Ariel Lawhon Tells us Why She had to Write Code Name Helene, or Risk Losing a Friend

Ariel Lawhon Tells us Why She had to Write Code Name Helene, or Risk Losing a Friend
  • Briefly tell us about your book.

Code Name Helene is based on the true story of WWII heroine, Nancy Wake. She went from being a freelance journalist sent to interview the newly elected German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, in 1933, to killing a Nazi with her bare hands in 1944. It’s a love story and a war story and a story about extraordinary friendships under extraordinary circumstances. It’s my favorite thing I’ve ever written.

  • What inspired the idea behind this book?

The mother of a good friend emailed me Nancy’s story one day several years ago and told me that if I didn’t write about Nancy next we could no longer be friends.

  • What was the research process like for the book?

Relatively easy compared to some of my other books! I only had to read four biographies instead of fifty. And, lucky me, one of those biographies was written by Nancy Wake herself. So, I was able to piece the novel together using her memories, her experiences, and, most importantly, her voice.

  • If I looked at your internet history, what would it reveal about you?

That I am, without question, a novelist and, thanks to COVID19, a borderline hypochondriac. My search entries range from “How does a charcoal powered automobile engine work?” to “What are the symptoms of pneumonia?” and “What time of year does the Kennebec River freeze?” Sometimes—as when researching weapons for Code Name Helene—I tell Google not to worry, that I’m a writer doing research. I’m always a little concerned that some internet gatekeeper is going to wonder why a housewife in Nashville is inquiring about the inner workings of a bazooka and what types of WWII pistols had silencers.

  • What are you hoping the reader will take away from reading your book?

That love is more powerful than war or fear or any circumstances we face. That there are always brave men and women willing to stand in the fire so that others can pass safely through. That we should remember and celebrate Nancy Wake for all the extraordinary things she did during the war. That sometimes we are only brave when we have to be, but we are all given the chance at some point in our lives.

  • Does the creative process get easier for you with each book?

Sadly, no. It only gets harder and harder because now I know what to expect and my standards for myself get higher. The creative process does, however, remain fun and that is really important because all I really have is the process itself. I can’t control anything once the book is published.

  • How does it feel to hold your book in your hands?

Some people will tell you that it feels like holding your baby for the first time, but I think that’s rubbish. My babies cried and squirmed and demanded to be bed. When I hold my books for the first time I am consumed with a great sense of peace. My work is done. Whereas holding my children for the first time overwhelmed me because I knew my work was just beginning.

  • What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

Getting the battle scenes right. I’d never written a book where my characters went to war and I really wanted to get that part right. I wanted the reader to feel like they were there, with Nancy, dodging bullets and blowing things up.

  • How did you think of the title of the book?

My original title was The White Mouse because that’s what the German’s called Nancy. That title was always a placeholder, though. We all knew it wouldn’t work long term. Once I really got cracking on the novel, I changed the name to The French Spy which I quite liked but that got vetoed by my publisher because Nancy wasn’t technically French. Fair enough. So, we settled on Code Name Helene because it suggested the French part and the Spy part without being too on the nose.

  • What is something that has influenced you as a writer?

My mother. She read to me every night as a child, right into my teen years, and if not for all of those stories, I doubt I’d be a writer today. Then my high school English teacher because she was the first professional to tell me I could be a writer if I wanted to. And finally, Agatha Christie because Murder on the Orient Express made me love a mystery with a good twist and that’s what I always try to write.

  • What’s the easiest and most difficult parts of your job as a writer?

Easiest? I get to work from home, in comfy clothes, and sip on coffee all day. Most difficult? The actual writing. A blinking cursor is one of the most intimidating things on earth. And it never, ever gets easier to take Nothing and turn it into Something.

  • Do you write about people you know? Or yourself?

Both. All of my novels are littered with my thoughts, opinions, beliefs, preferences, jokes, ideas, and observations. But they also have endless cameos of people I know and love. They also have cameos of people I dislike immensely.

  • What’s some great advice you’ve received that has helped you as a writer?

Finish the book. There is no career without a finished book. Perfect ideas get you nowhere. You have to put them on paper and make them as good as you are capable of making them. Helpfully, this advice applies forever. I always have to finish the book.

  • If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?

Same as the above. Finish the book. But I’d also add that you have to give yourself permission to write badly every single day. I write those words—“Ariel has permission to write badly”—on a Post-It-Note every morning and stick it to the edge of my computer screen. You can’t edit a blank page. And we all know that the magic of writing is in the rewriting.

  • Who are some of your favourite authors? Or favourite books?

Agatha Christie. Diana Gabaldon. Deanna Raybourn. Stephen King. Louise Penny. Pat Conroy. I will read anything by Diane Setterfield or Liane Moriarty. There are so many others but those are the authors I return to over and over.

  • Are you able to switch off at the end of a day of writing? If so, how?

Yes. No. Sometimes. I have four sons who expect to be fed three times a day so walking away from the computer is required. But that doesn’t mean my brain turns off—especially at the end of a project. If I’m in the beginning stages of a novel I can keep regular office hours. But by the end I walk around in a daze and constantly promise my kids that “they can have me back” once I finish the book. They’re used to it now and three of them are teenagers, so they just roll their eyes and raid the refrigerator.

  • What’s your daily writing routine like and what are you working on at the moment?

I have no daily routine. I suppose I shouldn’t admit that. People expect authors to have a routine. But the truth is that some days I research, some days I write, some days I stare out the window, and some days I spent hours figuring out my plot. But I always try to touch the story (as my author friend, J.T. Ellison, says). Touching the story every day is the important thing and if you do that you’ll move it forward. And if you move it forward a little bit every day, then one day you’ll look up and realize you have a finished novel on your hands. Lucky you! Now you get to do it again.



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            Publisher details

            Code Name Hélène
            Ariel Lawhon
            Simon and Schuster
            Fiction, Historical Fiction
            31 March, 2020


            February 29, 1944: I am about to jump out of an aeroplane for the first time …  I don't care that every man is looking at me as though I don’t belong. Besides, I'm hungover. And I think I might throw up ...In 1936 Nancy Wake is living in Paris after bluffing her way into a job as a foreign correspondent and witnessing firsthand the terror of Hitler’s rise in Europe, firing her determination to do anything she could to fight the Nazis. When Nancy falls unexpectedly in love with handsome French industrialist and playboy Henri Fiocca in Marseilles, no sooner has she agreed to become Mrs Fiocca than the Germans invade France and Nancy takes yet another name, a code name – the first of many.As Lucienne Carlier Nancy helps smuggle people across borders and creates such a successful escape network for Allied soldiers that the Nazis hunting down an elusive female operative dub her ‘The White Mouse’ and put a five million franc bounty on her head. Forced to escape France, Nancy is trained in espionage with an elite special forces group in London and gains a new codename, Hélène. Finally, with mission in hand, Nancy is airdropped back into France as the deadly Madame Andrée.Nancy goes on to become one of the most powerful and ruthlessly effective leaders in the French Resistance. But the closer to liberation France gets, the more exposed Nancy – and the people she loves – will become.Code Name Hélène is a gripping and heartbreakingly moving story of extraordinary courage, unfaltering resolve, remarkable sacrifice – and enduring love.
            Ariel Lawhon
            About the author

            Ariel Lawhon

            Ariel Lawhon is cofounder of the popular website A novelist, blogger, and lifelong reader, she lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband, four sons and black lab—who is, thankfully, a girl.

            Books by Ariel Lawhon


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