Interview with Deborah Wiles, 2014 National Book Award Finalist, Young People's Literature
Revolution: The Sixties Trilogy, Book Two
Adina Talve-Goodman: Revolution is the second book in your Sixties Trilogy. What inspired you to write about Freedom Summer in Mississippi?
Deborah Wiles: I grew up summers in Mississippi—both my parents are from Mississippi and all my kinfolks were and are there. I still spend lots of time in Mississippi and consider myself a Mississippi girl at heart. I didn't understand what was happening, the summer of 1964, when "everything closed." I was a kid then, and all I knew at first was that I could no longer go swimming, or to the movies, or roller skating, or to the Cool Dip for ice cream—even the public library closed. It was confusing, and it was scary. I wanted to understand it. That was the beginning, for me.
ATG: The book itself has pages and pages of quotes, pictures, song lyrics, hymns, etc. inserted between the chapters in the story so that it appears almost like a scrapbooking of that summer. Why did you decide to use this unique format to help tell the story?
DW: It felt natural to include song lyrics, newspaper clippings, photographs, and other ephemera of the time. I wanted to create an immersive experience for the reader. I do call those visual sections "scrapbooks." I also include four opinionated biographies of the time. I want readers to understand that there is an "outer" story going on—what’s happening in the world (including The Beatles storming the U.S!)—at the same time the "inner" story of Sunny's summer is happening. Also, every story has an opinion attached to it, even non-fiction, because we are human. What is your opinion of Muhammad Ali, or LBJ, or of Freedom Summer, for that matter? Can you think critically about these issues? In my teaching experience, I find that young readers and writers often have trouble seeing themselves as part of a story. It's hard for them sometimes to understand that events in the world around them affect their everyday world and their choices (and their parents' choices) as well. Beyond all this, I was influenced early-on by the John Dos Passos trilogy U.S.A., and loved how he used "newsreels" and short biographies in his novels to create the same effect. I scaffolded Revolution similarly.
ATG: Along those same lines, how did you decide what to include in the pages between the chapters? Were there quotes, images, etc. that you had to let go?
DW: I had way more material than I could ever use. I archived it at Pinterest, where it still exists as a tool readers and teachers can use with the book. http://www.pinterest.com/debbiewiles/boards/ We had to let some songs and some photos go because the permissions costs of using them was too steep. In every case, my substitutions were more effective, which surprised and delighted me. It was like putting together a puzzle, deciding what-went-where and what-fit-best and what helped me tell the visual "outer" story most effectively.
ATG: You jump around from multiple points of view throughout the story. Which perspective was the easiest to write? Which was the most difficult?
DW: I always knew this was Sunny's story to tell. We are creating an amazing body of literature for young people about the civil rights movement. To be well-rounded and accurate and full and rich, that literature must include all points of view and all colors, shapes, voices, and persuasions. The civil rights movement is an American story, and as such belongs to us all, and that includes a white kid living in Mississippi in 1964, who doesn't understand what is happening around her as "invaders" come into her state to register black voters. In order to stay with her understanding, and with what would have been realistically possible for her in that time, I employed other points of view to—once again—immerse the reader in that time and place. How we frame history for young people is important to me. "All the white people were bad, all the black people were good; then Martin stood up and Rosa sat down, and now everything is fine" is way too short-sighted and simplistic. We are much, much more entangled and nuanced and interdependent than that in this country, and our history is much more complicated. Human beings are complicated! I wanted to offer up multiple ways of looking at the history of race and citizenship in our American culture. I wanted to create fully-realized characters the reader could care deeply about. I know I care about them as if they are real. To me, they are. They are all facets of me as well, of course, as all characters in fiction are expressions of their creators.
ATG: What are you working on now?
Adina Talve-Goodman is the managing editor of both One Story and One Teen Story.