Author and comedian Iszi Lawrence tells us more about her new historical adventure for children, Billie Swift Takes Flight, in this short video, including a reading from the book.
In her new book, Billie Swift Takes Flight, author and comedian Iszi Lawrence takes us back to WWII and explores the lives of civilian pilots - women and men - of the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary), who helped the war effort by delivering new planes and transporting planes that needed repairing from one airfield to another. It follows Lawrence's earlier historical fiction novel, The Unstoppable Lettie Pegg, which focuses on women's suffrage just before WW1.
The women of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) who battled against the odds to get the air force's planes to the front lines during WWII and Billie Swift is determined that one day, she will fly the planes, too. But when she discovers a dangerous mystery at the local airport, she realises that lives are at risk. But will she be brave enough to speak out?
In this video, Iszi Lawrence introduces Billie Swift Takes Flight and the work of the ATA's during WWII, and gives a reading from the book.
Read a chapter extract from Billie Swift Takes Flight
Reviews of Billie Swift Takes Flight "It is brimming with historical detail and really highlights the heroic nature of some very inspirational women."
Q&A with Iszi Lawrence
1. Can you tell us about your new book, Billie Swift Takes Flight?
Billie is fascinated by planes and when she witnesses a crash she finds herself suddenly embroiled in a lie that sees her joining the ATA as a cadet and learning to fly. When she thinks that she has discovered a spy amongst the pilots, she sets out on a dangerous mission to uncover the truth and clear the name of her friend.
It is a thrilling WWII adventure full of period detail and REAL pilots and REAL crashes. The ATA were a civilian organisation who delivered the planes and included lots of older and disabled men, pilots from all over the world and women who regularly risked their lives to deliver planes to the RAF during the war.
2. Your previous book, The Unstoppable Lette Pegg, is set just before WW1 and focuses on women's vote. What do you enjoy most about writing historical fiction?
That you never get writer's block as there is always more to research! When boring stuff like washing clothes or making lunch becomes an alien adventure in itself; imagine how exciting it is to be charged by a police horse in 1910 or see a Spitfire crash in 1942! Loads of stories pop into your head when you read about history and problems that would be easy to solve now become really incredible ideas for plots once you set them in the past.
3. What are your top tips for writing a book set in the past?
Visit locations and go to museums and see the objects for yourself. Read what people wrote at the time. Really spend time building the world in your head because then it is easier to tell stories about. You have to really imagine what you would do in the same situation and then see what actually happened.
4. Why did you want to write about the Second World War and ATA pilots in this story?
The men and women of the ATA were tremendously brave. They delivered the brand new planes to the RAF bases and flew the broken down planes back to be repaired. They were only trained in five or six different types of aircraft but would fly over 80 types, some of which they had never flown before and which were often in need of repair.
They only had Ordnance Survey maps to guide them, and they flew to airbases they had never flown to before (which were disguised to look like farms) AND they did all this without use of radio. They got lost, the planes failed on them, they got trapped in the fog and many of them died for the war effort. They were war heroes, despite never firing a gun, and deserve to be remembered.
5. What was your best source of research for this book?
Probably Diana Barnato Walker's autobiography - it is a fab read. Plus the online archive of the ATA museum.
6. You give a lot of detail about flying planes in the story - have you ever flown in any of these planes yourself?
No! I have never flown a plane, they won't let me! I did interview many pilots and listened to many interviews of the ATA pilots on tape so I had a really good idea of what flying was like. I also watched flight instructor videos on youtube. Several pilots have read my books and they haven't picked holes in what happens in the book.
7. You draw on a number of real historical figures. Why did you want real people in the story, and do any of them stand out for you?
I wanted to celebrate the real people as much as possible. I think Amy Johnson is such a hero. She used to be as famous as Amelia Earhart and broke world flying records with her husband. She was so famous she even had a haircut named after her! She joined the ATA and was killed due to running into bad weather. It was a huge blow. The fact that we don't remember her now is appalling to me.
8. Can you tell us about your quirky main character, Billie, and what you enjoyed about writing about her?
What I love best about Billie is her priorities. Susan the chicken is always the top one. Above her mother, flying planes and even winning the war. It made writing her a lot of fun.
It is safe to say she does think a bit differently than your average 12 year old girl in the 1940s. She is from a time before neuro-divergence was properly recognised. She makes a lot of the same mistakes that I made when growing up and, although I exaggerated her quirks, I don't know what she would be diagnosed with today.
All I hope is that readers who feel like outsiders will realise that Billie is a bit like them. That a hero can have some of the same problems they might also struggle with and that actually, in the right circumstance, those 'problems' can be strengths.
9. Were you adventurous as a teenager - would you have wanted to fly planes like Billie does?
I was a total bookworm. I did lie through my teeth like Billie does! We both have that in common. But I was a fearful, shy younger teenager, Billie is more who I wished I was.
10. What has been your own biggest adventure to date?
I've done a lot of silly things since I turned into a grown up. I've taken up jiu jitsu which involves being about to fight lots of people at once and do cartwheels and dive over people. I have also performed comedy in front of huge audiences at festivals and in theatres. Plus, doing things for radio has meant I made woad (blue dye made out of leaves and pee), run on a treadmill in armour, and been locked in prison.
11. Now you have set books during both world wars, are there other historical periods that draw you? What are you writing currently?
Wouldn't YOU like to know... all I will say is the next book goes back to 1717... and it is wetter than the last two books.
12. What do you enjoy doing when you're away from your writing desk?
Hitting and stabbing people in the Dojo. I will be doing this tonight and I CANNOT WAIT. Jiu jitsu is the best! (Judo is also good, but not enough stabbing). I also like to cook spicy food, and draw... and I love learning about DINOSAURS. I do a podcast about them, too.