Curledup.com contributor Michael Leonard interviewed Tawni O'Dell,
author of Sister Mine,
who talked about her admiration for blue-collar America, the joys and
difficulties of writing first-person narrative, and the need of today's society
to create heroes.
Interviewer Michael Leonard: Sister Mine and your previous novels, Coal Run and Back Roads, have all been set in the heart of the Pennsylvanian coal mining community. What is it about this community that makes you write with so much passion and heart?
Tawni O'Dell: A writer can only write passionately and convincingly about what he admires, and I admire blue-collar America, specifically the coal-mining culture in which I was born and raised. I admire the resiliency, the self-sacrifice, the integrity, and the toughness. I also love to write about the underdog, about success that is earned not given, and about regular people whose heroism stems from the everyday struggle of survival; all of this is found in these communities.
Yet, I’m not by any means sugar-coating these communities. They’re not full of saints and good intentions. There are a lot of problems and evils dwelling in them as well. But this is what makes them so irresistible to me as a writer. The combination and contrast of elements in both the people and the place – the natural beauty and industrial blight, the brutality alongside the compassion, the pride amidst the defeat, the determination despite the damage – provides such a wealth of material that I can’t help but write passionately about it.
Shae-Lynn Penrose is a woman of many facets. She's tough, gusty, sexy, and cynical about the ways of the world - and she certainly holds her own against men.
Yet she's also remarkably sensitive and worries about where her life is going. Where did you get the inspiration for the character?
So many readers want to believe – some of them seem to need to believe – that some specific person or some specific event from the author's life must have inspired the fictional characters they love. On some level, it’s a compliment to the novelist because it’s saying, “Your characters are so real I can’t believe you just made them up.” But that’s what a novelist does. We make things up.
I can’t say where the inspiration for Shae-Lynn or any of my characters has come from. I don’t sit down and try and come up with characters. My characters come to me. Obviously, I’ve created them but the initial creation occurs so deep in my subconscious that when they decide to make themselves known to me, I feel like I’m meeting a fully-formed person, a unique individual, not someone who is a reflection of someone else.
And how much of Shae-Lynn actually comes from within you?
All of Shae-Lynn comes from within me. But is Shae-Lynn based on me or someone I know in real life? No.
How difficult was it to tell your story in the first person, through Shae-Lynn's eyes?
I prefer writing in first person (both Back Roads and Coal Run are also written in first person.) I think this is because the relationship I have with my main characters is one where they come to me and insist that I tell their individual stories and in order to do this I have to become a sort of literary medium so I can channel their lives through me into the written word.
Writing in first person is difficult in that you only get to see the world through one character’s eyes. You don’t have the power and scope of the omniscient narrator who knows all and sees all. You have to find your character’s voice yet at the same time you have to also find a way to keep your distinct voice as an author. Not only do you have to be a good storyteller, but also your protagonist has to be a good storyteller. But despite these difficulties, I enjoy writing in first person.
When Shae-Lynn discovers that Shannon has been involved in the nefarious activity of selling of babies, she's initially appalled at the hypocrisy that a woman can by jailed for selling her body
but that this kind of activity can remain perfectly legal. Why did you decide to highlight this issue in the novel?
It wasn’t really my decision. I didn’t start this novel with the intent of writing about the evils of baby selling. This is simply what Shannon did, and I had to write about it. As the story developed, I realized it made perfect sense for her. As she put it, having babies was what she did best; why shouldn’t she get paid for it?
She grew up in a very pragmatic culture where people did whatever they had to do in order to survive. The men worked under potentially deadly conditions every day for very little pay. They sacrificed their bodies to injury and disease in order to supply a company with a product that made the owners wealthy. They took all the risks while the rich reaped the benefits. It only made sense that Shannon might see herself as no different than the miners she grew up with, that her only option was to use her body to provide something that could be sold to the rich. As Shae-Lynn put it, she became a “baby mine.”
Obviously the Jolly Mount Five, the five coal miners who survived the terrible mine explosion, plays an important part in Sister Mine.
Why did you decide to use this as a backstory?
