Several years ago Deborah Wiles came to the elementary school where I was teaching. She was amazing. By way of disclaimer, Deb was just ahead of me in the MFA program at VCFA. She was a rock star before she finished the program with a couple of beautiful picture books and a novel already published before graduation, and I was thrilled to have her visit my school.
I was nervous, but she ended up being my friend, and I'm about as grateful as a girl can be about that. Deb is the real deal, and her new novel out May 1 is my favorite book since reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond in 5th grade. Countdown is a great story told in both words and pictures, and Deb is visiting here today on the Tollbooth to talk about her new novel. Enjoy!
P.S. Here's a picture of Deb with me in 2004. Heavens to Murgatroyd!
Congratulations on your forthcoming novel, Countdown (Scholastic, May, 2010)! Can you tell us a little bit about the book?
Thank you, Helen! I’m excited to have a new book to share with the world, especially this one, as it has been fifteen years in the making. It's a story about eleven-year-old Franny Chapman and her great desire to be seen, to belong, and to matter in a world that includes her authoritative mother, her Air Force pilot father, the interesting new boy across the street, a best friend who is turning into an enemy, a perfect little brother who wants to be an astronaut, an amazing older sister with secrets, an uncle who is still living through the trenches in World War I, and the real horror of the Cuban Missile Crisis, thirteen days in October 1962, when the world came as close as it has ever come to nuclear annihilation.
I understand its part of a series, The Sixies Trilogy?
It's more accurate to call it "The Sixties Project," as each book will be a stand-alone story, but yes, there will be three companion novels that take place in the sixties: 1962, 1966, and 1968. Countdown focuses on the Cuban Missile Crisis and the space race, as well as all those amazing changes that were the harbingers of one of the most turbulent, changing, challenging, and defining decades in American history. The Sixties shaped a generation and generations to come -- politically, socially, culturally, environmentally, musically psychedelically. We are still living with the legacy of the Sixties, and young readers are growing up within this legacy. What did it all mean, then? What does it mean for us today? For the future? I wanted to explore that.
Just saying “the Sixties” out loud offers a necklace of free associations for those of us who came of age in that time. Here’s one string of pearls:
John Glenn -- Friendship 7 -- Cuban Missile Crisis -- Civil Rights Vietnam Hippies -- Make Love Not War -- Joan Baez -- We Shall Overcome -- Letter from a Birmingham Jail -- Bull Connor -- Selma, Lord, Selma -- Tet -- Bobby Kennedy -- Martin Luther King, Jr. -- Malcolm X -- Black Panthers Women’s Liberation Gay rights -- The Beatles -- Jim Morrison -- Janis Jimi -- Easy Rider -- Tune in, turn on, drop out One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
What got you interested in this time period?
I always say I write for ten-year-old me. I was ten in the sixties, and I was in love with this glorious world -- still am. I grew up living all over the globe, as my father was an Air Force pilot and we were transferred from base to base during my childhood, but we came home to Mississippi each summer. As a writer, I started with those Mississippi summers, which gave rise to Freedom Summer, Love, Ruby Lavender, Each Little Bird That Sings, and The Aurora County All Stars. With Countdown, I have begun mining my life as a military kid. When I teach, I always tell my students that my books are personal narrative turned into fiction. And they are. I take what I know and remember, marry it with what I feel, and imagine that into a story.
Usually, writers use only about ten percent of their research in a historical novel, but in Countdown, the history seems almost an equal partner in the novel. Was this a deliberate decision upfront, or was it more organic as the novel progressed?
Countdown started out as a picture book in 1996. It kept growing larger and more complex, and when it became a novel, I put it away for long stretches, because it had begun to feel so big, and I didn't yet have the skills to do it justice. So I kept writing my Mississippi stories, and kept pulling out Countdown from time to time, along with another novel I had started that took place in 1966 that I called Hang The Moon. At some point, a few years ago, I saw that I was holding the sixties in my hand, and with another novel to add to it, would be able to capture a decade... if I could only figure out a way to help the reader know it as I knew it. That’s where the scrapbooks come in. More about that, in answer to another question you pose later.
For young readers with no understanding of the Cold War and the fear of nuclear weapons that seized America in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the explanation of that time period within the context of a novel could be daunting. In Countdown, you do a remarkable job of interpreting these anxious moments in history without scaring readers. Can you tell us how you approached writing this backstory?
