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Copy Boy: An Interview with Shelley Blanton-Stroud

June 6, 2020

Shelley Blanton-Stroud – Author of Copy Boy

Copy Boy is the debut novel by Shelley Blanton-Stroud, an author and academic based in Sacramento.

It’s the height of the Great Depression. Seventeen- year-old Jane is caught between an abusive father and manipulative mother. Then one day her father’s physical abuse gets too much for her. Jane snaps, attacking her father with a crowbar and leaving him for dead in an irrigation ditch. She flees to San Francisco where, turned down for job after job, she calculates that men have more economic opportunities than women. Jane disguises herself as a man to be hired as a Copy Boy for a local newspaper – The Prospect. All goes well for a while. But every time a person reinvents themselves, the past is not far behind. Jane’s new identity could unravel when she spots a photograph of her father in the paper with his arm around a girl who was later viciously attacked with a crowbar and left in a coma.

Is her father still alive? Was the assault on the girl a message and will Jane be next? It’s an intriguing premise, skilfully executed, in a narrative which merges suspense with some finely realised noir period detail. I had the pleasure of interviewing Shelley Blanton-Stroud about Copy Boy:

Interviewer: Your portrayal of the Dust Bowl Depression era is brimming with rich and realistic detail. How did your family history inform your writing on this subject?

Blanton-Stroud: Thank you for that. It means a lot to me.

My novel had its origin in the family stories I heard growing up. My father, Kelly Blanton, is one of ten redheaded siblings, eight boys and two girls. They migrated to California from Texas. They lived in Federal work camps, Hoovervilles, like those described in Copy Boy and Grapes of Wrath. The children of his family (and really most of the children he knew) worked alongside their parents, before and after school, picking cotton. As he has often pointed out, it’s hard to do your homework at night after picking if you don’t have electricity, something that inspired him on behalf of his students when he later became superintendent of schools in Kern County. His family stories provoked me to research the larger phenomenon of the Okie migration and the experience of settling, unwelcome, in California towns unready for so many poor people in need of work.

My mother, Yvonne Blanton, is the only child of a farmer and his (also farmer) wife. Though my mother is an only child, and did not have to work in the fields, she was a victim of polio, a horrid disease of that era, which put her in the hospital with no visitors for almost a year as a toddler, also altering her ability to walk. She continues to experience great nerve pain as a result, even now, in her eighties. Yet my mother has always been beautiful, artistic, special. Her experience is at the root of research I did into Dorothea Lange, the WPA documentary photographer who also suffered from polio. Her life provides so much source material for my character Grete.

Interviewer: We are possibly entering, due to the pandemic, another Depression era. Why do you think noir is still relevant nearly a century after your novel is set?

Blanton-Stroud: Protagonists in a Noir story often squirm under the thumb of morally unfit authorities. They are alienated, often a victim of class confrontation. And even when they work to answer the plot’s central question, they generally find that the real question at its core is impossible to answer. There just is no right answer. Noir auteur Megan Abbott adds to this—“In eras tinged with chaos…noir thrives.”

Immoral authorities, alienation, class confrontation, unanswerable questions, chaos? This is a very noir epoch.

Interviewer: Jane disguising herself as a boy is central to your narrative. Gender identity is freely discussed now and considered quite fluid. Did you find much material on gender identity from the period?

Blanton-Stroud: Well of course there have always been cross-dressing women. Even in the 18th century, women enlisted and had careers as soldiers and sailors while pretending to be men—they made much more money doing so than they might have made in female professions. History also describes many women putting on maleness to protect themselves against rape or attack. But also, of course, there have always been women whose cross-dressing reflects their sexual preferences or their attitude toward the rules and limitations of gender. In San Francisco at the time Copy Boy is set, the LGBT community was first fully forming, particularly in the North Beach area. The first lesbian bar, Mona’s on Union Street, opened in 1934, featuring cross-dressing waitresses.

My character, Jane, cross-dresses to get work in the Great Depression. But she’s not just motivated by extreme need. She’s also motivated by ambition. She discovers that “putting on the male” allows her to behave in ways that lead to her professional success. Yet Jane’s age and the extreme circumstances that send her to San Francisco also make her more open to the idea of human fluidity than a typical young woman might be in 1937.

Historically, even when women have worn men’s clothes for practical reasons, like to get a job or earn more money, doing so has meant they were willing to disrupt cultural expectations. They were, as Jane is, difficult women. That disruption is at the heart of things.

Interviewer: You have had a lot of experience helping writers. Did this come in handy when writing your first novel?

Blanton-Stroud: You might think so! However, this actually flowed in the opposite direction. Deciding to be a fiction writer in my fifties required that I put myself at risk in a hundred new ways. Working with peers in critique groups, submitting my work to authoritative strangers, risking rejection, attempting to improve post-rejection—all this, I found, really helped me in my teaching and my professional coaching. I know how it feels to take such risk and keep at it in spite of disappointment, and I remember this when I’m setting up teaching processes, trying to make them as helpful and useful and humane as possible.

Interviewer: Jane struggles to escape from one world and connect with another. Is this a theme which is important to you and does it come from personal experience?

Blanton-Stroud: What a great question. It’s really important to me. I don’t have the drive to “escape” some people do. However, I’m obsessed over whether we are who we are at birth, our particular DNA determining everything, or whether we’re a product of our childhood experience, or whether we can just “decide what to be and go be it,” as the Avett Brothers sing. I like the fact that Jane believes in her ability to do that, to make herself what she wants. And even though she tries to clean up her Okie accent, she can’t entirely—the dust gets in you. I believe we should be able to take our authentic selves with us without it getting in the way of entering new worlds. That obviously doesn’t work a lot of the time. We sometimes have to switch codes to pass in the short term. The friction caused by this “faking” it fascinates me.

Thank you so much for your fascinating questions. I’ve really loved answering them.

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