I’m happy to introduce Fran Cannon Slayton, author of When the Whistle Blows, and Class of 2k9 member. Her novel tells the story of Jimmy Cannon, a teenage boy growing up in Rowelsburg, West Virginia in the 1940s. His whole town depends on the railroad, and his dad is the foreman. Jimmy dreams of a life working on the railroad too, but times are changing, and things don’t turn out as he expects. Fran’s book has been getting lots of attention, and she’s here for an interview today. Read on to learn lots more about her wonderful book, what she finds inspiring, and some excellent writing advice too. Welcome Fran! Happy launch day!
Tell us more about how you blended fact, hints of family history and fiction in this book. What was this process like?
My father’s stories had been cooking inside me for a very long time – since my childhood. They were true stories, but because I had not been there – because I had not participated in them – I had to imagine them. The moment you begin imagining, fact starts merging with fiction and wonderful things can happen! Moreover, I had first hand knowledge of the town because of my many, many trips there over the course of my lifetime – so my imagining of the facts was relatively easy to ground in a concrete reality that I had actually experienced.
Many of the individual chapters are based on nuggets of actual fact – things that my dad had either experienced or had heard about when he was growing up. My job was not only to convey those stories in an engaging way, but also to create an overarching story that tied them all together. It was this overarching story that really gave me the opportunity to interweave things that hadn’t actually been a part of the real stories – things like The Society.
I think there’s a real romance about trains, and Jimmy obviously feels this too when he’s growing up. What do you think? What fascinates you about trains?
There is definitely a romance about trains! I trained up and back to BEA this year and felt it again. There is something about seeing the countryside or cityscape move by while dining on a real tablecloth with real cloth napkins that is a throwback to another era – when plastic and cell phones didn’t exist, when people took their time getting from one place to another.
I recently had the wonderful experience of getting to ride in the cab of a real working steam engine. Truly, the entire cab was a work of art. Wood ceilings; deep green and black paint; sturdy iron fixtures; a massive, glowing firebox. It was crafted – not assembled. And the fireman, brakeman and engineer were engaged in work that was as much art as it was knowledge and brawn. There were no computers to rely on to tell you what to do – you had to know. Your life depended on it.
Your novel really tempts the reader to imagine Jimmy in the future. Where did you see him going next?
If I ever meet you in person I’ll tell you my dad’s chosen path after the diesels came. But I’d like to leave it to the reader’s imagination as to what the fictional Jimmy decides to do.
What appealed to you about structuring the book the way you did, with every chapter taking place on All Hallows’ Eve over a period of 6 years?
As a child, my father told me many stories about his boyhood growing up in Rowlesburg, West Virginia in the 1940s. After I wrote the first chapter of When the Whistle Blows I happened to pick up Rita Dove’s Pulitzer Prize winning Thomas and Beulah, which is a group of poems loosely based on the lives of her grandparents. The poems each reflect individual stories, but the grouping of the poems together also create an overarching story that is greater than the sum of its parts.
After reading just a portion of Dove’s book something clicked inside me. I knew I wanted to do something similar using short stories instead of poems.
While my editor and I talked about the possibility of structuring When the Whistle Blows in a more “regular” format, with days following each other consecutively, I never felt that form was right for this story. Separating the stories by a year allowed me to show more convincingly events that take a long period of time to happen – time for a son to grow in understanding, for a father’s health to decline, for a town to die.
Tell us about the moment you learned your novel would be published.
I had been waiting for a number of months to hear whether my editor was going to make an offer, and I’d basically convinced myself that she had decided not to. So when my agent called to tell me the good news I understood what she said intellectually, but it took some time for my heart to catch up! It was only when my editor called a day or so later that I finally felt like it was actually happening. I was driving across the bridge into Washington, DC and I was so excited I had to pull off the road!
Jimmy dreams about finding his place working for the railroad like his dad. What did you dream about as a kid?
I dreamed of being a doctor – a surgeon, like Hawkeye Pierce on the TV show M*A*S*H. I loved that character, and I think the combination of hysterically funny but poignant writing on that show influenced my own writing a great deal. As it turned out I discovered in my first year of college that math and science weren’t exactly my cup of tea so I let go of my dream of being a doctor. It wasn’t easy, but I am very happy I did. In hindsight it’s a profession I was not well suited for and would definitely not have enjoyed. Sometimes it’s a good thing to let go of old dreams and move on to new ones.
Describe your writing routine, or writing process. Do you have any writing rituals? Are you an outliner?
I write when my daughter is at school during the day. My routine varies. Sometimes I’ll go out to a coffee shop and write there; other times I’ll write at home – sometimes downstairs, sometimes upstairs. I did not outline When the Whistle Blows, but I do have an outline for my work-in-progress. I try to listen to what the story requires of me and follow it. It’s a rather sub-conscious process.
What are some of your favourite historical novels for kids?
Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry by Mildred Taylor. Sounder by William Armstrong.
What’s next for you with your writing?
I’m currently working on a fantasy middle grade novel tentatively titled Ship’s Boy, about a girl who wants to be a pirate.
For all those wannabe authors out there, what’s your secret, best advice?
Follow your heart; follow what interests you. Observe people and try to understand them without judging them. Everyone has a story. A writer’s job is to be sensitive enough to uncover and appreciate the truth of these stories in a way that makes them accessible in a more universal way. Fiction tells the truth, not the facts. I have found that searching for the ‘truths’ in my own life has helped me tremendously as a writer. The more I understand myself and my own feelings, the better I can write about these things in my characters.
Thank you so much for answering my questions Fran! All the best as your book heads out into the world today!
When the Whistle Blows by Fran Cannon Slayton is published by Philomel, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, and is released this month. I’ll be reviewing it next week at Guys Lit Wire.