Between snowstorms at the end of February 2005, I drove to central Pennsylvania to interview writer Tawni O’Dell at her home in State College (also known as “Happy Valley” and the location of the main campus for Penn State University). She is the author of two novels, Back Roads (an Oprah pick in 2000) and Coal Run (which is due to go into paperback in June 2005). I was welcomed into her study where she was working on her latest novel that Saturday afternoon, and she generously took time out to chat. Her French translator and significant other, Bernard, was at work on his laptop computer in the dining room, her children Tirzah and Connor were elsewhere in the house, and Ivan-the-cat, owned and named by daughter Tirzah in honor of the main character in Coal Run, checked in on us from time to time. I was impressed by O’Dell’s down-to-earth lifestyle and unpretentious demeanor, and immediately felt at ease. Books surrounded her, her computer screen displayed a page from her novel-in-progress, and on her desk was a small framed photo of O’Dell with Oprah. The following is an excerpt from our conversation.
DA: I read Back Roads after it was chosen as an Oprah Book Club selection, and I loved it. But I connected more with Coal Run because of the topic of homecoming and acceptance of blue-collar roots. When did you begin using the landscape of western Pennsylvania coal mining towns as the setting for your stories?
TO: With Back Roads I had finally begun to set my work back home. Before that I had been writing books—books that didn’t get published, by the way—that were set anywhere other than Pennsylvania because I didn’t think anyone would want to read about the place where I grew up. I was violating the cardinal rule of writing, which is to write what you know. I was completely avoiding that. I was trying to write what I thought would get published.
DA: How many manuscripts did you write that didn’t get published?
TO: I wrote four unpublished novels, and I’d begun a fifth that I abandoned before I decided to start Back Roads. And when I finally started writing about Pennsylvania and the area where I grew up, that’s when my books finally had that magic—and made me, then, want to come back home as well. It was a way of resolving my own personal feelings for home. Not so much in Back Roads, but in Coal Run with Ivan’s journey—I was sort of going through that myself.
DA: You lived in Chicago for many years. I also lived in Chicago for a little while—and it was just too flat for me. How did you feel living in that landscape versus living in other places?
TO: It was depressing. “Happy Valley” is a beautiful, beautiful area of the state. It took me a long time to realize that part of my depression when I was living in the Midwest was, in fact, tied to the flat landscape. When I would drive home for a visit and get to the eastern edge of Ohio, I would cross that certain point—now I can’t remember the exit, but I used to know it—where all of a sudden you start to see the hills, and it would be a great uplifting feeling. I used to think it was because I was going home to visit my family and the comfort of all that, but I came to realize over time that it was definitely tied to the land as well. When you grow up in an area with mountains and hills, and then you go live somewhere else—it’s no different than for people who grow up next to the sea, and then end up going somewhere landlocked. They always have that longing where they miss the water. It happened to me over and over again, until I finally understood it was really part of the reason I was depressed all the time. I just hated it—the physical fact of it—it was too flat. I was in the northern suburbs of Chicago, and it was just so incredibly ugly—all development and malls. There were no forests, no hills, no wide-open spaces. And that really depressed me—especially the absence of hills. I know that’s one of the reasons why it’s so dominant in my work. I was removed from it, and that made me appreciate it more. The hills are kind of a shelter, a little fortress around us.
DA: Back Roads and Coal Run were published within a four-year span. Does that seem fast to you?
TO: I wrote Back Roads in four months, in a sort of stream of consciousness. I just kind of spewed it out. Coal Run took me about four years of working off and on, and I wrote four separate drafts of that novel—entire novels. Coal Run was a real struggle for me to find the actual story. And I think a big part of it was that I was going through this same process myself, so it was a very personal thing. I was going through the process of deciding to return to my roots, just as the character Ivan did. I wrote one draft entirely from Jolene’s perspective. There was a draft of the novel where Ivan was motherless instead of fatherless—his father had survived the explosion and his mother had died in an accident when he was young. It didn’t come to me as the other books have. For instance, with Back Roads and with the book I’m writing now, I’m having no problems. It’s flowing so easily.
