Team Countdown—An Interview with Deborah Wiles and David Levithan

I’ve been a fan of author Deborah Wiles ever since Comfort Snowberger introduced herself on page one of Each Little Bird That Sings, a National Book Award finalist in 2005. “I come from a family with a lot of dead people,” Comfort says in what is surely one of the most memorable lines from contemporary children’s literature. Naturally I was thrilled when Deborah and her editor at Scholastic, David Levithan, agreed to visit the Mixed-up Files to talk about Deborah’s latest book, Countdown.

Countdown has received starred reviews from The Horn Book, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus, and was recently named one of the best books of the year by Publishers Weekly. While Deborah’s previous novels were set in small-town Mississippi, Countdown takes readers to a different place and time: suburban Washington, D.C. on the brink of the Cuban Missile crisis. It’s the first in a trilogy of books about the 1960s that Deborah calls “documentary novels,” stories that incorporate archival materials—quotes, advertisements, lyrics, and mini-biographies—directly into the narrative.

Before we begin, here’s a bit on Countdown from the book jacket:

It’s 1962, and it seems everyone is living in fear. Twelve-year-old Franny Chapman lives with her family in Washington, DC, during the days surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis. Amidst the pervasive threat of nuclear war, Franny must face the tension between herself and her younger brother, figure out where she fits in with her family, and look beyond outward appearances. For Franny, as for all Americans, it’s going to be a formative year.

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Welcome, Deborah and David! Countdown, the book with the bright yellow cover, has received four starred reviews and is turning up on many readers’ Best of 2010 lists. I’m wondering, Deborah, what your year has been like since its release.

Deborah: It’s been busy! I’ve been traveling some to support the book, but other than that extra fillip, I’ve been doing what I usually do, which is (besides family loveliness) teaching, speaking, and writing, as I try to finish book two in this series of three companion novels about the sixties for young readers. I am working in 1964 with a new story and new characters, so the writing—and research—has been front-and-center and intense this summer and fall; so much so that I find myself writing in hotels and airports, too, now that I’ve got good traction on book two.

One of the most striking aspects of Countdown is its visual appeal. It’s beautiful inside and out. Can you talk a little about the book’s design in this age of e-readers.

David: We were all inspired by Debbie’s vision and by the idea of creating the  documentary novel format.  I don’t particularly think its appeal is solely in the physical object, although it is definitely a beautiful object.  I think that, when the time comes and the resolution on an ebook is as striking as the physical resolution now, Countdown will be stunning in any form, because it’s the dynamic way she’s put together the narrative that propels the whole experience.

Deborah: Thanks so much. I agree that it’s beautiful inside and out! It’s one thing to have a vision of what you want to create, and it’s quite another to watch it come to life in capable, professional hands. I wrote the story and chose each element for the scrapbooks, which I think of as Franny’s scrapbooks. I wrote the biographies, which I think of as perhaps written by the adult Franny who has a knowledge of “how it all turned out,” and some context as well. I submitted everything on paper (electronically), with photos and song lyrics and more placed on the page where I wanted them.

When the designed pages started coming in, I was completely blown over. The design of each scrapbook perfectly captures the tone and mood of 1962 and Franny’s story, as well as the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, right down to the tiniest detail, which is carried throughout the book—even the page numbers and the gradations of black to white along each page, not to mention the feel of the paper, the jacket design, and the physical book itself get in on the act. I’m so proud of how the book looks, as well as what’s within its pages. It’s a work of art and a labor of love. My hat is off to Phil Falco, our truly amazing designer.

Deborah, your previous novels—Love, Ruby Lavender; Each Little Bird That Sings; and The Aurora County All-Stars—are all set in Mississippi and have an almost timeless feel. Countdown is very different. It’s set in 1962 at one very specific moment in history: the Cuban Missile Crisis. Can you tell us what moved you to write about this particular time?


 

Deborah: I always say two things when I talk about my writing: I take my life and turn it into story, and I write for ten-year-old me. I lived outside Andrew’s Air Force Base in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. My dad was a pilot. We were all afraid, all the time, during those two weeks in October. It was such a pivotal time in my own young life as well as the life of this country and the world. It feels natural to turn my attentions to telling this story in fiction. Growing up summers in Mississippi is also a defining piece of my history; it shaped my voice and sensibilities. I started there, and now I’m exploring the sixties.

In Countdown, Franny yearns for order and predictability at a time when the world no longer feels safe to her. Like you (and Franny) I grew up in the 1960s. I don’t remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, but I do remember being afraid of nuclear war. Over the years those fears have faded, but recently the world seems a more anxious place again. Do you feel that Franny’s story has special relevance today?

Deborah: I’m not sure if the world is any more or less anxious than it has been (or will be), but I do think the job of the storyteller is to write about what matters to him or her. To write about what lies on the heart unspoken, or unheard, or misunderstood, or fearful. Or joyful! Or confused. Or silly. I think I’m naturally a fearful person. In the case of Countdown, writing about my fears helped me come to terms with some of them.

