Today's guest is New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Wein, whose book Rose Under Fire is currently being featured as the One Book, One Community selection. Elizabeth writes YA historical fiction that have spanned the worlds of Arthurian England, sixth-century Ethiopia, and WWII Europe. Anyone who's read one of Elizabeth's novels knows that her love for history is truly contagious! We're so excited that Elizabeth agreed to take some time away from her time in the cockpit (more about that later!) and join us today. Check out the interview below and then be sure to follow us on Twitter for a chance to win three signed books from Elizabeth.
James: Rose Under Fire, like its companion novel Code Name Verity, is set during World War II. What drew you to write about this difficult time in history?
Elizabeth: There are a huge variety of reasons! Here are some of the top ones:
- I was obsessed with the Holocaust and stories of Resistance when I was about 12, after reading Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place. I made up my own epic adventure of heroic teens fighting Nazis which was set in Denmark during the war.
- When I went to high school, my French teacher turned out to have been a member of the French Resistance in her teens during the war. She told us incredible stories of the work she did, delivering dynamite hidden under carrots in her bicycle basket, and moving stories of betrayal and loyalty among her own schoolmates. She continued to inspire me as a friend and teacher until her death in 2008.
- I learned to fly and got a private pilot’s license in 2003. One of the more revered members of my flying club, who sat with me on the club’s committee, had flown for the Royal Air Force as a young man during the war – his name is John Moffat, and he is widely known as “The Man Who Sank the Bismarck”! While learning to fly I also became interested in women in aviation and their history, and this led rather inevitably back to World War II.
- On a simple level, I’m fascinated by the debris of the war that I see on a daily basis living in Europe: memorials, abandoned antiaircraft defences on the beaches, civil defence markings on public buildings, stumps of iron railings along every residential street in my city where the rails were sacrificed for surplus metal… I’m intrigued by the scars the war has left all around me.
James: While most teens are well aware of the Holocaust, many of our readers may not be aware of the horrifying experiments conducted in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. How much of what happens to the Rabbits at Ravensbrück is fictional and how much is history?
Elizabeth: NONE OF IT IS FICTIONAL.
I feel like I need to shout that.
Like most readers, I had no idea the Rabbits existed before I wrote Rose Under Fire. I’d already plotted Rose’s story of capture and escape before I became aware of the Rabbits and their story. I first found them mentioned by Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz in her book God Remained Outside when I was doing the initial research for Rose Under Fire, and as I learned more about them I realized that their story would give a specific structure and story arc to the Ravensbrück portion of my book; and I also realized that I wanted to tell their story, and to make a new generation aware of their story – to tell the world.
The only fictionalizing I’ve done in telling the Rabbits’ story is to put Rose in it as an observer, and a few of the connecting links. The experiments that were performed on the Rabbits, the conditions under which those experiments were performed, the punishments that were inflicted, the Rabbits’ rebellion and protection by the other prisoners, were all real. Most of the incidents Rose describes within the camp are based on reality too: for example, the moment where Róża causes a riot to distract the soldiers by screaming “The SS are giving out bread!” is based on an incident described in Wanda Półtawska’s memoir And I Am Afraid of My Dreams. They did steal a camera and take pictures of the wounds on their legs; the French prisoner Germaine Tillion managed to hide the roll of film for them until her release. I can’t emphasize strongly enough that the only things about Ravensbrück that I made up were my own characters and their interactions – and throwaway details like Irina’s model glider and Elodie’s rose-embroidered socks.
What happened to the Rabbits at Ravensbrück was real.
James: Rose Under Fire is written as a compilation of letters and journal entries. Why did you choose this method to tell Rose's story?
Elizabeth: The bulk of my research for Rose Under Fire came from the memoirs of former prisoners, and I wanted to present Rose’s story as if it were an actual memoir. I based the structure of her account on Wanda Półtawska’s And I Am Afraid of My Dreams – Półtawska found herself unable to sleep after she returned home from Ravensbrück, and a friend suggested she write down her experiences as a kind of therapy against nightmares and insomnia. She wrote furiously for three weeks and the result was the first draft of her book.
So I constructed a similar situation for Rose; but because I wanted her to describe her activities before and after Ravensbrück, I added in the diary entries during her time in the Air Transport Auxiliary, and concluded with the “draft” of her “article” about the Doctors’ Trial at Nuremberg.
I included the letters (just before Rose’s cathartic description of her imprisonment begins) because I wanted an effective way to show that six months had passed since we last heard from Rose. I wanted to give the reader some sense of how completely cut off she’d have been while in the concentration camp – how horrifically civilian victims of the Nazi regime just vanished and were never heard from again. So I included a brief series of letters from Rose’s friends and relations, addressed to each other rather than to Rose, to try to replicate their baffling attempts to discover what happened to Rose, and how slowly their hope turns to grief over time – as it did for so many millions of real people and their vanished loved ones.
James: The title character is a pilot, as are you. How does your passion for flying influence your writing?
Elizabeth: I think what it comes down to is that you have a different view of the world from the sky.
In a commercial plane you are so high up you can’t really make sense of the earth below you – you are detached from it, in limbo. But in a small plane you are completely aware of the world around you, and you have to make good sense of it in order to find your way. So at the same time you have a sense of how big the world is but also how small it is, and how vague many of its boundaries are, and of how resilient it is (forest encroaching on field), and of how mightily we have changed it (dams, bridges, walls, cities).
Many of the world’s famous early aviators became environmental activists later in life.