DA: Was it only the last draft that was written as Ivan’s point of view?
TO: Well, no. Only one of the versions was Jolene’s—and that was just disastrous (laughs), an entire 400-page manuscript—but I had to do it because that was the way I got to know Jolene.
DA: Jolene is a very rich, complex character. How did you avoid making her the clichéd beauty queen?
TO: That’s one of the challenges in writing about the topics I choose because my work could easily fall into stereotypes. With Coal Run especially—there’s the football star, the beauty queen. Reading the book jacket description you can easily expect that. But to me, part of the challenge is to write believable working-class people because they are so often stereotyped. Normally, thank goodness, I don’t have to write an entire novel from every character’s perspective. But for some reason, Jolene was really tough for me to get. When I first started writing her, she was coming across as too ditzy, too much of a stereotypical ex-beauty queen. But I knew she that she was smart and strong and a survivor, and that she had a carefree attitude about her beauty. So, to get to know her, and especially to know her relationship with Ivan, I had to write a whole manuscript, and it was a really long tortuous writing exercise that was necessary.
DA: That’s actually reassuring to me. Sometimes when we’re writing it can feel like we’re so lost trying to find the story, or that maybe we’ve taken a wrong turn and we’re not sure exactly where to find the right turn yet. So you see revision as part of the discovery?
TO: It’s a difficult process. When I first started writing novels, I was under the impression—as many people are who love to read—that great novelists just sit down and write a novel in one draft and it just flows out of them without any mistakes, and they should be enjoying themselves and having a wonderful time. For a long time I had that image in my head. So, when I would have to rework something, I thought that meant I wasn’t any good at it. I’d get a hundred pages into a book and then realize the story was really turning out to be about what happened in three paragraphs on page twelve, and then I’d have to go in that direction and lose whole sections to backstory—all those complicated things that go into the process of writing a novel. Not until I finally got published and people began to pay attention to my writing did I begin to realize well no, it’s just really difficult. It’s work.
DA: But there are moments—
TO: There are euphoric moments. It’s kind of like being a parent. Your kids are the source of your greatest joy, and also of your greatest nightmares and your biggest worries. It’s the same thing. Even with what I’m working on now, everything’s going well, but that’s after three weeks of it coming slow and painful trying to get to that.
DA: Tell me more about the book you’re working on now.
TO: It’s one more coal miner book.
DA: It’s the third in a trilogy?
TO: Actually, it’s funny you said that, because I am feeling that this is a trilogy, and it’s not going to go any further. I’ve sort of made my own fictional county, like Faulkner did with Yoknapatawpha. I have Laurel County.
DA: How far are you along with the new one?
TO: I’m halfway, and of course the first half is always torture and the second half goes really fast—usually, for me. So I’m hoping to have this done in about a month or so.
DA: And this is your first run through it?
TO: Yes. This one is very complicated. It has five main characters—and this is the first of my published books where I’m not telling it in first person. I’m pretty confident with it. I don’t think it’s going to take a lot of reworking at all (laughs). It’s certainly not going to be like Coal Run. There’ll be basic editorial concerns.
DA: Have you been working with the same editor?
TO: Yes, for both books I’ve had the same editor. She’s great. I have a really great relationship with her. Her name’s Molly Stern. We’ve also become good friends. The way Molly always works with me is that she can sense that something isn’t working but she can never tell me exactly what it is. She says that I’m the only one who can figure out what it is, and that I’m the only one who can figure out how to fix it. And when something isn’t ringing true with her—inevitably it turns out that I knew exactly what was wrong, but I was being lazy. It’s always about laziness.
DA: Do you mean you knew something was wrong even before she saw it?
