read as a teen; now I’m also writing the books my daughter wants to read as a teen.

That’s not the end of the story, though.

Sara is sharing my books with her friends. She shares them with her classmates, but she also shares them with friends she’s made online through various readers’ groups and forums. And it turns out that I’m not just writing for myself and my daughter. I’m writing for her friends and her peers. I’m writing for a lot of teen readers.

I’ve got things to tell them, for sure—I want to tell them about the things I’ve learned and the things I’ve enjoyed and the things I get excited about. I want to get other people excited about the things I’m excited about. I want to inspire people. I want to share what I’ve learned.

So maybe I write to improve myself—to turn the most selfish person I know into someone who wants to share.