Why Sister Mine?
By Tawni O'Dell
People are always asking me why I chose to write my first two novels in the
male first person. I don't choose what I write about, I tell them. Harley and
Ivan, the male protagonists of Back Roads and Coal Run, chose me. I've never
written a novel because I decided I wanted to write a novel and then said to
myself, Hmm. Now what should I write about? Who should my characters be? Where
do they live? What do they do? My characters come to me. They settle in my
brain and get into my blood. They tell me their problems and show me their
wounds. They reveal their hopes and dreams, their regrets and fears, and
sometimes their terrible secrets. They plague me until I tell their stories
whether I want to or not.
And I don't always want to. Writing a novel is hard. It's exhausting and
all-consuming. You have to do it completely on your own; there's no one to pick
up the slack on those days you're not at your best, and there's no one to share
the blame on those days you fail outright. And there's a fatalistic element to
it, frightening in its inescapability: like childbirth, once you begin, there's
no way out except to finish it.
Sometimes a character suddenly appears out of the blue, vivid and
fully-formed, with an urgent almost desperate need to tell his story. Sometimes
I push a character away because I'm not ready to tell his story yet, but he is
patient and persistent and keeps coming back day after day, month after month,
year after year until I am ready. Sometimes a character comes and goes on her
own, giving me small glimpses of herself but never staying long enough for me to
get to truly know her. Such was the case with Shae-Lynn Penrose.
Shae-Lynn had been dropping in on me for years showing me riveting footage of
her life but quickly disappearing as soon as I tried to have a serious
conversation with her. She appeared to be an interesting woman: gutsy, smart,
violent, promiscuous, a tough ex-cop and a devoted single mom, a woman who'd
been exposed to the finer things in life but chose to return to her blue collar
roots, heroic in a Dirty Harriet sort of way, but this was all surface flash.
She refused to show me what was underneath which makes for the worst sort of
literary character. She was impossible to get to know; so much so that the first
draft of Sister Mine didn't even have her in it.
The unfinished first draft of Sister Mine was told from the Jolly Mount
Five's perspective. These are the five coal miners all friends of Shae-Lynn's
who were trapped for four days after a mine explosion. Their rescue, their
subsequent short-lived fame as heroes and media darlings, and what has become of
their lives since is the back story for Sister Mine. I tried to make it the
entire story, and I had my reasons. It made sense that I wanted to write in a
male voice again. Both Back Roads and Coal Run had met with critical and
commercial success. I write well in a male voice. I don't know why or how I do
it, but I do it. As strange as it sounds, I had no confidence in my ability to
write in a female voice and was even less interested in doing it. What's the fun
in writing about a woman? I am a woman. Been there; done that.
But once again, I was to find out I didn't have much choice in the matter. Shae-Lynn
finally decided to take me into her confidence and one of the things I learned
was that she was tied to all of these men, that their town was her town and
their pain was her pain. She was the character whose story I was supposed to
Once I understand who my character is, there's one other piece that has to
click before I can start writing in earnest. I've learned over time that I also
have to be at a certain point in my own life emotionally and creatively to be
able to write a particular book. In other words, I have to be going through the
same major crises of faith that my main characters are going through. I have to
be frustrated by the same figurative obstacles and possessed by the same hope
for some kind of positive resolution.
Sister Mine is a book about human capital: how we buy and sell human life,
both figuratively and literally, on a broad scope as a society and on an
intimate scope in our daily lives in our personal relationships.
When I moved back to blue collar Pennsylvania, I was struck by a feeling of
apathy and surrender that I had encountered before on my visits home but hadn't
lived with for a very long time. It's not an economic depression, exactly.
People get by. They have food to eat and cars to drive and TVs to watch, but
they have no purpose now that the mines and mills and factories are gone. There
is a poverty of spirit here. Their pride used to stem from doing a tough job and
doing it well. Now there is nothing to inspire personal pride in this segment of
our society except the ongoing barrage from our current government that we
should be proud to be Americans and that should be enough.
The war in Iraq has hit these towns hard, too, as all past wars have done.
Our malls and high schools and sporting events crawl with recruiters, and our
front porches are becoming increasingly festooned with red, white, and blue
banners surrounding photos of sons and husbands in dress uniform who won't be
coming home again. I doubt the same scenes are being played out in wealthy
On a more personal level, I had also recently gone through a difficult
divorce. The divorce process and then my years as a single mother of two, gave
me a whole new appreciation for the joys and travails of motherhood. That
combined with my daughter entering her teen years and the knowledge that she
could now become a mother herself led me to give a lot of thought to unwanted
pregnancies and more specifically to a particular growing industry: women who
sell their babies. In this country, women aren't allowed to sell their own
bodies, but they're allowed to sell their children. This idea intrigued me and
over time became something I wanted to write about.
I've gone through a great deal personally, professionally, and creatively
during the past few years. Some of it has been good, some bad, but all of it has
been a learning experience that has led me to a point where I've decided to
embrace all the conflicting elements that exist inside me as a woman and a
writer. One of the results of this acceptance has been the arrival of my female
literary voice. She's angry and she's violent, but she's also caring and
vulnerable. She's independent, but she knows she belongs to some and is owned by
others. She's sexual and she's maternal. She's proud and strong but constantly
afraid. She's Shae-Lynn.