INTERVIEW Elizabeth Wein: twenty years to overnight success

Candy Gourlay interviews Elizabeth Wein on the heady success of her novel Code Name Verity which was on the New York Times bestseller list and recently shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal ... among others.

Elizabeth was born in New York but lived in England, Jamaica and Pennsylvania when she was growing up. She has lived in Scotland for more than a decade. Her first five books for young adults are set in Arthurian Britain and sixth century Ethiopia. Her interest in flying is what sparked the idea for Code Name Verity. Website: Visit her blog.

Candy GourlayIt has been an amazing year for Elizabeth Wein, author of the much lauded Code Name Verity. In addition to the list in the sidebar below, Code Name Verity is also on over thirty 'Best of the Year' lists for 2012 including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBookstore and the New York Times; it's also shortlisted for five regional awards here and in the United States. Huge congratulations, Elizabeth!

Printz Honour
Golden Kite Honour
Boston Globe/Horn Book Award Honor Book
Booklist Best Audio Book 2012
Carnegie Medal
Crystal Kite Prize for Europe
UKLA Book Award
The Edgar
The L.A. Times Book Prize
The Scottish Children's Book Award
The Northeast Children's Book Award
The Goodreads Choice Awards
The Cybils
Elizabeth WeinThe total Code Name Verity tally is so ridiculously embarrassing that I try not to talk about it in public.

One of the really neat things that happened was making it onto the New York Times bestseller lists seven months after the book's release. Because all my other books had basically stopped selling by that long after their launch dates. It was the "Mock Printz" winner in eight library teen reading groups that I'm aware of. Those last ones aren't real awards, but it means a LOT to me to know that teens love it!

Candy GourlayDid you know when you finished writing it that it was special?

Elizabeth WeinWell, I posted on my blog that I was brain dead and that I'd just finished the Best Damn Book I'd Ever Written. I knew it was good but I really had no idea, no idea at all, how astonishing the reception would be.

Candy GourlaySo what's the count? How many years did it take to become an overnight success?

Elizabeth WeinTwenty!


Candy GourlayHah! Jacqueline Wilson once said "It took me many years to become an overnight success."  How does it feel to be another Jacqueline Wilson?

Elizabeth WeinI don't think I'm at Jacqueline Wilson status QUITE yet! In many ways I got lucky. The publisher can send a book to the NYTimes but they can't guarantee it'll get a reviewer to look at it.

A thing that's kind of bittersweet about the success is that it will never again be so surprising and new. Even if I write another book as good as CNV (and I have a lot of doubts about my ability to repeat that performance), it will never be a voyage of discovery like this year has been.

And also, the chances of ever topping this year or living up to it are pretty slim! Actually, if this had happened earlier in my career, I might expect it always to be this good, and I'd be heading for a fall.

As it is, I've had too many books quietly remaindered to allow me to fully let go of my somewhat jaundiced view of the publishing industry. But CNV has gone a long way toward making me put grudges behind me.

I've had too many books quietly remaindered to allow me to fully let go of my somewhat jaundiced view of the publishing industry.

Candy GourlayCode Name Verity seems such a long way from your other Arthurian fantasy books ... what was the journey that led you to writing this book?

Elizabeth WeinIf you think of my other books as spy thrillers, which they are, it's not such a leap to make. I guess the main thing that propelled the change was that I desperately wanted my characters to be able to FLY! In the last published book of the Arthurian/Aksumite sequence, the main character, Telemakos, becomes a ship's pilot. I was totally aware of the pun.

I should probably explain that in 2003 I got my own private pilot's license, and it just made me want to write about flight!

Candy GourlayOMG that's so cool ... What do you fly?

Elizabeth WeinI learned to fly in Cessna 152s - two-seater fixed-wing training aircraft (piston engine). Lately I've been flying a Piper Warrior, which is slightly bigger (4 seats) and more comfortable - mainly I find I can see better in a Warrior. I also had trouble reaching the rudder pedals in the Cessna 172, which is the bigger version of the 152! ... and I flew a seaplane once! OK, I will stop before I lose everybody in the so-called "technical details."

Candy GourlayWhen did you first join SCBWI and why? Were you already published or like so many of us unpublished and optimistic?

Elizabeth WeinYou know, I can't remember not knowing about the SCBWI. I have been a member since 1991 and I am sure I joined when I sold my first book, being unaware that I could join as an associate (that was The Winter Prince, published in 1993). I was living in Philadelphia and was part of the Eastern Pennsylvania Chapter.

Basically, I just really wanted to meet other writers! It never occurred to me this would also be a good way to meet editors & agents.

Having said that, volunteering for the SCBWI led directly to my current agent and my long-time editor at my previous publisher. It's defnitely the most important professional move I ever made, though sometimes indirectly.

Candy GourlayYou've still got the same agent?  I imagine that the olden SCBWI British Isles used to be something of a support group for American expat children's writers?

Elizabeth WeinFor me it was a support group, but not all our original group were expats. Valerie Wilding, Ragnhild Scamell and Gus Smith were also members among the first group. I've been with my current agent, Ginger Clark, since 2001 or 2002. I did have another briefly before that, but never an agented book sale till Ginger came along!

Candy GourlayHave you written the next book? I'll bet it's going to be hard!

Elizabeth WeinIt's done! It comes out in the UK on 3 June this year! Here's the Goodreads link, with the beautiful Canadian cover:

It was hard to write - it was like writing my "second book" all over again. But it's done. I had a deadline and a lot of pushing. And actually it's so unlike Code Name Verity that I don't think it'll suffer from "oh well this isn't as good as her last one." It is very, very different.

