Guess who’s joining us in The Author’s Tent today? The lovely and talented Deborah Wiles!
I’m a huge fan. There, I’ve said it. I savor Deborah’s beautiful blog musings, over at One Pomegranate, and I’ve loved each of her award-winning books in turn. So when COUNTDOWN hit the shelves, it rocketed to the top of my reading list.
Cuban Missile Crisis … Vietnam … Hippies … Make Love, Not War … Joan Baez … We Shall Overcome … Selma … Bobby Kennedy … Martin Luther King, Jr. … Easy Rider … Malcolm X … Letter from a Birmingham Jail … The Beatles … Black Panthers … Jim Morrison … Tune in, turn on, drop out … One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind … Heavens to Murgatroyd, talk about flashbacks! I was transfixed by COUNTDOWN, start to finish, and I can’t wait for the next book in the trilogy.
Even if you’re not a child of the 60s (hush now), I daresay you’ll love COUNTDOWN.
Since its May 2010 debut, it’s received a veritable constellation of starred reviews. Haven’t read it? Let me tempt you. First, this teaser (PDF), then the trailer:
Want to know more about COUNTDOWN? Absorb some of Debbie’s Southern charm, perhaps, or talk with us about writing? Come, visit with us awhile. I’ve poured y’all some sweet tea, and I’ve saved some front-row seats.
Welcome, Debbie! I’m so pleased to have you here. Would you please tell us how COUNTDOWN came to be? Also…how does this book fit into your Sixties Project?
Melodye, thanks so much for inviting me into the Author’s Tent! I’m honored to spend a bit of time with you, and to talk about Countdown!
Countdown started as a picture book in 1996, about a ‘war’ between a brother and sister. It had lots of duck and cover, Cold War terminology, and it didn’t really go anywhere. As I worked on Love, Ruby Lavender and it turned from a picture book into a novel, I began to understand story so much better, and I realized that this picture book about the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was really a novel, with many different characters and subplots, and it began to grow on me… literally. I had started another story that took place in 1966, and I also was toying with a 1968 story, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to say, “Hmmm…. I’ve got a trilogy of novels about the sixties, here…” and that’s pretty much how the trilogy came to be, at least in my head!
One of the things that I love most about COUNTDOWN is that it can’t be pigeonholed—it’s arranged like no other book I’ve ever read! It’s a novel, of course, but it’s also a time capsule of the early 1960s, into which you’ve added a fabulous collection of news clips, song lyrics, and other artifacts. How did you settle on this storytelling approach, and can you share any writing tips you discovered along the way?
As I researched the early sixties, I collected all kinds of photos, song lyrics, news clippings, and other primary sources and kept them in a separate document. It quickly became apparent to me, however, that they were part of the story, so I began to arrange them that way. I was very deliberate and careful about the particular arrangement of each scrapbook. I called them scrapbooks in the beginning, they were even labeled as such, but in the end we removed the labels and let the scrapbook sections speak for themselves. I wanted them to be part of the narrative structure of the book. It was exciting to stumble upon this new way of storytelling, which is really as old as the hills. How long ago did people paint and draw on cave walls and tell stories? Or tell stories in song? In dance? It’s all story.
Writing tips discovered along the way: hmmmm! Well, I can say that having the scrapbooks did not get me off the hook when it came to telling Franny’s story. In other words, the story itself – of Franny and what happens to her – was paramount. If anything, I needed to make sure that I didn’t duplicate in the storyline what I was showing in the scrapbooks. Each complimented the other. And using the scrapbooks for my own intentions (before I decided to use them as narrative in the book) helped me to focus on my story. That sounds muddy, I think. I hope it makes sense.
It makes perfect sense—thank you! And you pulled it off beautifully, as this sample chapter clearly shows.
One of the most poignant scenes in COUNTDOWN occurs as Uncle Otts builds a bomb shelter in Franny’s front yard. You intertwined history and character so beautifully on those pages, which leads me to wonder if you drew from your own childhood experiences when you wrote them.
Thanks, Melodye. I love that scene, and all the scenes with Uncle Otts. I drew from my own emotional experiences, although the plot is totally fiction. I have always had an affinity for old people. (I’m quickly becoming one – ha!) In my fiction, you’ll find that I explore the relationships between old people and young people – Miss Eula and Ruby, Comfort and her great-great Aunt Florentine and great-uncle Edisto, House and Mr. Norwood Boyd and Pip. There is something very wise about children in the presence of old people. They intuitively understand them. And vice versa. I find it very poignant and true-hearted, without artifice, and I wanted to explore that with Franny and Uncle Otts in Countdown.
