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Interview with Fran Cannon Slayton

This week I’ve been fortunate to interview Fran Cannon Slayton, a fellow member of the Class of 2K9.  Her book, When the Whistle Blows, will be released on June 11, 2009

Fran and her editor Patricia Lee Gauch

A boy’s adventure. A father’s secret.

“An unassuming masterpiece.” - Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“This is nostalgia done right.” – School Library Journal, starred review

WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS is a coming-of-age story about Jimmy Cannon and his adventures confronting the mysteries – and changes – that are steaming through his 1940’s railroad town. Midnight rituals.  Secret initiations.  A dad who’s a member of a secret society.  A hometown torn by economic change . . . Jimmy discovers much about his family – and himself – as he confronts his stubborn father and his own uncertain future.

Edie Hemingway:  I understand that When the Whistle Blows is based on your family history, specifically on your father’s life as a boy in West Virginia.  Can you tell us a little bit about this inspiration, and was it difficult to allow yourself to move from fact into fiction?

Fran Cannon Slayton:  When I was a kid, my father used to tell me all kinds of stories about his childhood.  They were amazing and exciting stories – nothing like my own childhood, which seems rather boring in comparison.  One story he told really stuck with me.  It was about how his father and his father’s buddies went to an old-time Irish wake and got their friend’s body up out of the casket to have one last drink with him.  It is a rather shocking image, but as I reflected on it, it seemed to me that their act was the ultimate expression of love and affection for a friend at a time when men did not always express love or affection for each other readily or easily.  In my mind it turned what might be considered by some to be disrespectful behavior into an act of ultimate respect and caring.  My musings on this turned into the first full chapter of WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS, and was the underpinning for ‘The Society’ that is a central part of the book.

While many of the stories in WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS are based on nuggets of true stories like the one I just mentioned, it was essential for me to learn to let go of reality so I could create the overarching narrative that turns the book from a collection of short stories into a true novel. In other words, I needed to create a larger plot that connected all the subplots of the factual stories – and that larger plot had to be fictional to a large extent. Coming of age, The Society, the character of Thaddeus Ore, and the themes of friendship, brotherhood, home and death were some of the tools I used in my attempt to do this.


Edie Hemingway:  There are very few female characters in your book.  Tell us about writing from the point of view of the opposite sex.

Fran Cannon Slayton:  Yes, it’s interesting, especially given that I am a woman, how few female characters turned up in this novel. I think the reason for this is that the story focuses on a very narrow window of the protagonist’s – Jimmy’s – world.  Each chapter is set on one particular day of the year – Halloween - which is both Jimmy’s father’s birthday and the day his group of male friends generally gets together and pulls pranks.  It’s not a book that covers normal, everyday life.  It is a focused, chronologically and thematically concentrated – or collapsed - perspective. I’m a person who doesn’t think a girl always needs a boy at the center of her story; neither do I think a boy always needs a girl at the center of his story.

Writing in a boy’s voice came surprisingly easy for me.  I had a few false starts, but once the voice became clear in my head it really took on a life of its own and it more or less felt like I was channeling the character of Jimmy. Jimmy’s voice is more or less a composite of my father’s manner of speaking, my own tomboy way of looking at things, and the particular dialect that is prevalent in Rowlesburg, West Virginia.

The structure of the novel presented challenges with regard to voice.  Because each chapter is separated by a full year, Jimmy’s voice had to grow and change a little with each chapter.  I had to make sure at the end of the book when Jimmy was eighteen that he didn’t still think and sound like the twelve year old boy he started out as at the beginning of the novel.  The difference between twelve-year-old and eighteen-year-old boys is huge; the difference between a fourteen and fifteen year old – not so much.  The changes had to be gradual and subtle, but cumulative. 