I have to write another one for 15 September. Blargh. That's actually one of the scary things about success - people want MORE and they want it FAST. And I find it's hard to keep the quality up to standard when I'm producing fast - also, I feel that there is a certain amount of magic missing from the process, for me as an artist.

Candy GourlayI so agree! You called this year a voyage of discovery ... so, can you share with us what you have discovered?

Elizabeth WeinI meant I was being discovered. The CILIP website has me listed as a "debut" author.

Candy GourlayThat's hilarious! ... When you compare CNV with your previous books can you pinpoint the thing you did differently, that special spark that made it a winner?

Elizabeth WeinI don't think I did do things differently from my previous books. I still think The Sunbird is a perfect and beautiful book, the best I've written apart from Code Name Verity. But I do think that one of the big differences is the effect of the internet. One thing that did really amaze me is the power of bloggers, and the internet, and how easy it is to share enthusiasm for books and how easy it is for people to connect with authors.

In 2008, when The Empty Kingdom came out, I put together an online launch for it and it was such a new idea that I wrote an article about it for the SCBWI Bulletin (Open Invitation, Jan/Feb 2009).

By 2012, when Code Name Verity came out, it was pretty normal for people to celebrate book birthdays with lots of online reaching out.

Also, online reviews and book bloggers were just not as prevalent in 2008, and I think that Code Name  Verity's success owes a LOT to its enthusiastic reception by readers.

One thing that did really amaze me is the power of bloggers, and the internet

Candy GourlaySo in the grind of being a bestselling author (ha ha) how do you recapture the "magic"?

Elizabeth WeinHow do you recapture the magic... I don't know, I'm trying to figure it out. Take long walks! I get good ideas when I'm walking.

Candy GourlayCelia Rees (author of Witch Child) famously tells unpublished authors they are not just writing a debut novel they should be trying to write a BREAKTHROUGH novel. That's what CNV is.

Elizabeth WeinCode Name Verity is definitely and definitively a BREAKTHROUGH novel. But honestly, I didn't sit down and think, "I must write a breakthrough novel." (Actually, I thought The Sunbird would be my breakthrough novel.) I just thought, OMGOMG this is going to be a FREAKING AWESOME BOOK and I have to write it. And actually, I was kind of between publishers and considered myself lucky the new one didn't make me change my name for the fresh start.

Candy GourlayFinally can you leave W&P readers some words of wisdom about making it and surviving your own success?

Elizabeth WeinI haven't survived my success yet. Ask me again in September when the next book deadline comes up. I am riding a wave which may drown me.

But here are some words of wisdom:

HAVE FAITH. I have really prayed and prayed for grace - just the ability to accept whatever comes and to deal with it. And to not be envious, because that is just a killer thing. I struggle and struggle with it.

And to point out that CNV follows no rules. There aren't any rules. Don't try to second guess the market. Just write the best book you can. Write for YOURSELF.

Don't play Minesweeper. Stay off Twitter. Don't Google yourself.

Take long walks.

Don't forget to talk to people face to face.


Candy GourlayThanks so much - and congratulations again. It's been fascinating, uplifting, and jealous-making all at the same time. May Code Name Verity continue to take you to great heights and may all the novels that follow continue to conjure the magic that keeps all of us at our keyboards.

Candy Gourlay is the author of Tall Story. Her second novel Shine is out in September 2013. She blogs on Notes from the Slushpile.


  1. What a fantastic interview! I have Codename Verity on order, but will also be checking out Elizabeth's other books after reading this.

  2. Great interview and a good insight into the life of an author. 'I've had too many books quietly remaindered to allow me to fully let go of my somewhat jaundiced view of the publishing industry.' Sad. But a fact of life for most authors isn't it. But not one you think of when you first start out. Thanks, Candy and Elizabeth.

    1. I have to confess I've got the fear already, and I'm only just beginning. Elizabeth is an inspiration to all of us and a reminder that getting published is only the first step. The journey keeps going.

  3. Great interview - thank you, both. I finished reading CNV recently and was bowled over by it. CNV is definitely the proof in the pudding for where Elizabeth says to write what is in you and not try and second-guess what's going to be popular: it shines through in her book - it's like nothing else I've ever read - at first I found it a bit annoying to read, but it was so compelling, I couldn't put it down - and, of course, once the story pans out a bit, I made sense of why I felt the way I did to begin with. And I haven't cried over a book in a while.

    Good luck to all in the continued journey - I am really lookong forward to Shine coming out, and will be looking out for Elizabeth's other books, new and old.

  4. Fantastic interview - we're so proud of you Elizabeth! You truly are an inspiration. Elizabeth, I'm going to work on that grace thing....

  5. Great interview Elizabeth and Candy!

  6. Thanks, everybody! You are all so kind. Candy is a good interviewer!

    1. We just chatted on Facebook and managed to cook dinners for our respective families while messaging each other.

  7. Great stuff. My daughter is Carnegie shadowing again this year and when I mentioned Code Name Verity to her, she said how much she was looking forward to reading it. Let's hope it continues to be very much in demand!

  8. Such a wonderful interview, Elizabeth and Candy! Thank you for the honest talk about writing, success, and survival. I've been one of Elizabeth's fans ever since I discovered A Coalition of Lions (after which I went straight back for The Winter Prince). I am so very happy to see CNV getting the recognition it deserves!

    1. Thanks, Amy, I agree. I'm hoping they re-release those as ebooks soon!

  9. Code Name Verity is one of my favourite books this year. Congratulations Elizabeth and I wish you loads of luck with the Carnegie.

  10. thanks again, people. It's so lovely to hear how many of you enjoyed this book.

  11. Awesome interview. Inspiring. Wishing her the best with her upcoming books.

  12. I read this interview and his discussion was full of new information thanks for share it personal statement review .


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