‘I Knew That Reading Was a Magical Thing’ | An Interview with Author Deborah Wiles

Frances DowellAuthor Interviews

By Frances O’Roark Dowell

When I started teaching story-writing workshops for upper elementary and middle school kids, I discovered that most of my students had ideas by the dozen and lots of enthusiasm, but they often got bogged down mid-draft and gave up. Over time, I developed a workshop called “How to Build a Story,” in which my students and I walked through the writing process together, from coming up with story ideas that worked, to finishing a first draft. (The book based on my workshop is How to Build a Story, or The Big What If.)

As I developed the “How Build a Story” workshop, I thought a lot about my own experiences as a young writer – I tried to remember about what was easy for me and what I struggled with. What inspired me to sit down and write in the first place? Recently, I’ve reached out to some writing friends to ask them about their own lives as young writers. Their answers have proved wonderful and illuminating, and they’ve giving me a lot to think about as a writing teacher.

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When I  met Deborah Wiles many years ago, it felt more like reconnecting with an old friend than making a new acquaintance. I was a huge fan of her early books, beginning with the wonderful Love, Ruby Lavender, but I’m not sure I could have anticipated the depth and breadth of her brilliant 1960’s trilogy, beginning with Countdown in 2013 and culminating in this year’s powerful Kent State. When I started this project, you can believe Deborah was high on my list of people to talk to!

Writer’s First Words | Deborah Wiles

What was your interior life—the life of your imagination–like when you were a kid? Were you a daydreamer? Did you tell yourself stories, make up movies in your head?

I was a big daydreamer, so much so that I was called lazy, but really, I just lived a lot inside my head, and was hungry for knowledge, both book knowledge (I loved school for that reason) and life knowledge. So I spent a lot of time trying to “figure out” what was happening in my world, and with the people I interacted with, especially family. Not surprisingly, so do my characters today.

Do you remember your earliest desire to write something—a letter, a list, your name?

What I remember is my discovery and delight at the sound and shape of letters and words. They were so very magical to me. I remember trying to shape letters with a fat pencil on school paper, and I remember the intense concentration, and the thrill of getting it right. I put together an alphabet book in kindergarten and still have that book, and see that even then, I was telling stories with the art I created to go with each letter.

I also remember the thrill of learning to add numbers and how magical it felt to write an addition problem, for instance, carefully forming those numbers, then figure out the answer and write that under the line. I specifically remember when long division clicked, and how exciting that was. That was it for me and math, though, until much later in life. My first love was words. I am still a willing wordsmith today and make lists every day. By hand. I still love writing by hand. There is a concentration to it that I crave and actually need in my life. A slowing down and a focus. I don’t write drafts by hand, but I cherish my many lists and sometimes I journal in longhand. It’s calming.

What is your earliest memory of writing a story or poem?

I don’t remember writing stories or poems, but I do remember writing reports. I loved reports. When I was in fifth grade, at Camp Springs Elementary School (which I write about in Countdown), we studied the explorers, and I remember learning how to take notes. It was a revelation that I didn’t have to write every word, that I could skip the “the” and “and” and “of” and other connectors. I still love taking notes today and I do it all the time, when watching someone speak online, or in person, as the act of taking notes is visual and tactile, and it helps me remember what was said. I’m not a highly auditory learner. So taking notes saved me in school.

What was a book, movie or comic book that incited your imagination? Were there particular kinds of stories that inspired you? Did other forms of art and entertainment—songs, illustrations, TV shows, etc. — spark the desire to write?

As a kid, I read and watched anything and everything. This was the sixties, when books were very different and so was television, and so were movies. Today I avoid horror and terror and suspense for the most part, but still consume story in all its forms, including storytelling, song, art, as a way to “figure out” life, just as I did as a kid. I loved the Reader’s Digest Treasury for Young Readers that was full of stories of triumph – I still love those stories. I’d call them memoirs today. They made me want to tell my story.

Was there an oral storytelling tradition in your family? Did you yourself like to tell stories?

Oh yes. I was born in Alabama and grew up summers in Mississippi surrounded by the wacky family my dad had grown up in, and all the stories they told about my dad’s childhood, and their childhoods. My mother was also from Mississippi, so I was surrounded in the oral tradition and learned early-on how important it was. I spent some years doing oral history work as an adult, collecting so many people’s stories, and I think it honed my ear for dialogue as much as those many summers listening to the maiden aunts tell the same stories over and over again.

How important was it for you to share your writing with others? Who did you share it with? Did sharing it become more important as you got older? Did you ever publish your writing when you were young (in a student magazine, a school or local newspaper, your family’s holiday newsletter, a zine, etc.)?

I kept a diary when I was 12 and again when I was 17, but never thought of sharing my writing or working for the school newspaper or yearbook. It was only when I was a young adult working in a stultifying office job in a trailer on a construction site that I started a newsletter as a creative outlet and was delighted when everyone on the construction site loved it. It spurred me to keep going.