TO: It’s all about laziness and just trying to sneak something past. And then it’s: ‘Oh, Okay, you caught that (laughs)? I really have to explain more about the continuous miner? Nobody’s going to know what that is? Can’t we just assume that everyone reading this book has been in a coal mine in the last ten years?’ Molly was great for me because she really understood my work very well, and when she would point out something, she was dead on, and it was something that needed to be fixed to make the book as good as it could be. But by the end of writing a novel, you’re so sick of it, and you’re so tired, and you just want to end. Even though it’s not realistic, and you know it, there’s that part of you that’s saying: And this will need no changes. This is perfect. No changes. Nothing. Not even any punctuation problems. It’s just the perfect ending. You type THE END, and you’re done. And of course it can never be that perfect.
DA: Will your third book also be published by Viking?
TO: I had a two-book deal with Viking, but I’m not sure if my third book will be with them.
DA: This one’s not under contract?
TO: No, this one’s not under contract. I’m a free agent again. And I thought that would terrify me, but it doesn’t. It’s almost a good feeling. It’s freedom. Not that having the two-book deal was a bad thing. That was a great thing. That meant that my second book had a house, so I didn’t have to worry about that. But with this one, I’m just writing like I used to write before I was ever published. There’s no guarantee. I have no advance on the horizon. I’m sure we’ll find a publisher for it. And it may turn out to be Viking. But I’m just writing for myself again in a way, and of course my readers. Now I have readers. Which can sometimes be a problem—some readers are very demanding of your time.
DA: In what way?
TO: I get calls. I made the mistake of not getting an unlisted phone number when we moved here because it was so chaotic—we moved two days before school started. So we’re moving in from Illinois, we’re remodeling the house and the kids are starting school, and it was just very chaotic, and at that point I was still working on Coal Run. I was in author-mode and I wasn’t even thinking.
DA: In a sense you’ve already been in people’s living rooms. Do you think people feel more connected to you because of the publicity from Oprah?
TO: People seem to have intimate feelings towards these books. They’ve had a dad who was a miner, or an uncle who was killed in a steel mill accident—so people have a really personal connection to the book, and therefore they feel they have a really personal connection to me. And in a sense they do. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t have a private life. And it also doesn’t mean that I don’t have a financial concern. People may think that if you’re an Oprah pick and you have the word “bestseller” in front of your name, well then you’re just rolling in dough. No. Coal Run wasn’t a bestseller at all. It did okay, but nothing like Back Roads, which made it all the way to number two.
DA: Is the success of the book worth the invasion of privacy?
TO: You have to look at that, and ask yourself what you are really hoping to accomplish as an author. Do you want to be rich and famous? Is that really why you’re writing? No, that’s not why you’re writing. And the being rich and famous thing is not all it’s cracked up to be. Having a little bit of money is nice for the security aspect. But for me, that’s really all it is. It’s security. Now your kids can go to college, and when you get so old that you can’t write anymore you won’t have to live in boxes. I’m not an extravagant person.
DA: I think readers come to a second book with the expectation that it can’t be as good as the first one. Did you fear that from a writer’s perspective?
TO: Part of the reason Coal Run took so long for me to finish was because of the pressure of following-up that first book and knowing from the beginning that Coal Run couldn’t possibly have the same sales as Back Roads because it wasn’t going to have the Oprah push. Yet, at the same time you think, well why not? Why can’t all the people who knew about Back Roads buy Coal Run? Well, because Oprah says buy this book and eleven million people hear her. Viking puts a book on a couple of bookshelves and sends you out to a few cities to do events, and ten thousand people hear about the book. It’s just different, and you have to build an audience. They tell you from the very beginning when you’ve been an Oprah pick and you’re going into the next novel: The people who bought your first book were Oprah’s audience. And you have to deal with it.
DA: Are you still doing publicity for Coal Run?
