• Elizabeth Wein

    Elizabeth Wein



    JUNE 2013

    Elizabeth Wein, whose earlier novel Code Name Verity (see below) is shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, has returned to the same era as Code Name Verity for her new novel, Rose Under Fire, but with a different heroine, Rose Justice.

    Wein wanted a heroine who was younger than the character Maddie in Code Name Verity, and who was a poet, but she still wanted to complete Maddie's story "because people wanted to know what happened to her after the events and that she was okay".

    Like Maddie, Rose is an ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary) pilot who is ferrying an aircraft from France to the UK in 1944 when she is captured by the Germans and sent to the Ravensbrck concentration camp. There, she suffers horrendous conditions during the final months of the war before managing to escape.

    Wein started to write Rose Under Fire as soon as she had finished writing Code Name Verity, she explains, "Because to me it felt like a story that was half finished. I knew that many SOE (Special Operation Executive) agents ended up in Ravensbrck, so that was the second half of their story."

    Many did not get to write their own stories and writing this for them is a constant refrain in Rose Under Fire. In the book's Afterword, Wein stresses that while Rose's story is made up, Ravensbrck is not. She writes, "My book is fiction, but it is based on the real memories of other people. In the end, like Rose, I am doing what I can to carry out the last instructions of the true witnesses - those who went to their death crying out, Tell the world."

    The fact that Ravensbrck was a women's camp made its dynamics and social structure very different from the other camps but it was just as brutal and Wein's description of what happened to many of them is unflinching.

    As an author, Wein says, "I do try to engage with what I am writing and try to become my characters, I even act out scenes (in private), but I don't have an inkling of what these people experienced and I can't recreate it so this book was really, really hard to write."

    She decided to have her narrator writing from a hotel room, after the events of the story had taken place. "That was my window into getting into her head and that I could do," she says. "I could pretend I was in a luxurious bedroom writing about what I remembered. At one point Rose writes, 'Even now, when I am well fed, I can remember what it was like to be starving', so I can take a step away from the actual events."

    As well as its role in imprisoning SOE's, Ravensbrck' had a factory where the prisoners made fuses for the V1 'flying bombs' or 'Doodlebugs' that Wein also wanted to bring into her novel. "It was inevitable that if you're talking about this part of the war, you'll get on to Doodlebugs because they were such a big feature then.

    "Pretty early on in the plot I had decided that Rose would be lost somewhere in Europe because she had gone after a Doodlebug. They were in everyone's consciousness - and then I found out that they were making fuses for them at Ravensbrck, so the plot came together."

    Ravensbrck was also unusual in having prisoners who were experimented on - 'Rabbits' as they became known - and they feature strongly in Rose's story as she befriends a group of women who, like the real women from the camp, tried to protect the 'Rabbits' to ensure that they would survive and that their story would be told.

    Friendship is important in this book, but friendship was also vital for Rose's survival says Wein. "I read about one of the French survivors who said they would never have survived without their friends; you needed people to help you, to watch your food bowl while you went to the bathroom, for example, because if you lost your bowl you didn't eat."

    Wein extensively researched Ravensbrck to get a 'sense of place' which she says "is really, really important to me for everything I write, my books are really grounded in the place they are set.

    "I spend a lot of time looking at maps and photographs for each of my books and with Rose Under Fire, at Google Earth. What happens is that I get such a strong sense of place in my head that when I finally visit those places they match up although I may find I have left things out, like the red tiles on the floor of the shower room at Ravensbrck.

    "There were other things that I found about during my research that I hadn't even thought about; apparently people exchanged recipes like crazy, for example, it was a favourite discussion topic. People wrote down recipes all the time and exchanged them, and people wrote poetry too, but the number one literary item of discussion was recipes!"

    Not much of the original Ravensbrck buildings remain. It was used by the Soviets as an army base for 50 years, from 1945 to 1994, as Ravensbrck was in East Germany , so most of what exists was the army base. It was eventually turned into a memorial site in 1969 and the cell blocks, gates, guard quarters and SS headquarters remain although the actual prisoner barracks are gone; there are impressions in the ground where they would have stood.

    Wein didn't actually visit Ravensbrck until she had written most of Rose Under Fire, when she attended a 'summer camp" there. "It sounds harrowing but it was a wonderful experience," she says. The camps are held every year and students study different topics. "Last year it was essentially memory and the perception of images and how this has changed through the generations, and the effects of the media on memory, so the focus was on the Holocaust in general and other media developments."