What were your biggest challenges as a young writer? What parts (and what kinds) of writing were easy for you?

In elementary school we weren’t asked to write creatively at all until I was in the sixth grade. It was such a rush to discover creative writing. I knew nothing about how to do it – what was plot, characterization, setting, dialogue, voice, how did it work? But I had read so much by then that I felt comfortable swimming around in creative work, because I was encouraged to “just do it,” and I knew I could make a mess. Which I did.

Before then I wrote reports, and loved them, too. I loved the research involved in reports, loved encyclopedias, loved books about some topic I was passionate about. Still do, and that’s reflected in my Sixties Trilogy books of course, which are research heavy and full of primary source scrapbook material. My inner child loved creating those books, and that genre, the documentary novel. Kent State, my newest book, is also research heavy, but I chose with that book to be as quietly elegant and eloquent as possible about that tragedy, so the research shows in the lineated prose, and not as visual primary sources, although I do talk about it in the author’s note.

I think research is a natural part of creative writing, even realistic fiction, like Love, Ruby Lavender, where I had to figure out how long it took chickens to hatch and how long it would take a letter to get to (and from) Hawaii, and more.

Did you know that you wanted to be a writer when you grew up?

No. I didn’t understand human beings wrote books. There were no school visits by authors, and there weren’t author studies in classes. I didn’t have favorite authors; I had favorite books. I collected the Nancy Drew books, for instance. And I always put in an order in school when the Arrow Book Club flyer came around. I loved Dr. Seuss for the wordplay. I still remember when letters began to form words for me as I read The Cat in the Hat when I was five. I knew that reading was a magical thing. The body of work for young people in the sixties was so different then, there was so much less choice, and depth, breadth, diversity. But there was always plenty to read, and I was a huge library user, still am.

What or who helped you become a better writer? Did you spend time studying the craft of writing, say, by reading books about it or taking classes or workshops?

I think life helps. An open heart helps. Heartbreak helps. So does triumph. So does reading. So does practice. So much practice. I didn’t learn to read like a writer until I was in my late twenties, and I am still learning this skill. Before that, I was trying to write based on “the rules” but didn’t understand them because I couldn’t see them in action, in a written piece. A sentence isn’t enough to demonstrate setting. You must see it in context, and see what a writer has done with it, to bring it alive. Same with characterization, or plot, or any number of the facets of writing well. The best way to understand it is to inculcate it by reading, and then learn how to read like a writer: “How does she do that?”

Workshops helped, classes helped, teachers helps, but the books themselves were my best teachers. I am largely self-taught. I was a freelancer, writing magazine and newspaper features (“reports”) before I wrote for young people, and it took ten years of rejection to find an editor who said yes to publishing me, in part I think because I just kept practicing and learning to read like a writer.

Did you have a teacher or some other adult in your life who encouraged you to write?

Mr. Adler is the name of my sixth-grade teacher who had us write something creative every week and share it with the class. The day it was my turn to share, I was so surprised that everyone laughed in the right places and seemed to connect with my story. There was a visceral feeling of belonging, for this kid who never felt she belonged. I wanted to write another story immediately and recreate that experience of connection. I’ll never forget it.

What’s the best way, in your opinion, to teach creative writing to kids?

I’ve spent many years in many classrooms with many young people – and adults – and their writing. I’ve come to believe in mining small moments in our own lives, to begin — which is how I instinctively began that story I wrote in sixth grade — and then fictionalizing it.

I also have developed a way of oral drafting and oral revision that I’ve taught for a long time now. We do a lot of work orally, in large groups, small groups, and with partners, knees to knees, facing each other, telling our stories, and letting our partners ask us questions.

It’s so helpful to hear yourself tell the story out loud before it’s written, and after each draft, writing short, and then reading out loud. It’s so helpful to hear the questions that your readers/listeners have. And it’s helpful to ask the listeners, “What tools is this writer using here?”

That’s a hard question at first, but then young writers begin to see that this story has tension or suspense or humor or great detail and dialogue and sense of place, or foreshadowing, or whatever it may be, and they can use these tools in their own writing.

Modeling the tools through stories is a secret weapon. And so is our own personal narrative. No one has access to the stories you can tell. I always say this to young writers. No one can tell your story. And if you don’t tell it, it is lost forever. We are the richer for hearing it, reading it, and knowing you.

About Deborah Wiles

Deborah’s books include the picture book Freedom Summer and the novels Love, Ruby Lavender; The Aurora County All-Stars; the National Book Award finalist Each Little Bird that Sings; and A Long Line of Cakes. The first book in the Sixties Trilogy, Countdown, received five starred reviews upon its publication and has appeared on many state award lists. The second, Revolution, was a National Book Award Finalist. The third book, Anthem, was called “brilliant” in a starred review in Booklist and “musically and culturally immersive” in a starred review in Kirkus Reviews. Her newest book, Kent State, has received seven starred reviews and is her first YA novel. Deborah lives in Atlanta, Georgia. You can visit her on the web at deborahwiles.com.