In her new novel, Kent State, two-time National Book award finalist Deborah Wiles reckons with the events of May 4, 1970 at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, through many voices and perspectives. Wiles spoke with PW about her inspiration, the novel’s unique format, why she keeps returning to this era, and what she’s working on now.
What inspired you to write about the Kent State tragedy?
I was 16 years old on May 4, 1970 and I remember the visceral shock of what happened at Kent State. It has always stayed with me—the idea that our government could shoot at its citizens. And these kids [victims and survivors] were about my age. It was all we could talk about at school. When I started writing my ’60s trilogy many years later, I kept bumping up against Kent State in my research and every time I would say, I should do something about that one day but I don’t think I can, it’s so awful. When I finished Anthem—the last book in that trilogy that has scrapbook material like photographs, song lyrics, and newspaper clippings—I decided to include Kent State in that final scrapbook so that you could see what the end of the ’60s was really like. Kent State heralded the end of the ’60s, and the end of a particular mindset and time. So that was my inspiration. There was nothing out there for young people about this and we need to remember it so that it doesn’t happen again.
Your novel is told in free verse through varied voices and perspectives, including students, townspeople, the Black United Students of Kent State, and the National Guard. How did you decide to structure the narrative in this way?
As I did the research, I saw that there were so many different ways to look at this story and so many different stories to tell within the story. I talked to my editor, David Levithan, and both of us hit on a book we had just read told in many voices called Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. I had been so blown away by that book. I listened to it as an audiobook and it’s a full-cast production. I said to David, I think something like that with different voices [would work], and then he hit on the idea of collective memory—because in history no matter what story you are trying to tell, there are as many ways to tell it as there are people who lived it. And that’s how the structure came about.
I began to search for different voices, and in my research in Kent State’s archives there were so many oral histories and letters to the editor. One was from a townie saying they should have killed more of the students. I stood there holding that letter just getting teary. And there were other people who were supportive of the National Guard and of Nixon. Some of the students were also pro-war, but many, many, many more were anti-war. And the National Guardsmen had oral histories in this collection, too. And I listened and the feeling just came over me that there was no way to tell this story without including everyone.
And part of my inspiration was the fact that we are living in a time when it’s really hard to have a conversation about hard things. People just want to yell and scream and tell their side of it. That’s part of what Kent State is about—finding a way that something so politicized and so tragic can actually be talked about and listened to respectfully.
One of the things I’m most pleased with is the audiobook for Kent State. It is mind-blowingly stunning. They had a full cast. I worked with Paul Gagne of Scholastic Audio and he included me in choosing the voices. It’s an entirely different experience. It just lifts the prose up off the page and puts you right there in the moment and in that conversation.
How did you decide not to label the voices? What do you think is gained by that?
I didn’t want you to hear from the victims Allison, Jeff, Sandy, or Bill because I can’t tell their stories. I’m not them. I decided that it would be easier not to label the voices because those [voices] were each going to be a stand-in for a particular train of thought or a particular point of view. The way I delineated them was by putting them on different sides of the page and by using different size type and fonts. So pretty quickly, I hope, you can get into seeing who those voices are without knowing their names or even their gender. I wanted the readers to invest themselves in it and to be right there in that conversation. This is why the novel is addressed directly to the reader, to our young friend here.
Your book has a real call to action. Do you see connections to contemporary student movements such as gun control and environmental activism? What do you hope readers will take away from this?
I do. I interviewed one of the survivors who had been wounded who said to me, now you are going to make this connect to the violence that’s going on today in our world, aren’t you? Today we are still petitioning our government and we’re still protesting our government and we’re still standing up for what we believe in. With Kent State, I want the reader to get out there and do something. Every single person makes a difference. We see that right now. The book has a lot of resonance for what’s going on today.
As you mentioned, you have also written a ’60s trilogy. What keeps bringing you back to this era?
That particular era was so vitally important to who we are as a people and to who I became as a person. I grew up during those years and I wanted something to chronicle it. So much was happening concurrently, and that’s the scrapbook purpose of my ’60s books. I wanted to show that at the same time Freedom Summer is happening in 1964 Mississippi and we’re trying to get disenfranchised black voters to vote in a presidential election, the Beatles are coming to the United States and Willie Mays is having a great baseball year. I wanted to show history as textured and contextual.
How did you create the documentary novel format for your trilogy?
I asked for this scrapbook format and Scholastic said yes and no one was more surprised than me. I just thought in order to do this, in order to offer this context, I want to reach all kinds of readers. I wanted readers to see it, hear it, touch it, taste it, feel it. It was actually hair-pulling in the beginning because we had no idea how to accomplish it. I gave them the order and what I wanted and then Phil Falco designed those beautiful scrapbooks that are so meaningful. It was hard but we created this new thing—a documentary novel. Scholastic took a huge risk to create something brand new with me and I am hoping that those three books have long legs.
Kent State will come out while the world stays home in response to Covid-19. How are you connecting with booksellers and readers during this time?
We had huge plans for this book. But everything changed, almost overnight, to postpone the book tour and disrupt our marketing plans. So, what I’ve been working on with my publisher and my agent is doing our part to keep booksellers open. Bookshop.org is one of the places I’m working with and I have been following and connecting with booksellers on Instagram. I want to thank and give back to all the booksellers who have had me come to their stores over years and years and books and books. I want the bookstore to do well and thrive. A bookstore is so much more than a store—it’s a community.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a book for Scholastic about the lost cause of the Confederacy and the rise of white supremacy. I want to talk about how the South turned from being bereft over their losses—there was no one who wasn’t touched by death in the Civil War—to turning that loss around to say their cause was just and noble. The working title is Charlottesville.
I also have plans to write a series of books about a little girl who works with her hands and does everything from scratch. I’ve had this idea for over 20 years, but this is a perfect time to be working on that now in the era of Covid-19, when we’re all at home and doing everything from scratch and making things with our hands.
Kent State by Deborah Wiles. Scholastic Press, $17.99 Apr. 21 ISBN 978-1-338-35628-1