Write Up: WW2 with William Osborne & Elizabeth Wein at Cheltenham.

A note: Whereas I have tried to write down exact quotes in their exact context, I am a mere blogger and a bit of a shoddy journalist and my pen likes to run out when I get a bit too excited so I have to fill in the blanks. If I have misquoted or misinterpreted the intent on anyone’s views, I apologise.

First up, I must apologise for how long this has taken me to write this talk up. I have no excuse except I’m back at home and I have to, y’know, work and all sorts of real-life grown up things and it gets in the way of doing what I really want which is lying in my gym pants and writing about books I adore and eating carbs.

But yes, please accept my apologies. I’ll try and remember everything they said and try and remember why I wrote “KISS ME, HARDY!” in the corner of my notes.
OK, I’m joking. Of course, I remember why I wrote that.


So this talk was straight after the Zombie! talk and I was still grinning like a maniac and my elbows were feeling a bit bruised on account of me digging them in the ribs of teenage boys in order to get my books signed (I’m joking…ish) before scarpering off across the gardens.
And I was absolutely starving. All I had eaten was toast that morning and now it was half five and my stomach was having a rave.

So as I hoped desperately that my grumbling stomach would be mistaken for some kind of WW2 sound effects, I grabbed a seat in the front row, whipped out my notebook, wished I had a clip board and got ready to learn things.

This talk was chaired by Julia Eccleshare who, I have to say, I absolutely adore. If I remember correctly, Ms Eccleshare was the one who lead the Patrick Ness and Jason Wallace discussion last year, and I remember being struck by how brilliant she was at ensuring the talk was both informative and entertaining. Anyway, if you read The Guardian, you’ll probably have heard of her.

The main events, however, were two authors I was incredibly exciting about. The first was William Osborne, who I don’t mind admitting I hadn’t heard of before I found out he was doing this talk. I read his book Hitler’s Angel and it’s such a curious book, I enjoyed it a lot but, as you can tell by the lack of review on WtOC, I have no idea what to make of it really. But I always like to read the books by the authors of talks I attend just so I know what’s going on and in case they decide to spoil it.

But, the author I was most excited to see was, of course, the incomparable Elizabeth Wein the author of Code Name Verity. If you’ve not heard of CNV then you’ve obviously been purposely not reading any blogs because every book blog worth its salt has read this book and loved it. If you want, you can read my review for it here. 

So yes, I was excited. And also a little bit anxious that I would sob onto Ms Wein as soon as I saw her. I find that’s never the best first impression.

Julia Eccleshare started with a brilliant introduction on why, after so long since the event, people are still fascinated by the Second World War. It seems, she explained, that “the further it gets away from the war, the more popular it gets”.

And then she handed over to each author who gave a brief talk about their books and what they were about. EW described Code Name Verity as “Biggles for girls” to which everyone in the audience laughed. Except me, because I didn’t really know who Biggles was. I do now, however, because I did some research. She explained how she didn’t set out to write a “history book” but a “what if?”. She said that her story is “a little bit older and darker than young adult fiction” which, if you’ve read CNV you’ll agree with. But then JE raised a very good point that shouldn’t put people off reading it because it’s also really, really funny. I remember laughing through a lot of this book until, you know, the tears started. EW laughed at this and said she didn’t “know how that happened!”.

Mr Osborne defined Hitler’s Angels as an “old fashioned yarn” and also “Robert Harris for children”. I also feel I have to mention here that WO is a script writer and, even though I haven’t reviewed HA, you can really get the sense of this from the book. It’s a great adventure story with lots of actions and gun shots and mountains and planes. Bear Grylls blurbed this book, that should tell you everything you need to know about it.

It would be difficult to conduct a talk about the Second World War without talking about this next subject: Research.
Both of these books are incredibly well-researched and you can tell this from page one. When JE asked the two what kind of research they did, WO stated he read extensively. He explained that war in general, but WW2 in particular, provides “such an enormous canvas” to work with. He described how he wanted to explore the things that, if this had been 20 – 30 years ago, would have been long forgotten. For example, the roles women and German children played in the war. I thought this was extremely interesting because those two subjects are exactly what both Hitler’s Angel and Code Name Verity is about. He suggested that one of the reasons why research is so important nowadays is because there is no excuse not to do it. “It’s easier to find information now,” WO explained. What with the internet, international information, survivor’s reports and archives there is so much information out there about this era.

