Monday, August 17, 2009

Interview With Author Fran Cannon Slayton

Today the Slushbusters welcome Fran Cannon Slayton, author of the middle grade novel When the Whistle Blows. We've come to know Fran through our local SCBWI and kidlit community. Her book is a coming of age story of boys living in the railroad town of Rowlesburg, West Virginia in the 1940's. When the Whistle Blows has earned starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal. Fran is the secretary for the Class of 2k9.

What books from early in your life made a big impression on you? Why?

There were three books that made a huge difference in my life at an early age: 1) Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor, 2) Sounder by William Armstrong, and 3) A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. The thing all three of them have in common, besides excellent writing, is that they drew me into a place and circumstance that was completely outside my own world and made me think about important concepts like justice, time and love.

What one thing or person helped you the most with your writing?

I can't point to one single person, really. My mom encouraged my poetry writing when I was in grade school by typing out and mimeographing copies of my poems. My middle school English teacher, Mrs. Fisher, helped me understand sentence structure by making me diagram sentences. My husband has always encouraged me to pursue my dream of writing. Father Chet Michael taught me how to follow my calling. Author Michelle Green helped me to find my voice, and my editor Patricia Lee Gauch helped me to deepen my method of storytelling. It has taken a village to make me an author!

I love that answer. How true for so many of us! What is one of your favorite parts of When the Whistle Blows? Why do you like it so much and how did it come to be?

I'm very fond of the character Thaddeus Ore in my book. I like him because I created him completely from scratch and he's so vulnerable. As an author I just wanted to take care of him. But he had a story of his own that was different from the way I wanted his life to go in the book. So I had to let him go his own way. It was kind of hard, but the book turned out all the better for it.

How different is the final product from your first conception of the book?

Well, my initial concept was to create a novel that would be told in a series of short stories, so in that sense When the Whistle Blows came out exactly as I conceived it. On the other hand, at the beginning I had no idea that I'd have a chapter with a football game, I didn't have a good grasp of Thaddeus Ore or his fate, and I didn't know how the story of The Society was going to be revealed - or even what its history really was. So there was a lot I found out along the way!

At what point in the writing process do you prefer to have other people read your work? Do you want feedback at the first draft stage, or once you’ve done all you can with it and don’t know where to go next?

I don't know that I have a one-size-fits all answer to this question. For picture books I generally like to have the whole manuscript finished and polished before I show it to anyone. For When the Whistle Blows, I showed it to my critique group chapter by chapter as I was writing it. I'll likely do the same for my work in progress, although there is a part of me that would like to have an entire draft done before I show it to anyone this time. I don't really like much formal feedback from my critique group until I have made the part of the book I am showing them the best I can. The exception to this is my husband - I'll read less than perfect drafts of chapters to get his feedback as I am writing.

Interesting. Most of the Slushbusters prefer chapter by chapter feedback as well, but I don't think that's typical for a lot of authors. Beyond critiquing, the Slushbusters have grown into good friends who support each other through successes and failures. How have other writers in your community done the same for you?

I am fortunate to belong to two fantastic local critique groups. One of my groups has become very close and in the past year we haven't been critiquing as much as we've been sharing our lives, celebrating our triumphs and successes and challenges and setbacks. It's fantastic for me to have a group of friends who really "get it" from a writer's perspective, both in terms of craft as well as the business of writing. Sometimes, unless a person has trodden down the path of prospective publication, they don't really understand the emotions, frustrations, questions and struggles that we writers go through on a daily basis. It's great to have a group of writerbudz to share it all with.

Of all the possible readers in the world, who would you most like to hear had read your book and loved it?

Well, I am of several minds about this question. The first name that popped into my head is Alan Alda because he was one of the writers for the TV show M*A*S*H, which was my favorite show as a kid. M*A*S*H pulled off an incredible balance of humor and poignancy that is very difficult to achieve. I would like it very much if Alan Alda liked my book. So that's my gut-reaction answer.

The business-savvy side of me immediately thought I'd like for a big movie producer, preferably Rob Reiner who directed Stand By Me, to read and love my book (and of course immediately decide to make it into a movie!) Or Oprah. Having Oprah like it and choose it for her book club would be very cool too.

But really, the people who I most wanted to read and love it already have: My dad. My mom. My husband. Pretty awesome.

I'm sure it was especially important that your dad love it, given that the stories in the book are based on his life, and because of the family themes throughout the book. What is the one question you haven’t been asked but are always dying to answer?

If someone wanted to send you a present, what should they send you?

Just joking!

Great answer! Thanks, Fran, for stopping by to chat with us. For more information about Fran and her book, as well as a video interview about it, check out Fran's website.


Fran Cannon Slayton said...

Hey, it was so late at night when I finished answering your questions that I completely forgot to mention that my writing community also includes the Class of 2k9! We are 22 debut MG and YA novelists who have banded together to promote our books as a group.

The Class of 2k9 has been a very important part of my writing life in the past two years. Going through the debut novel process with others who are in the same boat has been a Godsend. We are able to support each other not only as friends, but also to pass on information to each other that it would have taken a decade to find out about on my own. Truly there is strength in numbers, and our books have gotten a lot of collective attention as a result of our banding together!

Michelle said...


The Class of 2k9 is a wonderful example of a community of writers supporting each other. I see the spirit of that every time I have been in contact with any member of the class.

Sarah said...

Thanks for the interview, Fran and Michelle!

And Alan Alda! I like that.