Susan Hill Long + WHISTLE IN THE DARK Interview

Today we’re celebrating the release of Susan Hill Long’s WHISTLE IN THE DARK, which hit the shelves yesterday!

Whistle jkt legal

What Clem wants for his thirteenth birthday is a dog. What he gets is a miner’s cap. It’s the 1920s in Leadanna, Missouri, and money is tight in the Harding household. So, Clem, a gifted student and talented writer, must leave school and join Pap in the lead mines, spending his days digging in the suffocating dark beneath the crushing weight of the earth.

While searching for another way to help support his family Grampy’s suffering from miner’s consumption and little sister Esther with epilepsy Clem meets Lindy, the daughter of a local moonshiner, whose face bears a scar from a terrible accident. The two become friends, but soon a series of disasters strike, including a devastating tornado.

Clem’s friendship with Lindy and the devotion of a remarkable stray dog help him to reconcile his dreams with the reality of family responsibility and face some hard decisions about his future.

This beautifully written coming-of-age novel shines with true characters, a vivid setting, and heart-felt relationships.

From Cat Winters:

There seems to be a popular belief that books for kids and teens are either boy novels or girl novels, which isn’t always a fair assessment. How would you say Whistle in the Dark appeals to both genders?

 Clem asks the kinds of questions that are in the minds of every child – boy or girl: who am I? What if I die or if someone I know dies? Am I loved? What is my place in the world? Young readers of both genders appreciate humor and silliness, but they’re also ready and willing to grapple with the big questions.

 From Jessica Spotswood:

What inspired you to explore the lead mines of 1920s Missouri instead of the more typical, glamorous take on the Roaring Twenties?

 The story started with the idea of workers trapped underground while a tornado roared overhead. The Great Tri-State Tornado was a real event, and its time and place set the stage for the story.

 From J. Anderson Coats:

A challenging aspect of writing historical fiction for young readers is balancing historical accuracy with relatability.  How did you approach this in WHISTLE IN THE DARK?

 Child Labor legislation in the U.S. was a huge issue in 1920s. In my character Clem’s isolated hamlet in Missouri, child labor laws were largely condemned and ignored. By 1918, the first federal child labor act, signed into law in 1916, had been declared unconstitutional, and its amendment in 1924 was rejected by many states, including Missouri. Missouri state law actually prohibited children under 16 from working in the mines, and welfare superintendents were installed in some counties to enforce the law– but many counties determined not to have a superintendent, and the prevailing opinion was that children should work to support their families, and the State should stay out of it. Religious leaders, too, opposed child labor legislation as encouraging idleness in children and trampling on the rights of parents. So at the time of the story, a boy of 13 might well have had to grow up early and work in the mines, as did the uncle of one of my consultants on the story. Quit school after 8th grade? Go to work in the mines to support your family? No say in your own destiny? These aspects of the time and place seemed to me to be fundamentally relevant to a young reader.

 From Laura Golden:

I adore the title WHISTLE IN THE DARK. Where did this phrase come from and (if it doesn’t spoil any surprises in the book) how does it tie into the story?

 I’m glad you like the title, Laura! Like many of us, I experimented with different titles—the list could be a blog post in itself— before I hit on this one. There are all kinds of darkness, of course – the darkness of the mines where Clem works, the darkness of his spirit and his apparent future, the character Old Saw’s dark and dreadful stories. Clem’s friend Lindy, the daughter of a moonshiner, suggests he whistle in the dark—to face fear with optimism and courage; the title also refers to a superstitious belief that it was bad luck to whistle in the mines.

 From Sharon Biggs Waller:

How were you able to portray the conditions of the lead mine? Did you do any on-site research?

 There are scads of photos available through the national archives, as well as private collections offered for viewing online, and I became absolutely lost in them –fascinating! I also was privileged to interview a resident of the area, who kindly described the old mining settlement and the primitive conditions in old Leadanna. I didn’t have the opportunity to visit there, but hope to. I visited via Missouri State Parks and Historic Sites, explored the time through publications such as History of the Lead Belt of St. Francois County Missouri, 1924; The History of St. Joe Lead Company; a book called An Amazing City: A mini account of Webb City, Missouri when it was the site of the greatest lead and zinc mining field in the world. A person can dig up a lot of mining history.

 From Katherine Longshore:

What drew you to the character of Clem in particular? What do you love most about him and which (if any) of his character traits do you find most frustrating?

Clem reminded me of my father in some ways. Independent but loyal and duty-bound, a dreamer and thinker who pursued a better life from humble beginnings. The story started out—way back— as something of a tall tale. Clem told lots of stories, some of which I had to cut in later drafts. That was perhaps the most fun I had with the character – his storytelling, and the foil he meets in the miner Old Saw. 

author photo

Thank you so much for answering our questions, Sue!  If you want to know more about Susan Hill Long or WHISTLE IN THE DARK, please check out her website or follow her on Twitter.


About Katherine Longshore

Katherine Longshore is the author of GILT (Viking/Penguin May 2012), a story of friendship and betrayal set in the court of Henry VIII, and TARNISH (June 2013), the story of a young Anne Boleyn. You can learn more about her

2 thoughts on “Susan Hill Long + WHISTLE IN THE DARK Interview

  1. […] lead on the recent celebration of her new book, Courted) I’ll link to that excellent interview here.  The book enjoyed an exciting first year – appearing on Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2013, […]

  2. […] details factual events in the story. More can be learned by reading Long’s website and in a Q & A with other historical fiction writers. It’s true that Child Labor Laws were skirted in the […]

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