    It was while she was there that Wein wrote a number of the poems included in the book. She says, "They were the hardest things to write. When I was writing the novel, I just left a space for them, 'need a poem about sky', or 'poem about food'.

    "I was a poet before I was a novelist so until my early 20's most of my output was poetry and then I started focusing on novels. So this was hugely productive for me, having 15 poems in a book, but it was hard writing them because Rose the poet was younger than me and her style was different, so I found I had to reign myself in."

    Wein is now writing "another flying book", set in 1935, which is based on the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. "My earlier books are set in Ethiopia so it makes sense for me to return there," she says.

    "I don't know what my next area of interest will be but I think I might be done with the second World War; I have my own sense of having lived through it via Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire and now I feel it's over. It's been about four years for me and I feel there is a beginning and an end to that writing period in my life."



    FEBRUARY 2012

    It is WWII and a Scottish aristocrat is being held by the Gestapo in occupied France. Code Name Verity is her story and that of her friend, a pilot called Maddie, as they each recount what came to pass during those fateful weeks in Occupied France.

    Q: You're an accomplished pilot - is that what sparked the idea for Code Name Verity?

    A: Yes, my husband had a private pilot's license and I bought my first lesson in flying after I sold my second book. I got my pilot's license in 2003, although I haven't flown as much as I would have liked since then.

    Q: The women in your story have to compete quite hard to get near an aeroplane - have things changed since then?

    A: At one point we were going to a lot of aircraft shows and watched these old wartime planes limping into the air. I started finding out more about these aircraft and thought it was so unfair how women didn't get to fly them.

    I went on to write a short story about a woman who disguises herself as her brother and takes his place in a Spitfire. Then I learned about the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary) and discovered that women did fly for the RAF, delivering damaged planes etc, so when I revisited the story for Code Name Verity, I had my starting point.

    Unfortunately though after the war the sense of equality many women enjoyed soon evaporated. Many stopped flying, or working on the land or in factories, and went back to the home.

    It took a long time after that for women to begin to catch up - the first commercial female pilot wasn't appointed until 1961.

    Q: Much of the story is set in France during the Occupation; did that need a lot of research?

    A: I haven't spent a great deal of time in France although I have been to the region where the book is set, around Poitiers. What sparked my interest in France during the Occupation was my French teacher in high sthool. She had been a member of the French Resistance and told us a little about it - stories like cycling along with dynamite in her basket. I was about 12 and started to read everything I could about WW2.

    For this book I also read an amazing account by a respected French novelist who was Roman Catholic but also had Jewish ancestry. She was sent to Auschwitz in 1942 and gave her two daughters - who escaped - an manuscript which they only read years later and it turned out to be a detailed account of people in France and what they were doing during the Occupation. She was especially critical of the French upper classes.

    Q: How did your two main characters, Queenie and Maddie, develop?

    A: I visited a 'Women at War' exhibition at the Imperial War Museum and what struck me was the evidence of women as spies and saboteurs.

    My original idea for Queenie was to make her a complete coward who gave everything away but as I got into the story the characters ran away with me and I realised that she did have backbone at the point where she and Maddie talk down the German pilot.

    Q: The book is written as personal accounts by Queenie and Maddie - why did you use that approach?

    A: It just felt like the right way to approach it and I have read a number of first hand accounts and biographies of wartime pilots and agents. But there were many who didn't want to write about their experiences and of course, many of them died during their service. If you read films like Carve Her Name With Pride about Special Operations Executive agent Violette Szabo, you realise that they all end the same way - go over there, do a job, they're tortured and they die.

    Q: You have written many books set in the past - why do you feel historical fiction is so important?

    A: I think it does a disservice to describe this book as 'historical fiction'. It's a thriller, and what these girls show is that you can take control of your own lives. There are still not that many female pilots and women still confront many of the sexist things that Maddie did all that time ago. Some of the things that are said to me and some of the situations I've been in are used in the book.

    Code Name Verity is about people trying to take control of their own lives and that is still relevant today. But it's an adventure first - although you might learn something about history in the process.

    Q: Will you return to any of these characters in another book?

    A: I thought about it but the main characters are too old really; I like writing for the YA readers but returning to these characters would take it into the adult market.

    Instead I decided to return to the same period, about six months later, just after the invasion of Normandy in 1944, and the character is American and a bit younger and, through a series of mishaps, ends up interned at Ravensbrck, a German concentration camp for women.