Performance of Tomboy: A Jane Benjamin Novel at Stories on Stage Sacramento and Q&A with authors Shelley Blanton-Stroud and Dorothy Rice.
Hi, this is Shelley. What a treat it was to see a scene from TOMBOY performed at Stories on Stage Sacramento and then to get a Q & A with author Dorothy Rice. Here’s a little of my bio:
I grew up in California’s Central Valley, the daughter of Dust Bowl immigrants who made good on their ambition to get out of the field. I recently retired from teaching writing at Sacramento State University and still consult with writers in the energy industry. I co-direct Stories on Stage Sacramento, where actors perform the stories of established and emerging authors. I serve as President of the Board of 916 Ink, an arts-based creative writing nonprofit for children, and serve on the Board of Advisors for the Gould Center for Humanistic Studies at Claremont McKenna College. Copy Boy was my first Jane Benjamin Novel. Tomboy is my second. The third, Flyboy, will come out in November 2023. (She Writes Press) My writing has been a finalist in the Sarton Book Awards, IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards, Killer Nashville’s Silver Falchion Award, the American Fiction Awards, and the National Indie Excellence Awards. I and my husband live in Sacramento surrounded by photos of our out-of-town sons, their wonderful partners, and a lifetime of beloved dogs.
Here is a link to the performance by the fantastic actor, Gabby Battista and Q&A with Dorothy Rice at Stories on Stage Sacramento:
Here is a snippet from TOMBOY: A Jane Benjamin Novel at Stories on Stage Sacramento
There is a triggering incident in Copy Boy where the Jane character fights her drunk, tragic father and leaves him by the side of the road, thinking that he’s dead, and runs away to San Francisco, disguises herself as a boy in order to work with the newspaper, which is her dream, thinking her daddy’s dead, and that sort of propels her new life. Was there some incident like that, from family lore that triggered anything important in this second book in this series.
I want just be clear about one thing. I never beat up my dad and left him for a dead in a ditch. And he was never a drunk, tragic figure.
Just to be clear.
In that story you were referring to, my dad was more like the Jane person and forced to do something that no child should have to do in order to meet adult and family needs for money. He did, at 12 years old, drive his best friend’s daddy, who was drunk and vomiting, and had been spending all the family money, put him in the back seat, drove him 30 miles away to Shafter, left him on the side of the road and drove back to the tent. That family story I’d always heard worked its way into Copy Boy very explicitly. Though, I changed it totally.
But my dad always said, living in Hoovervilles tents, it’s impossible really to be a child in that situation. So of course, if you go pick cotton before school and you pick cotton after school, and by the time you get back to your tent, it’s dark and you don’t have electricity, you don’t have time do your homework. And so you don’t do the things a kid is supposed to do.
It always moved me when he would talk about that because, though he grew up that way, he wound up getting a doctorate and becoming the Kern County Superintendent of Schools, among a number of other colorful things. But he taught me that children who are impoverished cannot be expected to meet the same expectations as everybody else, unless somebody makes it possible for them to step up and get to a place where it can be done.
I tried to invest Jane with some of that because, you know, in my conversation with Sue Staats for an interview, Sue said, Jane is so badly behaved. She is, oh my God, I’m so glad she’s not my daughter. She’s terrible, but there are reasons for it. Because when you are trying to survive and you don’t have all this stuff you need to survive, you find a way. And so even though the story you heard tonight didn’t come literally or explicitly from a family story, the germ of it came from family experience of living in a tent where children hear things they’re not supposed to hear and learn things they probably shouldn’t learn at that age.
At what point did you know this was going to be a series, because when I read earlier versions of Copy Boy I always thought of it as a standalone. And then, then Jane kind of took on a life.
I think it’s funny that you asked that question because you and I both signed up for a year long workshop called Book in a Year with author Ellen Sussman, in Sonoma county. It was a fantastic thing. Every month we’d get together and work on those books. And I had decided I was going to write this tennis book. And I spent that damn year writing this stupid tennis book.
At the end of it. I showed it to Ellen and she’s like, You know, this is so well written and it just doesn’t work, you know? And I said, I think it’s because I hate it!
