Author Interview: Fran Cannon Slayton

Today, I am very pleased and excited to share my conversation with Fran Cannon Slayton, author of When the Whistle Blows (Philomel Books, June 2009). (Click here to read my review of When the Whistle Blows.)

Fran, when did you decide to write When the Whistle Blows? Where did you get the idea for the novel?

I began writing When the Whistle Blows in December 2004, when I decided to get serious about my writing. It’s a story I’d carried around inside me for my entire life, really. The idea came from tales my father told me when I was a child, about his adventures growing up in Rowlesburg, West Virginia in the 1940s. Dad told me about his Halloween pranks, first day of hunting season, championship football games and many, many other great stories.

(Fran's father in 1940s Rowlesburg)

(seven-year-old Fran with her father)

But the one that fascinated me most – and that inspired the first full chapter of my book - was about my grandfather and his unusual actions at an old Irish wake. As the story goes, my grandfather and his buddies attended the wake of their beloved pal, who had recently died, and they actually got the deceased man up out of the casket to have one last drink together. It’s a strong image, and one that always fascinated me. And it caused me to ask all those kinds of questions that writers tend to ask: why did they do it? Was it a disrespectful thing to do? Or was it rather an act that gave voice to the deep respect and love these men felt for each other? These questions prompted more questions: why do we in modern America have wakes at funeral homes now instead of our own homes? Why do we see death as something that must be separated from life, rather than a natural part of it?

These are some of the questions that led me to create The Society that Jimmy’s father is a part of in When the Whistle Blows.

What influences and inspirations (both literary and non-literary) did you draw from while writing When the Whistle Blows?

My parents were – and are – definitely an inspiration to me. They are salt-of-the-earth type of people, and I wanted When the Whistle Blows to have an underlying goodness in it, reminiscent of them. My father lost his father at an early age, and he also lost his brother Bill in a car accident in the 1960s. Both of these losses happened before I was even born, and became losses for me as well. Fortunately, my father shared his memories of these men with me, and my deep longing to have known them greatly influenced my writing in When the Whistle Blows.

When I was a child, my father was a very active member of the Knights of Columbus (a fraternal organization connected with the Catholic Church). I think his membership in that organization had a definite, although primarily subconscious, influence on my writing in When the Whistle Blows. Many aspects of The Society in the book reflect the ubiquitous presence and great generosity of The Knights of Columbus that I witnessed in my growing up years.

(Fran and her father in front of the railroad bridge in Rowlesburg)

Being the youngest cousin in my entire extended family also influenced my desire to write this book. My father was the youngest of seven children, and my mom was the youngest of four. Some of my cousins are 20+ years older than I am. A couple of them even had the chance to know my grandfather before he died. My memories always seemed so shallow compared to theirs, and I always longed to be a part of all the old stories. I guess in some ways I’m very much like my book’s protagonist, Jimmy, in that regard.

Regarding literary influences - after I was over halfway finished writing When the Whistle Blows, my editor suggested that I read Richard Peck’s A Long Way From Chicago and Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. I enjoyed both immensely. Dandelion Wine taught me a lot about “setting up” an event to make it more exciting. And A Long Way From Chicago helped me realize the importance of adventure in a middle grade novel.

What were the challenges and rewards from writing the novel?

The challenges were mostly learning about the publishing business, finding time to write, and balancing my writing with the rest of my family and volunteer responsibilities.

The rewards have been vast. First, finishing a piece of work of this length is really an accomplishment in and of itself, no matter whether it gets published or not. I felt I’d reached a huge goal just to complete my manuscript. And having the chance to work with Patricia Lee Gauch as my editor has been joy upon joy. She is a legend in the children’s book world, and being the focus of her great wisdom and love of literature has taught me a great deal about writing and shaping a story. I loved every moment of the editing process with Patti – it was a thrill to watch her bring her considerable experience to bear upon my novel.

Personally, writing When the Whistle Blows has given me a deeper connection to the grandfather I never had the chance to meet. He was the foreman of the B&O Railroad in Rowlesburg, West Virginia in the 1940s, and his name was W.P., just like the character in my book. And now I feel like I myself have been adopted into a “society” of sorts, because of the warm reception I’ve been given among the people of “trainworld” – those men and women who love and have worked on the railroad.

