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An Interview with Sylvia Wilkinson

Author of BIG CACTUS

 

 

Q:
You were one of the first women to work in a race car pit. How did you get involved in the world of professional racing? Were there challenges you faced as a woman that you did not expect?

 

SW: As a woman, I pretty much expected all the challenges.  But I must add that racing was no different than teaching.  I resigned in protest at UNC when I discovered that the men they hired to do short term writer in residence stints made more than I did for a whole year. And most of them had far thinner resumes than I did.   In the sixties, I was thrown out of stock car builder and driver Banjo Matthews racing shop when I went to pick up some fuel for a racer friend with the comment: "Git that woman outta here.  We got a race car going."  I was dragged out from the paddock to the parking lot at Daytona by a stock car crew when I was working sealing wheels for a friend's sports car (the weekend was a twin bill with stock and sports cars both racing) because women weren't allowed near the stock cars.  As everyone knows now, this no females rule is long gone with women doing most of the pit interviews for all of the speed sports while the men (I'd never trade places with the men now!) do their commentary in coats and ties in a booth high above the action.  Funny incident in the seventies: a track official for stock car racing came up to me and said' "Great news for you, Sylvia.  We have decided to let you girls in the pits for an hour at every event."  Up until then, I can say he knew I was a woman but he found out at that moment that I wasn't what my mama would call a lady.

When women went to the sprint car races in California with their driver partners, they were handed tickets to sit in the grandstands.  I read the rule book and it said "Pit men must wear white." (so people in the pits were more visible during the night races for safety reasons) so I put on white jeans and sweatshirt and got in line to buy a pit pass.  The woman who was doing the passes while looking at a clipboard said: "Name and twenty dollars," I said Sylvia Wilkinson and handed her a twenty.  She looked up with a grin and saw that I wasn't a boy named Sylvia and handed me my pass. Thus the sprint car pit presence for women was achieved.  Not very tough. 

I worked my way into professional racing as a writer but mostly as a timer/scorer.  I started my own business BC, Before Computers, working for individual teams from Indy to Le Mans.  I loved it and thrived on the pressure.  The Indy team I worked for had 18 members, two of them women.  We timed and scored the cars in a stand between the fuel rigs and we made sandwiches to feed the crew, putting their names on their sandwich packages and putting them into their tool boxes.  There was no resentment and all of us had the same challenge - we wanted to be on the team that won. And we were: the Indy 500 and the series championship.  We had a lot of good laughs: when they got through sewing all the advertisement patches on my team shirt, it stood up without me because I was so little.

Sports car racing has always been open to women: corner workers, drivers, crew members.  Another world entirely, since I first got involved in the early sixties, so naturally that is where I went to do my first adult book on racing.  The second racing book was a history of stock car racing which I did because my publisher asked me to write it.  It was an education for me to listen to the old guys talk about the beginnings of stock car racing because I had always been shut out of it.  But, you know, in my opinion, much of the realness is gone now from stock car to sports car racing.  Too much technology.  Bunch of people in the pit area looking at computer screens.  Ugh. 

 

Q:
Tell us why you decided to write a racing series for Grosset & Dunlap under the name “Eric Speed.”

SW: It wasn't my idea: the series or the pen name.  When I was researching The Stainless Steel Carrot (my non-fiction account of the BRE racing team with driver John Morton competing in the 2.5 series) in the early seventies, I received a phone call while I was in the California racing shop of the BRE team.  The man identified himself as Andrew Swenson and said he was better known as Franklin W. Dixon, the author of the Hardy Boys, and he was interested in having me write a new series for the Stratemeyer Syndicate that dealt with four kids who go racing, two boys and two girls called the Wynn and Lonnie Racing Books.  Just as I was saying "Who is this, really?" one of the guys started the engine dyno, totally drowning out the voice on the phone line.  I held the phone helplessly until the engine screaming was shut down, assuming my caller had hung up (this was of course before cell phones so I was stuck where i stood).  I put my ear to the phone and heard a very excited voice saying: "You're right up to your knees in it, aren't you?  I knew you were the girl for me when I read about your interests in the Charlotte Observer, that not only could you write but you were a racing enthusiast."

He went on to explain that I would be Eric Speed and could never reveal that I was the author of the books; that he would help me work out the mystery plots and together we would incorporate my knowledge of racing with his knowledge of mystery plotting until I felt comfortable to do the whole works on my own.  The books would all be the same size: 180 pages typed on a pica typewriter with 18 chapters, 10 pages to a chapter with a "cliff hanger" at the end of each chapter: Example -  Nancy Rae screamed: "Look out, Wynn!"  Back then you had to hit an apostrophe and back space with a period to make an exclamation point - I did a lot of that.  The books were to be sold in fine bookstores like the K Mart for $2.50 and I would get three grand a book.  It took me 36 days to write them: write a chapter, then rewrite and type it the next day.  Good money back then.

