Friday, July 20, 2012

Bestselling author Tawni O'Dell gives keynote speech at BookFestPA

Tawni O'Dell speaks July 14 at BookFestPA
Tawni O'Dell, author of the novels "Back Roads," "Coal Run," "Sister Mine," and "Fragile Beasts," was one of the major authors to speak at the third annual BookFestPA, held in State College on Saturday, July 14.

Speaking with ease and humor (she acknowledged that she has a "biker chick name"), O'Dell addressed a crowd of about 50 during her speech, which was held at State College Presbyterian Church on an overcast, hot Saturday - the busiest day of the Central Pennsylvania Festival of Arts, with which BookFestPA purposely coincided.

O'Dell, a native of Indiana, Pa., spent many years in Illinois and is now a resident of State College. That's why, she said, she felt free to wear shorts and a crocheted tank top to this particular event. Any other book promotion speech and she would have to be in heels and a dress, said the mother of two.

She said actor Jimmy Stewart holds rank as the most famous native of Indiana, Pa. "According to my high school website, I'm the second most famous alum in the town. Jimmy Stewart has a suite named after him at the Holiday Inn. I'm trying to get the one at the Comfort Inn," she joked.

Growing up in Indiana, home to Indiana University of Pennsylvania, O'Dell said her main goal was to get out of town.

"I always wanted to be a writer," O'Dell said, echoing the same phrase used by author Sara Shepard, who spoke an hour before her at BookFestPA.

"Even though I wanted to be a novelist, I needed something to fall back on ... the day job," O'Dell said.

At Northwestern University as a freshman, O'Dell, who had never felt she quite fit in at home in Indiana, Pa., was hopeful she'd find her niche and not feel like an outsider anymore. But, "as a writer or any kind of artist, you don't really fit in," she noted.

After earning a journalism degree from Northwestern, O'Dell said she scraped out a meager existence working for various news outlets. All the while, she submitted her writing to different publishers.

"I got a job working for a newspaper, which I hated," O'Dell recalled. "I wanted to make up my own stories, which they frowned upon ... back then."

Over 11 years while raising two kids and working as a journalist, O'Dell said she completed five novels, all of which were rejected. "I saved all 200 rejection letters," she said.

The problem, O'Dell said, was "what I was doing was writing about things I didn't know or care about. So I decided not to write about what I felt the reader wanted to read."

That was when she wrote "Back Roads" (check out a description on O'Dell's site here), a novel about a tortured character struggling with family relationships.

"Harley is the first of my protagonists who's dealing with the issue of roots," O'Dell said. Her new formula of writing what she knew worked, she said, noting 14 publishing houses bid on "Back Roads."

One night while making dinner, the phone rang and it was not the telemarketer O'Dell expected, but Oprah Winfrey herself. But O'Dell was skeptical. She assumed it was her jokester cousin Kenny pulling a prank ... until Oprah set her straight. The talk show phenom wanted "Back Roads" to become part of Oprah's Book Club - an honor that guarantees bestselling sales.

"(Oprah) starts zinging all these questions at me about the novel. And I couldn't remember a thing," O'Dell recalled. Per Oprah's request, O'Dell had to keep the honor a secret from everyone for more than a month before Oprah was to announce it on her show.

"This is the power of Oprah," O'Dell said. "Before the announcement my book was 13,000 on the Amazon rankings. After the announcement, it was instantly No. 1."

After that, "Back Roads" was on the New York Times Bestseller List for 10 weeks. "Back Roads" is now being made into a movie starring Jennifer Garner. O'Dell had the privilege of writing the screenplay for the film, which is set to start filming in March 2013 - in western Pennsylvania if O'Dell has her say. The director, Adrian Lyne, is known for films including "Nine 1/2 Weeks," "Unfaithful" and "Fatal Attraction."

"He's completely obsessed with 'Back Roads' and insisted that I write the screenplay," O'Dell said.

As for casting, she noted that Andrew Garfield was supposed to play Harley, but now the role looks like it will go to Daniel Radcliffe, Taylor Lautner or Josh Hutcherson. Other cast members may include Kristen Stewart and Cate Blanchett, according to O'Dell.

"Back Roads" was a career-maker for O'Dell, who said "It was a big success, but the problem was then: How do I follow this up?" Her next novel, "Coal Run," did not receive the acclaim that "Backroads" did.

"I struggled with 'Coal Run'. Then I moved back to State College (where she has family ties) and finally finished it here," she said. It made sense to finish the novel in my native Happy Valley, home of Penn State football, because the protagonist was a fallen football hero in a small coal town in western Pennsylvania.

"Coal Run came out and it did not do anywhere near as well as 'Back Roads', but it did begin my popularity abroad," O'Dell said.
Next, O'Dell, who said she had no idea why her first two novels were written in a first-person male voice, attempted a female main character with "Sister Mine," a novel about a town's recovery after a miner rescue.

"It's very free form. The characters just come to me," she said, noting it takes her about two years to finish a novel..

O'Dell advised any writers in the audience that, "You're not always taken seriously just because you're a woman writer."

O'Dell, only a day before her talk in State College, had finished her fifth novel "Company Town" and treated the audience to an exclusive first reading. The novel, based on the tale of the Molly Maguires, is to be published in the spring of 2013.

In the town where the novel is set, 10 men were hung years and years ago, and the gallows stayed up as a reminder. The town has since become a famous ghost town, O'Dell said.

"The story is about a boy named Danny who (grew up there and) is now a man in his 40s. His mentally ill mom killed his sister. The idea is he's struggling with a feeling that he wants to be part of his roots, but the people there (in his hometown) were mean to him," she said. "He comes back to town to care for his grandfather."

After her speech, O'Dell literally ran over to the BookFestPA tent to sign books for fans. She seemed to be someone I'd like to have a chat with someday over a glass or two of something alcoholic.

Some people are born storytellers; I'd say O'Dell is one of them.

O'Dell's published novels:

  • "Back Roads" (New York: Viking, 2000)
  • "Coal Run" (New York: Viking, 2004)
  • "Sister Mine" (New York: Shaye Areheart Books, 2007)
  • "Fragile Beasts" (New York: Shaye Areheart Books, 2010)
About the author (from her website):

Tawni O'Dell is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels. She is also a contributor to several anthologies including "Becoming Myself: Reflections on Growing Up Female." Her works have been published in over 40 countries.

Tawni was born and raised in the coal-mining region of western Pennsylvania, the territory she writes about with such striking authenticity. She graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism and spent many years living in the Chicago area before moving back to Pennsylvania where she now lives with her two children.

Read other essays and articles by O'Dell:

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