Interview with Deborah Wiles,
author of The Aurora County All-Stars

Q: In The Aurora County All-Stars, the main character is a boy named House Jackson. In your previous novels about Aurora County, Love, Ruby Lavender and Each Little Bird That Sings, the protagonists were girls—Ruby and Comfort. Did you enjoy writing from a boy’s perspective? Were there any particular challenges? Is that approach markedly different than writing from a girl’s perspective?

Deborah Wiles: I’d written about boy characters before—Joe and John Henry in Freedom Summer of course, and Peach, Tidings, Bunch, Plas Johnson and Uncle Edisto in Little Bird—but I did wonder about writing from a twelve-year-old boy’s point of view. As I wrote All-Stars, I (probably unconsciously at first) decided to do what I’d done in my other books and focus first on what made House and Cleebo friends, what made them baseball players, what made them human and unique and themselves. That let me get to know them. I focused on character rather than gender, but I never lost sight of the fact that Cleebo and House were boys—very different boys, but boys.

Q: The writings of Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass in particular, provide important context in this book. How did you first encounter Whitman? What influence has his work had on your own writing? Why include Whitman in a book for readers ages ten and up when many people don’t discover him until later in life?

DW: I ran pell-mell into Whitman in tenth-grade English with Mrs. Ackerman in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1969. I was the new kid again—my dad was in the air force, and we’d just been transferred to Charleston—and I’d never gone to a public integrated school, which was an eye-opening experience. Busing had gone into effect, and there were often riots at school; the police were a constant presence. This was the first time I’d ever encountered a large Jewish population in school as well—school closed on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, and I had never heard of those holidays. I was fascinated. Mrs. Ackerman was Jewish. She read a large part of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” to all of us, in the midst of that year’s turmoil, and told us we were all part of the same school, the same student body, and the same lives. Reading Leaves of Grass was a brilliant stroke on her part; it brought that class of diverse populations together. I’ve seen the same thing happen in public schools today—in elementary schools! A great teacher gives a magnificent gift of literature to her students, and they connect to their common experiences.

Q: The Aurora County All-Stars are a baseball team. Was baseball an important part of your childhood? Do you still enjoy the game?

DW: I followed baseball religiously as a kid. It was the American game, as Whitman says! My brother played Little League. We also—all of us in my family—played sandlot ball on the empty lot behind our house. We’d cleared it ourselves along with neighbors, and together we kept it mowed and ready to play on. I watched my brother trade baseball cards with his friend Larry every Saturday morning. They gave me their duplicate cards, and I amassed quite a collection, which I no longer have. The Dodgers were my favorite ball team. I loved Sandy Koufax the most—I had his stats memorized. He was an amazing pitcher and human being. It gives me such pleasure to honor him—he is still living—in All-Stars.

Q: One poignant scene in the book centers on an old man remembering when he was unable to play baseball with his friend because of their different skin colors. House and his best friend, Cleebo, later talk about Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese. This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of Robinson’s breaking the color barrier in major-league baseball. How did your own childhood in the south in the 1950s and ’60s shade this aspect of the story?

DW: My father was an air force pilot. He was born in Mississippi (and so was my mother), so we spent summers in Mississippi no matter where we were stationed (except for the three years we were in Hawaii, when we brought my grandmother to us!). It was amazing to go home to Mississippi each summer and enter another world—a world where black and white people were separated because of the color of their skin. I remember being confused about drinking fountains labeled White and Colored, and I especially remember the year the town pool closed when the Civil Rights Act was passed (1964; I was eleven), which said (among other things) that the formerly all-white-people public pool would now have to open to everyone. Why would they close the pool and not open it to everyone of all colors? It didn’t make sense to me. I used to wonder what it would be like to be a black child and not be able to go swim in that pool, not be able to do the things that I could do because my skin was white. I’m sure those feelings found their way into All-Stars. I seem to write about this topic a lot—it still mystifies me.

Q: In The Aurora County All-Stars, favorite characters from your previous books set in Aurora County reappear. What was it like to encounter Ruby and Melba Jane and Comfort again?

DW: Oh, I just adored listening to Ruby and Melba Jane again. The girls are eleven now, two years older than they were in Love, Ruby Lavender, and they have made their peace, although they are not good friends. I also had Dove in this book in early drafts, but then decided I was cluttering up the story, that it had to be about House and Cleebo and their friendship and this mysterious old man and his secret, and more—and too much Ruby and Melba would detract from that. But it was a delight to hear them whispering in my ear!

Q: Your characters have the most marvelously unusual names: House Jackson and his little sister, Honey; Cleebo Wilson; Parting “Pip” Schotz; Mr. Norwood Rhinehart Beauregard Boyd. Where do these monikers come from?

DW: Thank you! I love names. They help me characterize, so they are most important to me. And here’s the thing: They arise effortlessly out of the ether, somewhere, these characters, announcing themselves with names fully formed. It’s the most amazing thing. I know it’s a gift. I heard odd and unusual names all my life, growing up in the South—believe me, my characters’ names aren’t that unusual for the deep South! When I get a first line of dialogue from a new character, it comes with the character’s name attached. And that name is always a part of how I characterize—House is strong and silent and calm and sturdy. Cleebo . . . isn’t. He’s spontaneous and clueless and annoying and yet hopeful and loyal . . . as loyal as he can be. Both boys have good hearts. Just as readers—as different as they must be—have in common those good and generous hearts. It’s amazing to be on this earth and be human. It’s the grand adventure.

Q: What’s next for you? Do you think you'll write more stories set in Aurora County?

DW: Oh, my. I certainly won’t rule out more stories set in Aurora County. I’ll let those characters tell me if they think they have stories for me to tell. In the meantime, I’m working on a new novel for Harcourt that takes place in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is tentatively titled The End of the Rope (after a letter that Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev sent to U.S. President John F. Kennedy).

The story is about Franny Chapman, a twelve-year-old girl who lives with her family just outside of Washington, D.C., as the Cold War begins to escalate in this country. Her dad is an air force pilot stationed at Andrews Air Force Base. Her younger brother, Drew, wants to be an astronaut, like John Glenn. And her older sister, Jo Ellen, is . . . well, Franny thinks she might be spying for the Russians! Can this be true? Franny enlists her good friend, Margie Gardner, to help her find out. Oh, and—as if this wasn’t enough—Uncle Ott (who lives with Franny’s family) is determined to build a bomb shelter in the front yard in order to protect all of them in case of nuclear attack! Stay tuned for a story about family, kinship, and connection . . . and even Aurora County, as Franny’s family is originally from Mississippi.