Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Q&A with Elizabeth Wein

Elizabeth Wein is the author of the new young adult novel The Pearl Thief, a prequel to her novel Code Name Verity. Her other novels include Black Dove, White Raven and A Coalition of Lions. She lives in Scotland.

Q: Why did you decide to write this prequel to your novel Code Name Verity?

A: So many reasons!

I’ve always wanted to write a mystery. When Code Name Verity won the Edgar Award, I was thrilled to become a member of the Mystery Writers of America.

I am so proud of that Edgar, and for some time now I’ve felt that I sort of owe it to the MWA to produce a classic mystery novel – I mean, one that isn’t in disguise as a thriller (Code Name Verity) or historical fantasy (my third novel, The Sunbird, was also nominated for an Edgar, though it didn’t make the short list).

I really love 1930s mysteries, and Dorothy L. Sayers in particular is one of my favorite authors. I thought first about setting a story in the 1930s… and then thought it would be fun to set it in Scotland… do you see where this is going?

Then I thought, hmmm, Julie (one of Code Name Verity’s two narrators) would have been in her teens in Scotland in the 1930s… wouldn’t it be fun to make this her story?

Another reason I decided to make this a prequel to Code Name Verity is because I’d found Julie’s narrative voice so easy to write. Her sassy, literary stream of consciousness is, in many ways, the voice of my own journals.

It’s distilled and refined, of course, to make it Julie’s, but there’s an element of irreverence and humor in my private journals which I never managed to capture in fiction until Julie came along. I wanted very much to tap into that voice again.

Also – this is purely frivolous – Julie spends the whole of Code Name Verity wearing the same frayed and blood-stained sweater, and I really wanted to make it up to her with pearls and a green silk ball gown.

Q: You note that The Pearl Thief is set where you live. How important is the setting in this novel, and how important is setting in general in your writing?

A: Setting is hugely important in my writing. I have never written a novel without using a map.

I have always thought of setting as an extra character. I’m particularly fond of houses as characters – I once wrote an article for The Lion and Unicorn on “sentient” houses in children’s literature.

I’m intrigued now when I look back on the houses and setting in The Pearl Thief! Thinking about it, I’ve used the different dwellings in Strathfearn – Aberfearn Castle and Strathfearn House – as a sort of physical parallel to Julie’s ancestry and connection to the land.

But with the character of Ellen, who lives in a tent, there is a wider connection to a broader landscape. Ellen isn’t as invested in material things as Julie, but she’s very much at one with the localities she lives in.

There was something else going on in my head, consciously, when I set The Pearl Thief in a place I know well: I was dealing with loss and change in real life.

My grandmother died early in 2015. My family spent most of that year – the year I wrote The Pearl Thief – dealing with my grandmother’s property and her legacy – and, indeed, her debt.

The house that she left to me and my aunts had been our summer cottage as children, where we’d spent our summers, like Julie, swimming and running wild in the woods.

Although my grandmother’s house is in Pennsylvania, not Scotland, my relationship with that house and the local community has resonances with Julie’s situation in The Pearl Thief.

I like the fiction I read to be very detail-oriented, and my writing reflects that. I feel that a convincing setting is just another way to make a story feel like it could have really happened. (Most of my early books, like The Pearl Thief, include maps I drew myself!)

Q: Some of the characters in the book are Scottish Travellers. Why did you decide to focus on this community?

A: I first learned about Scottish Travellers in the summer of 1988. I was working on my Ph.D. in Folklore and Folklife at the University of Pennsylvania, and I took a course in British Folklore with the department chair, Dr. Kenneth Goldstein.

Kenny had collected songs and stories from Travellers in Scotland in 1959 and 1960, and he played us some of his original recordings in our class. I will never forget his live “mouth music” or puirt à beul performance, in which the human voice is used to imitate the sound of the bagpipes.

Much later, in 2009, a member of my book group in Perth gave me a copy of The Yellow on the Broom by Betsy Whyte. In it, Betsy describes her girlhood growing up in a Traveller community, mostly in Perthshire, in the 1930s.