The truth was, even at the beginning of that year, I knew I wasn’t done with Jane because I love mystery series. I really, really do. But also I love Jane not as a 17 year old then a 19 year old, but I love the idea of an aged woman 1985, this super cool, ideal crone kind of woman.
She’d be an icon, this really powerful columnist. And she would hob nob with everybody famous, but she would always be brought right back to how she started in the dirt and in a tent. And when she got ticked off, the “ain’t” would slip back out, no matter how hard she worked to abolish it.
So I knew I needed to do a series because I want to make Jane age.
Any questions from the audience?
Shelley, I know quite a bit of this is based upon family history. You simply add to transform it. How much and what did you need to research to make it work?
The family history part is inspiration. And then there was research. Anybody who’s a writer in here probably knows research is so fantastic because when you’re researching, you’re not writing.
But let me tell you about some non-family research.
I went to a book club and told them I was interested in female ambition through the decades. Like, how would a really aggressively, obnoxiously ambitious girl like Jane come up through the thirties and the forties and the fifties?
And I said, it seems like sport is the perfect place to look at female ambition. You know, because it’s so explicit. You’re trying to win, you know, trying to beat somebody. The book club leader, Carolyn Martin, said, Well then you need to read this biography of Alice marble, who was the Wimbledon champion in 1939, who just so happened to grow up in San Francisco. She learned to play tennis on the free courts on in Golden Gate Park and was a fascinating woman, a champion. She sang in nightclubs. She designed the Wonder Woman costume. She was the first editor of the Wonder Woman comic strip. She was also a spy in World War II and some of what she uncovered wound up playing a role in the Nuremberg Trials.
That fabulous research did not all go in this book and it breaks my heart that I couldn’t create a character based entirely on Alice Marvel. But the research inspired the character of Tommie.
A second thing I’ll say about research is, I needed Jane to get from San Francisco to New York where she would board the RMS Queen Mary. So I reached out to the train museum librarian, Chris Rockwell, and he said, I’ll put a couple volunteers on this. Two weeks later, I had a 19 page single space report in which volunteers Jeff Asay and John Privara aimed to “Get Jane to New York.” They shared every possible train that was running on that date, all the different prices, what the poor people would do. How much would the Pullman car cost? What could you eat in the diner? So I put it all in there. And when I got it back from my editor, she said, Oh my God, this is amazing. This is so great. I love it. You know, it’s gotta go.
What component of your character or world building are you proudest of?
I’m proud that I love Jane so much because she is a difficult girl. We do not wanna go out to dinner with Jane. She would make bad things happen in our meal and humiliate us in front of the other diners. But I love her. So there’s enough struggle, enough unfair things she’s experienced that I care about her.
But as for the writing thing I’m most proud of… I am a very sedentary person. I’ve never been in a fight. I’ve scarcely ever climbed a tree. And Jane is so physical, I had to do research about how you fight. I had to look it up and watch videos and read articles.
I’m incredibly proud of this, and I really care a lot about it in the writing I’m doing right now. I love the choreography of movement. Even when I watch TV shows or movies, I love it. When I can tell it’s done well, I think, Look how this moves to this, which moves to this. When not one move is unnecessary? It almost never happens, but there are a few places where I get Jane up a tree, literal or figurative. I am so proud I can get her up and down that tree. So proud.
I grew up in California’s Central Valley, the daughter of Dust Bowl immigrants who made good on their ambition to get out of the field. I recently retired from teaching writing at Sacramento State University and still consult with writers in the energy industry. I co-direct Stories on Stage Sacramento, where actors perform the stories of established and emerging authors, and serve on the advisory board of 916 Ink, an arts-based creative writing nonprofit for children. I’ve also served on the Writers’ Advisory Board for the Belize Writers’ Conference. Copy Boy is my first Jane Benjamin Novel. Tomboy (She Writes Press 2022) will be my second. The third, Working Girl, will come out in November 2023. My writing has been a finalist in the Sarton Book Awards, IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards, Killer Nashville’s Silver Falchion Award, the American Fiction Awards, and the National Indie Excellence Awards. I and my husband live in Sacramento with an aging beagle, Ernie, and many photos of our out-of-town sons and their wonderful partners.
To find out more about Shelley Blanton-Stroud and her books, and to sign up for her newsletter, go here. https://shelleyblantonstroud.com