I’m always up for a story about pioneering women. Marjorie Herrera Lewis’ award-winning novel inspired by the first ever female football coach in Texas definitely fit the bill. Set in the 1940s,When The Men Were Gone documents the difficulties of a life lived when so many young men leave and many return injured, traumatised, or not at all.
It also explores the importance of football in America. As someone who has heard it referenced a lot in films and TV series, it was lovely to find out how integral the sport has been to creating a sense of community and togetherness, especially in times of hardship. The era is vividly portrayed and no uncomfortable truths are glossed over, either related to living in wartime or the roles of men and women at the time. The book even inspired an exhibit at a Brown County Museum, showing the power books have to uncover the forgotten female heroes of our past.
Read on to find out more about the inspiring story of Tylene Wilson, how to immerse yourself in a decade when writing historical fiction, and some uplifting writing advice.
I was fascinated by the premise of the book – the first female football coach in Texas. How did you find out about this and why did you decide to base a book around it?
I found out about Tylene Wilson simply by chance. The nurse who was testing me for allergies saw I was wearing a University of Tulsa football T-shirt and asked if I was a football fan. When I said “yes,” she went on to tell me her great aunt was a football coach in Brownwood, Texas during World War II. Because I am a sports journalist, I was immediately drawn to the story. By the time I left the appointment, I knew I was going to write the book. The story was unique, and I was fascinated by Tylene’s journey. Initially, I planned to write a biography, but because so much of the story was lost to time, I wrote a novel based on what I knew to be true.
The real Tylene Wilson the book is based on with one of her football teams
I’m always in awe of people who write historical novels. How did you go about making the time period and the people within it sound so authentic?
My parents were young adults during World War II, and my father was a WWII veteran. I grew up listening to music of the time and because I’ve always been curious, I asked my parents a lot of questions about the era. To write about a woman football coach during WWII seemed a natural fit for me. Of course, I also did a lot of research. Reading newspapers of the time alone took me to the 1940s, and often, while writing, I’d listen to 1940s music. I read other books of the era so I could study 1940s language, and I researched 1940s yearbooks. Overall, I immersed myself into the 1940s so much that when I’d see something dated 2016, for example, I’d have to bounce myself back into real time.
Pearls on the football field? The horror! Tylene challenged gender assumptions in many ways
There were many parts of the book that really grated on me as a modern woman – leaving instructions for a husband to turn the oven on, the disparaging things said about the main character, to name just two! Were you consciously including details like this to highlight the differences in gender at the time and were there any you found surprising or upsetting?
This goes back to your last question about authenticity. As grating as it is to read it, can you imagine what it was like to live it? I knew I had to be true to the era, so it was important for me to include a number of moments that were indicative of the 1940s gender roles. Plus, as we see in the story, Tylene was a women of her era but she also was a woman far ahead of her time. I found all of the gender details of this type to be upsetting but none surprised me. With grandmothers Tylene’s age, I’d grown up seeing the change between their generation, my mother’s generation, and my generation. I saw the winds shift, but I was well aware of what it had been like for women of Tylene’s generation.
Herrera Lewis channeling inspiration by wearing a Brownwood jacket next to a picture of Tylene
How did you go about getting your novel published?
Because this is my first novel, I had no idea what to expect, but I did find an agent fairly quickly, so that made all the difference. From there, my agent reached out to publishers, and within 14 business days, we had the offer from HarperCollins. I give all the credit to my incredible agent, Andrea Somberg.
What is the best writing advice you’d like to share with other writers?
Since my novel hit the market, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting with many aspiring and published writers, and there’s one thing I’ve noticed that published writers do. They write. So many aspiring writers talk of hopes of one day writing, but too often forgotten is that “one day” needs to be today. My advice to writers is to keep writing, whether the work produced that day is good or bad. We all have bad writing days, so shredders get more use than we’d care to admit. But don’t stop writing because it’s not working one day. Write through it. The good writing will follow. And to aspiring writers, my advice is “start today.”
Marjorie Herrera Lewis is an award-winning novelist and sportswriter, named the first female Dallas Cowboys beat writer when she was with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She later joined the SportsDay staff of The Dallas Morning News where she continued to cover the NFL. Scheduled to launch in February 2022, Marjorie will co-host Journey Through Sports and Life, a weekly radio show broadcast nationally by the SportsMap Radio Network and also available on YouTube. Her debut novel, When the Men Were Gone, was named a Best Book by Sports Illustrated, a Best Book So Far by Newsweek, and winner of the Pencraft Award for Literary Excellence. The novel also was named Best Historical Fiction by the American Book Fest and was recognized as a finalist by the New Mexico and Arizona Book Awards. It was also a selection of the international Pulpwood Queens Book Club and included in Reader’s Digest Select Editions in the U.S. and in Portugal. It also has been optioned to film. Marjorie has degrees from Arizona State University, The University of Texas in Arlington, Southern New Hampshire University, and certificates from Southern Methodist University, and Cornell University. She is married and has two grown daughters and one son-in-law.
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