EW agreed with this and said that she’d “never written a book without a map in front of me”. Without giving too much away about CNV, I loved this because setting is vital in this story. And then she said how she used Google Earth to “get the lay of the land” and do research on terrains. I absolutely adored this because I like to do this, not when I’m writing, but I just like to look at places. But whatever the reason EW does it, I think it definitely works because the setting is so real in CNV it’s almost as if your there. EW then told us that she, like a lot of authors, uses her own experiences when she’s writing characters. For example! And I have to be careful here but I am this *holds fingers up* close to ruining things. You know the bit where Verity looks the wrong way when she’s crossing the road?
Yep. That bit.

Well that actually happened to EW!

WO said that he took a more distant approach than EW when writing his story. He explained that “it’s a very plot driven book” and that “if you only write what you know, you don’t use your imagination.” I thought that last bit was wonderful, if not a bit confusing because pretty much everyone in the business has always said “write what you know”. But what WO said is so true and I’d much rather read a book where the author has combined their experience with a pinch of imagination.
EW agreed because, luckily, she’s “never been shot at.” !

I just want to take a little break here before I go back to the talk… what? No, you can’t go and get a snack! I’d like to say how brilliant it was to witness a talk where the authors weren’t only knowledgeable about each other’s work but passionate about them. Sometimes you get two people who have just happened to have written a book on a similar subject and they talk, and then the other talks and no conversation gets going. This talk was wonderful because that’s exactly what we got: fantastic and interesting discussion about books. HURRAH.

OK, back to the talk.

Julie E then asked the two of them whether using a war scene gives them the power to write. WO said that the idea of war drove his story because you can tell any story against the backdrop of war. Just think how many types of books there are that are set in war: action, political, adventure, romance. I guess this goes back to WO’s idea of the “huge canvas”.

EW explained that when it came to CNV she had a “not so secret agenda” and that was feminism. She wanted to explore this idea of women doing men’s jobs in the war, which is exactly what she does. By writing “stuff that is relevant to today’s young women”, she wanted to show that the fight that the women in her story is one “that we’re still fighting”. EW stated that she didn’t want to make it heavy-handed, though, and wanted to make it clear that her readers could take what they wanted from it.

JE then said that the close proximity of violence and death is “inevitable in these books”. She discussed how this is still the “one taboo” in children’s books and how children have to accept that in a book about war, people will die. WO said that “he wanted to write a book that was real. Jeopardy is real”. He explained how a lot of children’s authors are still afraid of death but he feels it “lends it a believability” and “books have to compete with other mediums where violence is more readily accepted”.
This next bit isn’t really a spoiler but I’ll warn you anyway. If you don’t want to know anything about Code Name Verity just skip this next book.

EW said that she’s “very good” at writing violence and torturer. YEAH, MS WEIN, WE KNOW. *sobs*. But she doesn’t like “to describe the pain” much preferring to “Leave it to the imagination”. And this is why, you may have noticed this if you’ve read the book, all the torture has “either happened or happens off screen”. This provides the reader with the ability to skip of this bits they don’t want to read.

This lead WO to say of CNV that “there’s an awful inevitability of it”, to which EW laughed and said that the “reader knows it’s not going to end well”.

JE then brought up the idea of bravery seeing as CNV and HA explore this idea in their characters. WO explained that the news reports and our own personal connections with the war in Afghanistan has made us “more aware of bravery now”.
EW said that she never meant to write a book about someone brave. She actually wanted to write a book about a coward! She said this idea came after reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and how there was a character who was the “paragon of bravery”. And she asked herself “why does no one write books about cowards?” and people who “cracks under pressure?”

Both WO and EW agreed that there were different types of bravery, from the characters who are naturally brave to the ones who are “scared but do it anyway”.

The last topic of discussion that JE wanted to talk about were Nazis and how we should portray them in literature, especially literature for children. WO believed that people should “always present them as what they were” but “show that it’s history but also they were individuals”. Goodies weren’t always goodies and baddies weren’t always baddies.

EW agreed with this and added that she “starts writing someone evil but they then sprout families and reading interests”! She said she finds it difficult to create one dimensional characters because she becomes sympathetic towards them.
JE suggested that children are quite often the “moral arbiters” in books where the lines between good and evil are blurred.