TO: I have a couple of events coming up that are Coal Run related—the paperback will be out in June. I just talked to a book club last week, and it was so funny because all of a sudden before I went off to talk to them I realized I didn’t remember anything about Coal Run. I couldn’t remember anything about it. I’m deep into the next book. So I had go back, kind of leaf through it and try to remember. And Back Roads of course was ancient history. And then when I was there, we began to talk about Coal Run because that was the book they’d read, and before I knew it, we were talking on and on about the book I’m writing now. As soon as a book is done, you move on, you know. For my readers, Coal Run is the book that’s out now. It’s the one they’re discovering and the one I’m getting the emails and the letters about, and everyone wants a sequel. And I just have to write back and say I’ve moved on. But I do understand, as a reader, that when you’re really in love with characters in a book, you want them to continue on.
DA: Domestic violence has been a topic in both of your published books. The reader becomes a witness to the whole dynamic of denial and excuses about domestic violence within the family. How the definition of punishment for children varies widely within communities—and sometimes crosses the line, was shown with all its complications and conflicting emotions. Back Roads does an especially good job of showing how the children are witnesses to that violent cycle, and are its ultimate victims. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
TO: I witnessed it, not within my own family, thank goodness, but with kids that I grew up with, and it was always really heartbreaking because you couldn’t do anything about it. You were helpless. That was back in a time when even teachers didn’t do anything to intervene. If someone was knocking his kid around, that was his business. And chances were, if you went to his house and told him to stop doing it, he was going to knock you around, too. It just was not dealt with. There are still some school systems where, even to this day, it’s still that way. Not that Pennsylvania’s the only place with these problems.
DA: Will there be a similar theme in the third book?
TO: In the book I’m writing now, there’s a character who has gone away and is making these sorts of realizations and value judgments. It’s very much about the displacement of blue collar America, for both men and women. It’s about where their place in life is and what their purpose is, and how to maintain any sense of pride when everything has been taken away. Including the question of how do you get your kids to respect you, when you can’t respect yourself?
DA: You’ve managed to attain what many writers never get, the ability to support yourself solely by your writing. How does it feel to achieve that?
TO: It’s difficult to make a living at your art because your writing is an incredibly intimate thing. It’s extremely personal, and it’s done out of love. And when somebody pays you for it, there’s a part of you that feels like you shouldn’t get money for it. It taints it. Yet at the same time, why shouldn’t you be making a living doing what you’re good at instead of making a living teaching school or being a dentist or working at Wal-Mart—and then having to do your writing at night when you’re exhausted and the kids are asleep after you’ve just worked an eight hour shift. You should be able to make a living at it, yet at the same time once that money comes into play—money and marketing and having to promote your books and travel and do events—and you mix that all in with the act of just creating a work of art, it’s a bad mix. It takes some adjustment time to be able to deal with it and come to a point where you can take that commercial aspect of your writing career and put it aside so you can get back to your writing. For me, Coal Run was that transition book. So, it’s been an immense relief for me that it turned out as well as it did. The reviews were phenomenal. People who’ve read it seem to love it and feel a tie to Coal Run. I think it’s a better book, and I want it to be a better book. I want Firedamp to be better than Coal Run. I want every book to be an improvement.
DA: When you’re writing, what do you read?
TO: I can read foreign or suspense fiction, and definitely nonfiction. I read a lot of biographies. Now I’m reading some Sherlock Holmes. But I can’t read anything that’s even slightly similar to what I’m writing about family or community. I was just in Paris a couple of weeks ago with Bernard, and on the flight I read an entire novel just during my travel time—and that, for some reason, doesn’t interfere. I guess it’s because I read it all at once, and it’s not that going back-and-forth of reading two chapters one night, then working on writing a chapter of my book, then going back to the book I’m reading. It’s just too confusing when you’re already playing with these characters you’re making up.
DA: You’re already living two lives as it is—your own real life and the life of your characters in the book you’re writing.
TO: Yeah, it just gets to be too much. I’ve always loved to read. I’ve always loved language. That’s why I love so many southern writers. They have such a way with language. I started writing when I was a little kid. I was only about six or seven when I started writing my first short stories. My mom has kept everything I’ve ever written. She always used to joke that she’d saving it until I’m a famous author so she can sell it. And wasn’t she surprised when I actually became a famous writer.
DA: You haven’t seen her auctioning anything on E-Bay?
