An Interview with Fran Cannon Slayton
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You’re a Virginian - what made you write about the state of West Virginia?

I’m a first generation Virginian.  But my mother and father, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and most of my cousins are all from the wild, wonderful state of West Virginia.  Although I love my home state, West Virginia holds a very special place in my heart because of my frequent visits there when I was a child. 

Is the setting in When the Whistle Blows - the town of Rowlesburg - a real place?

You bet it is!  And it’s beautiful.  It’s where my father grew up.  But sadly, when the train engines switched from steam to diesel in the 1940’s and 50’s, many jobs in Rowlesburg were lost forever - as they were in many railroading towns across America.  And in 1985 a devastating flood swept through the town, taking with it many houses, memories, hopes, and tears.  But although it’s seen hard times, Rowlesburg is a tough old girl.  She’ll be around for a long, long time.

By the way, how do you pronounce Rowlesburg, anyway?

Rolls-burg.  And the old Mallet engines mentioned in the book are pronounced “Malley.”


It’s rumored that you come from royal lineage - is that true?

Well, sort of.  I come from a long line of Buckwheat Princesses.  What?  You’ve never heard of a Buckwheat Princess?  Every year in Kingwood, West Virginia (which is about twenty minutes away from Rowlesburg) they hold the Buckwheat Festival, an amazing county fair complete with livestock, midway rides, artisan crafts, music and most important, a never ending supply of buckwheat cakes and whole hog sausage!  Back in the old days, all the county schools elected Buckwheat Princesses to be part of the royal court.  My mom was one, along with my aunt Barb, my Aunt Mary, and my cousin Carolyn!  (No, I wasn’t one - but I claim it’s only because I grew up in Virginia!!)

Are the events in When the Whistle Blows real events that actually happened?

No.  When the Whistle Blows is pure fiction.  But some of the situations are based upon tidbits of stories my father told me about growing up in Rowlesburg.

What the heck is “dieselization,” anyway?

Dieselization refers to the period in history when train engines (and other engines, too) switched from steam power to diesel.  Steam engines used coal to heat water, making steam to power the engine.  This was very labor-intensive, requiring many employees to operate and maintain the trains.  The more powerful diesel powered engines became popular because they were more economical for railroad companies.  As steam engines were phased out of service, many railroad employees who had once worked on the steam engines were no longer needed, and they were either transferred or laid off.  Today, almost all railroads worldwide use diesel engines, and steam engines can only be found in the hearts of old-time railroaders, museums such as the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, and in a number of wonderful historical societies, state parks, and companies that preserve this aspect of railroading heritage such as the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park in Cass, West Virginia.

Do you have relatives who actually worked on the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad?

I sure do.  My grandfather was the foreman of the B&O Railroad in Rowlesburg in the 1940’s.  And my Uncles Bill, Mike, and Dick worked on the B&O, too, as did my cousin, Roger.  My cousin Kevin still works there.

You’re not old enough to have experienced the 1940’s first hand - how did you research the era?

Thank you for noticing how not old I am!  Just like Jimmy, the main character in When the Whistle Blows, I guess you could say railroading is sort of in my blood.  Not quite the same way as it’s in Jimmy’s blood - for him, the railroad is everything, and it’s grounded in his everyday world.  For me, it’s more in the ether - a part of my family history that’s always just been there; a part of Rowlesburg that I have always loved, but missed out on because I was too young to remember how it used to be.  Writing this book helped me discover the Rowlesburg - and the steam engines - that I missed out on.  It helped me connect with a grandfather and uncle I never knew.  And I was able to do it all because my father, uncles, aunts and cousins were willing to share some of their wonderful memories with me.  So a little advice to the elders: share your stories with the kids and grandkids.  And a little advice to the kids:  listen and wonder and make up your own truth from it all!

You had a secret dream when you were writing When the Whistle Blows - what was it?

This is hard to admit out loud but I wanted somehow to revitalize Rowlesburg again.  To bring jobs back to a town that once bustled with activity in the 1940’s.  To bring people there to see the beauty of its mountains and the generosity of the people.  To return it to the hometown it once was for a wonderful boy named Jimmy Cannon.  Initially, part of my dream was to raise enough money to help buy the old high school that Jimmy attends in the book.  I’m happy to report that the owner of High School has recently given the school to the Rowlesburg Revitalization Committee!  So now my new dream is that When the Whistle Blows will bring enough attention to the town to help them raise money to renovate the school and return it to a functioning, central and vital part of the community.  
http://www.rowlesburgguide.com/http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-ZRF7xolL8http://www.prestoncounty.com/pcbf.htmhttp://www.borail.org/http://www.cassrailroad.com/http://www.rowlesburg.org/aboutus.htmlhttp://www.rowlesburg.org/aboutus.htmlhttp://www.rowlesburg.org/rhs.htmlhttp://www.rowlesburg.org/rhs.htmlhttp://www.rowlesburg.org/rhs.htmlshapeimage_5_link_0shapeimage_5_link_1shapeimage_5_link_2shapeimage_5_link_3shapeimage_5_link_4shapeimage_5_link_5shapeimage_5_link_6shapeimage_5_link_7shapeimage_5_link_8shapeimage_5_link_9

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COPYRIGHT © 2008-09 BY FRAN CANNON SLAYTON

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