Saturday, July 8, 2023

Q&A with Elizabeth Wein




Elizabeth Wein is the author of the new young adult historical novel Stateless. Her other novels include Code Name Verity. She lives in Scotland.


Q: What inspired you to write Stateless, and how did you create your character Stella North?


A: I belong to a Facebook group called The Aviatrix Book Club, now with over 2,000 members, founded by writer and former Coast Guard helicopter pilot Liz Booker. Interested readers can join via her website, The Aviatrix Book Review (, which provides all kinds of content by and about women in aviation.


I contributed to both groups (probably not enough!) very early on in their existence, and some of the reading that I did interested me in early air racing – particularly by women (I am a big fan of Steve Sheinkin’s nonfiction book for young readers, Born to Fly, about the 1929 women’s air race across America).


I’m also a big fan of a little-known Disney film called The Rocketeer, which, while not about air racing, is all about barnstorming and air circuses and early flight adventures. So Stateless was a chance to put characters of my own into that world for a little while.


For Stella, I actually drew on a variety of early 20th century literary heroines to sketch her out – Sara Crewe in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess was one of them!


As with all my books set in the 1930s, I tried to find a “voice” for her that was similar to the narrative voice of Nancy Mitford’s books, written during that time (Mitford has an exuberant youthful character whose first name is actually “Northey,” and while Stella is not much like that character – I’d call her determined rather than exuberant – I confess that “Northie” as a nickname for Stella North was inspired by Mitford.)


But like all my characters, Stella turned into herself as I wrote the book!


Q: In the book's Author's Note, you write, “I did not set out to write a book about refugees. This isn't a book about refugees; it's a book about belonging, about belonging in no place and every place.” Can you say more about that, and about how the book's title was chosen?


A: Apparently a lot of my characters do become refugees at one time or another – from King Arthur’s daughter leaving her wartorn country in A Coalition of Lions (2003), to Em Menotti and Teo Dupre fleeing from Ethiopia just as it falls to the Italian army (2015), to Kristina Tomiak and Julian Srebro stealing a plane and flying to England to escape the German army as it swarms into Poland (2019).


I have often remarked that almost every book I’ve ever written is about people who are displaced from their native country.

But I didn’t notice that I often wrote about refugees until I wrote Stateless, in which all three of the main characters are forced, for their own survival, to spontaneously escape their home nations, leaving behind everything. And yet these characters manage to remain inherently themselves. Your nationality shapes you, but it doesn’t have to define you. I think that’s important to remember.


Stateless doesn’t focus on the refugee experience; it focuses on what it means to change your nationality, to change your loyalty, and to maintain your sense of self.


I am a dual citizen; I was born an American citizen, and acquired British citizenship in 2016. As I write, only yesterday I had a conversation with a friend who has decided to renounce US citizenship. That is such an enormous decision. When I said I wasn’t going to do that, this person commented, “Well, at least you’d still have your British passport. You wouldn’t be stateless.”


The fact that my own potential statelessness can come up in ordinary conversation is witness to what an enormously meaningful thing it is to me as an immigrant and a global citizen.


I chose the title while I was doing research on the Nansen passport, which was designed in the 1920s to provide a recognized travel ID for stateless people. The word jumped out at me. I was kind of fascinated by the meaning of statelessness, and I thought that Stateless as a title sounded simple and striking.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, in part, “Danger and intrigue abound in this historically accurate aeronautic adventure…” What do you think of that description, and how did you research the novel?


A: I think it’s pretty cool that a source like Publishers Weekly finds my writing to be historically accurate!


I do try my best. But Stateless was a lockdown novel, so I did most of my research in books and online – I didn’t get to travel!


One of the things I most enjoyed about the research was the armchair travelling – being able to dream about or relive journeys all over Europe. It was a real pleasure flying to Venice this spring (2023) and thinking about Stella crossing the Alps in the same way – it seemed so impossible and distant while I was writing it in 2020.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: My message to young readers, if I have one, is consistently “Take responsibility for your own actions” – but in this book, take responsibility for others as well, hence the quotations from John Donne’s “No Man Is an Island” which pepper the book. We are all connected. I think that’s the take-away that’s specific to Stateless; no one is an island. As Stella says, “Our choices matter.”


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m just finishing up a collaborative nonfiction project with fellow young adult writer Sherri L. Smith. It’s called American Wings: Chicago’s Pioneering Black Aviators and the Race for Equality in the Sky.


It’s about a group of Black pilots, men and women together, who built their own airfield in the 1930s and together more or less brought about the eventual integration of the US Air Force. It’s being released by G.P. Putnam in January 2024. ( )


At the moment I’m exploring topics for my next work of fiction! I have a few ideas but nothing concrete yet!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Vladimir Nabokov, the incredibly talented author of Lolita and many other novels, was a stateless refugee with a Nansen passport in the first part of the 20th century, before he emigrated to the USA and became an American citizen. He grew up in St. Petersburg and his aristocratic family fled from the Russian Revolution when he was in his teens.


I vaguely based Stella’s background on Nabokov’s – I knew that his father had been murdered when he was in his early twenties – and it was in researching Nabokov that I discovered the existence of the Nansen passport, which led to the theme that gives Stateless its title.


Thank you so much for your continued support of my books, Deborah, and for the opportunity to share some of my writing adventures!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Elizabeth Wein.

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