TO: No, not yet—but we joke about it all the time with her. She says, “I’m just waiting for you to become really, really famous.”
DA: Are you fluent in other languages?
TO: No, I’m not. It’s terrible because Bernard is fluent in eight languages, and he does literary translations in French, Spanish, Russian, and English. He’s such a whiz at that—and even with all the trips I’ve made to France—Bernard’s French, though he’s living in Spain right now, but all of his family lives in France, so I’m around these French people all the time. My books, by the way, are huge in France. When Coal Run came out last fall I was there promoting it, and I had several reviews where they actually compared me to Emile Zola! One French reviewer called Coal Run an “American Germinal.” So I was really blown away by that. But I have yet to pick up anything more than ‘bonjour.’ We spend our summers in Spain with Bernard, and my Spanish is just—I just don’t have a knack for it. Now, my daughter is doing very well. She’s in middle school and she’s doing so well in Spanish that she actually goes to the high school to take a high school level Spanish class. One of the big mistakes we make in America—we don’t start our kids when they’re little. Even middle school is too late.
DA: I’m not hearing a strong regional accent in your speech. Why?
TO: I made a real effort to lose it when I went to school in Chicago at Northwestern. Because of growing up in a little coal mining community, I always felt that I didn’t fit in. I wanted to get out. I wanted to live in a city. I wanted to go to college. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted more than most of the kids I went to school with, who were going to go into the mines—or what was left of them, or into other blue-collar jobs. If they were going to college, it was probably going to be IUP (Indiana University of Pennsylvania). Of course there was always that little group of people that would go to Penn State—and that was really going off. There were only three of us that went to college out of state. So, when I left and went to Northwestern, I thought that I was going to get out there and people were going to embrace me. Coming out of this little town I thought, oh I’m so smart and so sophisticated. Well I get out there, and it turns out that everyone I met labeled me as a redneck. And I thought—wait, you don’t understand—when I’m back in Indiana, PA, I’m very sophisticated, and I’ve even been to Pittsburgh (laughs). I didn’t realize it was a much bigger pool—and I mean a huge pond, with rich kids. I went to school on grants and loans and scholarships. Not that we were destitute—my dad’s a banker. But suddenly I was with kids whose daddy just writes them a check, and they’re driving expensive cars, and it was a real eye opener. One of the things that I had never realized was that I had an accent. I never had the really bad western PA accent—for instance, my grandma “worshes” the dishes, and she “reads up” the room.
DA: But does she “pick up” the room?
TO: Yes, she does “pick up” the room, but she “reads up” more (laughs). It’s so funny though, because you don’t even realize things like that until you leave. What’s weird about picking up a room? I can still remember the first time I referred to a stroller as a baby buggy. That was always what my grandma called it, and therefore what my mom called it. People from western Pennsylvania all know that—even if they don’t use it now, they’ve heard an aunt or a grandma of someone use that term. So I got out there and people would ask, “Where are you from?” And I actually had people ask, “Are you from West Virginia or Kentucky?” And I’d get all huffy and say, “NO! West Virginia? I’m from Pennsylvania.” That regional rage would kick in—How can you think I’m from Kentucky? PLEASE. So I became really conscious of that, and I made a real effort to not talk that way. Then I’d come home for breaks and everyone back home would tell me I’d developed a Chicago accent.
DA: Your degree is in journalism. Did you ever work as a journalist?
TO: Briefly, at some small newspapers. One in Florida, one in Massachusetts, and of course I worked for my hometown paper, The Indiana Gazette, when I’d come home summers from college.
DA: Why didn’t you pursue it as a career?