Writing When the Whistle Blows also allowed me to “live” in 1940s Rowlesburg, West Virginia for a while, and it brought me in closer contact with Rowlesburg as it is today. It has also allowed me to connect with my father, my mother and other members of my extended family on an even deeper level. And it has allowed me to give a gift to them that came straight from my heart.

Another terrific reward of being a debut novelist has been my participation in the Class of 2k9, a wonderful group of 22 middle grade and YA debut novelists who have banded together to get the word out about our new books. It has been great fun to get to know these authors over the past year, and now I consider them among my closest writing friends. It’s been rewarding to share the ups and downs of being a debut novelist. Their support, friendship and commiseration has been invaluable to me.

What was the path to publication like for When the Whistle Blows? How did you get an agent? How did you find a publisher?

My path to publication is basically a Cinderella story. In 2006 I received a scholarship to attend the Highlights Foundation’s incredible Children’s Writers Workshop at the Chautauqua Institute. It was there that I met my editor Patricia Lee Gauch. She read the first 12 pages of my then halfway-finished manuscript, and she loved it. She wanted to see the rest exclusively and promised to get back with me in three weeks, even though she was going on vacation. She was as good as her word and when she got back with me she didn’t offer me a contract, but she offered her guidance and interest as I worked to complete my manuscript.

(Fran with her editor Patricia Lee Gauch when they met at Chautauqua in 2006)

Meanwhile, I’d also signed up for the Nevada SCBWI mentorship program, and was fortunate enough to be paired with the incomparable Ellen Hopkins as my mentor. Ellen introduced me to my agent, Laura Rennert of Andrea Brown Literary Agency, who agreed to represent me after reading my halfway finished manuscript.

(Fran at Lake Tahoe when she was participating in the Nevada SCBWI mentorship program in 2006)

Needless to say, 2006 was a pretty amazing year for me! And with Patti and Laura behind me, I was extremely motivated to finish my novel. I finished it in spring of 2007 and I believe it was fall 2007 that Patti offered me a contract.

Where were you and what were you doing when you found out that your novel was going to be published? What were your first thoughts and feelings? How did you celebrate the good news?

I had been waiting on pins and needles to hear from Patti for a number of months, and I remember a lot of the places that I waited and didn’t hear – one of them was Disneyland, and another was the SCBWI Conference in LA! I’d pretty much convinced myself that Patti was going to pass on it. It’s funny, I guess I did such a good job convincing myself that it wasn’t going to work out that I don’t have very specific memories of where I was when my agent actually finally called to tell me the big news! I think I was in my kitchen.

But I do remember where I was a day or two later when my editor called me! I was driving across the bridge from Virginia into Washington D.C. to attend a Children’s Book Guild of Washington D.C. meeting as a guest. I managed to get across the bridge and pull into a parking lot so I could concentrate on our conversation. I was so excited! And then I got to tell my big news to a bunch of other children’s book authors at the Book Guild meeting – it was so fun; everyone was so happy for me! It was great to be among people who really and truly understood from experience just how monumental selling your first book is.

As for celebrating at home, my husband had made me a promise 16 years earlier when I first started writing that he would take me out for a bottle of Dom Perignon whenever I sold my first book. So we went out to the Downtown Grille and I had my first taste of DP. I still have the bottle!

How have you started promoting your novel?

I’m sort of embarrassed to admit this, but I started promoting my novel before it was even sold. I began reading books on book promotion as soon as I finished writing my book. I figured there was a lot to know, and boy was I right!

I have been sending out advance copies to online reviewers and bookstores and have planned a book tour for June and July, stopping at independent bookstores all across the U.S. Midwest. I joined the Class of 2k9 to be part of a group marketing effort, and we have outreach programs, contests, a website and blog. I also have my own website and blog, as well as a children’s book news email newsletter that comes out periodically. I’m also trying to let railfans and other niche groups know about my book and have done a ton of research into both live and online speaking and interview venues.

In all my efforts, I have discovered just how nice people can be. Booksellers, teachers, railroaders, friends and family, my editor and publishing house have been so generous in helping me get the word out and I am extremely grateful to all of them. I’ve learned that launching a book into the world is absolutely a team effort, not an individual activity.

What are your plans for the release day of your novel (June 11)? What are you looking forward to the most?