I happened to be writing Code Name Verity at the time, and I was aware that Julie, one of my narrators (and the narrator of The Pearl Thief) would have grown up at the same time, in more or less the same place, under very different circumstances.

I mentioned in Code Name Verity that Julie had picked up a little of the Travellers’ secret language, cant; and in Rose Under Fire, Maddie says that Julie’s mother allows Travellers to camp on the riverbank on her property in Scotland for a month every year and that Julie used to play with them when she was young. So it made perfect sense to include them in this story of Julie’s summer at home.

It also gave me the perfect contrast to her life of wealth and privilege. The issues of prejudice, injustice and intolerance that the Travellers faced in the 1930s and often face today have clear parallels with issues in our own society.

Q: How did you research this book?

A: I used a little of everything. I always start with books, then move on to the internet for crosschecking things. I read Traveller autobiographies and social histories, local histories of Perthshire and the River Tay and the Carpow Log boat excavation there.

But I also read 1930s fiction to help me set the tone for the story: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Nancy Mitford. I spent a lot of time on the Scottish Government’s website and the Scottish police force’s website learning about the Scottish legal system, and then tracking down its history.

And then I went outside. I went to museums – the Perth Museum and the McManus Gallery in Dundee, to look at pearl fishermen’s equipment and a Bronze Age log boat.

I went to a play about Travellers. I went to one of Scotland’s two jewelry stores licensed to sell Scottish river pearls and looked at their pearls. I volunteered on an Iron Age hill fort archeological dig (twice). I visited the oldest lending library in Scotland.

I climbed every tower of the ruined castle at Elcho and stuck my head up its chimneys to see how they were connected; I didn’t quite dare to try to climb them. But I could if I had to, as Julie’s grandmother says (it was really my own grandmother who always said that!).

Q: What were some of the things that surprised you?

A: The moment on the dig when, without me asking, the head of the team David Strachan confirmed something I’d been wondering about by telling us how water was sacred to the Bronze Age peoples in Scotland, and how the meeting of two rivers would be doubly important.

The Night Ferry. From 1936 to 1980 you could get on a train in Paris, go to sleep, and wake up in London. The train was loaded onto a ferry in Dunkirk; it crossed the English Channel by ship and unloaded back onto railway tracks in Dover. I feel cheated that it existed during my lifetime and I never got to ride it.

The entire Scottish legal system. The person who does the coroner’s job is called the Procurator Fiscal. There is a thing called Special Remainder which allows you to leave your property to someone other than the heir apparent. Scots peers didn’t traditionally have a vote in the House of Lords but they could be elected to it.

“It is incorrect for young girls to wear tiaras on any occasion,” according to Debrett’s New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners. (Eventually I sighed, stopped looking up Debrett’s online, and bought myself a copy since I was referring to it so often. It makes fascinating reading.)

The River Earn is tidal past Bridge of Earn. It is about 30 miles inland from the North Sea! I was astonished.

I learned more than I ever wanted to know about what happens to a body when it drowns, but I’ll refrain from giving details.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m writing a middle-grade non-fiction book about the women pilots who flew as fighter and bomber pilots for the Soviet Air Force in World War II. It is completely different from anything I’ve ever done. The research is fascinating and inspiring, and I’m really enjoying the project.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The audio book of The Pearl Thief is going to be fantastic! I got to spend a day listening in while they recorded it, and I got to meet the voice narrator, actor Maggie Service. She’s Scottish herself, and her interpretation of Julie is absolutely magnificent.

It’s the first time I was ever on set while they recorded an audio book. I also read the author’s note myself in the studio. I can’t wait to hear the finished product!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Elizabeth Wein, please click here.


  1. I cannot wait for the audio book of the Pearl favorite way to "read" your books. And, I just finished Kathryn Lasky's Night I'mm very thirsty for details on women pilots of the USSR. The 1930s has been my current fascination. Gosh, I"d love a peek at any page of your notes!

    1. Reply from Elizabeth Wein: "My notes can be pretty interesting, that's definitely true! Researching the Soviet women pilots has been amazing. It's hard to know where to begin. But the book is coming along! Thanks for your enthusiasm! - E Wein"