1 Author, 7 Questions: Elizabeth Wein
Elizabeth Wein has done it again! The Code Name Verity author and WWII mystery maven returns with another high-flying thriller, Stateless! We sat down with her to talk all about her new book, her writing process, and of course flying!
What was your initial inspiration for Stateless?
In January 2020, my husband had a big birthday and we spent a week in Key West to celebrate. While we were there I visited Ernest Hemingway’s house, which inspired me to re-read For Whom the Bell Tolls – I hadn’t read it since high school. I ended up kind of fascinated by the Spanish Civil War. Although I didn’t feel I knew enough about Spain in 1937 to set a story there, it got me thinking about how the fall-out of that war influenced the rest of Europe – particularly while it was still going on. An air race set during that time, with contestants from all over the continent, seemed like a good way to show how connected we all are.
So it all started in Key West!
Can you describe your writing process? Are you a pre-plotter or do you develop the plot as you write?
I am definitely the kind of writer who expects inspiration to arrive in the middle of a novel. And it usually does, although it can be very frustrating waiting for it to come along! In Stateless, the key plot twist came very late in the day, when I figured out what the connection was between two very different characters in the story. That tiny piece of information really tied everything together, but like the reader, I didn’t find out about it until about three-quarters of the way through the book!
I don’t usually work with a detailed outline. But for this book, which focuses around an air race, I had to draw up a schedule for every single racing day, with the start and end times of each racer, and notes about their planes’ air speed and fuel capacity. I couldn’t have written the book without this accurate “flight log”!
You’ve written a number of novels set during or around WWII. What is your research process like? Have you found the research process get easier with each book?
How I wish the research process got easier for each book! BUT NO. It’s even different for each book!
I usually start with BOOKS – reading material about the subject, both non-fiction and period fiction, is key. Period movies are also helpful. But I also like to get hands-on, visiting locations and museums and… well, anything, really. For Black Dove, White Raven, which features stunt pilots who do wing-walking, I tried out wing-walking, and got myself strapped to the upper wing of a vintage bi-plane while the pilot did steep turns and dives! (Reader, I LOVED IT.)
Every now and then I write a book that I’ve already done the research for, which is wonderful. For example, my short novel Firebird, about a girl pilot in the Soviet Union, was written while I was doing the research for A Thousand Sisters, my non-fiction book about Soviet women pilots in World War II.
Flight is a massive theme in a number of your novels, and you even have your pilot’s license! What is it about airplanes and flying that you find so attractive?
I felt like a bit of an imposter as a “pilot” until I’d actually flown solo for the first time. After all, anyone can take a flight lesson if one scrapes together the money or joins a flight program. When I was finally able to fly on my own, I felt as though I’d entered a new and amazing world, and because I’m a writer, I wanted to write about it.
I guess it also appeals to the little girl in me who obsessively read sci-fi comics and swooned over Han Solo in the original Star Wars! Writing about flight means that I can imagine plausible adventure scenarios that might really have happened. I love coming up with wildly improbable plots that don’t actually push the boundaries of genuine possibility. We live in an exciting and amazing world!
I am absolutely in awe at your thrilling plots! The twists are absolutely unmatched! Not to give away any of your secrets, but could you give us some insight as to how you structure your plot twists?
I really can’t. I wish I could – I wish I had some secrets, some arcane raven’s knowledge to impart, that there was an actual method I use to go about coming up with plot twists. But they happen organically, sometimes when I’m halfway through a book – sometimes even after I’ve finished the book I’ll have an “AHAH!” moment and go back and change things. I guess I just have a twisted mind.
I want to think of myself as a mystery writer, and every now and then I sit down and write a straightforward mystery novel – The Pearl Thief, and indeed Stateless itself – and when I do this I am OVERWHELMED by the complexity of coming up with plot. How do people do it? I don’t know. I end up tearing my hair out. My editor spotted the real villain in The Pearl Thief before I did!
When I wrote Code Name Verity, I didn’t know what Verity’s mission was, or her job, or even the point of her story, until I’d written 150 pages of the novel! And one of the big “twists” in that book I didn’t even see until it was published and other readers started commenting on it!
To try to give an answer to this question in good faith, probably what happens is that it is my characters, in their complexity, who engineer the plot twists themselves. If I create a truly wonderful character, one will have hidden depths that will drive the plot. If there are several characters with hidden depths, their conflicting past and present actions will generate those twists. I always do say: Plot is character, character is plot!
What have you been reading recently or would recommend?
Everything by Rumer Godden! I only just discovered her as an adult. She was a British twentieth-century writer, raised in India, and she wrote a wide variety of novels for children and adults over nearly fifty years. Her books are innovative and diverse and full of charismatic and problematic characters. She’s probably best known for The Greengage Summer, which is based on a trip she took with her family to France in the 1920s – it’s a combination coming-of-age novel and a mystery with a jewel thief and it’s just an exquisite piece of work. My favorite of her books is Kingfishers Catch Fire, about a truly bonkers single mother, Sophie Barrington Ward, who takes her small children to live what she hopes will be an idyllic life in the wilds of Kashmir in India in the middle of World War II. It’s a harrowing book (and like The Greengage Summer, also vaguely autobiographical), but I love it because the hapless Sophie reminds me so much of my own young idealistic mother, inflicting her dreams on her stolid children – Sophie rather more successfully than my own mother, which makes me a little envious, too.
I’ve never read a Rumer Godden book I didn’t enjoy, and while many of them have similar themes and motifs threaded through them, they’re all different.
What are you working on now? Any exciting ideas you can share?
I’m just finishing up a joint project with fellow YA author Sherri L. Smith. We’re writing a non-fiction book called American Wings, about a group of Black aviators who flew in Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s. These pioneering men and women were largely responsible for the integration of the Civilian Pilot Training Program, which gave most of the Tuskegee Airmen their initial training, and their efforts led to the eventual integration of the US Air Force. It’s been really wonderful to collaborate with another writer on this enormous project – Sherri and I split the work, making separate trips to different research collections, and we met up in my family home in Pennsylvania last fall so we could spend a week completing the manuscript. The book is scheduled for publication in February 2024.
As for fiction, I think I’d like to try another mystery. But it’s in the early planning stages so my lips are sealed. Watch this space!
About the Author
Elizabeth Wein is the holder of a private pilot’s license and the owner of about a thousand maps. She is best known for her historical fiction about young women flying in World War II, including the New York Times bestselling Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire. Elizabeth is also the author of Cobalt Squadron, a middle grade novel set in the Star Wars universe and connected to the 2017 release The Last Jedi. Elizabeth lives in Scotland and holds both British and American citizenship. She invites you to visit her online at www.elizabethwein.com.