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Interview with Deborah Wiles, author of Each Little Bird That Sings

Deborah Wiles is the award-winning author of one other novel, Love, Ruby Lavender, an ALA Notable Children's Book, a Children's Book Sense 76 Pick, and a New York Public Library Book for Reading and Sharing. Wiles is the recipient of the 2004 PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

Ten-year-old Comfort Snowberger has attended 247 funerals. But that's not surprising, considering that her family runs the town funeral home. And even though Great-uncle Edisto keeled over with a heart attack and Great-great-aunt Florentine dropped dead—just like that—six months later, Comfort knows how to deal with loss, or so she thinks. She's more concerned with avoiding her crazy cousin Peach and trying to figure out why her best friend, Declaration, suddenly won't talk to her. Life is full of surprises. And the biggest one of all is learning what it takes to handle them. Deborah Wiles has created a unique, funny, and utterly real cast of characters in this heartfelt, and quintessentially Southern coming-of-age novel. Comfort will charm young readers with her wit, her warmth, and her struggles as she learns about life, loss, and ultimately, triumph.
Q: Each Little Bird That Sings is a coming-of-age novel that deals with the emotions and realities related to losing loved ones. What audience did you have in mind when you wrote this book?
A: Hmm … Well, I want to say I write for any reader—no matter what age—and this is true, although ultimately, I think, I'm writing for the ten-year-old me.

Q: The main character, ten-year-old Comfort Snowberger, blazes a place in the reader's heart with her honesty, vulnerability, and innocence. How do you create such real and heartfelt characters?
A: I love thinking about a character's motivations and intentions, about cause and effect, about moral choices and how difficult they are, and about how the heart navigates in the world, through joy and sorrow both. I'm interested in what it means to be human, in what it means to be connected to one another, and in what it means to transcend being human—what it takes for a person to put himself (or herself) on the line for another human being … to be bigger than his or her small self, if you know what I mean. To transcend all that ego stuff and to make a sacrifice for the greater good. So I put my characters in situations that require them to make choices and to reap the consequences of those choices. And I try to show who they are by using all the details of their lives—the way they dress, speak, walk, and more. I try to give each character a distinct voice.

Q: Comfort, Joy, Merry, Tidings, and Dismay: These are just a few of the characters. What images did you want to conjure with names?
A: I use names to help me characterize. I intentionally chose several words from "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" for the character names in this book, because I wanted members of a united family that found strength in one another, and a Christmas song seemed like an antidote to funeral hymns. I imagined Bunch, Comfort's father, humming Christmas hymns as he did his work in the funeral home, readying the deceased for a final journey home. I had already named Comfort before I had the other characters' names. I created two brothers named Edisto and Allagash—both are the names of deep rivers as well—and an aunt named Eggs Florentine, as I wanted to relate her to the Peterson family in Love, Ruby Lavender. I gave Aunt Florentine a brother named Benedict. You can guess his first name. Every name is intentional, and important to the fabric of who that character is, or becomes.

Q: Through your prose you awaken the senses: Great-great-aunt Florentine smells of lavender and Mama of gardenias. One can hear the family dog, Dismay, tap-tap-tapping down the hallway, feel his black shaggy coat, and see the expressions in his eyes. Why do you think these threads are important for telling this story?
A: Again, these details help bring characters to life. They also help me build a world for the reader. I want the reader to hear this world, smell it, feel it, see it, taste it, just the way my characters do. I want readers to lose themselves in this world and become part of it as they read. Using the senses as a writing tool helps me to know this world myself, helps me to paint detail and nuance, so I can better create the story.

Q: In the Acknowledgments you state "In the four years since publication of Love, Ruby Lavender [Harcourt, 2001], one death followed another in my family and I came to understand the meaning of friendship and the power of love." With that insight into your experiences, which character can you relate to the most—and why?
A: I relate to Comfort quite a bit, as the story is hers, although I believe that, ultimately, there is a part of me in every one of my characters. I love Peach. He's such a nuisance, such a disaster, and yet he is such a lover, and he is so sensitive, and he so wants to participate in life. I love Dismay because he is so noble, so self-sacrificing, and so calm, so reassuring, even in the face of great disaster. I love Aunt Florentine's gossipy self—just yesterday I saw something going on outside the window in my study, and I wished for Aunt Florentine's binoculars so I could see what the neighbors were up to! I love Uncle Edisto's wisdom and wish I had that kind of deep knowing about the truth of the world. I even love Tidings and his need for order, and Merry and her wonder at the world. But Comfort grabs my heart. She feels so deeply, and wants so much for life to give her what she wants—a sense of safety and … comfort. What she learns is what I had to learn in those four long years of struggle, which is that nothing is permanent. There is no safety. There is only constant change, and our job is to accept that fact and live in this moment with what it gives us, good or bad, "all the messy glory."

Q: What elements from your life—big or small—did you weave into this novel?
A: Oh my, what a large question! My whole life is in this story! It's in everything I write. I write fiction, so the stories are totally made up, but the threads of that fictional story come right out of my life. All those Mississippi summers, all those wacky relatives, how hot it was, the food we ate, the times I walked through the Louin, Mississippi, cemetery, all by myself, and just … sat there. I sat with the dead, thought about the living, wondered what it was all about, this mystery of life. I used it all—the hymns I memorized by playing that old upright piano in the unlocked Methodist church for hours, the picnics I planned, the friends who stopped befriending me for reasons I couldn't understand. And then there is the internal landscape, the geography of the heart and what I longed for—to belong, to be safe, to be understood, to have a family like Comfort's family, which I had, in large measure, whenever we went to Mississippi. My father was an air force pilot, so we moved all my young life, but Mississippi was home. I always longed for a home place, and it became Mississippi, the place where my father and mother were born, and where I did so much growing up. All of that finds its way into this novel.

Q: Can you tell readers what they might expect from you next?
A: I'm writing a serial novel for The Boston Globe that will run weekly for eight weeks in September. It's another Mississippi story. And then there is Hang the Moon, or "the Elvis novel" as we've been calling it. It's a story that takes place in 1966 Mississippi and features two girls, cousins, who make a trip from Mississippi to Memphis to find Elvis Presley, whom one of them is convinced is her father. I hope it is finished soon! I've been working on it for quite some time. It makes me laugh, which is important to me. Even with the death that pervades Each Little Bird That Sings, it seems to me that there is a lot of laughter in that story—if you don't laugh, I haven't done my job well enough. As Comfort writes her "Top Ten Tips for First-rate Funeral Behavior" and her wild "Life Notices" (instead of obituaries), you should come to understand that laughter is never far from tears, and that life, with all of its grief and hope, is a bright and beautiful gift.

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Deborah Wiles

Deborah Wiles

Each Little Bird That Sings

Each Little Bird That Sings

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