Posts Tagged ‘Tawni O’Dell’

Tawni O’Dell, Writing, & Coming Home

Loyal readers of the Scrapper Poet know that the work of novelist Tawni O’Dell strikes a chord with me.  Last night, along with a crowd of about 70 people, I had the privilege — and yes I say privilege, we don’t get a lot of famous writers in the frozen North here — to listen to Tawni (I will call her Tawni in this post, but it’s not like we are best friends; she just seemed like a real down to earth person) speak about her life and her works. 

I’m always a bit nervous about meeting famous writers and writers I greatly admire.  Many have not lived up to my expectations — which I admit, are sometimes a bit lofty.  For example, a few years ago I sat in the audience where Janet Zandy was speaking on a panel, and all I could think of was “Wow, she seems so normal.”  (For those of you who don’t know Zandy — she is a working-class scholar, editor and writer) That day at the panel, she was well spoken and respectful of audience’s questions.  Her answers also played well with other panelists’ comments. I don’t know what I was thinking — that she would have some kind of blue collar halo around her head? The let-down was on my part so since that moment, I have been trying to tone down my expectations a bit when I see someone whose work I absolutely adore.

Anyways, Tawni was fabulous last night.  Sarcastic and funny and really down to earth.  She spoke about her journey from five rejected novels (yes, five — I should not feel sorry about my little pile of rejection notes concerning single poems) to being a member of Oprah’s Book Club (for her book Back Roads).  She spoke about the baffling process of turning a book into a movie (Back Roads is in the works — a story too complicated to properly relay here.) She spoke about fan mail (some funny, some obnoxiously funny) and she spoke about her new novel, that is still “being written.” 

Still, what I remember most was the part of the talk about really knowing a place.  Tawni’s novels all take place in Pennsylvania — mostly coal country Pennsylvania and while her primary settings are small towns that really don’t exist, she does mention places I know well.  Tawni explained that she left Pennsylvania and moved to Chicago for 13 years, and it wasn’t until she was away, that she really began to understand her home.

I guess I can say the same thing about my own writing.  I didn’t realize the differences about my world until I went away to college.  I didn’t realize that many teens did not grow up in the back of pickup trucks or by local bars and pool halls.  I didn’t realize that many people did not learn to swim in ponds and rivers — like I did.  I didn’t realize that many people didn’t know that swing shifts and nights shifts in factories existed.  I don’t even think I knew the terms “blue collar” or “working-class” until I moved away from home.  (I was naive in some aspects — totally NOT naive in others)

Today, that’s something I am going to be thinking about as I sit down to revise some of my poems.  For some odd and wonderful reason, I am caught up with my school work (that won’t last long) and I have time to really think about five or six poems that are waiting for my attention.  For those of you who focus on a sense of place in your writing I would encourage you to think about what the rest of the world see in your place. Why?  What do you want to do to clarify or even completely turn around this perception?  And why is that so important?

CLSC Book Eleven: American Rust

It’s true that I drift towards working-class literature.  But, I also drift towards novels that take place in Pennsylvania.  Of course, with the nature of Pennsylvania’s working-class history — the two types often overlap.  American Rust is an example of this overlap.  This first novel by Philipp Meyer tells the story of Isaac English who is left to care for his aging father in an old Pennsylvania steel town in the Monongahela River valley.  Tragedy strikes when Isaac sets out to escape the decaying town, along with his friend, Billy Poe.

I read American Rust last year, and had mixed feelings about the book.  I re-read the novel this past week, and found that I still have the same mixed feelings.  I love how Meyer explores the physical landscape on this world — his details are sharp and authentic, so much so that I found his descriptions of decay lovely, and almost poetic. 

However, while I loved the landscape, I just couldn’t get into his characters.  It seemed that almost all of the characters were stereotypes: they simply fit into one of two categories of characters that fall into working-class fiction, especially working-class fiction that falls into dying small towns.  We have the tired, injured workers who are bitter about the past glory days of factory work, and who now drown themselves in beer and prescription drugs.  Then, we have the young, smart adults who flee from their background and never return, except reluctantly  to help family or friends left behind.  And certainly, these people do exist– they are very real characters.  Still, I would like to see a different type of character — one who stays behind out of choice to help, or perhaps one who leaves but willingly comes back to save what can be salvaged out of dying town.  I know those characters exist too.

Still, perhaps I’m being a bit unfair.  I love the work of Tawni O’Dell so much, that I was hoping for another Tawni — and Meyer’s style of writing is much different.  In spite of my mixed feelings about American Rust, I will look forward to Meyer’s future work.  (And I hear, there’s a movie of American Rust in the works…)

Why I Love Tawni O’Dell

Because she is blue-collar.  Because she is from western Pennsylvania.  Because I love her novels, especially Back Roads.  Because she is the only author I ever sent a “fan email” to.  Because I love what she has to say about the struggles of women authors in today’s literary landscape.  (Thanks Brandi, for the link!)