Tawni O'Dell Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Tawni O'Dell

Tawni O'Dell

An interview with Tawni O'Dell

Tawni O'Dell explains why she wrote Sister Mine, a raucous, action-driven novel that explores the price we put on human life; and why, for the first time, she chose to write with a female voice.

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 tell.

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 communities.

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.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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