TO: I was not cut out for journalism, though. I’m a creative writer, and journalism is night and day from making up your own stuff. There’s the whole journalist personality that you need to have. You need to be able to ferret out your stories, and you have to be able to talk to people who don’t want to talk to you, and so much of what you do is research and interviewing. And I don’t want to deal with that. I just wanted to make up stories and write stories—once again, that whole love of language and creativity. With journalism you can’t be using lyrical language. You have to tell your facts. I was very unhappy doing that. But, my degree was in journalism, so there I was facing what to do for a job. At that point I started writing my novels, in hopes that I could get them published, and then I started having kids. And since I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, that worked okay. My husband at the time was making enough money that I could stay at home with the kids, and of course all that time I was working on my writing. That’s the thing about being a writer. It took me eleven years—well, really a lifetime. But from the time I wrote my first novel, it took me eleven years, and five unpublished novels, to get to Back Roads.
DA: That’s a lot of hard work.
TO: There are certain people who will look at you and say, “Then you did nothing for eleven years.” No—that was eleven years of working to the point where I could do Back Roads. So the fact that Back Roads became a bestseller and made me a substantial amount of money—the way I look at that is you can take that money and break it down over eleven years, and I earned that money. I had paid my dues. I had been through plenty of rejections. I didn’t feel guilty about the success, although it still was very overwhelming. Sometimes I still wonder if it was the best thing in the world because it’s still really hard. I guess now I can look at it in hindsight and say everything worked out fine.
DA: What’s your writing day like?
TO: I get up a little before 7:00—that’s when my kids start to get up for school. I go straight to the computer and they get themselves ready and go off to school. Then I work straight through until they come home at 3:00. A lot of times, if I’m writing well, I only get up from the computer to make a sandwich, and sometimes I just work straight through. When I’m finishing up a book, when I’m on the home stretch, there are times when I’m working that I am so unconscious of my surroundings that the kids will come in at some point and turn on a light because I’m writing in pitch darkness and haven’t even realized it got dark. They’re at an age now where it’s not like having little ones, so once they get home I still work but the dynamics change. I make myself be available to them if they need me. But I’m still working. I’m conditioned at this point—I can work through just about anything, if I’m really into the book and I’m at a good place. Otherwise, anything can distract me. If I’m not in the flow and I’m having problems with it, then yeah—all of a sudden grocery shopping becomes something I have to do. Then, of course, when I’m at the other extreme, days will go by and the kids will be asking, “Mom, can we get some food?” I just forget everything. It’s a lot of extremes. For instance, when I’m not writing the kids get a lot of my attention because I feel that when I’m not working I have to be supermom. Yet at the same time they don’t like me as much when I’m like that because even though they might be getting all of Mom’s attention, Mom’s in a really bad mood (laughs). They can sense that sort of restrained hysteria—you know, that I’m not writing, I’m not writing. It’s something I have to be doing to feel productive and to be myself. If I’m not writing, I don’t feel right. But, they’ve been living with this their whole lives, so they’re pretty used to it at this point.
DA: Do you teach at all?
TO: No. I do get invited to speak at different places, at universities and libraries. Both my books are being taught at a lot of universities. Right now Back Roads is being taught in two classes here at Penn State, and Coal Run is being taught in two classes, and not just in English classes. Coal Run is being taught in a sociology class that studies Appalachian poor and Back Roads is being taught in psychology courses. But, no, I don’t teach. And so far, I’m okay financially. But if I ever get to where I need, as my family calls it, a “real” job—if I ever do that (laughs)—yeah, teaching would probably be the only thing I could do. I’m not a novelist just for any old reason. It’s what I do best, and it’s about the only thing that I can do.
DA: I understand that your grandfather was a big influence on your writing.
