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Five questions for Elizabeth Wein

Photo: David Ho

Photo: David Ho

As two-time Boston Globe–Horn Book honoree Elizabeth Wein reminds us below, a page-turner isn’t necessarily about plot twists and cliffhangers. For more books you can’t put down, see our 2016 Summer Reading recommendations.

1. Your books give readers the impulse to both turn pages quickly (what’s going to happen?!) and linger on the descriptions. How do you do that?

EW: I think that what I do is a form of pathetic fallacy, the literary trope in which nature is in sympathy with the mood of the story. I connect the physical setting and props in the story to the emotional state of the characters.

The egg in Code Name Verity is a great example. It’s the first egg Maddie has had to herself in a long time, and it’s magical, and Maddie says so.

Maddie took the top off her egg with her spoon. The hot, bright yolk was like a summer sun breaking through cloud, the first daffodil in the snow, a gold sovereign wrapped in a white silk handkerchief. She dipped her spoon in it and licked it.

“You lads,” she said slowly, looking around at the grubby faces, “have been evacuated to a magic castle.”

And I think the reader contributes to making this effect work: it’s up to the reader to make the connection between Maddie’s egg and Craig Castle’s warmth and welcome. I sometimes think young people are not given nearly enough credit for their ability to appreciate literary flourish.

2. You often frame your stories (or parts of them) as documents written by your characters. In what ways does that affect pacing?

EW: I think it gives me some creative control. In Rose Under Fire, I wanted to convey the completeness of Rose’s vanishing — as so many real people vanished — when she is sent to Ravensbrück. I constructed a series of letters from people who knew her, and letter by letter, the months tick by: October, November, March, April. And still no one has any idea what has happened to Rose. The whole section only covers ten pages or so but effectively stretches the time without just saying “Six months later…”

I was experimenting when I used the “found document” technique to write Code Name Verity, but I loved the way it allowed me to add tension to the narrative — cutting off Verity’s flow mid-sentence, sometimes mid-word, or throwing in a game-changing letter or telegram.

3. When you accepted your Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor award for Rose Under Fire you said, “Thank you for helping to bring this message of horror and hope to a wider audience.” How do you avoid sensationalism in such a story?

EW: Mainly by avoiding melodrama, and by keeping my descriptions of suffering matter-of-fact. I try to give the reader the bare details—describing what was done to Róża’s legs—or the bare effects, such as when Rose loses consciousness before the twentieth lash stroke when she is beaten. I tend not to attempt to describe pain. I don’t feel I can comprehend or re-create the personal suffering of others, so I simply try to tell what happened, or what I imagine happened.

I also think it helps to let the reader fill in a lot of the blanks. Melodrama is patronizing. With a straightforward statement, readers can figure out for themselves what’s going on:

I did my knitting standing up. I ate standing up. The back of my dress had dark brown stripes of dried blood across it that I never managed to wash out in the whole time I wore it.

4. You write strong, active heroines. How often (if ever!) have you been told “Boys won’t read these books?”

EW: I honestly don’t think anyone’s ever told me that! And a decent number of boys tell me they love my books.

I heard a great story from a librarian (whose name I unfortunately forget), who said that when she booktalks Code Name Verity she doesn’t reveal the gender of the narrator. “It’s about a pilot and a captured spy who’s been tortured and is writing a confession.” The boys line up to read it.

Four of my first five novels have a boy hero. Those books aren’t very well known, and two of my more recent books, starring girls instead of boys, are read by lots of people. In my most recent book, Black Dove, White Raven, the limelight is shared by a girl and a boy. So this is one thing I never lie awake at night worrying about.

5. As a reader, what keeps you turning pages?

EW: The very term “turning pages” suggests nonstop action. But I am all about character and beautiful writing. I eat that up like popcorn. Whether a book is action-packed or not, all I need are well-written prose and quirky, fabulous characters to keep me going.

I gravitate to stories of loving, dysfunctional families. I’m a fan of Tanita S. Davis, who tells these stories so well — her most recent offering is Peas and Carrots. Hilary McKay is another auto-read for me. Superficially, you might think such books are very different from mine…but at heart, you could say I mostly write about loving, dysfunctional families, too, like my own.

From the July 2016 issue of What Makes a Good…?: “What Makes a Good Page-Turner?”

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