I had to tell everyone I was a ghost writer.  Pretty awkward not to reveal what I was up to but I kept their secret for a while until a newspaper ran an article that headlined: "Who is Eric Speed?  Sylvia, that's who."  The next day I got a phone call reprimanding me, but shortly after that the Syndicate was sold and the books were no longer produced. I wrote four of them and farmed out two to a friend who wrote for Car & Driver, Bill Fishburn.  I had visited Andrew Swenson in New Jersey and found that he was bedridden, dying of bone cancer.  Even though his days were numbered, we had great fun doing the books and it was a pleasure to work with him - I believe he was Hardy Boys' author #3.  For example he asked me about racing in other countries, if we ever crossed borders.  I told him the guys were going to run the Baja off road race and his eyes sparkled as he said: "Smuggling !"

Ironically my fourth book Midnight Rally (which was based on Gumball Rally, a Warner Bros film where John Morton was a stuntman) was the last book produced by the Syndicate with Grosset & Dunlap and copies can sell for over a thousand dollars - Wish I had bought more of them.

 

Q:
Your writing was included in The Best of Motor Racing Fiction: 1950-2000 among a group of writers that included Ken Purdy, Robert Daley, Burt Levy, and the team of Bill Neely and Bob Ottum, and Kevin Wilson of AutoWeek listed your book The Stainless Steel Carrot among the “great car books of the past 50 years.” Was it difficult to make a name for yourself in this male-dominated world? 

 

SW: Mainly, in the early seventies, it was hard to get reviewed by the automotive press.  My book, The Stainless Steel Carrot, was reviewed widely by the folks who did my novels and sold 10,000 copies in hardback.  The automotive press mostly ignored it.  When it was reprinted in 2012 with all the profits going to animal rescue, it was widely reviewed by the automotive press and nominated for a Motor Press Guild award (didn't win).  I thought about asking why they didn't review it when it first came out in 1973, but I decided to do the math: the reviewers of today were in grammar school.  There has been enormous change since the 60s and 70s.  In the 80s I wrote 12 books for boys under my own name.  My editor at Childrens Press in the 80s said boys didn't care if a woman wrote the book they were reading; they were only interested in knowing if she knew what she was talking about.

 

Q:
You published your first novel, Moss on the North Side, when you were only 26, and the book received high praise. Do you think that achieving such a success at an early age influenced your later writing?

 

SW: I was kind of in a daze through the whole thing.  The book earned me a Wallace Stegner Fellowship so I finally got to go to California which had been my dream.  While I was there, I wrote A Killing Frost which was fortunate because it got me over the hump of writing a second novel before my first novel had even come out.  Moss took me 13 years to complete (from age 12 to 25, over 800 pages of draft to get a 200+ page book) and Frost was done in a school year and was almost the same length.  You learn by doing.  I also got a lot of attention back then for my wardrobe that my mother created for me because I was so small and I had wild ideas of what I wanted to wear: I had a  center page spread in Women's Wear Daily and was a Mademoiselle Woman of the Year.  I was naive: I didn't think about the fact I was good press and under 30.

Also I had this idea that I had to complete 3 novels before I was 30 so I took on the writing of Cale, a big complex novel while I was teaching at UNC, a consultant for the Learning Institute of North Carolina (teaching and doing a workbook for teachers called Change), and going to car races almost every weekend that I wasn't hiking in the Smokies.  I had enormous energy which I don't think has subsided much and the tendency to take on way too many diverse things to do, but I don't think any of that influenced what I refer to as my "real" writing because I have always been able to support my "writing habit" with other ventures, ie. teaching, timing race cars, writing for racing journals, writing kid's books, and I never even considered my fiction as a source of income.  “Good thing, right?” she says with a laugh.  But I don't mind; I just know that the one thing I do that no one can mess up but me is my fiction and I aim to keep it that way.  You get to be tough if you have a father who lived to be 93 and never read a word you wrote.

In some ways, it was easier to be a woman in publishing in the 60s.  There were editors who specialized in Southern women writers.  It was also easier in some ways in my family: women weren't expected to amount to a hill of beans so there was no intellectual pressure.  My sister and I both majored in art which didn't raise an eyebrow and was considered one step shy of home ec.  My brother on the other hand was under tremendous pressure by our father to achieve and even a PhD from Duke in Bio-Chemistry didn't please him.

Q:
As a contemporary southern woman fiction writer, you have been compared to Flannery O'Connor, Harper Lee, and even Carson McCullers. Do you think such comparisons provide any insight into your work? Do you consider yourself a “southern” writer?

 

SW: I do consider myself a Southern writer because one of those Southern women writers before me - probably Eudora Welty - said we write where we know the names of the flowers and trees and where we can hear the voices in our heads.  I write about other places but I will always consider myself a visitor.  And I was compared to several Southern female writers BEFORE I read them.

 

To hear more about Sylvia's new novel Big Cactus, watch our online video of her appearance at the University of Colorado Libraries.