Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Book Launch: When The Whistle Blows

It's a true pleasure to introduce Fran Cannon Slayton, author of the debut (and already highly acclaimed!) novel WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS.

Congratulations on the publication of your novel, WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS. I know that the novel has strong personal connections for you. Can you tell us a bit about the story and what inspired it?

WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS is a coming of age novel about Jimmy Cannon, who is growing up in the 1940s as the son of the foreman of the B&O Railroad in a small Appalachian town. The book tracks Jimmy’s yearly Halloween adventures between the ages of 12 and 18, as he discovers more and more about his crotchety father, who is a member of a secret society.

I hope you don’t mind me mentioning that I’m absolutely thrilled about the response the book is receiving so far! It has gotten a starred review in Kirkus, which calls WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS “an unassuming masterpiece,” and another starred review in School Library Journal, which says the book is “nostalgia done right.”

I was inspired to write WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS by my father’s adventures growing up in Rowlesburg, West Virginia. Dad really was the foreman’s son at the time when the steam engines were switching to diesel in the 1940s and early ‘50s. He used to tell me all kinds of fascinating stories when I was a kid about what it was like to grow up in Rowlesburg, and they became the inspiration for WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS.

Your main character is a tween/teen boy. Was it challenging for you to get inside his head?

Strange as it may seem, the voice was very natural for me to slip into. I am a card-carrying tomboy, which helped a great deal. And because I am fortunate to have my family roots deeply embedded in Rowlesburg, I am very familiar with the dialect from that part of West Virginia. It’s a part of me in a very real sense and is relatively easy for me to tap into.

That being said, Jimmy’s voice is not my own voice, so I had to be careful to stay within the boundaries of what a boy of Jimmy’ age would say and do. I also had to be conscious of the time period as well as the region when deciding what he would and would not say.

The setting is so crucial to WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS. Tell us a bit about that.

Rowlesburg, West Virginia is a real place, and a magical place for me. When I was very young my maternal grandfather owned a restaurant and bar on the banks of the Cheat River, and my early memories of it are like a dreamworld adventure – climbing down the tree roots to get to the river, wading out on the flat, slippery rocks, swimming, fishing, watching the water rush by . . . playing pool, going behind the lunch counter in the restaurant. It was so wild and different from my own home in suburban Virginia. I always loved going back to Rowlesburg to visit other relatives too, even after my grandparents sold the restaurant and moved to Kingwood when I was four or five years old. All during my childhood I loved listening to my father’s stories about the things that happened when he grew up there – when the town bustled and hummed with life and industry in the 1940s. I’ve always loved trying to picture what those days must have been like.

When I was writing WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS I had the chance to walk through the town with my father, asking him to show me the various houses in which he lived, asking him to tell me all the old stories again. It’s a memory I’ll always cherish.

How long have you been writing for children/teens? Have you written other books or is this your first effort?

I started writing a book with a teen/tween protagonist just before I entered law school, which would be about 18 years ago. I hadn’t intended to write a book, but was more or less compelled by a story idea that came to me unbidden.

I worked on that story for about 13 years on and off, all through law school and my career as a prosecutor and then as a legal publisher. When I finally got serious about writing in 2004 I put the 100 pages I’d written of that book away because I didn’t want to be critiqued on something I’d spent 13 years of my life writing. It meant too much to me. So I started writing a story I always thought would be my second novel, which turned into WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS.

Can you describe your path to the publication of WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS?

It’s pretty much a Cinderella story. I received a scholarship to attend the Highlights Foundation’s week-long writers workshop at the Chautauqua Institute in New York in July 2006. There I met my editor, Patricia Lee Gauch of Philomel Books, who read my first 12 pages and loved them. I was thrilled! Then she asked to see the rest of my halfway-finished manuscript and, much to my delight, continued to love it! At that point Patti offered to continue to work with me as I finished the book, generously giving me her advice, interest and guidance. It was a lovely experience and provided terrific motivation for me to finish my novel. When I did, she made an offer and made my dreams come true!

Do you have any advice for beginning writers?

Tape yourself to your chair (glue is too messy) and write! But also write about what is interesting to you – NOT what you think might be commercially viable. The best writing generally comes from the heart – follow yours and it will increase your chances of writing in a way that moves others.

Can you tell us something about your personal life – inspirations, plans for the future, goals, etc.?

My personal life, huh?! I am a happy mom and wife, dog owner, only child of two wonderful parents, novice gardener, loud singer, occasional trumpet player, contemplator, meditator, mediator, exerciser, and finder of joy in little everyday things (most of the time, at least). I enjoy family, friends, good food, new experiences and traveling. I like to celebrate for almost any reason. Oh, and I also like to read. And write. And sleep.

My hopes for the future are that kids read and enjoy and take away something from my book. I hope to have the opportunity to do lots of school visits, because I really enjoy talking to kids about writing and reading and dreaming.

My plan is to keep writing for the rest of my life. I really enjoy it, and I can’t think of a career I am better suited to.

Do you have any new writing ventures underway?

Yes, I am writing a middle grade fantasy novel tentatively titled SHIP’S BOY, which is about a girl who wants to be a pirate. I’ve also got a couple of picture book ideas up my sleeve.

Do you have a website or blog where readers can learn more about you and WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS?

Yes! My website is and there you can also watch a video of me discussing some of the background about WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS. I also have a blog at and you can find me on Facebook at


Anonymous said...

Thanks for hosting me, Janet! You are wonderful!

Janet Fox said...

My pleasure!

And anyone else reading - what a great book!!