sarahsullivan (sarahsullivan) wrote in thru_the_booth,



With great pleasure, the Tollbooth welcomes Fran Cannon Slayton today.

Fran is a member of the Class of 2K9.

Her first novel, When the Whistle Blows was released by Philomel on June 11th

As of today, Fran's novel has received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal.  And these are not your run-of-the-mill starred reviews.  These are GLOWING reviews.  Kirkus calls the book "an unassuming >masterpiece."  And they're right.  It really is THAT GOOD.   

Go down your checklist of things to look for in a novel. 

1.  Voice – Check! 

2.  Vivid characters – Check! 

3.  Setting – Check! 

4.  Action and momentum – Check! 

5.  Interesting use of language – Check! 

Let's go back to SETTING for a moment. When the Whistle Blows is set in the rural railroading town of Rowlesburg, West Virginia in the 1940's. (Here's a more contemporary photo of Rowlesburg taken from the Rowlesburg Revitalization Committee, Inc. website at

Fran's novel is a coming-of-age story about a boy named Jimmy Cannon, whose father is the foreman of the B&O Railroad.  Jimmy wants more than anything to be a railroader when he grows up.   But, times are changing in Rowlesburg.  Steam engines are dying out and being replaced by the more efficient and less labor-intensive diesel engines. 

Jimmy's father warns him that the future may not offer opportunities to work on steam-powered trains.  But Jimmy does not want to believe him.  The novel is filled with adventure - Halloween pranks, robbers, dead bodies, and championship football games – AND a STRONG SENSE OF PLACE, which is not surprising considering the source of inspiration for the book. Fran's parents and grandparents came from Rowlesburg. (You can see from the map that it is in the northern part of the state.)
Her grandfather was the foreman of the B&O Railroad in Rowlesburg back in the 1940's. Fran talks about this on her website in a terrific You Tube interview she has posted on the home page.

Hi, Fran.  Welcome to the Tollbooth.  And congratulations on the tremendous reviews your book has received.  Well-deserved, I might add.  I love this book.

Thank you so much, Sarah! I really appreciate you hosting me today

1.  You say that When the Whistle Blows was inspired by family stories.  Could you tell us a little bit about that? 

I’m fortunate that when I was a kid my dad shared stories about his growing up years with me. 
 He came of age in 1940s Rowlesburg, West Virginia and he told me stories about hopping rides on steam engines, championship football and basketball games, diving off the train trestle into the Cheat River, and the first day of hunting season, among many others. His tales were always so exciting and filled with danger and daring. Of course, I was fascinated.

2.  Your novel is set in the 1940's and so it is historical fiction.  Did you do a lot of research before you started writing? 

The only research I did before I started writing was to listen to my dad’s stories for my entire life! When I was finally ready to write, I just dove right in. The research came later, as I went along.

3.  Did you always know who the main characters would be?

I always knew the main character would be Jimmy Cannon, but I didn’t know how many brothers and sisters he would have. In reality, my father had six older brothers and sisters, and I really wanted to include them all. But it turned out that they just couldn’t all fit adequately into the story, so Jimmy ended up with only two brothers in the book. 

Jimmy’s friends and the character of Thaddeus Ore just popped up one by one as I was writing. Jimmy’s father, W.P. Cannon, was my literary attempt to get to know the grandfather that in reality I never had the chance to meet.


4.  One of my favorite things about your book is its structure.  When the Whistle Blows is told in a series of seven linked stories, each taking place on All Halllow's Eve.  The novel begins in 1943 when protagonist, Jimmy Cannon, is 12 and ends in 1949, when he is 18.  Could you talk a little bit about that and tell us where you got the idea? 

I had written the first chapter - or at least the first draft of the first chapter - when I decided on the structure.  I was reading Rita Dove's Pulitzer Prize-winning book of poems, Thomas and Beulah, when the structure for my novel hit me like a ton of bricks and I just knew it was the right thing to do.  Dove's book was a group of individual poems that told an overarching narrative about her grandparents in the 1920s or 30s.  I loved getting a sense of their overall lives by reading about small experiences in the context of each poem.  And it dawned on me that is exactly what I wanted to do using short stories instead of poems.  I somehow knew at a gut level that it was the perfect format for the novel.  I didn't really realize how unusual the format was when I made the decision, or how difficult it might be to pull off because of the difference - it just seemed like the natural thing to do for this particular book. It was pretty much a gift - reading the right thing at exactly the right time. 


5.  Did you learn anything while you were writing this novel that surprised you?

I learned a few things, one of which was that deep down I was really sad that I never got a chance to meet my paternal grandfather. It surprised me after I’d written the book to realize that Jimmy and I have one thing in common: that we both grieve the fact that we were too young to be part of all the old stories. 

6.  Are you part of a writer's group and, if so, how that does help your process? 

Yes, I am. Generally, I like to have a scene polished as much as possible before I show it to others. But sometimes, timing- wise, this isn’t possible and I’ll show my critique group more of a draft. I always try to have them look at a piece at least once before I show it to my agent or editor. I respect my critique group members’ opinions, and their advice has been invaluable to me.  

7.  Have you heard from people in Rowlesburg who have read your book?  Were you ever worried that anyone would recognize themselves or think they recognized themselves in characters in the novel? 