When I started this book, it was originally about the Jolly Mount Five. Shae-Lynn wasn’t even a minor character in the novel. She had made herself known to me but not well enough to put her in a book yet. I thought I would use her someday in a different novel.
In Coal Run I wrote about a mine explosion that killed a lot of men. Since then I had wanted to write about men who survived an explosion and the impact it had on them, their families, and their community. I was about 150 pages into this version and had sent it off to my agent when she called and said she thought it was very good, but there was something missing. Would I read through it again and see what I thought? I did and she was right; there was something missing: the main character and the plot. (Kind of tough to write a novel without them.) After thinking about it for a while, I realized Shae-Lynn was the main character. The miners’ town was her town, their stories were all entwined with her own, and her story provided the plot, not theirs.
These men have endured a number of disappointments since the disaster, which is probably part of the reason they are considering a lawsuit against the mine owner, Cam Jack. Momentarily, they become media darlings and heroes, but the accolades and attention soon dry up. What do you think this tells us about the kind of society we live in?
For one thing, we have very short attention spans. A particular hero or villain and their exploits can only fascinate us for a day or two before we’re distracted by the next big “story.” Our so-called media darlings are forgotten as quickly as they’re created.
It also shows our need as a society to constantly create heroes, oftentimes where they don’t even exist. As E.J., one of the Jolly Mount Five miners who became disgusted with the label of hero, pointed out: “We weren’t heroes; we were survivors.”
We want to be entertained – even by our real-life tragedies. We want that larger-than-life, romantic feel of a big-budget movie complete with soundtrack and something to snack on while we watch it. We like our surface glitz, but we don’t want to dig too deep. We don’t want to examine why the tragedies occur in the first place that give rise to our heroes.
We don’t want the burden of admitting something is wrong and maybe something needs to be changed. We want to watch everything unfold in front of us on a TV screen then go to bed content in our hearts that the players are all living happily ever after, which is never true. Overall, as a society, it shows our immaturity.
What do you think is the cumulative effect of these disappointments on these men?
A lot of the male characters in the novel seem to be disenchanted with life; why do you think this is so?
Instant, unearned success rarely leads to any kind of lasting happiness. It usually brings on as many new problems as it solves yet people crave it like nothing else. They think if only they can win the lottery or become the next big reality star, everything will be perfect. They don’t understand that the voids in their lives that were there before they bought the winning ticket or made a fool of themselves on TV can’t be filled up with the external trappings of money and fame.
The Jolly Mount Five understood this. They never asked for the so-called fame that came their way after their rescue. These men are from a culture where their entire identities, their worth as human beings, comes from their ability to earn a living. Being showered with attention and money for basically doing nothing in their eyes except as Shae-Lynn puts it “surviving a really bad day at work” made no sense to them.
On some level, it offended them. It denigrated their idea of what makes a man a man. Their disenchantment comes not so much from the accident itself and the physical and emotional damage they suffered which they regarded as simply an unfortunate part of their job but from the outside world’s intrusion into their community and the values and priorities brought with that intrusion that they didn’t understand or approve of but still found themselves falling victim to.
Throughout the course of the story, Shae-Lynn shows that she's not going to let men push her around.
In the beginning, she even assaults Choker Simms at the local watering hole. Without giving too much away, why do you think she's so nervous about confronting Cam Jack?
Cam Jack is the only man – aside from her father – who she believes she let push her around, who she let take advantage of her, use her, and hurt her deeply. It makes sense that she allowed this to happen at the time. She was very young. She had spent her entire life being dominated by an abusive, alcoholic father, and Cam Jack – as the negligent, self-absorbed owner of the coal company who employed all the men in the area – had the same kind of control over the community as a father does over his family.
It’s the treatment she received at the hands of both these men that leads to her desire to become a strong, independent woman who would never allow herself to be pushed around figuratively or literally by any man and would also never allow herself to need one.
Seeing Cam Jack again after all these years reminds her of those terrible feelings of powerlessness that she’s struggled so hard to overcome.
