Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Indiana, Indiana County
Born in Indiana, novelist Tawni O'Dell has written about small towns in Pennsylvania in Back Roads (2000) and Coal Run (2004).
Tawni O’Dell is a novelist from Indiana, Pennsylvania. After working as a journalist for many years, she decided to write fiction full-time. Her first book, Back Roads (2000), achieved national and international praise, remaining on the New York Times bestseller list for nine weeks. O’Dell’s second book, Coal Run, was published in 2004 and was also well-received.
Tawni O’Dell was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania, a town in the Allegheny Mountain region of the state. She developed a love of reading at age four after reading Go, Dog. Go! by P.D. Eastman. The young girl’s love of writing came at age eight. Influenced by the writing of Roald Dahl, O’Dell tried her hand at writing short stories and continued to write throughout her childhood. She also felt that reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird at age ten changed her forever. Although she grew up with a love for books and animals, O’Dell felt as though she never really fit in as a child. She struggled to get past stereotypes, a major theme in her books.
After high school, O’Dell was the first member of her family to go to college. She attended Northwestern University in Chicago and earned a degree in journalism, graduating with honors. She worked as a reporter for newspapers in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts before working full-time on her novels. After getting married and having two children, O’Dell decided to stay at home with her children full time and work on her writing.
Her first book, Back Roads, was published in 2000. It spent nine weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and was an Oprah Book Club pick. Since its publication, Back Roads has been translated into many languages, including French, Dutch, Swedish, Portuguese, and Turkish. The book is also in production as a major motion picture.
Back Roads tells the story of a family in a small town in central Pennsylvania. After losing both their mother and father in the same day, four siblings must care for one another. Harley, the eldest, is forced to work two jobs in order to provide for his three younger sisters. Throughout the novel each sibling develops into a new person from the beginning of the story. Yet, sadness and despair plague the family, causing their story to be both touching and painful.
O’Dell’s second novel, Coal Run, also takes place in a small town in Pennsylvania. A coal mining town near the Gertie mine is tragically disrupted on March 14, 1967. After an explosion leaves many miners dead, their families must learn how to adjust their lives to this terrible situation. The story of the book’s main character, Ivan Zochenko, is told by his adult self, with trials and tribulations plaguing the lives of many of the novel’s characters.
O’Dell’s writing is largely influenced by William Faulkner and James Joyce. Her love of southern writers, including Truman Capote, William Styron, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor, also impacts her writing. The strong importance of place that is present in these writers’ works is what makes their writing so influential to O’Dell. O’Dell wrote in an article posted on the Oprah’s Book Club website that she likes writers who “bring significance to the insignificant,” including J.D. Salinger and Nathanael West. She mentions that she tries to reread these authors’ works every year. Lastly, O’Dell writes about the influence her grandfather, the late H.E. Burkett, had on her books. He often told her stories of Pennsylvania coal mining and made strong impact on O’Dell’s life.
After living in the Chicago area for 13 years, O’Dell and her family moved back to Pennsylvania in 2003. Tawni O’Dell continues to write and promote her books both nationally and internationally. Her next book, Sister Mine, is scheduled for publication in the spring of 2007.