Katia Raina

The Magic Mirror

Deborah Wiles: Documenting the Decade of “What?” and “Wow!”

As promised earlier this summer . . .

It is such an honor to introduce to you Deborah Wiles, the author of picture books and middle-grade novels, including my favorite “Each Little Bird that Sings” and now, the brand new “Countdown,” a documentary novel with a great spunky heroine!



How was the experience of writing this book different for you?

D: Every book is its own experience and has its own special trajectory. In the case of Countdown, it started out as a picture book that turned into a novel. The same thing happened with Love, Ruby Lavender; it was originally a picture book. Countdown, however, has the distinction (if you can call it that) of taking me longer than any other book I’ve ever written, to come to fruition.

It’s probably the most autobiographical novel I’ve written as well. The outer story is completely fictional, but the inner story of who Franny is and what makes her tick… that’s completely authentic to who I was at eleven years old.

So, how long did it take you to write “Countdown?”

D: Countdown took me about fifteen years to write, as it started out as a picture book and kept getting longer, and I’d put it away for stretches of time because I didn’t understand it yet, didn’t know where it was going, wasn’t enough of a novelist to finish it — I had to grow into that book. The more I wrote, though, the more I learned, and, over time, the story began to take shape and, eventually, to take off. Then I scrambled to keep up with it.

On your website you say that all of your books are inspired by life. Looking back on it now, how did the 1960s define you as a person? In what ways did they make you who you are today?

D: I did most of my growing up in the 1960s, so certainly they are formative for me. I was even aware that the sixties were much, much different than the fifties – or any other decade – partly because my parents often said they were, but mostly because the mood of the day was ‘wow!’ and ‘what?’ and full of such disbelief about the changes – you could hear it reflected in the news and also in popular culture, and of course in the music, and television.

Why a documentary novel? What inspired this format? What made you think of it?
(I wasn’t sure when I picked up the book that the format would do justice to your words . . . When I started reading I worried that the pictures and news flashes and such things would distract the reader from the most important thing — your characters. By the end of the book, I didn’t care. I was in love with both your characters and your world. But was that your worry at any point? Why do you think the format works?)

D: I love this format because it gave me, the writer, a lot of freedom to explore and to tell Franny’s story fully. I imagine the scrapbooks as something Franny would have put together as a young girl, culled from magazines and newspapers, and TV Guide and more. I image the biographies as something the adult Franny might write, based on her now-adult sensibilities, looking back. It’s all story, and using the documentary elements gave me a chance to tell it in this way. History is fluid. It is informed by the past and future. We see it differently at different ages and stages. I wanted to explore that, too.

As I told you, I am from the former USSR. I was born in 1977 — my mom in 1954. But neither from my own experience, nor from my mom’s stories do I remember this pervasive sense of fear that seems to define those times for your characters. I just think that it’s interesting — God knows our country was awful in so many ways — and we had been taught that Americans were the warmongering enemy, but we grew up more afraid of our own leaders! Isn’t that funny? In some ways, we grew up more afraid of being arrested than of dying in a nuclear holocaust!

D: What you say rings true with the propaganda we were being fed as kids who grew up in the late fifties and during the sixties – I was born in 1953. I was told that children my age who lived under a Communist regime were afraid of their leaders, were not given their personal freedoms, and needed to be freed from their oppressors. Of course, I bought this, as a child, hook-line-sinker, and yet, on an emotional level, I had to believe that kids in Russia loved their parents, were loved by them, and had some degree of lovingkindness in their lives. I remember once being told that Chinese children were removed from their homes at age two and raised by the State. That chilled my blood.

Looking back, I think so much of what we heard was, indeed, propaganda, and it scared us into peaceful submission, in the U.S. We did as we were told, in the late fifties and early sixties. We trusted our government completely. We didn’t rebel or think for ourselves… and that is part of what made the later sixties so exhilarating and exciting – we came into our own, in a way. Everything became suspect – even (especially) our government.

Is Franny’s letter to Khrushchev based on a real letter? Is the text an actual text of the girl’s letter?

 D: I used to lie in bed at night and make up letters to send to Khrushchev and Kennedy – that’s what those scenes are based on. You may be thinking of Samantha Smith, however, who actually did write a letter to Yuri Andropov in 1982, and who received a response, which resulted in a visit to the (then) U.S.S.R. – I remember this so well. Here is her story: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samantha_Smith

(Yep, that’s the one I was thinking of!)

 D: You’d better believe I thought of all my unwritten, unsent letters to Khrushchev at that time!

How do you think your novel relates to today’s times? What do you think of the 2010s (the teens, do we call them?) compared to the 1960s?

D: We are still dealing with the threat of nuclear annihilation today, of course, the threat of war – in fact, there are children living in this world today who have never known a day of their lives that their country has not been at war, and that includes the United States. Children in the U.S. today are living with parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents at war overseas, and will forever live with the aftermath of these days, as Franny lives with Uncle Otts’s World War I aftermath in Countdown. When will we learn that we are all connected, under one wide sky, and that our only recourse is to understand and love one another?


August 15, 2010 - Posted by | Contemporary History, Interviews, Writing Mirror | , ,


  1. I am eager to read COUNTDOWN. The format sounds intriguing and I love reading about the 60’s and 70’s.

    Comment by Medeia Sharif | August 16, 2010 | Reply

  2. Let me know what you think! Or should you choose to blog about it, I’d love a link!!! 🙂

    Comment by Katia Raina | August 16, 2010 | Reply

  3. I recently read Countdown and was totally enamored of the photos and historical info. That convo between Kennedy and Khrushchev was priceless. Khrushchev definitely won that tit for tat.

    And yes, the story – I loved it. Can’t wait to hear Deborah speak when she comes to my hometown in the spring!

    Comment by Joyce Moyer Hostetter | December 19, 2010 | Reply

    • I am going to have to make the trip one of these days 🙂

      Comment by Katia Raina | December 19, 2010 | Reply

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