Fran Cannon Slayton is here today instead of KC Dyer, who you'll see on Fran's original day. Fran is the last guest who's a member of the Class of 2k9, unless I'm confused, which happens. Her novel WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS comes out June 11. Fran is musical, athletic, and gave me plenty of fodder to ask questions about! She can also be found at her el jay.
1. WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS is set in a1940s railroad town. What interested you in that time period? How did you research it?
My father grew up in the 1940’s in Rowlesburg, West Virginia – the setting of my novel -- and when I was a kid he used to tell me some amazing stories about growing up there. Like throwing cabbages at cars on Halloween. And getting dead bodies out of caskets at wakes. How could I not be interested?!
I did the best kind of research – the personal kind. First, I talked a lot with my dad about his stories and about my dad’s father, who was the foreman of the B&O Railroad during that time. My dad’s father, W.P. Cannon, died when my dad was 16 years old, so I never knew him – but I did learn a lot about him through my father’s stories. And I learned a lot about my father as well.
I also visited Rowlesburg a boatloads of times. Actually, I’ve always loved visiting Rowlesburg because it means getting to visit with my extended family. And I love the town itself – just being in the mountains and hearing the train horns echo down the river . . . well, maybe that’s why the song calls West Virginia “almost heaven.”
When I was researching the book, I went on a road trip with my dad and my cousin Roger (who used to work on the B&O Railroad), and we went to visit my Uncle Dick, who actually worked on the steam engines with my grandfather back in the 1940’s. (And yes, I named the Uncle Dick in the book after my own Uncle Dick, to honor him!) My Uncle Dick took us to the old M&K Junction and showed us the office that my grandfather used to work in, and described to me what happened in the pits where the men worked on the trains, and showed me the addition that was put on the shop when the diesels started to be serviced in Rowlesburg. It was a trip I’ll remember for the rest of my life. A great family bonding experience.
But honestly, much of the research I did was through osmosis, meaning that I just soaked it in over the years. I grew up hearing my father’s wonderful stories, and I’ve been visiting relatives in Rowlesburg and neighboring Kingwood since I was born. I’ve always seen in my father’s eyes how much he loves his hometown, and I grew to love it too. It’s part of what makes me who I am.
2. You grew up in Virginia, which gives you some familiarity with the setting. Why did you choose a railroad town specifically?
Although WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS is a work of fiction, there are some nuts of truth that inspired it. My father grew up during the time when the train engines were switching from steam to diesel. This change in technology changed Rowlesburg – and many other small railroad towns across America – completely. Whereas Rowlesburg was once a booming, bustling little town with a filling station, more than one grocery store, and even a movie theatre when the steam engines reigned, as the railroad lost steam – literally - so did the town. Jobs went away. People moved away. And things were never quite the same.
3. How does it feel, as a debut author, to receive cover blurbs from established authors?
It feels like Christmas, Easter and my birthday all rolled up into one. On a roller coaster!
4. You've worn a number of hats in your life. What was your favorite job? Why?
I love being a mom. And a writer. Being a mom is a tremendous challenge for me. Just when you think you’ve got things down pat, your child grows her way into something new and everything changes. And so must you. Motherhood is a constant lesson in letting go. I have grown more as a mother than in any other position I have ever had.
And being a writer is a dream come true. I get to pursue ideas and feelings and the motion of story; I get to try to make sense of the world and try to understand people better. It is a very psychological thing, trying to create characters. The whole process stirs and shakes my inner world, and I find that I keep having to feed myself – feed my soul, by learning more, questioning more, listening more – in order to be able to do it. It stretches me when I do it properly. It is quite a lovely experience.
5. Before you entered the professional world, you did a number of college activities. What was it like to compete in the Junior Olympics? What was your favorite sport?