While reading Sister Mine, I was struck
over and over again by your descriptions of the hardscrabble life of these coal miners and their families. While not actually starving, a lot of them do live on the borderline of poverty, trying to eke out a living as best they can. How typical is this in towns such as Jolly Mount?
It’s very typical. Blue-collar communities have been forgotten by mainstream America. The industries have left and nothing has come in to replace them. There are no jobs but still people stay in these towns because they have very strong ties to them and being forced to leave them is a terrible, demoralizing experience.
They want to work. They’re willing to work very hard for very little, but they want to be able to do it without leaving their homes. I don’t think that’s asking for much.
This issue of class also plays an important part in the novel, and Shae-Lynn's observations of wealthy Connecticut housewife Pamela Jameson provide some of the funniest sections in the book. She really hones in on Pamela's clothes and shoes; in fact, all the way through the novel, Shae-Lynn
is always very aware of how other people dress. What were you trying to show here? And is there a part of Shae-Lynn that is perhaps just as snobbish and status conscious as Pamela?
Growing up poor Shae-Lynn has always been conscious of class distinctions and when she finds herself as an adult working around very wealthy people in Washington D.C., she becomes even more conscious of it. One of the most obvious outward trappings of wealth is the way people dress so it’s not surprising she develops an interest in it. Plus as an attractive woman, she’s also well aware of the sexual power she can wield over men based on what she chooses to wear.
I think in her way she probably is just as status conscious and snobbish as Pamela. Like Pamela she notices and tends to judge people by the way they dress and she pays close attention to her own clothes, but their opinions on what clothes represent are completely different. While Pamela would look down on someone dressed like Shae-Lynn; Shae-Lynn would look down on someone dressed like Pamela.
Expensive clothes don't impress Shae-Lynn. She uses them as a red flag to signal that this is someone she’s not going to trust and probably not going to like, someone who is probably shallow and self-absorbed. To her expensive clothes signify wealth and wealth symbolizes corruption. To Pamela expensive clothes also signify wealth but wealth to her is success.
Do you have any particular writers that you like draw upon for inspiration for your work?
There are so many writers I respect and so many novels I love but as far as who inspires my own work I’d have to say I look to John Steinbeck and Emile Zola as examples of authors who write passionately and convincingly about the everyday struggles and joys of the “common” man.
Robert Penn Warren and Truman Capote showed me the art of how a writer uses language to paint a picture and how a word or string of words can have a meaning far deeper than its definition. Willa Cather and Jim Harrison brilliantly convey sense of place and how people and the land they come from reflect each other, and for sheer story-telling prowess, I love John Irving and Alexandre Dumas.
But if I had to pick an idol – someone who I reread whenever I want to be reminded of the power, purpose, and beauty of prose writing as an art form as well as be flat-out entertained and come away thinking hard about things I hadn’t thought about before or had merely forgotten - it’s Flannery O’Connor.
Novel writing is a hard process. What do you think was most difficult about writing this book in particular? Do you have any plans to write anything new and if so, would you like to share something about it with is? Are there any ideas perhaps for a sequel to Sister Mine?
There’s not anything in particular in any of my novels that I’d say was more difficult to write than anything else. I don’t think of my novels as bits and pieces, separate elements, jerky stops and starts. I spend a lot of time thinking before I start writing, but once I start writing everything is one continuous line.
I’m already well into writing my next novel, but I don’t discuss my books while I’m writing them.
As for the possibility of writing a sequel, I understand that readers often want sequels. They get involved with the characters and hate to see them go. But as an author, I think writing a sequel would be really boring. Part of the fun of writing a novel is creating new characters. Not to mention, in order to write a sequel, I’d have to force myself to come up with a story. I can’t write that way. My stories and characters have to come to me on their own.
Tawni O'Dell is the New York Times bestselling author of
Coal Run and Back Roads, which was also an Oprah’s Book Club selection. She lives in Pennsylvania with her two children and her husband, literary translator Bernard Cohen.
Contributing reviewer Michael Leonard interviewed Tawni O'Dell, author of Sister Mine (see accompanying review), about
her book for curledup.com. Michael Leonard/2007.