Behind the Book: When the Men Were Gone by Marjorie Herrera Lewis

Editor’s Note: When the Men Were Gone is a debut historical novel centered on the truly inspiring story of a high school teacher who surprises everyone when she breaks with tradition to become the first female high school football coach in Texas. Set during WWII, Tylene Wilson faces extreme opposition but shows what courage really means. This inspiring story has won hearts everywhere and was chosen as our Book Club selection for October and November. We had the opportunity to discuss the book with Marjorie Herrera Lewis, which you can read about below.

This is your debut novel- what did you learn about the process of crafting a book?
The biggest lesson I learned about the process of crafting a book is that it’s hard; it’s really hard. It takes discipline, passion, skill and a willingness to learn something new almost every day.

What first interested you in Tylene Wilson’s story?
The story resonated with me the instant I was told what Tylene had done. I am a career sports journalist, and to discover that a woman had coached football in the 1940s took my breath away. I also felt connected to her in a way because I was the first woman assigned to the Dallas Cowboys beat in the 1980s. I knew firsthand what it was like to work in a male-dominated field. I was drawn to what I imagined she had endured.

Can you describe your research process for When the Men Were Gone?
I first heard about Tylene from her grandniece. I interviewed her extensively over many, many days spread out over about a three-year period. I spoke to others who remembered Tylene, and I looked through old newspaper articles and school yearbooks. What I discovered, however, was the story had been lost to time. When I discovered the Brownwood Independent School District building, which stored most of the records, burned down in 1960, I was crushed. I figured that was the end of the journey. No story. But I couldn’t forget about what she had done, and I couldn’t shake my desire to tell her story. Ultimately, I chose to novelize her story, to memorialize what she, and as I discovered, at least three other women, had done during such a difficult time in our country’s history. I went back to college. And two years later, I had a historical novel and an MFA from Mountain View College.

In what ways do you feel your background as a sportswriter and volunteer assistant coach helped you with this book?
I honestly do not believe I could have written Tylene’s story had I not lived my own as a sportswriter. In addition to that, our lives overlapped in so many ways, and not only because of our shared love of football. Like Tylene, I learned much about sports from my father, I have a supportive and loving husband. And also like Tylene, my father and my husband love that I love sports.

As for my work as a volunteer assistant football coach, that came after I had written Tylene’s story. She inspired me. I don’t think I’d ever have considered coaching had it not been for Tylene. What I love so much about having coached was what one man said to me when he found out I was coaching football. “I have a three-year-old daughter,” he said. “You’re doing this for her, too.” I’ll never forget that. That’s what I hope Tylene’s story will do for women in every walk of life. Tylene was, and 114 years after her birth, still is, an inspiration.

You have a deep love for sports, and things have changed quite a bit since you were playing. What changes have you enjoyed seeing over the years? What else do you think needs to change?
When I began playing high school sports, Title IX had not yet passed, so “varsity” basketball, for example, was actually a Girls Athletic Association sport. We didn’t letter the same way the boys did. Instead, we received a patch that said GAA. And you know what? I was thrilled! My freshman year of high school was my first opportunity to play organized sports, so the type of letter meant little to me. The competition was the greatest gift, and I was grateful that my high school, St. Michael’s High School in Santa Fe, NM, gave girls the opportunity to play – especially considering that just a few years earlier, St. Michael’s had been a boys-only school.

The year after I graduated, girls teams became “real varsity” teams, just like the boys’ teams. That was a thrill. Title IX made such a difference for girls and women, and I have enjoyed seeing that over the years – the opportunities and the growth in participation.

What I’d like to see in the years to come is a greater societal appreciation of girls’ and women’s athletics. I’d like to see girls and women get great exposure and continue to get opportunities to utilize their skills at the highest levels. I’d also like to see women break into coaching sports that are dominated by men. I’d love to see a woman NFL and/or major college head coach in my lifetime. That would be incredible.

Are there any other inspiring stories about women who have broken conformity that you’d like to share?
Yes. I have two favorites – The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan, and Personal History by Katharine Graham.

What’s your favorite Game Day tradition?
I’m not sure that I have a favorite, but overall, I love high school and college football traditions with the school spirit, the mascots, the cheer and dance teams, the mascot hand signals. I love everything about high school and college football. That’s not to say I don’t love the NFL. I do. But I prefer the traditions associated with high school and college football most.

Are you already at work on your next book? What can we expect to see from you next? 
Other than dipping into a little research here and there, I have not yet begun my next novel. I do know that when I do get going on it, it will have a sports backdrop. That’s what I love.

What books are on your nightstand right now?
I counted just so I could answer this question. I have 19 books piled on my nightstand. To name a few: The City of Lost Fortunes, They Come in All Colors, Placed Out: Children of the Train, House of Stone, and Sugar Run. A few were given to me by authors I presented with during the National Library Association conference.

Any advice for women who want to challenge themselves like Tylene did?
My advice for is this: Do it. I was raised by a mother who, had she not married and raised a family, would have been a stunt woman in Hollywood. She grew up jumping on and off moving trains! She told me I should never be afraid, and I listened to her. When I told her many years ago that I wanted to be a sportswriter even though at the time I had never heard of a female sportswriter, my mother told me, “If you want to be a sportswriter, be a sportswriter. You do not need a role model to become a role model.” My advice to women who want to challenge themselves like Tylene did is to follow my mother’s advice.

Marjorie Herrera Lewis knew early on she wanted a career related to sports. After several years at small newspapers, at age twenty-seven she began working at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Soon after, she was named a beat writer for the Dallas Cowboys and eventually joined the Dallas Morning News sportswriting staff. While writing When the Men Were Gone, she became inspired to try her hand at coaching football and was added to the Texas Wesleyan University football coaching staff. She presently teaches media ethics at the University of North Texas. You can find her on Twitter. When the Men Were Gone is the current Half Price Books Book Club selection. You can find it at your local Half Price Books and Plus, Marjorie will be going on a Book Club Tour throughout Half Price Books Stores in Texas. More details here.