Thanks so much. First of all, I drew on my own, real fear during that time. I used to lie awake at night, composing a letter to Chairman Khrushchev and President Kennedy, telling them why they didn’t want to blow up the world. Ducking and covering under my desk in school scared me to death. I would duck into a ball and put my hands behind my neck, and plan my escape, should the air raid signal be the real thing one day. I knew just what I would do. I wouldn’t stay in school and wait for my impending doom. I would run to the other side of the school before anyone could stop me. I would grab my brother out of first grade. And we would race home together we were walkers, it wasn’t far and we would be with our family when the bomb dropped. Franny plans this very same escaps route in Countdown.
This was a very real possibility to me, when I was a kid. Kids today especially after 9/11 -- have lived through their own very real possibilities of war, destruction, and death. Some are still living through them. Many parents, uncles, aunts, brothers, and sisters are deployed at war right now. Some will not come home. Some will be deeply and lastingly injured by their experience, as Uncle Otts is in Countdown. I knew that the most effective way to reach young readers in telling about the Cuban Missile Crisis was to share my own story of fear (and absurdity), and hope to connect on an emotional level.
I’m not sure that I won’t scare readers, actually. But that’s okay. Stories help us deal with our fears. If I’ve done my job well, you should also laugh a lot when you read this book. Just like I did with Each Little Bird That Sings, I’ve laced a lot of love and laughter throughout this story, to lighten (and deepen) the fearful times. It’s not at all necessary to know what the Cuban Missile Crisis was, to enjoy this book. But you’ll see that I do go to great lengths to tell you about it, especially in the scrapbooks, because I want the reader to know that our larger history affects our personal history, and to see how that happens.
Compare the larger setting with the specific backstory of Franny, the protagonist of Countdown. How did you balance telling Franny’s story against the big context of history, and how did you think about integrating the two?
What a good question! When Countdown was still a picture book, it consisted of a fight between a brother and sister that paralleled the trajectory of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was full of duck-and-cover terms as well. But it wasn’t working. It slowly became clear to me that I wanted to write about the value of community, the preciousness of family, and the cost of war on people everywhere. To do that, I needed a complex human story, along with its rich subplots and characters. So I “grew up” my heroine, Franny. She became multi-faceted, interested in so many things, a lover of the world, convinced that the world didn’t love her. I invented a shell-shocked Uncle (my editor’s favorite character) so I could give Franny more texture, and so I could talk about the long-term effects of war. I turned her brother into “a saint,” to use Franny’s sarcastic term, so Franny could learn about goodness. I created an elder sister, in order to talk about the blossoming civil rights movement (and women’s movement) that will take hold in book two. I welcomed a best friend for Franny, who took the place of the brother in the picture book, and I gave Franny and her best friend something to battle over, just as the U.S. and Russia had something to battle over in 1962.
The battle that Margie and Franny wage in Countdown mirrors the battle that the U.S. and Russia waged over nuclear warheads in Cuba. It lasts just as long, and has a similar outcome, but it is completely human just as history is completely human… we just don’t realize that when we are learning about dates and events and names.
You call Countdown a documentary novel. The graphics in the book certainly add to the setting and emotional impact of the book. Were the photos, drawings, collages, and primary sources part of the initial manuscript? How did you come up with this innovative idea?
I knew that Franny would be watching Leave it to Beaver and Sing Along With Mitch on television, that she would eat TV dinners, that she would hear her mother sing “Que Sera Sera,” and that her brother would idolize John Glenn and carry around his favorite book, Our Friend the Atom, with him everywhere. There were so many things about American history that would influence the language, the fashion, the music, and the choices my characters made. I had an amazing, rich mother-lode of material from the early sixties, and I wanted to share it. It seemed natural to give it to the reader as part of the narrative. When I suggested it to my editor, David Levithan, and the folks at Scholastic, they agreed, instantly and wholeheartedly they were “in” and excited about it, from day one. I was overjoyed… and very lucky. So I went to work. how would I do this?
Franny’s story would be one thing -- and it had to be stellar. It had to be strong. It had to be number one, so the reader would be able to see, hear, feel, taste, and smell the sixties just on the story alone. And, I wanted to stretch the boundaries of narrative. What if I were to give visual readers something to look at? What if I gave auditory learners something to listen to? What if I paired my story with a new way of storytelling, and used the actual songs, recipes, advertisements, cartoons, photographs, news stories, and history as narrative? What if I blended them seamlessly enough that the scrapbook sections would be an essential part of the storytelling and narrative? I've often heard that in a perfect picture book, the art can stand alone, the narrative can stand alone, and yet, together they create something amazing, a new, beautiful whole. I wanted to try that with a novel… and with history.