I remember doing “duck and cover” drills in elementary school—not only because of perceived nuclear threats, but also because we lived in earthquake-prone California. How do those “duck and cover” episodes connect to the heart of your story, and can you draw any modern-day parallels?
Duck and cover drills relate to the fear we live with day-to-day in our lives, and in that regard, they are the heart of the story. Whether it’s “does he love me” or “is she my friend?” or “why won’t my teacher call on me?” or “why aren’t I special/pretty/popular/smart/talented?” etc., we are afraid of not belonging, not being loved, not being safe and having purpose and understanding out lives and our world – Countdown at its heart is a journey of self-discovery for Franny, and, in a larger context, for the American people, as they go from living in relative innocence and superiority, to understanding that life turns on a dime, and we are all vulnerable, even on U.S. soil.
The events of 9/11 showed us that as well; it’s not necessary to have been a child of the sixties to relate to the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Vietnam War – there are children in this country today, going to school, who have never known a day in their lives that this country was not at war. And that is the place we connect to (on the surface, at least) with Countdown’s duck and cover drills.
It’s evident that you did a lot of research while writing COUNTDOWN: Your book is infused with cultural allusions of all kinds. Were you ever worried that the 60s references might be confusing to today’s readers, and did you end up jettisoning some that you loved?
No, I never worried about that, and I didn’t jettison anything I loved. Are you talking about the scrapbook sections in particular? I can speak to that. I wrote this book in the same way that I teach when I am in the classroom. I share the glorious world I want the reader to enter, I respect his intelligence, have faith in his curiosity, offer him a substantial reach, and expect him to rise to the occasion. This is how we learn and grow. To worry that a book outside the “norm” is problematic for young readers because it’s so different speaks (for me) to a lack of vision and enthusiasm, and is a tacit agreement to lower standards. I think taking a calculated risk is a good thing. Courage, I say, courage!
As the author, how much input were you allowed in determining COUNTDOWN’s overall appearance? (The design elements are gorgeous, by the way—and how groovy is that 45-rpm vinyl record on the cover?!?)
I’m so glad you love the design (and that record!). I do, too. My input was dictating the order of the scrapbooks, right down to the placement of what-quote-goes-where, which photo comes first, every detail, as the scrapbooks are stories as well. Then it was out of my hands. Much depends on trust, and in stepping back and letting people do their jobs. No one tried to do my writing job for me. I had help, of course – a great editor, David Levithan. But the story was mine to tell. I had input on the design – meaning, I got to see everything as it was in development, and I made comments along the way, but I made no major decisions, and good thing. Design is not my expertise.
I must admit, when I first saw designed pages, they took my breath away. I actually cried, it was that powerful an experience. It’s VERY different to arrange those scrapbook elements on a manuscript page, and then to look at them when art & design have turned them into a thing of beauty. Huge kudos to designer Phil Falco, who took what I put on the page and designed a killer cover and all those amazing inside elements that add up to a glorious whole. When my agent first saw the designed pages, he said, “It’s more than a book; it’s an experience.” I agreed.
I’d also like to say something about Erin Black and Els Rijper, who (as I say in the acknowledgements) were mired in gargantuan permissions work for this book. It’s one thing to find and fall in love with all these photos and primary source documents. It’s quite another to gather the permissions to print them. Without these permissions, there would have been much less to design! And without Joy Simpkins (and Jess White as well), who was our production manager and kept this book on track somehow – made it all come together as it should and on time – we wouldn’t have a book! This book was truly a team effort. We were creating something brand new. We had no idea what we were doing in some ways, as we were making it up as we went along (meaning, we had no template for making a documentary novel). It will be easier next time around. So we say!
QUESTIONS ABOUT WRITING
On your bio page, you brag about growing “the world’s most beautiful zinnias.” So…are you willing to spill your secrets? And a follow-up question, if I may: Does gardening feed into your writing process (or vice versa)?
Oh, haha! I am HAPPY to share my top secret zinnia growing secrets! Get good dirt. Rake it up. Throw in tons of seeds. Cover them enough so the birds don’t get to them. Water water water, every day. Weed enough. And voila! The world’s most beautiful zinnias! Anyone can do it. It’s just my shtick, as I love them so much. They are my favorite flower. So easy to grow; you feel like a master gardener.