So in my writing, I think that the view of the earth that I get from the sky pervades my stories. Obviously there’s adventure and skill in flying, and that’s a useful aid in writing fiction (I honestly can’t think of a more terrifying experience in the air – short of crashing - than of being intercepted, as Rose is by the Luftwaffe jets). But I think that, in a more general sense, the view from the air influences how I feel about the world.
James: One of my favorite things about Rose Under Fire is that you take a genre that has traditionally been dominated by strong male characters and subvert it with strong feminist themes. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Elizabeth: That started with Code Name Verity and I continued what I’d done there as I wrote Rose Under Fire. So here I’ll confess two things; I didn’t really think about the fact that I was taking a male-dominated genre and turning it upside down when I wrote Code Name Verity; I was just telling the story I wanted to tell, and it happened to be about young women. But the other confession is that I always like to subvert convention in my stories.
Four of my first five books (before Code Name Verity) have male viewpoint characters. I’ve always written “strong” female characters but I never thought of myself as working with particularly feminist themes – I was just writing women as they are. In the case of Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire, all I’ve done is highlighted untold stories. Yes, they’re fiction, but I didn’t make up the women who flew for the Air Transport Auxiliary, or who fought for the Resistance in Nazi-occupied Europe, or who were imprisoned at Ravensbrück. I told their stories because they were amazing stories and no one had told them – or not exhaustively, at any rate.
Having said that, these stories have revealed me as a strong feminist and I don’t take issue with that, because I’m increasingly aware that this battle is far from over. Perhaps writing these stories has made me more acutely aware of my own feminist leanings, and how lucky I am to have been raised (like Maddie and Rose) in an environment that has encouraged and allowed me to do what I’m good at and what I enjoy.
I also feel that it is no coincidence I wrote Code Name Verity in my own daughter’s twelfth year, and I wrote Rose Under Fire as she entered her teens. She’s now 19, and I am aware that the battles I fight are fought on her behalf as well as mine now.
James: Which character in Rose Under Fire is most like you?
Elizabeth: In all honesty, probably Anna Engel. I am not sure I have Rose’s integrity or her daring. But I can see myself in Anna’s position, trying to do what’s expected of me and gradually rebelling against it.
There is a lot of Rose in me too, though. I gave her my love of writing and of Edna St. Vincent Millay and my Central Pennsylvania background and her romanticism. But she is more of an all-rounder than me, and probably more likeable.
Secretly, I stuck Lisette in partly as a sort of unconventional Mary Sue! (Lisette is a French diminutive of Elisabeth). She is a mother and novelist, like me, and older than the other main characters. There were plenty of prisoners at Ravensbrück who weren’t young, and I wanted to show that older women can be heroic too.
James: What message do you hope your readers would take from Rose Under Fire?
Elizabeth: Well, my own mission in Rose Under Fire is that of Rose and the Rabbits: Tell the world. Let people know what happened in Ravensbrück and elsewhere; don’t let it happen again.
But I’d like to think readers will take something of what I took from reading and listening to many concentration camp survivors: that, apart from pure luck, it was hope and companionship that saved them. If you gave up, or if you didn’t have support, you didn’t make it. And that should be a lesson for us all, I think – we don’t exist in a vacuum.
James: What's the most meaningful compliment you've ever received from one of your readers?
Elizabeth: That’s a really hard question to answer because many of my readers are intensely passionate about my books, and I don’t really like to value one deeply meaningful compliment over another.
But here are a few examples:
- One young reader, earlier this year, for his eleventh birthday asked his family to make an eight-hour road trip to hear me speak.
- I know of at least two young women who have been inspired to learn to fly and are now qualified pilots because they read and loved my books. I know another young women who is about to join the US Air Force Reserve as a result of reading my books.
- I have been quietly thanked by different people for mentioning the Jehovah’s Witnesses at Ravensbrück, for my portrayal of the conflicted German guard Anna Engel by a reader of German descent, for writing about the sacrifices made by the women of the Special Operations Executive by a reader whose mother served with them… Every one of these messages amazes and humbles me.
I have lost track of the number of times I’ve been told that one of my books is a reader’s “favorite book of all time.” That’s a compliment you don’t expect to hear every day –or even ever. Every time I hear it, it’s as wonderful as it was the first time. It doesn’t get better than that – and yet, it keeps happening. I am very lucky.
James: Can you tell us anything about your next project?
Elizabeth: I have a new book coming out in May 2017 called The Pearl Thief. It’s sort of a prequel to Code Name Verity.
James: What are some other books that you frequently find yourself recommending to other people?
Elizabeth: I often find myself recommending Tanita S. Davis’s young adult novels – the topics of her books cover a lot of ground, but what they have in common is complex, relatable characters and loving, flawed family groups. Her Mare’s War is excellent World War II fiction for teens.
I was blown away by M.T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead earlier this year, about the siege of Leningrad and the composer Dmitri Shostakovich.
For something completely different, I love Hilary McKay’s fiction and Josephine Tey’s mid-20th century mysteries for the first time. These authors don’t have anything in common apart from great writing!
James: Thanks so much for joining us today, Elizabeth!
Elizabeth: Thanks for the opportunity to answer these great questions, to share some of my favorite reads, and to TELL THE WORLD.
That's it for today's interview with Elizabeth. If you have any questions for Elizabeth or want to let her know how her books have impacted you, be sure to reach out to her on her website or check out her Twitter.And be sure to visit our Twitter, where we're currently hosting an Elizabeth Wein giveaway, complete with three signed books and some awesome badges.