Monday, July 12, 2010
Countdown: a Conversation with Deborah Wiles
Perhaps you know Deborah Wiles from her moving picture books Freedom Summer and One Wide Sky, or her utterly charming novels Love Ruby Lavender, Each Little Bird That Sings, and The Aurora County All-Stars. (Some of my personal favorites.) Or maybe you've just noticed all the shiny awards stickers obscuring the covers of her books. Each of her books is a wonderful example of voice, character, and human nature, so I'm just one of the many people who are thrilled to their toes that she has a new book out: Countdown.
Countdown is worth picking up just for the exemplary design of the book, from jacket to cover to endpapers to the way the many, many period images are treated. Even the details on the page edges! But most exciting of all is the way Deborah's historical fiction combines a fresh, involving story with images and quotes from the 60s that make a compelling experience for those who never experienced the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Deborah very kindly agreed to this interview.
EDITORIAL ANONYMOUS: It's exciting to see something so ambitious (and historical) in today's sometimes overwhelmingly conservative (and paranormal) market. You call this a documentary novel. Could you explain for my readers what that is, and what inspired you to write one?
DEBORAH WILES: Thank you! So glad you think it's ambitious and different -- so do I, and I have good partners to thank for helping me make that happen. Scholastic ran the bases with me, all the way, full out, and said, "let's do it," when I presented them with this idea.
As I wrote Franny's story, I collected all kinds of photographs, newspaper stories and clippings, songs, advertisements, cartoons, recipes, quotes, and more, from the late fifties and early sixties to help me tell the story. At first, they were just for me, to help me sink into that time frame and remember, but quickly it became apparent to me that they were an integral part of the storytelling.
So I created what I started calling scrapbooks. I wanted to explore how history is really biography (as Emerson said), it's more than just dates and names and events, and I wanted to explore how each decision we make has rippling waves that affect others.
For instance, Harry Truman's decision not to answer Ho Chi Minh's 1947 letters had far-reaching consequences that may have led to our involvement in Vietnam, so I write about that in Countdown, in the larger, historical context. JFK loving the musical Camelot led to his presidency being called Camelot, thanks to a well-placed quote from Jackie Kennedy. His decision to send more advisors into Vietnam left us with an escalating war during the Johnson administration -- something I'll get into in book two.
But just as there are huge, overarching historical events in our collective history, that history is lived out on the personal stage of each individual person. So, Uncle Otts in Countdown is a living legacy of the horrors of World War I (where he fought in the same battle that Harry Truman fought in, in the Argonne). Franny being afraid that those Russian missiles might be launched from Cuba and hit the United States is a real, personal response to the horror of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Franny's decision to help (or not help) her friend changes the course of her history, and her friend's.
Early on, I began to carefully assemble each scrapbook section in a way that told the larger, overarching history of the early sixties, while Franny and the other characters in Countdown tell us the personal story of that time. I knew it had never been done before, but I very much wanted to work with this form of storytelling. I think of these scrapbooks as having been assembled by Franny -- so she is telling us her story, both the bigger picture, and the smaller, personal one within that bigger picture. I thought of the biographies as being written by the adult Franny, with a more grown-up sensibility, but still her story, her opinions, in her voice.
The term "documentary novel" actually came from my editor, David Levithan. We were tossing around what to call this brand new thing we had created... "What is it?" we asked ourselves... well, it's like a documentary, but it's not. It's a novel, first and foremost -- that was important to me, to tell a great story.
EDITORIAL ANONYMOUS: I found your main character very compelling--and very immediate. I understand from the backmatter that the book draws somewhat from your own childhood, but there's no sense of nostalgia, no sense of an adult looking back. So I'm curious-- how much does Franny's experience of that October in 1962 draw from your own experience?
DEBORAH WILES: I draw from my life in every story I write, and this one is no different... and it may be closer to my life than the others, actually. The story -- the plot -- is completely fiction, but I did live outside Andrews Air Force Base, my dad was chief of safety for the 89th, my mother hosted bridge parties, we had a pink kitchen, my brother was perfect (still is - ha!), we had a dog (a French poodle, though, not a Lassie dog like Jack), I attended Camp Springs Elementary School, was in glee club, loved French, and had a friend who grew up way faster than I did, just like Margie does in Countdown. I used all these connections as the outside trappings of my story -- I wanted to be authentic to the time period, and using my own life to do it... well, it's what I know.
I did duck and cover under my desk, and I did compose letters to JFK and Khrushchev at night, as I lay in bed, but the actual story I spin from all these facts is fiction. However, the inside story -- what it felt like to be betrayed by a friend, to be in love with the boy across the street, to feel invisible at home and at school, to want to understand the world -- in that way, Franny is exactly like I was at ten. I remember clearly what it was like to be ten years old in the world. I can bring that feeling back to me as if it were yesterday. I often say that I write for ten-year-old me, and maybe I do.
EDITORIAL ANONYMOUS: The book does a great job of bringing across how big and scary and yet essentially unfathomable the idea of nuclear war is, and was for the country at the time. Can you speak to how you approach foreshadowing and tension-building in your writing?
DEBORAH WILES: Gaaaa! You know, that's a good question. Most of the time, foreshadowing and tension-building grow up in revision. Actually *so much* that I do is a task of revision. My first draft(s) are so lousy, really. I have to think and rethink. The first draft is like a bloodletting for me -- I can't see the shape, I don't know the direction, I'm grasping for plot, I'm gasping for air, and I'm sure I can't pull it off.
I have to MAKE myself get an entire first draft, just so I can believe that I can do it and am not a total failure (and so I can sleep again and take off twenty pounds) and so I can have something to revise. Revision is hard hard hard, but it is such a pleasure, too, as it holds such great rewards (as opposed to the first draft, which I suppose should feel rewarding, but instead feels like I've been fifteen rounds with the lions in Gladiator).