Anything physical feeds into my writing. Walking up Stone Mountain, dancing to the sixties Top 40, rigorously cleaning house (lots of luck), or growing the world’s most beautiful zinnias. It’s all great fodder, as it gets me out of my head for a little while, and helps answers to hard questions come to the surface.
Nancy Drew appears in COUNTDOWN, which tickles me no end! I devoured her mysteries when I was younger, and I’m still a major fan. Which literary characters appealed most to your childhood self, and do they influence your reading/writing preferences even now?
I saved my quarter-a-week allowance until I had $1.25 to buy the next Nancy Drew. I loved those stories and read them over and over. I used to PLAY Nancy Drew in the back yard with friends, in the way kids played house or school. I loved Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island (which is why that book appears in All-Stars), loved fairy tales, Aesop’s Fables, adventure stories of all kinds, biographies. I was such a voracious, equal opportunity reader. I loved Miss Pickerell and Little Women and My Friend Flicka. Black Beauty. A Christmas Carol. Great Expectations. Romeo and Juliet. I loved the stories more than I did particular characters, although Pippi Longstocking was awfully cool. Ruby Lavender has a good dose of Pippi in her.
There’s a strong sense of place threaded through each one of your books, which really resonates with me. I’m wondering if that comes of having an itinerant childhood.
Possibly. I used to pine for Mississippi, the place we spent summers when I was a kid, even when I was a senior in high school, I think because it was a homeplace. But I also bonded with every place we lived. Countdown takes place in the Washington, D.C. area. I lived in Franny’s neighborhood, in her house, for seven years, and have such fond memories of that PLACE – what it smelled like, looked like, tasted like, felt like, sounded like. Same with Charleston, South Carolina, where I lived for two years as a teenager, and even Clark Air Base and the Philippines, where I graduated from high school. Hawaii makes an appearance in Love, Ruby Lavender because I started school there, and I well remember how exotic it felt to me… but then, every place I have lived has had its share of exotic, to me. I’m even learning to find the exotic in Atlanta, these days!
I think I associate place with the memories I had there, and that includes all memories – happy, sad, good, bad, etc. It’s all of-a-piece, as Uncle Edisto says in Each Little Bird That Sings. All connected.
That sense of kinship and connectedness shines through all your writing. Even your website has a homey feel. J Speaking of which, would you mind giving us a quick tour of the place? And a follow-up question, if I may: What’s the story behind One Pomegranate?
Oh, the new website! Sure, and thanks. It’s still a work in progress (aren’t we all), but basically I’m trying to make it easier to navigate and less cluttered. You’ll find the home page doesn’t even have a photo of my books on it, it’s more of a landing pad and a chance for me to use the photographs I take. There will be a rotating bunch of photographs – the chicken is up there right now – that tie all the pages together, along with my blog, which is hosted on blogger right now (and may stay there). My web designer is Allison Adams. She did a great job. I wanted something clean and clear, and that I could update myself. The home page is in Dreamweaver, but the rest of it is WordPress.
[Psst: I’ll let you in on a little secret! Debbie’s giving away two copies of her iMix Collection, “COUNTDOWN, 1962.” You have until July 1st to enter the contest, so after we finish this interview, you’ll want to hurry on over to her blog!]
The One Pomegranate story is told here, on my original blog (that Harcourt talked me into; I went, kicking and screaming, but they were right), which is an accounting of my 2007 tour for The Aurora County All-Stars.
Pomegranates are full of beautiful red seeds. Each seed tells a story. The subtitle for One Pomegranate used to be “so many stories inside each fruit.” We each have so many stories to tell. I am only one of many pomegranates, so to speak. But I am the Queen! At least at my own blog. At my blog I really just chronicle my days and the writing process for me. I use it as a scrapbook more than anything else. I love the conversations that get started there, mostly in gmail, as it turns out, but that’s okay. I love having a compendium of my days in one place. I especially love the photos.
Magnolias or palm trees? Magnolias, honey.
Mississippi: How many syllables? 4. Unless you are from Mississippi. Then, it’s 3.
Your favorite Crayola crayon color? Burnt Sienna, followed closely by Raw Umber.
GLEE or Dancing with the Stars? GLEE! All the Single Ladies!
Snagglepuss or Yogi Bear? Exit, stage left! Snagglepuss, of course. Although I loved those pic-a-nic baskets, and thought I would have made a great Boo Boo.
Thank you again! Thank you! What a lovely time I had. xoxo Debbie
Thank you, Debbie! I feel honored that you joined us in the Author’s Tent! Wish we lived closer…I’d share my pic-a-nic basket with you anytime! J
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