1.) How did the idea for writing a novel about women in sports come about?
VAL: I’ve always loved a great story. As a child I devoured all the sport stories I could get my hands on at the library. All the stories I read were about boys. As an adult I have been waiting to read a contemporary novel with a female athlete protagonist. Having lived countless stories as an athlete and coach, I began to dream about writing a story to include some of our incredible sport moments and better yet to write about the friendships I enjoy with teammates and with the athletes I had the pleasure of coaching. So after voicing my dream with Jo, we teamed up to make it become a reality.
JO: Whenever you look at sports novels, you’ll find lots of stories about men and baseball, or young adult novels with boys (and sometimes a few girls) playing sports. And when you look at today’s women’s novels, you never find anything with characters who are athletes. As a college athlete in the 1970s, I loved reading and always wanted to read about women athletes so I didn’t feel so, well, alienated. Except for the biographies of a few great women athletes, I never found much. Since we both love sports and stories, Val and I decided to write the novel we always wanted to read, the one we kept looking for.
2.) That makes sense. But how did you come to write it together?
JO: I’d heard of Val and her scholarship before I moved to Boston’s North Shore to teach at the same college where she’s coached and taught . . . forever! We have mutual friends who are women’s basketball coaches for different colleges. Once when we were driving together to the city to watch one of their games, we just started talking about the lack of good sports stories out there. And the conversation didn’t stop.
VAL: We went to more games and we kept talking about a story until we finally decided to carve out the time to talk and write, and eventually made some progress. It took us about four years—in between classes, research and life!—until we finally ended up with a novel we hope will ignite a new genre of books with female athletes as the protagonists!
3.) Talk a little about how you wrote the novel together.
VAL: It really did grow out of our friendships and our discussions. A good friend shared about a coach at her alma mater who realized her team never got the recognition they deserved for their achievements. The coach made the effort to reunite the team and they were finally applauded for their efforts. I was so moved by her story I knew the book had to celebrate all who played but may never have been properly acknowledged. When I shared her story with Jo we knew we had our main plot and then we created characters, events and anecdotes based on our own experiences and those of friends.
JO: Once we had a sense of where the story was going, who the characters were and what drove them, we began meeting regularly in my living room. We’d talk through a chapter, Val would take notes of our conversation on her laptop, and then send them to me. I’d write a chapter based on them and send it back to Val for review and discussion points for the next time we got together. Because I’d already written a series of novels, I understood how hard it is to write believable yet compelling stories. So if it hadn’t been for Val’s vision and tenacity to get this novel out there, I don’t think it would have happened. I think I would have called it a good idea and then just given up.
VAL: I had no clue how to write a novel! Jo was willing to give the partnership a go and we became a team!
4.) What surprised you as you wrote and discussed the stories of these two coaches and their teams?
JO: Two things: I was surprised at how interconnected they became. Rey’s not just discovering that first team, but part of her own family history—and therefore identity—as well. That surprised me. And I was also surprised at how emotional I got—and still get—thinking and talking and writing about the story, about women athletes who are underdogs from the get go but just want to play their game. I got choked up a lot writing and editing the book, so I guess it’s been surprisingly cathartic.
VAL: I was surprised by how the characters in our story came to life. It was fun to relive our own experiences as athletes and coaches (and friends of athletes and coaches) through the development of the story. Though the characters are all fictitious, they have bits and pieces of our own stories and the people we’ve known in each of them. It’s been inspiring to remember the wonderful personalities and great contributions from players and coaches and experiences and the impact they’ve had in my life. (Oh, and it surprised me what a sap Jo is.)
5.) What do you hope happens when people pick up a copy of When Girls Became Lions?
JO: Whenever I talk with young women athletes about the novel and Title IX, too many of them look at me like I had four heads. They’ve never heard of the legislation or the pioneers that afforded them the opportunities they now have. In fact, too many of them play as if they’re entitled to step on the field or court, with no thought at what those first players endured for them to get to this point. I mean, there wasn’t always a USA women’s soccer team! That’s new in my lifetime. So I’m hopeful our book brings readers to that place of respect and appreciation and connection, so they can love the game while also knowing what a privilege it is.
VAL: I hope readers will think about the effort and sacrifices that were made for girls to play. I hope the book will precipitate good discussions about what it means to play with integrity, to push through in spite of challenges, make lifelong friends, and to recognize the great privilege we have to use our gifts and talents in the arena of sport. It’s as much of a story for parents, coaches and fans as it is for the athletes and friends who play. We hope When Girls Became Lions applauds and honors all the great women sport pioneers who endured the hardships just to play and the people who supported their efforts so we can enjoy the opportunities we all have to play!
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