Up until now only a few people from Rowlesburg have had access to the advance copy of When the Whistle Blows, but the response from those who have read it has been fantastic. People in Rowlesburg tend to have great love for the town, and I think it is quite clear in the book that I share their love.

Even though I used the names of some family members for the characters in my book, I wasn’t worried because my family has been very supportive; and they know that the book is fiction. I wasn’t worried that anyone else would recognize themselves either, because the characterization came from my own imagination, rather than basing personalities on any real individual. 

8.  You participated in the SCBWI-Nevada mentoring program.  Could you tell us a little about that? 

What a fantastic program! I was fortunate enough to be a part of it during its inaugural year in 2006 and I cannot recommend it highly enough to children’s writers who feel like they might be on the verge of breaking through the publication barrier.

It is the brainchild of two fantastic authors who also happen to be the co-RAs of SCBWI in Nevada: Ellen Hopkins and Suzanne Morgan Williams. Ellen is the author of Crank, Burned and the recently released Identical – all novels in verse that have been critically acclaimed, one earning her a National Book Award nomination. Suzy Williams is the author of many nonfiction books as well as her debut fiction title, Bull Rider, which was a Junior Library Guild selection this year. But beyond being fantastic writers, they are also natural mentors, so perhaps it was inevitable that they should envision a program that would pair unpublished or lightly published children’s writers and illustrators with seasoned veterans.

Several accomplished mentors participate in the program each year, and only a handful of participants are assigned to each. Thus, the program is small and allows for one-on-one time that many programs do not. Participants attend two conferences – one is the annual SCBWI Nevada conference, at which time they meet their mentors for the first time. The second conference comes at the end of the program and spans a full weekend during which participants have the opportunity to meet, hear, and present their work to editors and art directors. In between the two conferences, mentors read and provide back-and-forth editorial suggestions via email and/or telephone for the participants’ works-in-progress.

My mentor was Ellen Hopkins, and she was utterly amazing to work with. Not only is she a brilliant writer and editor, but she is also incredibly generous in sharing her considerable talent with other writers. I owe a great deal to Ellen; the Nevada SCBWI Mentorship Program is an experience I will never forget and that I highly, highly recommend.  

9.  I love your website and the interview?  How did you figure out how to do that? 

Thank you! I have to say that I am very proud of my website since I designed and built it myself. 

When I first found out that my book was going to be published I was dead set on hiring someone to design my website for me. After all, I wanted it to look professional! But I reconsidered my position when I got the pricing back from several website developers and found out that if someone else built my site it wouldn’t necessarily be easy to change the content myself, which was very important to me.

At about the same time as the professional website pricing was coming back, I decided to move from a PC to a Mac. It was then that I discovered the iWeb program, which is intuitive software that allowed me to create a great looking web site with all the bells and whistles I wanted.
 I enjoy design, so I decided to bite the bullet and just do it myself. It was a great choice for a first website. It took a lot of time and effort, but I am happy with the result. There may come a time that I will outgrow it, but it’s perfect for now.

As far as the video interview, that is something I really lucked into. A friend of mine set me up with a video recording studio as part of a new book venture that he was part of. The book venture didn’t happen in the end, but the studio was a class act and produced the video at the price they’d originally agreed to. As with the website, I “designed” the video, meaning that I wrote the script and more or less determined how it would be pieced together. I’m very pleased with how it turned out and I’ve found it to be a great marketing tool – perhaps better than a video trailer would have been. I’m thrilled that Penguin is currently linking to it on their site:

10.  You are a part of the Class of 2k9.  Has that helped you with the launch of your book? 

Yes! It has helped me in many ways, actually – far beyond the actual launch of my book. 

We are 22 debut middle grade and young adult authors whose books all come out in 2009, so we are all experiencing the same things this year as our books make their way into the world. Going through the process with others has been invaluable to me. There are so many questions that first time authors have – from timelines, to editorial work, to working with publicists, to marketing, to handling reviews. The whole experience is brand new and it has been extremely valuable to bounce stories off each other and to share information.

Perhaps best of all, we have formed a supportive community of people that really do care about each other. When one of us is going through a tough time, we all chime in with words of support. When one of us gets good news – like a great review or a movie option – we all celebrate together.

One example of this is how the whole group has rallied around our only male member – Albert Borris, author of Crash Into Me which releases July 7th. At the age of 49, Albert suffered a severe stroke at the end of last year. It was as shocking as it was debilitating. While Albert has worked hard and has made a full physical and mental recovery, he is still working on recovering his ability to communicate clearly, which has made it difficult for him to promote his book as he had initially hoped. So we, his “little sisters” in the Class of 2k9, have been trying to get the word out about Albert’s book by sending out ARCS for review, sending out press releases, and talking about Albert and Crash Into Me wherever we go. (If there are any bloggers or media out there who would like to receive our press release about Albert, please email me at Fran at francannonslayton dot com and I’ll see to it that you get you one immediately. We appreciate you helping us spread the word!)

11.     Are you working on something new? 


Yes, I am currently working on a middle grade fantasy tentatively titled Ship’s Boy, about a girl who wants to be a pirate. I am also working on a picture book or two.


Thank you so much, Fran, for taking the time to talk with us.

We're thrilled with your success!

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