Whistle blower: 'Farfetched' dream earns Slayton rave reviews

facetime-slaytonFran Cannon Slayton

For a suburban-raised girl, Fran Cannon Slayton knows a lot about the romance of the railroads. She knows the difference between the sound of a steam engine and a diesel engine whistle. And she knows how the economics of a new technology killed a town like Rowlesburg, West Virginia, where her father grew up and where her grandfather was foreman for B&O in the 1940s.

Slayton never met her grandfather, but she heard all about him from the stories her father told her, stories that she channeled into a novel for young adults, When the Whistle Blows, that not only got published, but has garnered glowing reviews.

"An unassuming masterpiece," says Kirkus. "Nostalgia done right," according to the School Library Journal.

A former Charlottesville prosecutor, Slayton didn't really set out to be a writer, even though a nagging idea for a book hit her about the time she started law school. "I didn't want to admit I possibly wanted to be a novelist," she says. "It's like saying I wanted to be a super hero... so farfetched."

Actually, she did want to save the world, part of the reason she went into law. When she finished law school in 1994 and couldn't get the job of her dreams with Legal Aid, and after a year as the commonwealth's attorney in Lynchburg, she came back to Charlottesville and prosecuted child sexual abuse until 1999. "It was worthwhile," she says, while conceding, "It was painful. I was burned out."

Meanwhile, she worked on the "nagging idea" for a novel for 13 years, until it became too personal to ever show. Two things happened: She had a child and decided to get serious about writing and publication.

"My dad's stories were exciting adventures compared to my suburban life," she says. And that's how Jim Cannon's tales of growing up in Rowlesburg and swimming in the Cheat River in the 1940s made him a character in Fran Cannon Slayton's When the Whistle Blows.

And, yes, the story of her grandfather and his friends taking a deceased friend out of his coffin for one last drink is true.

Slayton, 42, is well aware that getting both published and well reviewed is a Cinderella story, and she calls Kent Brown, owner of Highlights for Children, who gave her a scholarship to go to the writers workshop in Chautauqua, New York, her fairy godfather. "In children's publishing, this workshop is legendary," she says. "It changed my life."

It was there she met her editor, who is shared by Charlottesville writer Kathy Erskine.

"It's hard, and it takes a lot of work to get accepted for publication, and to get rave reviews– that's quite a coup," says Erskine, who also shares a writers group with Slayton.

After more than a year since Whistle Blows was accepted for publication by Penguin division Philomel Books, the book comes out June 11, and Slayton begins a book tour that includes railroad-rich West Virginia, Ohio, and Illinois. "Now the rubber hits the road," says Slayton.

Or maybe steel wheels hit the tracks.
Slayton will read from and sign her book Saturday, June 13, from 2 to 4:30pm at New Dominion.

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