Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Six Degrees of Tawni

All right, I promised on my other blog to post about the surreal photo shoot Tawni O’Dell (my new idol) was subjected to back when she published her debut book, Back Roads. But I thought I'd include a Labor Day tie-in, since I was supposed to have this post done yesterday and it was Labor Day. Hmm, let’s see. Tawni O’Dell writes about coal miners. Coal miners have unions. Labor Day commemorates the economic and social contributions of workers over the years. Poetic. (Or merely an illustration that you can contrive a connection in anything…especially while blogging.)
     Anyhoo. If you’re unfamiliar with Tawni O’Dell’s books, I can’t recommend them enough. She has been complimented with phrases like pitch-perfect prose and authenticity of place, both of which are well-deserved. Her writing is elegant but never pretentious; it cuts to the bone. I think it’s amazing how she captures a male voice (in first-person narration, no less) in both Back Roads and Coal Run. As a matter of fact, that’s what got her into trouble. With Back Roads, her publisher figured she sounded so much like a male writer, she should opt for an androgynous pen name that might make people think she was one. Tawni wasn’t quite what they had in mind, since it brought to mind “biker chick” over accomplished woman with a degree from Northwestern. Her literary agency supported her in fighting for the right to use her own name and everything seemed fine…until the publisher hired a photographer to snap some publicity shots. Hailing from New York, the guy they hired had, how do I put this?—let’s just say he had a different vision of O’Dell’s artistic identity. Comical hijinks ensued. Or they might’ve been comical if they didn’t basically obliterate the strides women have made gaining respect in publishing (at least, I thought women had made strides) over the past ten years or so. Portal yourself straight to the whole story by clicking here: Stung By Gender Bias, Author Tawni O’Dell Stings Back (Alternately titled: How to Become a Wood Nymph.) 
     Tawni O'Dell has also been lauded for her portrayal of coal miners—and not just by the literati. She's received letters from coal workers and their families expressing appreciation for the pains she's taken to get all the details right. Within the framework of her stories she manages to call attention to the plight of men who perform a dangerous job with pride. She captures the quiet dignity of the miners as they face off with their own demons as well as callous corporate Goliaths, i.e., owners who at any moment might resort to cutting corners to increase profits.
Just released August 19!
As I embark on writing a mystery series set in Detroit, I see some parallels between O’Dell’s Pennsylvania coal country backdrop and the demolished urban landscape of my own city. They are structurally and cosmically, if not cosmetically, the same. And on this Labor Day, I wonder whether I’ll be able to grant the UAW workers who must populate any book set in The Motor City the same nobility and mystique of Tawni O’Dell's coal miners. Does anyone offer a workshop for that? Probably not. But--on the bright side--Tawni O'Dell has a new book out!


  1. Jen, what great articles... From you and Tawni O'Dell!!! Good job!!!

  2. Thanks, Sylvia! I love Tawni O'Dell's no-nonsense way of writing, which shows in both her article and her books. She has a great, sarcastic sense of humor, too...my favorite kind!