Knowing my family, I can pretty much guarantee that we’ll go out to dinner to celebrate on June 11th! But it’s funny, other than that I really don’t have many plans on my actual release day. My official release party is the following Saturday, June 13th at New Dominion Bookshop on the downtown mall in Charlottesville, Virginia from 2-4:30. I can’t wait because it’s going to be a great chance to celebrate with all of my friends!

If you could choose only one, which would you choose: for When the Whistle Blows to be award-winning, or for When the Whistle Blows to be bestselling? Why?

Oh, I used to feel strongly that I would always choose award-winning over bestselling any day of the week. That’s primarily because I was a kid who loved, loved, loved award-winning books when I was in grade school. The Newberys were the ones that spoke to me, and I wanted my book to speak to kids in that same way.

But now I’ve realized that bestsellers reach a ton of kids who do not necessarily feel the same way I did about award-winning books. And if my book were to become bestselling and reach those kids – and perhaps kids who are reluctant or dormant readers too – I would be equally thrilled.

Of course my hope is that because there is so much adventure and good fun in my book that it will be bestselling; and because it is written by someone whose heart loves all that is literary, it will be award-winning too!

One thing I firmly believe is this: we authors should allow ourselves to dream big things for our books and for our lives as well. If we do not dream big; if we do not model big hopes and big dreams for the children who will read our books – then we have no respectable position from which to convince children that they too should dream and dream big. It matters not whether our dreams actually come true. Rather, it is the ability to dream, the process of dreaming itself that causes us to soar – if not on the first dream, then on the next or the next or the next. If we do not give flight to our own dreams, how can we help kids give flight to theirs?

So – award winner AND bestseller. That’s my answer, and I’m sticking to it!

What books would you like your work to match or surpass (in terms of writing, impact, influence, popularity, sales, or awards)?

It’s been thrilling to hear others compare When the Whistle Blows to other books that I respect. School Library Journal’s Diane Chen compared it to Richard Peck’s A Long Way From Chicago, which is a wonderful book. When the Whistle Blows has also been mentioned in the same breath as Where the Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller, The Outsiders (in terms of authentic boy voice), and the movie Stand By Me – which is high praise for which I’m very thankful. Ellen Hopkins has gone so far as to compare my writing to that of William Golding, Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson!

That being said (and very much appreciated!), I try very hard not to compare myself with others. I believe we all have our own individual place in this world. It’s not a competition – it’s more a collaboration or collage of talents and stories and beauty. I just want to get my book out there into the world so it can do its own thing. When I start comparing my book to others it tends to make me more anxious and less able to enjoy the path that I’m actually on.

What is it like being part of the Class of 2k9? What is it like being the class secretary?

It has been a joy and a pleasure to be a part of the Class of 2k9. In fact, I don’t know what I would have done without this wonderful group of authors who are all going through the same things I’m going through as a debut author. We’ve been there for each other to answer questions, compare notes, share ideas, commiserate and celebrate. It has taken a lot of time and effort, but we have managed to forge friendships that will last a lifetime, I am sure. Plus, I am confident that together we’ve been more successful in getting our books “out there” in the public eye than any of us would have been individually. The best part for me so far has been watching my friends’ books launch into the world and find their audiences. It’s very exciting and a wonderful learning experience.

One of the most important aspects of the Class of 2k9 has been the opportunity to help each other. We’ve all done this in countless ways over the course of the last year, but there is one way we are helping one of the members of our class that we could never have anticipated. Several months ago our beloved co-President, Albert Borris, suffered an unexpected stroke at the age of 49. It was life-threatening, but Albert is strong and he pulled through and is recovering well. But the effects of the stroke have limited his ability to “get out there” and promote his new book, Crash Into Me (Simon Pulse), which comes out in July. The Class of 2k9 has been working hard to help Albert in any way we can so his book will reach its audience. Crash Into Me is about four teens trying to find their way in the world. And I think Albert’s own words from his website best convey not only what the teens in his book are doing, but also – in a different way – what Albert is doing as he recovers from his stroke:

When life seems harsh or cruel, how do we find a way to survive? More than that, how do we choose to live?

Albert’s own courage, grit and determination are all very clear in his approach to recovering from his stroke. I hope young adult readers will find their own answers to these important questions as they pour through the pages of Crash Into Me.

