Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Q&A with Shelley Blanton-Stroud

Shelley Blanton-Stroud is the author of the new novel Copy Boy. She teaches college writing and is the co-director of Stories on Stage Sacramento. Her work has appeared in various publications, including Brevity and Cleaver. She lives in Sacramento. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Copy Boy, and how closely was it inspired by your own family history?

A: I was inspired by a story my dad always told me. When he was a boy, he lived in a Depression-era Federal labor camp like you see in the movie Grapes of Wrath.

In the tent-cabin next door lived his friend—let’s call him Buddy. Buddy’s mother told him to drag Buddy’s drunk father into the backseat of their car, drive him a distance down the road and leave him there. Buddy’s father’s drinking had put their family at risk too many times.

Buddy was too upset to do what his mother said, so my father did it. Buddy’s father sobbed and begged in the back seat, while Buddy sobbed and accused in the front seat. My dad—just a kid, too young to drive—got that jalopy maybe 20-30 miles down the highway, pulled Buddy’s dad out of the backseat, and drove Buddy and himself back to camp.

My now-83-year-old dad says that you have to know this story to know who he is.

A scene related to this story begins my novel. Most of the details are changed. But at its heart it’s still about an adolescent asked to do something they shouldn’t have to do, which either reveals or creates an inner nerve that will help them survive all kinds of difficulty.

Q: How much research did you do to write the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I researched the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression for several years before I knew what I intended to do with it, ultimately circling around two people from the 1930s—documentary photographer Dorothea Lange and society columnist Herb Caen.

What surprised me most was learning the accommodations Lange had to make in order to become an iconic photographer. Most striking to me, she put her children in foster care in order to create the time and space she needed to do the work that would lead to great humanitarian change—bringing food to families starving in the Depression.

To help so many, she had to limit what she gave her own family. Thinking about that conflict provoked an awful lot for my characters, who must also make difficult choices, accept painful tradeoffs.

Q: What do your character Jane's experiences say about women's roles in the newspaper business of the 1930s?

A: You can see a little bit about this new 1930s female-reporter type in popular old movies like The Front Page or His Girl Friday. Several real women reporters inspired this type.

War reporting was still fairly uncodified work and sensing possibility in post-‘20s female rule-breaking, notable women like Margaret Bourke-White, Virginia Cowles, Frances Davis, and Martha Gellhorn became examples for the women writers who read them.

My protagonist, Jane, longs to be like magazine reporter Martha Gellhorn, who covered both the Spanish Civil War and World War II as a literary journalist. Gellhorn married Ernest Hemingway in Spain, but then left him to cover World War II.

I think Jane’s experiences mirror the reality that to get and keep such jobs at that time required a very thick skin and a willingness to leave everything you’ve got on the floor.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the novel?

A: I hope they exercise their empathy to see that people who do difficult things, important things, often must give up other meaningful things to do it. And that sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes not. I also hope they come away with respect for gritty girls.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My work in progress follows four competitors, each uniquely motivated to compete, according to specific historical losses and longings. Most of the story takes place in the world of contemporary, world-class women’s tennis. I’m having an awful lot of fun writing this one, which also focuses on gritty girls.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: You should know that I have a Mentor Books shelf in my office, where I put books that made me want to keep writing Copy Boy, for one reason or another.

On that shelf are Lily King’s Euphoria, Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, Suzanne Rindell’s The Other Typist, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, and Herb Caen’s Baghdad by the Bay. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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