History is not static. It's a fluid, living thing, and we often don't treat it that way. We often serve up history, and historical fiction, as a series of dates and facts and names. How could I offer a way of storytelling that showed connections? How could I show that -- for example -- John F. Kennedy and Fannie Lou Hamer were both born in 1917, and yet lived such very different lives because of the stations they were born into? How could I show that the decisions Harry Truman made as president during World War II (including the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki), played directly into my heroine Franny's life in 1962? How could I show that the everyday life that Franny leads is history -- a personal history that is every bit as important as the wider, world history? Could I hope that my readers would see themselves in this way, see that they are an intricate part of the history that came before them, the history that is being created now, and the history of future life on this planet? I don't think that's too far a stretch to hope for. History is every moment we live, and each of those moments is precious.
Will the other novels in the trilogy use this same innovative approach?
Yes, I'm working on book two -- it is tentatively titled Hang The Moon. Right now I am working on the scrapbook narrative that will bridge the gap between 1962 and 1966, so that the reader has a continuous historical line from book one to book two. There will be crossover characters, as there are in my Aurora County books, but we have a different setting for book two, and a different set of characters as well. I love them fiercely.
Will you be doing a book tour with Countdown? If so, tell us some of the places and dates where you will be.
I'm signing Countdown at Books of Wonder in NYC, on May 1 (release day!) at 2:30pm. I'm signing at Politics & Prose in D.C. on May 12 at 10:30am, and at the Knoxville Festival of Reading on May 22, as well as the Children's Literature Festival at Shenandoah University in Winchester, VA on June 30. I'll be at IRA, ALA, and NCTE this year, and at various other regional events that we're still putting together as of this date. You can keep track of my whereabouts at my online calendar at my website.
Countdown is already gathering lots of great buzz, including starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and Horn Book! Will there be a teachers guide or other support material available from Scholastic?
I know! I love the buzz. It’s so gratifying, and I so appreciate these thoughtful readers and reviewers. Of course, the real test is my young readers who will find this book in libraries, bookstores, and classrooms. How will they respond to this very different and yet very familiar way of storytelling? I hope they are going to embrace it, in the way that readers embraced graphic novels, and other new forms of storytelling. It’s actually an ancient art, if you think of it. We have drawn pictures on cave walls. We’ve said “look at this!” and “listen to this!” for centuries. It’s how we live life, as well we see it, hear it, read it, write it, dance it, paint it, and more.
You asked about support material: Connie Rockman and Scholastic have put together a fabulous reader's guide. I'll let you know when it's available.
Any other details we should know?
Well, let’s see. There is a playlist for Countdown, available at iTunes. You can find the link at my blog. I’ve listed every song in the book, in the order it appears, as the songs help tell the story as well. There are 46 songs, I believe quite a few to download! but you can pick and choose as well, of course. The most essential songs are the ones that anchor each scrapbook section. Taken together, they tell the story of the late fifties/early sixties in song.
One last thing: I want you to know how much I appreciate this opportunity, and I love the blogging community, but I am at heart a shy person. I don’t show up much on other people’s blogs, or troll for blog readers, either. My own blog, One Pomegranate, is more of a scrapbook for me, about the writing process and my life on the road and in Atlanta a compendium of my days with family and friends and stories. But I love sharing it with readers, and I always love being asked to share. Thank you so much for thinking of me.You can also participate by going to the Powells web site and buying a book for a reservation school from the TBD wish list. Click here for the instructions. AND, everyone's invited to a blog party tonight to celebrate! 9pm eatern/6 pacific at readergirlz! See you there!
Tomorrow, we'll close out the week talking about flashbacks. But don't forget about Teen Literature Day today. Here's a note from Liz if you didn't see her comment earlier this week.
Yes, if you'd like to drop a book, just leave it where a teen might find it! You can be "official" by going to readergirlz and printing out a bookplate to include. If you take a photo of the book after it's dropped or of yourself doing the drop and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org, we will include it in our blog wrap-up!
Thanks, Liz. Anon. HH