I have to say I think that being a tomboy at heart really helped me to portray a boy’s voice more convincingly.  I have always loved playing football and used to play grass lot ball from the time I was in elementary school on up.  (I actually wanted to play on a team when I was in elementary school, but my parents diverted my attention elsewhere!)  I think these experiences really helped me write The Championship Game chapter of my book because I’d been there, done that on the football field.  I’ve also been out hunting with my father (got my bb gun when I was nine), and have always been more drawn to activities generally considered to be more “boy” in nature than to “girlie girl” things. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m exactly the rugged type – I’m no camper and I definitely like to have a hair dryer, soft sheets and clean towels – but tapping into the tomboy side of my personality was certainly a help when it came to writing this book! 

Edie Hemingway:  How did you decide to tell your story on one specific day (All Hallows Eve) for seven consecutive years?  Was it difficult to make those transitions from year to year flow smoothly?

Fran Cannon Slayton:  The family lore about my grandfather has always been that he was both born and buried on Halloween.  I always thought this was a particularly interesting fact; it tied his living perfectly into his dying, in a sense - a full circle where death is just another part of life.  It’s a theme that really struck me at my core.

Additionally, I had all these stories that my father told me over the years.  I suppose it would have been possible to link them consecutively, forming days and weeks to build the story.  But really, the things Jimmy experiences – the relationship with his father, the decline of his hometown, the transition from steam to diesel engines – are really stories that make more sense when they are viewed across the broader spectrum of time. When I read Rita Dove’s Pulitzer Prize winning Thomas and Beulah, I saw how she was able to convey individual stories in each poem, but that she also used the poems as building blocks to create a larger, overarching story.  I realized in the middle of reading Dove’s book that I could do the same thing using short stories instead of poems.  It allowed me to use my father’s individual stories in a way that also told the larger story across the years.  It was, in my mind, the perfect solution.

But it was not without its problems.  It was an unusual way of doing at things – especially in the world of children’s books - so I wasn’t sure how it was going to be received.  And frankly, I was too inexperienced to know that I might face different complications than what I would have faced if I’d written it as a “normal” chronologically-told novel.  I had to make sure to thread things through each chapter to make them all hold together.  The characters had to be carried through while also minding the pacing of the events – both on a macro and micro level.  Stories had to butt up against each other without overshadowing each other, but while also laying the groundwork for the tales and plot changes to come.  Relationships had to change over time – not too fast and not too slow - as did Jimmy’s perceptions.  I had to rearrange the stories sometimes to make sure they built upon each other to a final crescendo.

My wonderful editor, Patricia Lee Gauch, was essential in helping me figure out the best way to make the structure work.  She turned me into a literary seamstress of sorts, helping me understand on a concrete level what needed to be accomplished in order to most effectively stitch the individual chapters together into a larger single work. 

Edie Hemingway:  Does the title of your book have both a literal and metaphorical connection to the story?

Fran Cannon Slayton:  Ah, the title of my book!  It took a while for us to find it.  The first title was All Hallow’s Eve, which I loved but was too holiday oriented and would have limited the book since it is about much more than just Halloween.  The next title was How To Stop a Moving Train, which I loved, but the sales and marketing folks did not – and they’ve got a lot more experience than I do!  We threw out a load of possible titles and the one that stuck is When the Whistle Blows.

It is a title that does have a literal reference to the old steam engine whistles (a far cry – pardon the lame pun – from the diesel engine horns of today).  It also references a whistle blowing metaphorically, as when your time is up, or something comes to an end.  It is very apt, I think.

It also serves another purpose: When the Whistle Blows is a “crossover” novel – a book that will hopefully find its audience with kids and adults alike.  The title seems to have the potential to appeal to both markets.

Edie Hemingway:  What type of research did you do for your book, which is set in the 1940s?

Fran Cannon Slayton:  I joke that in some ways I’ve been researching this book for my entire life.  I’ve heard Dad’s stories for years, since I was a child, and they have become an integral part of who I am.  Rowlesburg, West Virginia is a large part of who I am as well.  My parents both grew up there, and I visited the town all throughout my childhood to see my relatives.  I was able to swim and fish in the Cheat River and feel the sounds of the diesel horns shaking the town from its insides out.  I couldn’t help but hear about the old steam trains and how different they were.  I could picture them in my head as I heard about how they were replaced by the diesel engines and how the town lost so many jobs – and people - as a result. 