Writing a story is like sending a slender thread out into the world, looking for connection. Are you out there? Who are you? Where are you? I don’t know who will catch on to that thread, but I have learned to trust that someone will, even if I never know who (and mostly I don’t). And I know this because I have been the one to catch hold of those threads from other writers, over and again, all my life. We find what we need when we need it.

In a traditional historical novel the research might be cited in a bibliography or included in an appendix, but in Countdown the material appears in the text.  Was it always in your mind to present Franny’s story this way?

Deborah: There is a bibliography and also quite a bit of back matter to help the reader learn more if she wants to. The photos, cartoons, songs, quotes, newspaper pieces, and other scrapbook elements that are included are byproducts of the research. I always planned to include them. I wanted young readers to be able to see, hear, feel, touch, and taste what it was like to live in 1962, during this time. I wanted to provide an alternate way to look at history as well—history is so much more than a listing of dates, places, and names. It’s biography. And every person’s story is important.

I’m interested in the larger arc of our American history within the context of our personal history and vice versa. And I’m interested in offering a wider viewpoint as well. I want to offer context for the context! The story offers it, surely, and then the scrapbooks and biographies enrich the dialogue.

How did we find ourselves in the midst of a Cold War with the U.S.S.R.? Why did we scare the pants off everyday citizens in this country, looking for spies around every corner? Why did John F. Kennedy and Fannie Lou Hamer lead such vastly different lives, even though they were born in the same year, 1917, and what did our social contract in this country have to do with that? And how do the lives they led–and the decisions they made–decades ago, affect our lives today? Because they do. I want young readers to think critically about the facts they are fed, and to think for themselves about their own assumptions, prejudices, and choices. Story is a marvelous, powerful vehicle for connecting with a reader’s questioning–and questing–heart.

The inclusion of the documentary material creates a unique reading experience. It feels as if the documents are in dialogue with the story, sometimes illustrating it, but sometimes commenting with ironic juxtapositions. How was the material chosen and who decided where it would appear in the final text?

David: The material is entirely Debbie’s—she was the architect, down to the smallest detail, and then our outstanding designer, Phil Falco, took Debbie’s blueprint and created the actual book design. Debbie chose all of the photos, and was the one who decided what would go where. I don’t think we could have ever done it separately—it’s the cohesion and interplay with the story that gives the documentary material its resonance.

Deborah: David’s right that the pieces work in concert, in just the way that we live our daily lives. We constantly act and react to, and are influenced by, the stimuli around us, and that includes news, music, songs, photos, television, conversations, what we read, what we eat, how we sleep—it’s all of a piece. Children know this instinctively and—I believe—feel it deeply, even if they can’t articulate it. So it feels natural, to me, to tell the story this way. It’s a dialogue. There is that cohesion and interplay, to use David’s words. It’s a new way of storytelling, but it’s as old as the hills. We use what’s available to us to tell our stories, and it enriches our story experience.

What was the biggest challenge working on Countdown? The biggest reward?

David: The biggest challenge was definitely getting all the permissions for all  of the documentary material.  As for reward?  It’s a magnificent book  that we’re all deeply proud of.  There isn’t much greater reward than that.  (Although the starred reviews were rather nice, too!)

Deborah: I sent chocolate to New York more than once, but it wasn’t enough to quell the flames of permissions purgatory (thank you, Els and Erin!).  We were charting new territory as well, making it up as we went along—“How do we do this? Well, let’s find out!” We are better streamlining the process with book two. For one thing, I am assembling a permissions source document as I write.

A big reward has been working with everyone at Scholastic to produce a beautiful, meaningful book that we are all so proud of. I loved being part of this book-making team, and remain humbled by the truly amazing, heartfelt work they did on this book. I have loved watching the book make its way in the world as well, and have loved hearing from readers—that is always the biggest thrill. It completes the circle that is begun when you first put pen to paper.

I understand that Countdown is the first book in a trilogy. When will the second book come out and can you give Mixed-Up Files readers a sneak preview of what’s ahead for Franny and her family?

Deborah: Yes! We’ll be squarely in the middle of 1964 with book two, which will appear in 2012. We won’t be following Franny’s family any more, though. We’ve got a brand new family, in a brand new place.

Just as I focused on the space race and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, for this book I’m focusing on what was effectively a revolution in this country that people either don’t realize or talk about much anymore: Freedom Summer, also known as The Mississippi Summer Project. It was a pivotal event in the sixties and it informs our ongoing search for and defining of democracy in this country today. So I’m going to Mississippi in the summer of 1964, when hundreds of college kids from northern states came to Mississippi, in an organized effort to help register black voters and unseat the racist Mississippi Democratic Party before the 1964 presidential election.

