Sheila Slavich

Columbus author Sheila Slavich masterfully intertwines real-life historical events with fast paced fictional narrative in her new young adult novel Jumpin’ the Rails! The history of her antebellum home and the social politics of the Southern Civil War era provide inspiration for her latest project.

By Roberto Caligaris

Author Sheila Slavich currently lives in the historic Griggs Home which sits below Fort Tyler, a reconstructed Confederate Civil War Fort, just a mile west of the Chattahoochee River. Living in such a historic home made Slavich curious about the historical events that her home was witness to. With her background in journalism and writing, she began researching the history surrounding the region and asking acquaintances and friends questions concerning these sensitive issues about race and slavery. After 7 years of research and writing, Sheila Slavich is proud to announce Jumpin’ the Rails! is the recipient of the Literary Classics Seal of Approval. Slavich draws inspiration from her own life for the book. Her home is the touchpoint for the book’s historical setting, and her son is her inspiration for the main character of the novel.  Her experience of moving from Wisconsin to small-town Alabama and experiencing racial issues firsthand led her to explore historical racism in a modern context. SVM recently sat down with the author to find out more about what she learned during this process. 

Tell us the story behind the story. How did Jumpin’ the Rails come to be? It was a few days before my son’s Firs tGrade Brookstone class came on a field trip to tour our home and the Civil War fort that sits behind it.  I sat in the sunroom, looking at the cannon scars in the wall and paging through a folder filled with historic documents about the Battle of West Point. That was the beginning ofJumpin’ the Rails! – it began to take shape as I attempted to relate the events of long ago to my children, their friends and school groups who toured our home during the next several years.

The historical context of your book is during the Civil War; what message do you want readers to take away from your book? Fiction is excellent for teaching a time and a place or situations that a reader would otherwise never experience. My hope is that the reader will leave not only entertained but with a better understanding of why the war was fought, what it was like for individuals on both sides of the battle as well as from the perspective of people from a different race and of a different time.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing Jumpin’ the Rails? Historical research was the most challenging aspect of writing Jumpin’ the Rails! because some of the places, events and people I wrote in-depth about were unfamiliar to me. To have my characters interact in unfamiliar territory 150 years in the past meant I spent entire days and months researching maps of Gettysburg and the three-day Battle; its smell, its sounds, its weather conditions, and troop positions. I mapped out a route for my characters to travel through Pennsylvania and Virginia; first on foot and then on horseback. I’ve never ridden a horse in Virginia or anywhere else and so I researched that as well.

What difficulties are associated with mixing history and fiction together? Writing historical fiction is writing a fictional story with preset boundaries and requires detailed research. The fictional characters are able to live and act within the history but they are not allowed to change the greater historical outcome because then the novel moves to the genre of alternate history. My novel does have some minor elements of alternate history within the story, but it only involves the fictional characters. It does not affect or change the historical facts surrounding the Civil War.

How important is research and how do you approach researching for your novel? Research for a historical fiction novel is essential for the credibility of the novel and its success. It presents a challenge for the writer to maintain the history and yet allow the fictional characters to interact and develop their own unique perspective. My research began with an audio course on the Civil War from the University of Virginia. I managed to cover most of the war in the car during my children’s school commute from Lanett to Columbus. Reading books in the genre I was writing was also a part of my research and during that time I reread two of my favorite books, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Gone with The Wind. In addition, some of the Historical nonfiction I read was Killing Lincoln, and Confederates in the Attic. Also, the documentary on the Civil War by Ken Burns was insightful as were local historians who generously shared their knowledge of the war and our local involvement.

What have you learned from this experience? As a writer and now a published author, my appreciation for authors has deepened as has my understanding of the publishing process. Editing is the most grueling stage when done properly and the initial release is the most unsettling. Beyond my concern that the final draft sent to the printer would certainly have errors; I was most concerned that the sensitive issues of slavery and race would be hurtful to my readers. In addition, I learned a great deal about the Civil War. I have many favorite findings from this experience. One of them is Abraham Lincoln’s perspective on the war. He believed that the lives lost on both sides of the conflict were necessary to heal our country; that neither side was blameless.

This book received the Literary Classics Seal of Approval, what does that mean to you as a writer? As a writer, it is the reassurance that I created a piece of literature that is not only worth reading but more importantly educates and promotes positive values. The Literary Classics Seal of Approval means that the review committee, comprised of writers and publishing professionals, reviewed my novel and then recommended it for school and home libraries. I was thrilled to receive this honor and excited to think that my book will now rest on more library shelves and on the nightstand of young readers. The Literary Classics review of Jumpin’ the Rails! is available at the Literary Classics website as well as with my novel’s reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

Your current residence has a historical connection to the Civil War, tell us about it. My home, The Griggs House, was caught in the cross-fire of the last fort to fall in the Civil War. The Union took over the house during the battle; seeking shelter within its 18-inch limestone walls. At the end of the day-long battle, the house had withstood direct cannon fire from the Confederate Fort and the wounded and dying from both sides were brought there as it served as a field hospital. My 1858 Greek Revival home is on the Alabama Register of Landmarks & Heritage. The cannon marks on the sunroom wall, the stories of the events surrounding the Battle of West Point, and some artifacts from that day 152 years ago, still remain. On the anniversary of the battle, the Fort Tyler Association hosts reenactments at the reconstructed Fort Tyler. From our backyard, we hear the laughter and chatter of the tours interacting with the re-enactors and an occasional musket fire throughout the day.

What books are on your nightstand? What are you currently reading? My bible and my iPad are on my nightstand. I became a fan of e-books during my research which sometimes involved reading late at night when my husband was asleep. One of my favorite reads in the last year was Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird was one of my favorites from college and to have more to read from Lee was a treasure to hold. I am currently reading Our Man in Charleston by Christopher Dickey. It’s a novel about a British secret agent in the Civil War South.