When it came time to write the book I did other research as well.  I visited the town many times with my family and once with my father, my uncle Dick, and my cousin Roger.  My uncle Dick had worked with my grandfather, William Patrick Cannon, who was the foreman of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in Rowlesburg in the 1940s.  Dick showed us around the old M&K Junction so I could see my grandfather’s old office, the Mallet pits, the tower, the shop and the yard.  It was a fantastic trip and I learned a lot; I even got to see my grandfather’s handwriting in the old train logs that Uncle Dick still had.

Uncle Dick also gave me some great old photos of steam engines and diesels, and I spent countless hours looking through old pictures of Mallet engines on the Internet.  I also went through old Rowlesburg high school yearbooks and other books about the area, and talked to a number of old timers about the town.  I also researched Burpee seeds, World War II, the Irish Potato Famine, and countless other little details I found myself wondering about as I went along. 

Edie Hemingway:  Tell us about your path to publication.

Fran Cannon Slayton:  It is half long road, half Cinderella story.  The Cinderella part is this:  I began writing When the Whistle Blows pretty much at the beginning of 2005 and not much later was a finalist in the SCBWI Work-In-Progress Grant competition.  That was before I really found my voice.  I received a scholarship to attend the Highlights Foundation’s children’s writers’ workshop in Chautauqua, NY in July 2006, where I met Patricia Lee Gauch.  Patti read the first twelve pages of my then half-finished manuscript and loved it.  She wanted to see the rest of it, exclusively, and read it while she was on vacation.  Three weeks later she called and offered to give me her help and guidance as I finished it.  What a gift! 

About the same time as I went to Chautauqua I also participated in the Sierra Nevada SCBWI mentorship program and was paired with the incomparable Ellen Hopkins as my mentor.  Ellen introduced me to Laura Rennert of Andrea Brown Literary Agency who read my partial and offered to represent me.  Another gift!

With Laura and Patti’s encouragement I finished my manuscript and submitted it to Patti in spring 2007.  After a few months of nail biting, Patti offered me a contract and the pumpkin turned into a coach!  It’s been a great ride ever since.

The “long road” part of the story is that many years before I started writing When the Whistle Blows I’d started writing another novel called Firefly Nights.  I started writing it because the idea for a story hit my head and basically wouldn’t go away until I did something about it.  I began writing it in 1991, a few months before entering law school at the University of Virginia.  I wrote on and off throughout law school, while I was a prosecutor, and during my career as a legal publisher.  Thirteen years later I had 100 pages of a manuscript.  At that time I quit work to become a stay-at-home mom, decided to get serious about my writing, and joined SCBWI.  I re-read my 100 pages and decided that I couldn’t bear to show it to the world after spending 13 years of my life on it.  It was too close to my heart and I just couldn’t’ risk the possibility of rejection with that particular work.  So I decided to start what I always thought would be my second novel.  That effort turned into When the Whistle Blows.

Edie Hemingway:  How has getting your first book published changed your life?

Fran Cannon Slayton:  Oh my gosh, my focus has changed in so many ways!  I’ve always believed that dreams can come true, and now I’m living proof!  Every day holds mystery and possibilities.  It’s great fun. 

Right now, the major change is the fact that I am promoting this book by doing bookstore signings, panels, and other speaking engagements.  In my past life as a prosecutor I spoke in front of people everyday for a living.  Having this book out gives me the ability to marry that expertise with my passion for writing and my pension for philosophizing.  I get to stew on ideas, dream, ask “what if,” and imagine the possibilities of any situation – and call it a career! It feels like all the good parts of myself are coming together in the way they were meant to, and it’s a fantastic feeling.