Junior Olympics was a crazy experience. I had been fencing for less than six months and somehow managed to qualify by the seat of my pants. I flew to Minneapolis in February. I was 18 and it was the first time I’d traveled out of state completely alone. It was a jillion degrees below zero, and I got stranded standing outside without a taxi. My boyfriend (now husband) and I had recently cut all my hair off in an attempt to help me to mimic Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics as she appeared on the cover of their Touch album . . . but the haircut more or less looked like I’d just had surgery on my head instead. Anyway, I started crying as I was waiting for the taxi – I was so cold I was sure I was going to lose a digit or two on my hands – and a man who was trying to be helpful came up to me and said “it’ll be okay, son.” Rather than get into a fistfight about me being a girl, I just nodded and eventually a taxi came. The next day I got my tail end whooped. Twice. I didn’t even know what hit me. I think I tied for 64th in the country. Not bad, son!
My favorite sport to play is football. I love it, and was a pretty good player in the vacant lot games we used to play as kids. Much of my description in the Championship Game chapter of When the Whistle Blows comes from my own experiences on the field.
6. What were some of the difficulties of writing a male narrator?
I’m a tomboy at heart (gee, can you tell by my football answer?), so I did not find it difficult at all to write in a male voice. But there were some things I needed to watch out for along the way. First, I had to be very sure to stay in the head of a boy, and not drift over into my authorial voice. Choosing to write in first person made this easier than if I was writing in third person, I think. But it was important for me to get into “Jimmy mode” every time I sat down to write.
Second, the main character in the book, Jimmy Cannon, ages from twelve to eighteen during the course of the novel. I had to be careful to make his voice correspond with his age. In other words, the voice had to get older as Jimmy got older. This was tricky because the things a twelve year old boy worries about, cares about and notices are different than what an eighteen year old young man does. But Jimmy’s age increased by only one year each chapter, so the growth and change had to be gradual. But it still had to be real.
Third, Jimmy is a boy growing up in the 1940’s rather than today. So his voice could not be anachronistic. That is, I didn’t want him saying things like “cool” or “dude” because those weren’t words that were used in the 1940’s. And yet, I didn’t want him to sound like a fuddy-duddy either. Fortunately, since I’d spent a lot of time in the part of West Virginia where the book is set, I had a good ear for the phraseology of the region and much of Jimmy’s speech came naturally to me. Hearing an accent or a way of speaking is much like knowing the tune of a favorite song by heart – you can hear it in your head.
7. Do you plan to write more books?
Oh yes, I’ve got a lot of stories in me. I’m working on my next novel now – a fantasy about a girl who wants to be a pirate – and I have written several picture books that I hope will be published as well.
8. What did you expect least about the publishing world? What was the most pleasant surprise?
I don’t know that I had too many expectations going in. I think I was most surprised by what a wonderfully collaborative process editing can be. I was expecting it to be a “red pen” experience, like your English papers from seventh or eighth grade. But it was more a zen-like experience of “think of it this way,” or a beefing up here, a nudge in another direction there . . . my editor, Patricia Lee Gauch, was much more like a midwife of thought than a grammar teacher. She helped the story come out healthy, pink and alive.
9. What authors do you read? Admire?
I read mostly middle grade and young adult fiction. I find that middle grade books have a certain spark that may be described as hope or love of living that sometimes adult novels lack. I love finding that spark in a book. It is like magic to me.
I admire the writings of Madeleine L’Engle, William Armstrong and Mildred Taylor. I love Maya Angelou and enjoy the works of Anthony DeMello, Henry Nouwen, Thomas Merton and Jullian of Norwich.
10. How would you describe WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS without using the blurb?
It’s about growing up in the middle of a family that is changing, a hometown that is changing, and a way of life that is changing. It’s about Halloween adventures, laughing on the train bridge with buddies, secret midnight discoveries and all the lifelong memories that go along with all of it.
I should mention that one of those blurbs is from Richard Peck, one of my favorite writers as a child. He said that "[w]ith wit and warmth Fran Cannon Slayton recounts a steam-driven coming of age story in the last of the real railroad days."
I live pretty much on railroad tracks, and my family feel in love with them. Do any of ya'll like railroads? If you do, you might want to win the signed ARC of WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS up for grabs. (For those of you who are new, here are the rules.