(Fran with several friends from the Class of 2k9 - from left to right: Ellen Jenson Abbott, Edie Hemingway, Fran, Lisa Greenwald, and Ann Haywood Leal)

Would you advise other writers to be part of an author collective?

Absolutely, positively, 100% YES! You don’t have to go through your debut year on your own. It’s much more fun to have a supportive community around you. It takes a significant time commitment, but it is time well spent. The rewards are huge.

What kind of young reader were you? What are your favorite children's and young adult books?

I was an odd mix as a young reader. On the one hand I was serious about reading – early on in my reading career I found several Newbery Award winners that touched me deeply – A Wrinkle in Time, Sounder, and Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry. When I read them I noticed a HUGE difference between them and the other books I’d read. The Newbery books left me haunted and moved in ways other books did not. I felt that what I read in them was important, and I was desperate to find more books like them. My thought was that there were too many books in the world for me to be able to read them all – I didn’t want to “waste my time” by reading something that didn’t change me the way those Newbery books changed me.

On the other hand, I was a really involved and busy kid. I did sports, drawing, singing, church activities – you name it, I was interested in it. I wanted to do it all. So I never read as much as I always felt I “should” have. In fact, my whole life I’ve felt “under-read,” always trying to catch up on the great books I’d missed while I was doing other things.

So very early on in life I developed a guideline that may have been deeply flawed, but it worked pretty well for me on some levels: I only read the “classics.” I figured if I had so little time to read I didn’t want to be disappointed, and the classics had been vetted and deemed worthy. And for the most part I wasn’t disappointed. Unfortunately, one of the limitations to this guideline was that I hardly ever read new books as they came out, so I missed a lot of great stuff.

While I still love reading the classics and I still feel woefully “under-read,” I have come to terms with the fact that I’ll never be able to read all the books I really want to – there is just not enough time in my day, which is still filled with many different things other than reading. These days I still enjoy the award winners, although I am more likely than I used to be to pick up other kinds of books as well.

What children's and young adult books are you reading now?

I just finished reading Skylar by Mary Cuffe-Perez. Right now I’m reading My Life in Pink and Green by Lisa Greenwald. On deck are Shrinking Violet by Danielle Joseph, Road to Tater Hill by Edith Hemingway, and Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. With regard to picture books, I’ve recently read some Henry and Mudge books by Cynthia Rylant, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka, Duck for President by Doreen Cronin, Minerva Louise and the Red Truck by Janet Morgan Stoeke, and A Good Day by Kevin Henkes. This year I’ve also read every –Ology book in the Candlewick series.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on my next novel, tentatively titled Ship’s Boy. It’s a fantasy about a girl who wants to be a pirate.

I am also on the verge of getting a really cool digital drawing and painting program for my computer. I’m planning to use it to help me with a couple of picture book ideas that have been swimming around in my head lately. I’m not an author illustrator, but I like playing around with visuals as I think about picture book possibilities.

Thank you so much, Fran, for stopping by Into the Wardrobe to talk about When the Whistle Blows!

(a diesel engine going across the bridge in Rowlesburg)

Fun link: Last year, Fran interviewed me! Click here to read our conversation about reviewing children's and young adult books and interviewing their authors.


Danielle Joseph said…
Yay, Fran is awesome! Great interview!
Wonderful interview!
Jeanne said…
I can't wait to read Ship's Boy.
Sydney Salter said…
I loved hearing about your path to publication! Great interview.
Anonymous said…
Thanks everyone! I really appreciate you stopping by!
Michelle said…
What a wonderful story about your inspiration for the book and meeting all the people who helped you get it published. Can't wait to read it!
Tarie Sabido said…
Hi, everyone! Fran's answers are just great - in-depth and enlightening. :o) I loved learning "the story behind the story" of When the Whistle Blows and discovering Fran's influences. It's all making me appreciate the novel even more.

Fran, I am excited about the picture books you will write!
Edie Hemingway said…
Fran, I'm a little late getting to read this interview, but it's awesome! And I was at that Children's Book Guild luncheon that you came to just after getting the call from your editor! I actually sat next to you at that luncheon. Do you remember? I thought you looked familiar when I met you again through 2k9!
Tarie Sabido said…
Edie, that is a great story! LOL.

Thanks for stopping by. :o)