In revision I throw out great wads of the plot (usually the entire second half), but as I do that, the light begins to dawn, I begin to understand who my characters are and what their motivations are, which inform their actions and reactions, and as these things begin coming clear, I go back and layer in foreshadowing and tension.
I love working with foreshadowing. I like to see how oblique I can be while not cheating -- you know? How can I give you what you need to know, so that you are not hit out of left field by the reveal (and so it is a sweet release or surprise), and yet how can I not hit you over the head with it too heavily or too many times so that you're waiting for it and say "DUH!" when it comes. I change up my references and methods to what I'm foreshadowing so you don't recognize it as such, and this is fun for me, like a puzzle... but all this work must feel seamless to the reader, and that's a challenge.
Same with creating tension. I try to remember that every action has a reaction -- so show that -- and that every emotion is connected to an action: Drew tugs at his eyebrow, Franny's heart runs away with her fear, Uncle Otts digs and digs and digs that hole in front yard -- until he keels over! -- and Franny's mother lights another cigarette... there's so much that can be shown, in creating tension. I try to remember that. And again, it's a task of revision, for me.
EDITORIAL ANONYMOUS: You mention in the book that you started this as a picture book. What did your editor say that made you realize it was really the beginning of a novel?
DEBORAH WILES: I realized it myself, early on. I say early because this book had such a long gestation. I started it as a picture book 1996, a story about a brother and sister and a "war" they have -- a balloon fight with one kid in a sycamore tree and another on his bike below. The title was Lemon Yellow Day, and started out:
"It's a lemon yellow day. A lemon pie day. I sit in the vee of the mighty sycamore, safe inside my treehouse. I pat my supply of water balloons. "All right, Mr. TakeBeforeAsking," I say "I'm ready." And here he comes, wobbling up the street on MY bicycle: my enemy, my brother, my friend."
It was full of duck and cover, atomic bomb, Cold War language, and it didn't really go anywhere, except that my (now grown) kids and I still say, "Sorry-sorry-sorry, Mr. Thornberg!" to one another, and know what that means.
This story and others had been rejected for years. Then I met an agent at an SCBWI event in Washington, D.C. and struck up a friendship with her, and asked her if I could send her my stuff. She was very encouraging; I'd send her a story and she'd send it back a few weeks later (all of this on snail mail), telling me what wasn't working, but she refused to take me on as a client. About Lemon Yellow Day she wrote, "Get rid of that day and tell me a story."
I didn't know how to do that. I was still largely writing my memories. I had been so deeply influenced by books such as When I Was Young in the Mountains and Honey I Love and When I Am Old With You, that I was still trying to tell a slice-of-life story. I couldn't figure out how to write those stories, but I was developing my voice through ten years of rejections and studying and reading picture books.
So I put the story aside and went on to others, and eventually found my way to Love, Ruby Lavender and Freedom Summer, both of which were picture books when I started them. I didn't know I could or wanted to write a novel. But Liz Van Doren at Harcourt was interested in Ruby (which started out as a slice-of-life story). She said it had voice. She assured me I could learn the rest. And she took on the gargantuan task of teaching me.
So we started working together. The story got longer and longer. As it turned into a novel, and as I turned into a novelist (a long, slow process), I began to understand that this Cuban Missile Crisis story was bigger than the argument between a brother and sister, and I began to explore it.
I'd drag it out and look at it, play with it, put it back, until one day as I stuck with it, other characters appeared. There was always a mother and an older sister, but now they had backstories -- wow. Who knew? Then there was a father. I didn't know him at all. The brother and sister got names: Franny and Drew. They took on lives that went way beyond their picture book argument. Suddenly they weren't enemies anymore, and up popped a friend for Franny, someone who could take the enemy's place eventually.
And then -- lo and behold -- Uncle Otts appeared. When he came on the scene, in all his bulldoze-the-front-yard-glory (for he had a bulldozer in his first incarnation)... well! Now I had a full-fledged family with a rich history, and I needed to know their stories. And I knew then, I had a novel on my hands. This was probably 1998.
It would take me another ten years to figure out how to write it.
EDITORIAL ANONYMOUS: Thank you--so much!-- for bringing across how hard great writers work to be great. Finally, do you have any advice for those attempting historical fiction? Any lessons you've learned in the process?
DEBORAH WILES: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to think and talk about these things!
I'm not good with advice, as I'm still learning how I work with historical fiction, even though my first book, Freedom Summer (which is historical fiction, albeit a picture book), is almost ten years old.
There is an over-arching line of history that humans live through, a sort of collective history, if you will. Then there is each person's individual story within that history. When I wrote Freedom Summer, I knew that the book was about the passage of the Civil Rights Act and yet, at its heart, Freedom Summer is a book about friendship and fairness -- and choice -- between two boys, one black, one white, who decide they want to go swimming together at the town pool, the day it opens to "everyone under the sun no matter what color." It was always about that.
With Countdown, I tried to remember that Franny's heart and her story were paramount. Her life -- her choices -- would pull the reader through, and I wanted to place the reader firmly in Franny's world. So the personal story comes first, and somehow, as personal as it is, it also needs to be universal.
That's a key for me, I think. Where are the inner places we are connected as fellow travelers on this earth? What are our universal hopes and fears as human beings young, old, rich, poor, black, white, city, country, and every shade and persuasion?
At one particular low point in the long writing of Countdown, I despaired of young readers ever being able to connect to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. And then, two planes flew into two twin towers and one flew into the Pentagon. And as the world reacted, as I reacted, it dawned on me that we are living this history together; this grief, this joy, this fear, this confusion, this beauty, this life. We beat with one heart. And that's when I knew I could hold that heart in my hand, and tell this story.