TO: He was a great storyteller. Being a novelist is a combination of the art of writing and the craft of storytelling. You can’t just be a good writer. You have to have the ability to tell a good story. My grandfather was one of those great oral storytellers. He was the head cashier at a little bank in a town outside Indiana—this was back in the day when there were still lots of little country banks—and the country banker was a man who would even lend money out of his own pocket, if he was that kind of a man, which my grandfather was. Everyone in the community knew him. His name was Harold Burkett, but everyone just knew him as Burkett. Everyone he dealt with was a coal miner, or as time went on, an unemployed coal miner. Even after someone was out of the mines and working for a different type of company, they’d still be considered to be an unemployed coal miner. There’s such a culture and pride attached to that profession that, even after they’re not doing it anymore, it’s still how they define themselves. My grandfather used to joke that being an unemployed coal miner was a profession in itself. They would never let go of hope that the mines would come back, that the mines would be reopened, even though it was an awful, awful job. So, I got a lot of insight into these families through my grandfather. I also went to school with a lot of kids whose fathers worked in the mines, but for my generation a lot of the mines were already closed by then. When my mom grew up, every kid she went to school with was a coal miner’s kid. She was the banker’s daughter, and the rest of her friends were coal miners’ kids. Within my own family, there are no coal miners, but I grew up in that community.
DA: It sounds like your grandfather felt a strong kinship with the miners. Did they feel the same way about him?
TO: I can remember having Sunday suppers with the whole family at my grandparents’, and some guy would come clomping up on the porch and knock on the door, and my grandfather would go out to talk to him. It would be some guy having problems, so he came to my grandfather. He was more than just the banker behind the desk. He was a big part of the community. Almost like a patriarch, in a sense.
DA: Similar to the characters of Zo, and Dr. Ed, and the sheriff in Coal Run?
TO: Yes. The caretakers of the town—that was very much my grandfather. He was a very important person in my life. I dedicated Coal Run to him and to my grandma. That book is very much about a love for Pennsylvania and a love for your roots and your place in life—and I got that from them.
DA: Are they still alive?
TO: My grandma is. She just had her 90th birthday last week. We buried my grandfather the day I found out I was pregnant with Tirzah—one life over, and one life begun. He didn’t get to see any of my work published, which is a shame because he was a huge reader—everyone in my family is. He had a big admiration for authors, and he knew I wrote and wanted to be a writer, so we would always talk about books. It would have meant a lot to him.
DA: Is there any Ukrainian/Russian background in your family, similar to that of the Ivan character?
TO: The Ukrainian thing comes from my ex-father-in-law. My ex-husband’s father is Ukrainian, and he spent four years in Auschwitz. He was a political prisoner. So that was where I got that insight. Also, there are a lot of Ukrainian/Polish/Slovak miners in western PA, and as mill workers in Pittsburgh. That was important to the story because Ivan was always struggling with his identity and trying to find his place, and with his father being from another country, he had this other side that he was trying to figure out.
DA: I was listening to Steve Earle’s “An American Boy” CD on the drive up and thinking about the coal mines and the character Val, and how the poorer working class are the ones to go off to war – partly because they don’t have many options open to them, and that sometimes seems like a way out, when instead it can be another route to displacement or alienation. Was there anyone in particular the Val character was based on?
TO: Yeah. There’s a guy who lives across the road from my grandma, an old friend of the family. He’s a Vietnam veteran—he was a ranger. When he’s out there mowing, shirtless, on his tractor mower, you can see he has five bullet wound scars. His story—he was a young kid, he had just been married, his wife was pregnant, he gets called off to war. While he was over there, his wife divorced him, then remarried and they wouldn’t let him see his daughter. He comes back totally screwed up He got into major drug problems, became a biker. Still to this day—he’s close to 60 now—he still rides his Harley, has the do-rag and the tattoos and everything. But anyway, my grandma knew his parents, and his dad was a coal miner who died in a cave-in that killed several miners. He was just a teenager at the time his dad died, then he got drafted and went off to Vietnam and had all that happen with his wife and his daughter, and then his mom died of cancer. All these bad things happened to him, and my grandmother just took him under her wing. She owned the house across the road from her, which was empty after my aunt moved out, so she got him to move in there–of course he pays rent and everything. And he has become my grandma’s caretaker at this point in life since my grandpap’s gone. He’s one of the scariest guys you could meet, but at the same time he is one of the most honest and decent people you’ll ever know. There was just something about this guy, his life, his character, that always tugged at my heart. I was always fascinated by him. And of course he’s not the only one—so many of those guys came back just totally messed up, and now we have another generation doing it all over again. It’s so prevalent in these blue-collar towns—because those are the guys. That was another big difference I noticed when I went away to college. Nobody at college had any family who were soldiers or knew anybody who had been in Vietnam. Back home everybody had an uncle, or a brother, or a good friend who’d gone to war. It’s the same with what’s going on in Iraq now—you drive through a little town, and you see pictures and flags on the front porches, and you know a son or husband is in the war. It’s because they don’t have other options. And Val, making the decision to go to war rather than back to the coal mines—those were the only choices possible.
