Author Interview: Fran Cannon Slayton

Fran Cannon Slayton if the author of When The Whistle Blows, a well received novel released on June 11th, 2009. You can visit Fran's website for more information on both her novel and herself. You can also find a lot of wonderful reviews for When The Whistle Blows here
Jimmy lives in Rowlesburg, West Virginia, during the 1940s. He does all the things boys do in the small mountain town: plays a mean game of football, pulls the unforgettable Halloween prank with his friends in “the Platoon,” and promises to head off into the woods on the first day of hunting season— no matter what. He also knows his father belongs to a secret society, and is determined to uncover the mysteries behind it! But it is a midnight encounter with a train that shows Jimmy the man his father really is.

1. Where did the idea to write When the Whistle Blows come from?
The idea came from stories my father told me when I was a child; stories about his childhood adventures growing up in Rowlesburg, West Virginia in the 1940s. One of the stories was about how my grandfather, W.P. Cannon, went to a wake for a friend.

Turns out that W.P. and his buddies got their friend's body up out of the casket to have one last drink with him. It's a pretty strong image and as I thought about it over the years I came to believe it was an act that signified the strength of their friendship and the depth of their love for their friend. When the Whistle Blows really began with this image in mind. A version of it appears in the first chapter of my book.

2. Are your characters inspired by anyone in particular or are they purely fictional?
The protagonist was absolutely inspired by my father, Jim Cannon. (I even named the main character - Jimmy Cannon - after Dad!) I also named Jimmy's brothers after my two uncles, Mike and Bill Cannon, in their honor. The characters are fictional - they don't accurately reflect who my uncles and father are or were. Yet by fictionalizing them I was trying to get at an historical truth: the impact of the dieselization of the railroad that occurred across America in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. It had a huge impact on small railroading towns in our country and yet it is a part of history seldom described - as far as I can tell - in children's literature. It is a history that affected my family greatly because my grandfather was the general foreman of the B&O Railroad in Rowlesburg, WV in the 1940s, and when the diesels came many jobs left that town for good. It altered the course of my father's life choices, and therefore mine as well.

3. When the Whistle Blows takes place in the 1940’s and also includes many nonfictional locations. Was there a lot of research you had to partake in when writing your novel?
I did do a lot of research. Much of it was primary source research, which means it was fun! I visited Rowlesburg, WV - the setting of my book - many times as I was writing. In fact, some of the book was actually written in Rowlesburg. One of my visits was a weekend road trip with my dad, where we met up with my cousin Roger as well as my Uncle Dick, who had worked on the steam engines with my grandfather. Uncle Dick gave us a tour of the old M&K Junction, where I saw my grandfather's old office, walked through the shop, and went up in the old radio tower. It was great fun, and I learned a lot.

On the way back my dad told me a great story about an unusual ending to a football game he'd played in, which eventually found its way into "The Championship Game" chapter of When the Whistle Blows. Besides primary sources, I also scoured old train photos, town photos, blogs and various internet sites, as well as reviewing books about the town and time period. I did specific research into words and phrases that I used in the book to make sure they jived with the historical realities, and I talked to my dad many, many, many times to ask him specifics of daily living back in the 1940s.

4. What are you hoping young readers take away from your novel?
When I was writing it I really didn't have anything in mind that I wanted kids to "get" from my book. I just wanted to tell the best story I could, and to be true to the story as it presented itself to me. Certainly there is an interesting swath of American history in the book, but that was not a primary motivator for me in my writing. I guess I'd like for kids to have a taste of small town Appalachia, and of the romance of the old steam trains. If they come away thinking about death a little differently - that would be great, too.

5. When did you realize you wanted to become a published author?
When I began writing as an adult I didn't start out with the goal of being published. A story nagged at my insides and wouldn't stop until I began writing it down. I wrote to let it out, to answer the call of the story. It wasn't until about thirteen years and 100 pages later that I started thinking about getting my work published. That was the beginning of 2005.

6. How long have you been writing? Was it a conscience decision of yours to write in the Young Adult/Children’s genre or was it something that just fell into place?
I have been writing on and off since elementary school. When I began writing fiction as an adult eighteen years ago, it was clear to me that my voice was that of a young adult or middle grader. The age of the voice was organic to the story I was writing. So I guess the answer is more or less that I did not choose it - it chose me.

7. What was your road to publication like?

It was more or less a Cinderella story. I began writing When the Whistle Blows in 2005 and soon thereafter was a finalist in the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Work-In-Progress Grant. In July 2006 I received a full scholarship to the Highlights Foundation's Children's Writers Workshop in Chautauqua, NY. It was there that I met my editor, Patricia Lee Gauch. She read the first twelve pages of my manuscript and loved them. She asked to see more, read it while on vacation and got back to me in three weeks with an offer to work with me as I finished my novel. I finished the manuscript in May 2007 and Patti offered me a contract the following fall. She was the only editor I submitted it to.

8. What are your favourite and least favourite parts of writing?
I love when I'm in the middle of a story and the words and ideas are flowing. I love ideas; I love thinking about things; I love bending words to reflect emotion. It is great fun!

My least favorite part, so far, is starting. It's a frightening thing. Huge. Daunting. I have tons of ideas for books, so it's not that I'm lacking for material. It's facing the gigantic notion that I'm writing a book. A book! Who said I could do that? And I have to go back to basics, to The Little Engine That Could, and say "I think I can, I think I can." And I have to get to the point where I believe it again for this particular book.

9. What’s next for you? Any new projects?
Yes, and I've started! I'm working on a dystopian fantasy about a girl who wants to be a pirate.

10. And last but not least, tell us three random/quirky things about yourself. 

Three? Geeze! I just asked my husband for help with this question and he said I'm pretty much perfect. And then he laughed hysterically. Okay, the first is that I used to sing and play trumpet in a rock and roll cover band. The second is that I was the 2005 Women's Hog Calling Champion at the Albemarle County Fair. The third is that I have a scar on my ankle that I got from dancing on a table. And now, back to my quiet life . . .

Thanks a bunch Fran! :)


  1. Great author interview. Her new book that's she is working on sounds great!




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