Thank you so much for sharing your book with me and agreeing to do a Q&A for my readers.
My pleasure. Thank you for asking me.
Give us a quick summary of When The Men Were Gone!
The novel is based on a true story of Tylene Wilson who coached football in Texas during World War II. The focus, however, is on her journey and about why she sought to become the coach. It’s also a father-daughter story, which I love because it reminds me of my relationship with my own father, and it’s a love story, which reminds me of my relationship with my husband.
When The Men Were Gone is your first novel, what inspired the story?
Yes, this is my first novel. As a career sports journalist and college journalism and media arts professor, I’ve always been interested in writing a book. I’ve had a few false starts. But when I discovered Tylene’s story from her own grandniece, I knew in an instant that this was the story I would complete. I was inspired by her break from gender expectations -- a woman of the ‘40s who would enter such a public “men only” world. Throw in the fact that she coached football, my favorite sport, and it was too good to resist.
You, just like Tylene, are a female football coach. Do you feel like you and Tylene are a lot alike or share some definite differences?
I became a college football assistant coach because of Tylene. She inspired me. I’d like to think that I am a lot like Tylene, but because she did it in the 1940s, I suspect she was much tougher than I am. Athletes today are already more open to women coaching them, something Tylene did not experience. Where I think we may have had more similarities, it seems, is in her coaching and in my reporting. In 1986, while with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, I was named a Dallas Cowboys beat writer, the first female from any news outlet to be named to the beat. That was groundbreaking, much like what Tylene did as a coach. Had I not had that experience, I don’t think I could have written Tylene’s story with such authenticity. I wrote her story before I became a coach, so sports writing was my original connection with her.
Unlike many of the authors we’ve interviewed so far, your story was based on real-life events that you had to research ahead of time. How difficult was that to do while you writing?
Because I’m a career reporter, the research was something I was accustomed to. I love research, and I actually set out to write a biography on Tylene. When I discovered the story had been lost to time, I had a decision to make: drop it or write a novel. I couldn’t drop it, so I novelized the story so I could get the word out on what she and, as I discovered, at least three other women did during World War II. I believe we need to know that part of our history and give credit to the women who stepped up not only as riveters, pilots and scientists, but as football coaches, as well.
How long did it take you to get this book published, from its initial conception to the release date?
Seven years. I first heard about Tylene during the summer of 2011. I spent the next three years doing research here and there with no sense of urgency but with complete determination. The two years that followed were the years I wrote her story while earning my MFA. After that, I let the manuscript sit for a year. I didn’t touch it, not once. Then in the spring of 2017 I found my agent, she sold it to Morrow/HarperCollins, and here we are.
Can you share with us what your journey was like as you sought an agent for this book and, later, a publisher?
I actually had an agent before teaming up with Andrea. But he got sick and told me he had no idea how long his recovery might be, so he suggested I find new representation. (Good news: He’s fine now.) I found Andrea shortly thereafter through the Manuscript Academy. I signed up for ten minutes with her so she could review my query letter. She said she liked the query, so after that, we talked about the novel, and she asked me to send my manuscript to her. I did, and about a week later she offered representation. After that, I talked to author friends who told me to give Andrea up to eighteen months to sell the manuscript. I was stunned when she sold it in fourteen business days. It’s been nothing but pure joy working with her and with the folks at Morrow/HarperCollins.
What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome in completing your book?
The biggest hurdle was how I was going to write it once I discovered the true story had been lost to time. I planned to write her story the way I write long-form journalism pieces, but with the story lost to time, I knew I was going to write it as a novel. The hurdle was, I’d spent my entire professional life writing as a journalist, and suddenly I was faced with writing as a novelist, a totally different writing style.
What other books and authors inspire you?
I love every word written by Truman Capote. I’d be thrilled just reading his signature! I’ve read his books more than once, and I think I’ve read Breakfast at Tiffany’s a half dozen times. What I like about him is he’s written both fiction and non-fiction. I loved In Cold Blood, which is not typically the kind of book I’d be drawn to. I also love Laura Hillenbrand’s work. Seabiscuit is one of my favorites. I also read a lot of non-fiction, especially memoir. My favorite is Katharine Graham’s memoir, Personal History, which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize. I cried when I finished the book because I wasn’t ready to be finished.
I was fortunate to get to read some of Tylene’s story while we were in the Mountainview MFA program together. How do you feel like going through an MFA program helped you to write and publish When the Men Were Gone?
I enjoyed the MFA program, and I especially enjoyed working with Diane Les Becquets. She “got” from Day One what I was trying to do. She’s also from the south, went to college in the south, and understood what football means to Texas. She also told me the first week of workshops that my work already had a voice, and she encouraged me to keep that voice. She was a Godsend.
Part of Tylene’s story deals heavily with opposition she faced based on her gender. Did you draw on any personal experiences to feel the hurt and emotion she felt in these scenes?
Absolutely. I don’t think I could have written Tylene’s story with any level of authenticity had I not had my own life experiences as a female sportswriter in the early 1980s. I understood her from the very beginning.
What is the number one thing you want readers to know about you, Tylene or this book before they read it?
This is a great question because there are two ways to read this novel. One, for its storytelling. If someone wants to read about the journey of a strong woman, and read it to be taken back to 1944, then it’s a quick, easy read. But there are many subtle messages throughout the book that if you want to dig into the story and not just “read” it, you’ll find lots of social commentary. Plus, I’ll let you in on something: The prologue is a metaphor for the book. What I’d like people to know about Tylene and about me, I guess, would be that we are both determined women who aren’t afraid to do something bold.
What is the first book that made you cry?
I can’t remember, but it was probably The Cat in the Hat. I couldn’t believe two kids were left home alone!
What is your writing Kryptonite?
Wow, good question. When I know what I want to write, I just sit down and go for it. When I don’t, I always think I need a nap, as if a nap will lead to all kinds of writing energy! When I get anywhere near a pillow, it has a lure that I can’t resist! I can’t even look at a pillow if I want to get work done. Wow, this question has made me face my demons!
What advice do you have for aspiring writers looking to publish their first novel?
Writing is hard, but it is also so joyful. My advice is to write that first draft with reckless abandon. Have fun with it. Leave the painful work for the revision and editing process, the time to work like a surgeon. And don’t let your Kryptonite (pillow) get the better of you. If you want to be a published author, you will be, as long as you don’t give up.
What is your favorite book to recommend to others?
I think others should read Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And when they have finished reading it, they should then start reading it again.