It’s a riveting story, full of guts and glory and young people. 1964 is also the year the Beatles came to America, yeah-yeah-yeah!, the year Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters slathered psychedelic swirls all over a school bus, named it Further, drove it from San Francisco to New York City, and said, “You’re either on the bus or you’re off the bus!” It’s also the year of the New York World’s Fair and Tomorrowland… and so much more. What a rich, transformative year in America. I’m exploring it all. The music’s not bad, either!

Your novels are so good at capturing the fears and frustrations, tenderness and humor of the middle-grade years, Deborah. What do you feel is special about those years and why are you drawn to write about them?

Deborah: Thanks so much. I have a very clear memory of what it felt like to be ten years old. It seemed to me that the world turned a switch to “on” when I was ten, and everything started to happen. Abstract thinking! Feelings I couldn’t explain sloshing all over the place! And the knowledge, for the first time in my life, that there would be things in the world my parents could not protect me from. The knowledge that one day they would die. That one day, so would I. And what did that mean? Did it mean anything? There is something about being ten that is like no other time in life. The world and life become a mass of questions and amazement. Anything is possible. Nothing is without great portent or meaning. It is the beginning of trying to find one’s way in the world. We are so impressionable. So vulnerable. And so full of possibility. I like spending time in that place when I’m writing.

David, your own writing is focused on young adults, what’s your take on the middle-grade years?

David: I think so much of how we see the world is shaped by what we read in the  middle-grade years.  A book like Countdown opens up both the present and the past at the same time, and helps to shape the future.  I think one of the lessons of your namesake, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, was that it’s not enough to simply accumulate information—for there to be meaning to it, you have to use it and share it.  And that’s what the best middle-grade authors do—they take the things they know (and some things they don’t know until they start writing), and share them in an interesting way.

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Thanks again to Deborah and David. To learn more about Deborah’s work, visit her online at www.deborahwiles.com. For a video of Deborah talking about Countdown, visit www.scholastic.com/countdown/. For more about David’s young adult novels and stories, check his website at www.davidlevithan.com.

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Like Franny in Countdown, Laurie Schneider is a child of the 60s. She remembers being sent home from kindergarten early the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated and playing along with the Beatles on her tennis-racquet guitar the night they appeared on the Ed Sullivan show.

12 Responses to Team Countdown—An Interview with Deborah Wiles and David Levithan

  1. A month ago I was a young student that absolutely interest in our countries history. My philosophy was”If it is called our past, why revisit, and learn about it.” That philosophy was diminished when I read Countdown. It converted me to my new favorite genre. Because Deborah Wiles was such a phenomenal author, I am waiting, anxiously for the next book in this trilogy!

  2. What a great interview! I absolutely cannot wait to read COUNTDOWN. I loved EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS so much. Deborah’s writing sings, too!

  3. Thank you all for a peek into the (complicated!) process of writing and producing such a wonderful book.

  4. I loved this book, and it was so fun to read this interview! I loved Deborah’s line about the storyteller: “the job of the storyteller is to write about what matters to him or her.” She certainly seems to do that in all of her stories, and in turn, they matter to the reader.

  5. This interview is poetry, just like Debborah’s fabulous book, Countdown. What an amazing read! I read it once in June and then again in November. I rarely read a book twice in such a short time period. But I enjoyed it thoroughly both times. Thanks for providing more insight into a remarkable, groundbreaking book.

  6. Bonnie: If it’s weird to hold onto books as treats then I’m weird, too. I even have a special place on the shelf for them….

  7. Outstanding interview! I can’t wait to read this book and share it with my middle-grader. As someone who is writing about a historical figure, I’m always interested to hear about how the experts do it, and the new ways they find to blend fiction and fact together. Thank you so much for stopping by to chat with us, Deborah and David! I learned a lot.

  8. I’m also a child of the sixties, and have had this book sitting beside me for quite some time. I don’t know how weird this is, but I sometimes buy a book I’m really excited about, and then keep it as a wonderful treat for later. I love seeing it waiting for me. That’s what I’ve been doing with COUNTDOWN.

    Darn it, now I’m going to have to jump on in!

    Congratulations to all concerned on producing such a lovely and truly ground-breaking book–and thanks, Laurie, for asking all the right questions. :-)

  9. I had not heard of this book before, and it sounds really good from that summary. I like the interview and the nice long answers too. It’s cool how the book is about the past, present, and future too.

  10. Great interview! I can’t wait to read this book–I will be tracking it down. I love the idea combining history in documentary/scrapbook format. I could see that appealing to so many readers including non-fiction lovers. Thanks for sharing your insight Deborah and David.

  11. Diana Greenwood

    Fabulous interview! I am now so intrigued by this book and the concept of documentary material in the text. Deborah is much admired in my house. What a trendsetter. This intrigues me too, from a teaching standpoint because I can see mini-documentary books done by students. Food for thought for future lessons. Very well covered, Laurie.

  12. I’ve been hearing about this one. Sounds like a great book. Thanks for the extra insight :)