DA: The only choices possible?
TO: The other chance to get out is through football, if you can get a scholarship for football as your ticket to college. Otherwise, you go into the military, or you do something blue collar—but now all the blue-collar jobs are all gone, so what do these guys do? That’s a real crisis for them. Not everyone is meant to go to college and get their MBA. My sister, who just finished nursing school, had three ex-coalminers in her nursing class. Well, good for them, but all three of them would rather be in a coal mine. They had a sense of pride mining that I don’t think they ever feel doing anything else. But, that’s gone now. They have no identity. This is very much the topic I’m writing about now in this new book, so my head is just crammed full of this feeling of what these guys are going through. But, as I said, this is a trilogy. I already have the idea for my next book, and there’s nary a coal miner to be seen, although it’s still going to be set in Pennsylvania.
DA: Well, you’ve always featured female characters, but the narrators have always been male. Will this book also have a male narrator?
TO: It’s going to be told from a woman’s point of view. I’m a little bit leery of writing this book from a female perspective because I’m so comfortable writing from a male perspective, and it’s very natural for me. My next book is definitely a female character’s story and it is going to be from her perspective, but at the same time I think, gee, I hope I can pull it off. Then I tell myself: You are a woman, Tawni—you should be able to write as a woman.
DA: One last thing I want to talk about is the imagery of the mine burning under the town of Coal Run. That was such a wonderful description that was woven throughout, with this thing just smoldering under the whole story, until the earth opened up in their backyard—talk about hell rising. Where did that come from?
TO: That’s based on Centralia [Pennsylvania]. I went there with my cousin, Kenny, for the first time when I was a freshman in college. I made a road trip to Centralia just to see this place, and it blew my mind. Part of it was because I was already a writer—it’s the kind of place where you think: Wow, I’ve got to put this in a story someday. I was 18 or 19, and I hadn’t even written a novel at that point, but I knew it was something I was going to use someday. It took me thirteen years or more until I got around to setting my work back home and getting back to my roots, but I always thought it perfectly summarized the whole Pennsylvania mining experience. What’s under this ground? It was the lifeblood of this community, gave them jobs and prosperity—and now it’s poisoned the place to a point where people can’t even live there anymore. It’s an extreme example of what other communities went through. And it went farther than being about evil mine operators and rich coal barons taking advantage of poor coal miners. It’s about the land. It’s the actual ground on fire. And it’s still burning, and it’s spreading. More and more of the area is being pulled down. And it’s just like I described in the book, a really fascinating place. I’ve been back there two times. As a matter of fact, I was just thinking recently that I want to go back again to see what it’s like now and see if the things I remember are still there. I can still vividly see all the little details—the swing set, the tricycle, and the lawnmower. Are they still there? It’s a ghost town. Not a Wild West ghost town, but a coal mining ghost town. And it smells like sulfur. The image of that town always stuck with me. And the name, Coal Run. There’s a town of Coal Run very close to Indiana, PA. Even as a kid, I loved that name. I always thought, that’s the name of a town I’ll put in a story someday. So, I filed all these things away, thinking—someday I’ll put that in a story.
Note: Since the time of this interview, the title of O’Dell’s third novel has changed from “Fire Damp” to “Sister Mine.” In early 2006 it sold to Random House’s Shaye Arehart imprint in a two-book deal and was published in 2007. O’Dell’s latest novel, FRAGILE BEASTS, has just been released (spring 2010).
This interview was originally published in the Fall 2005 issue of Paper Street.
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