To conclude the talk, Mr Osborne and Ms Wein were asked what they were working on next. WO said that he was still staying with the war in Europe but the next book was going to be set in Amsterdam in the Winter of Hunger in 1944.

EW’s next book is going to feature an American character (I know all you Americans will be happy about that!) and it will be set after the D-Day landings. The story itself will take place in Ravensbruck, an all-women concentration camp in northern Germany. She explained that not many people know about this place but there are a lot of survivor accounts that she’s been reading as research.

I’m so excited for both of these books. I think a lot of people are put off by war literature because they can quite often be, for want of a better word, ‘samey’. But these two authors have portrayed something so different in these books and, from the sounds of it, their new books that people are being encouraged to learn more about this era and to tell stories that might not necessarily have been told before.
And I can’t wait to hear them.

After the talk, I went to get my books signed. The queue was really short and I have no idea why (maybe because the talk was a bit late?) so I had the chance to have a proper conversation with both Mr Osborne and Ms Wein.
They are both fantastic.

Here are my books:



And if you’ve been a reader of WtOC for a while, you may have seen my write up of One Upon a Wartime at The Imperial War Museum (North). Well, while I was there, I bought this post card:



I have the bigger poster version but I have no idea where it’s gone. But I know that EW used that picture as part of her inspiration for CNV so I couldn’t pass up the chance to get that signed too (featured also my ticket):

Also, while we were chatting, I saw that she was flicking through my book and doing something with her fancy pen (a biro, by the by. BOOK REFERENCE!) to the pages. I completely forgot about this until I got home and flicked through them and found this:

She’s just as incredible as you’d think, by the way. And she had bright orange nails and she was wearing her Verity jumper and the most amazingly darling neckerchief I have ever seen.

I know I’m supposed to be a book blogger but…. Whatever, I get dazzled by awesome clothes too.


Not entirely unrelated, I saw my first poppy today and it reminded me of my Poppies and Prose feature I did almost a year ago now.
I will be fixing mine to my old coat soon, will you?

12 thoughts on “Write Up: WW2 with William Osborne & Elizabeth Wein at Cheltenham.

  1. SQUEEE!

    Thank you so much, Jo, for writing such a detailed wrap-up of the event. I think I need to read Hitler’s Angel now. I am so jealous that you got to meet EWein in person, she seems like such a lovely person. Yay for a signed copy (using a biro) and for that beautiful postcard that’s related to CNV.

    You know that bit about crossing the road? In the Philippines, cars are left-hand drive because we were colonized by Americans. But here in Singapore, it’s right-hand drive because they’re British-influenced and it’s been three months but I still have trouble crossing the road because I keep looking at the wrong direction.

    • Thanks Chachic, I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I think you’ll like Hitler’s Angel, I’ve been working on my review for a while now but I keep stopping because it’s hard!
      And yes, she is so lovely and so engaging. Very down to earth. :)

      I can only just about cross a road in my own country, but when I go… well, basically anywhere I always nearly get run over because I’m looking the wrong way. At least I know I’ll be safe in Singapore! :)

      • I’ve already added Hitler’s Angel to the ever-increasing TBR pile. To be honest, I’m not much of a reader of war-related novels but I make exceptions for the ones that come highly recommended. I just feel like I have to steel myself before I start reading them. I haven’t even read The Book Thief even though I keep hearing wonderful things about it.

        LOL yeah, you’ll be safe in Singapore! Good thing driving isn’t that common here and that public transport is pretty good because I don’t think I can ever drive on the wrong side of the road.

  2. This is AWESOME. And EW’s new book? I will read anything that talented woman writes – even after she destroyed my heart with CNV. I am so jealous, Jo! This sounds like such an interesting meeting and I am really glad you shared it with us! And EW underlined one of my fav quotes (after “Kiss me, Hardy” and “Fly the plane.”) Amazing.

    • Thanks Jessie! You’re very welcome! I didn’t do it justice, I’m afraid.

      But yes, her new book sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? I imagine it’ll be sad though.

      I love that quote too. I also love the last few lines of the book. :(

  3. Jo, this is brilliant! It makes we want to get stuck into my research even more now.

    My aim in life is to buy a copy of CNV for pretty much everyone I have ever met and superglue it to their hands until they have absorbed every word. The best kind of torture :)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s