Deborah Wiles, author of the Aurora County trilogy, is using the term "documentary novel" to describe her latest release, Countdown, a work of historical fiction set in 1960s Maryland.
You say in your acknowledgments that you began writing this story as a picture book text in 1996. Can you tell us how it grew into a novel, and then a trilogy?
The idea for it began long before anybody was interested in what I was writing. I was trying to write a picture book about a brother and sister who were fighting with the backdrop being the Cuban Missile Crisis. The text was full of Cold War terminology—"duck and cover," "mushroom cloud," "incoming."
Can I respectfully suggest that seems pretty out-there for a picture book? Where did that idea come from?
It was right out of personal experience. I would lie in bed at night composing letters to Kennedy and Khrushchev, trying to convince them that they really didn't want to blow up the world. It seemed so simple to me that we just shouldn't hurt each other. And I had issues with my own brother. So I wanted to write a story about warring siblings that paralleled (the missile crisis) because it had been such a powerful time in my own childhood. That is the way I work: take my own personal narrative and turn it into fiction.
When did you put aside the picture book idea?
Well, unfortunately, the picture book really didn't have a plot, and pretty soon I had too many characters. This happens to me all the time with novels, too. I go great guns for 40 pages and then it's, ‘Now what?' So for 15 years, that was my question. ‘Now what?' Many false starts. Many dark alleys. And by the time I realized it wasn't a picture book, it wasn't a single novel anymore either, because I had come up with a second idea about two cousins who don't like each other and are traveling from Mississippi to Memphis in 1966 because one of them is operating with the mistaken belief that Elvis Presley is her father. So by about 2007 what I had in my hands was one potential novel about the Cuban Missile Crisis and another one that would take place during the height of the Civil Rights movement. I thought, if I can pair these two and come up with one set in 1968, I've got a trilogy.
That is quite a leap.
But it took 15 years. And I mean, it really took that long. Fifteen years ago, Scholastic would never have bought this from me as a trilogy. I was not writer enough for them yet. I needed to grow as a writer. But after writing Love, Ruby Lavender, Each Little Bird That Sings and The Aurora County All-Stars, I knew I could do it again and I wanted to do it again. I learned a lot from writing those books. And actually, I have to stop talking about these [new] books as a trilogy and refer to them as a project, because it's not a trilogy in the traditional sense, just like Countdown is not a novel in the traditional sense.
Can you explain what you mean by "documentary novel?"
I am always telling students that a story is not just words. You can tell a story with dance or paint or music. Kids, and adults, are visual learners, auditory learners. There are those of us who need to touch it. Storytelling encompasses so much more than words on paper. And when I was researching this story, there was a rich mother lode of material—photographs, cartoons, songs, newspaper clippings. All these things were another way of telling the story. So I began with all of these documents on the side because having that stuff close helps me to be in that time period. But if you remember Ruby Lavender, you know that there were recipes and lists, extra material, interspersed into the narrative. With this book there was a tipping point where I felt a lot of this stuff I had on the side actually belonged in the book. So when I pitched this to Scholastic, I sent them a proposal with those pieces of research interspersed. I loved how there was a story with pictures. I've always loved novels that have drawings. I began to see it as seamless with the narrative. Initially, I had all these things labeled as scrapbooks. They were labeled, Scrapbook 1, Scrapbook 2, etc. These were the things Franny [the main character] would be seeing, hearing, touching, tasting in her everyday life.
Was part of your idea that kids who wouldn't necessarily be drawn to historical fiction might be intrigued by the visual elements of this?
Absolutely. Telling stories with visuals is an ancient art. We've been drawing pictures on cave walls for centuries. It's like what they say about the perfect picture book. The art and the text stand alone but together they create something even better. Kids who need to can grab onto those graphic elements and find their way into the story.
This is also your first book with Scholastic. Why the change of publishers?
(Sigh) After Harcourt was sold, I lost two editors in a year. I was bereft. Liz Van Doren basically taught me how to write a novel. We bled over every word and we became very close. So while losing that [relationship] was hard, I really want to celebrate that Scholastic took a chance on me. When we began looking for a house for this trilogy, Scholastic, hands down, came through with the most enthusiasm and support. They were willing to make this a documentary novel, which was going to be a risk. They were going to go to the end of the branch with me and we were both going to jump off together.
Were the permissions on this book nightmarish?
Oh, my, yes. I can't say enough about the people at Scholastic. I am lucky to be working with David Levithan, and Phil Falco, the designer, and Erin Black and Els Rijper. I sent chocolate along the way. You should have seen the many Excel sheets for the permissions—songs, lyrics, ads, photographs. I've gotten smarter and am keeping better track of where each photo comes from this time around. I understand how better to work with permissions. But never once did Scholastic balk and say, ‘Nope, we can't do this. It's too hard. It's too much money.' I couldn't have created a book like this without fantastic support.
Scholastic also published The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which was another kind of hybrid novel. Do you think the success of that book paved the way for Countdown?
I have heard Hugo Cabret mentioned in the same breath as Countdown because they are both projects where the publisher said, ‘We're going to create something new with you.' For a publisher to say that—that's a dream come true for an author.
I can't think of too many other novels for young readers set in this particularly tumultuous period. Did you come across any?
Rex Zero [and the End of the World, by Tim Wynne-Jones] touches on it, and David Almond has a book set in this period [The Fire-Eaters] but it's the British experience of it. I wasn't looking to fill a hole, though. I was just looking to write about my own experience. That said, whenever I mention the Cuban Missile Crisis at schools, I get blank stares. I always use PowerPoint, and I show news photographs from the time, but I talk about it in personal terms because I want kids to know history is more than dates and events and names. We're teaching facts but there's so much more to it than that. My dad was in the military, stationed at Andrews Air Force Base during this time. He was chief of safety for the unit that flew the president. This was very, very perilous to us. I remember being scared to death.
Did you keep a diary as a kid?
I did but I didn't save them. What I do have is a treasure trove of memory of being 10 years old. And now I am good at journaling. I also have a lot of photographs. My dad was a slide-taker and home-movie making machine so that gave me tons of raw material. I'm going through it now for the 1966 book.
There are also short biographies of leading figures scattered throughout Countdown. Why did you decide to include those?
I wanted to be able to connect to the fact that the choices Harry Truman made to drop the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 echo in Franny's world in 1962 and echo with us today. History is not static. The thoughtful reader will be able to pick that up. History is fluid. You're living history right now. I want young readers to know that to tell their own story is the most important thing they'll ever do.
Countdown by Deborah Wiles. Scholastic Press, $17.99 May 978-0-545-10605-4