Writing this book has also been a lovely thing for me in terms of my family.  My husband and daughter have been extremely supportive and proud of my efforts and it absolutely warms my heart.  My mom and dad beam as they pass around articles about me to their friends; not to mention the fact that the book has made my father and the town of Rowlesburg a little more “famous” in the literary world.  I get a real kick out of that.  My extended family has contributed their love and support (and often their memories) as well.  Plus, the fact that the book captures a crucial time in American history that has not been written much about makes me feel like I’ve forged a stronger connection with my ancestors.

One unexpected aspect of the book has been to connect me to Trainworld:  train historians, railroaders, foemers, modelers, and others who love trains.  As a descendant of railroaders and the author of a book that has trains at its core, I have, in a sense, been inducted into a society not dissimilar to the one in my book – a brotherhood of train lovers.  It has given me a connection to my heritage that makes me feel like the past and present have met in the pages of my novel.  It is a great feeling.  

Edie Hemingway:  What are you working on now?

Fran Cannon Slayton:  I am writing a fantasy currently titled Ship’s Boy, about a girl who wants to be a pirate.  (Can you tell the tomboy part of me is at it again?!)  I also have a couple picture books I’m working on.

Edie Hemingway:  What do you like best about the writing process?

Fran Cannon Slayton:  I like how it makes me feel.  Happy.  Excited.  Sometimes confused.  Sometimes frustrated.  But always interested and alive, and connected in a very real way to something greater than myself.

Check out Fran's video at this location: http://www.francannonslayton.com/

Here’s a link for purchasing a personalized copy of When the Whistle Blows (http://www.newdominionbookshop.com/) and a link to Fran’s website (http://www.francannonslayton.com) and her blog <http://franslayton.livejournal.com/


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 11th, 2009 05:20 pm (UTC)
Great interview, Fran. I've been bragging about your book at every opportunity. I think it's one of those that will be gobbled up by eager readers (boys in particular) but also studied at MFA programs everywhere for it's intriguing and brilliantly executed structure. Well done!
Jun. 11th, 2009 07:37 pm (UTC)
Congratulations, Fran! You've written such a beautiful novel.
Jun. 11th, 2009 08:43 pm (UTC)
Thanks you guys! It's a happy, happy day!
Jun. 11th, 2009 09:06 pm (UTC)
I love the idea of writing from a long term perspective - and on Halloween, to boot! Can't wait to read and study this wonderful story:)
Jun. 12th, 2009 01:24 am (UTC)
what a fantastic interview, edie and fran! wow! i am in the middle of your book right now. the children's books person at my local bookstore lent me her arc (after reading it herself, of course). it has a sticker on the front that says "must read," which was placed there by one of their reps! i am very touched by the story you tell as well as impressed by the lovely writing and the quality of the research that informed the story. all the best as you take the book out into the world! please blog about your experience going back to west virginia to share the published book.
Jun. 12th, 2009 03:16 am (UTC)
Re: congratulations!
Thanks beberly and Susan. It is exciting that it is out there, really getting into the hands of readers now, especially kids. And thanks for telling me about the sticker - that is awesome!!!
Sep. 4th, 2009 09:55 am (UTC)
thanks for a nice interview posting it was really interesting and the best question answer i like is

Q=Tell us about your path to publication.

Fran Cannon Slayton: It is half long road, half Cinderella story. The Cinderella part is this: I began writing When the 640-460 Whistle Blows pretty much at the beginning of 2005 and not much later was a finalist in the SCBWI Work-In-Progress Grant competition. That was before I really found my voice. I received a scholarship to attend the 70-294 Highlights Foundation’s children’s writers’ workshop in Chautauqua, NY in July 2006, where I met Patricia Lee Gauch. Patti read the first twelve pages of my then half-finished manuscript and loved it. She wanted to see the rest of it, exclusively, and read it while she was on vacation. Three weeks later she called and offered to give me her 920-805 help and guidance as I finished it. What a gift!
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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