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State College Bestselling Author Tawni O'Dell Comes Full Circle With New Novel

by on August 03, 2014 8:46 AM

Bestselling author and State College resident Tawni O’Dell has finally come full circle.

While writing her new novel ‘One of Us,’ which comes out on August 19, she realized something about herself and her work. Since her first novel – the New York Times bestselling “Back Roads” – she’s always written about characters struggling to come to terms with their hometown roots.

“Every one of my protagonists is dealing in some way with the question of ‘do I want to stay and be part of this place, or do I want to leave?’’ she says. “I never realized it until I was writing ‘One of Us,’ but it was staring me right in the face: that’s what I’ve gone through all my life.”

Granted, O’Dell has probably never returned to her hometown to find a psychopath and a murder somehow related to a dark family secret like Dr. Sheridan Doyle does in ‘One of Us.’ She has, however, struggled to understand her place in the coal-mining region of Pennsylvania, just like many of her characters.

“I grew up in a small town where I didn’t feel like I fit in, and I left with a vengeance,” O’Dell says. She says she felt Indiana, Pa couldn’t offer her the life she wanted to pursue, spending many years working in Chicago after college.

The lure of Pennsylvania’s lush valleys weighed on her while living in the city, eventually leading her to find her way to State College. Like Danny in ‘One of Us,’ she “did feel guilty for leaving” her hometown and found her life in the city overshadowed by her more rural roots.

This common strand runs through her work, starting with her first novel ‘Back Roads.’ Published in 2000, the darkly lyric tale follows the story of a 19-year-old in a failing coal town dealing with the aftermath of his mother murdering his father. 

After being selected for Oprah’s Book Club, O’Dell skyrocketed to the top of the bestsellers list. Director Adrain Lyne (of Jacob’s Ladder and Fatal Attraction fame) is currently adapting 'Back Roads' into a film with a screenplay written by O’Dell, which has progressed slowly through preproduction over the past three years. Though O'Dell is excited for the final product, she says she's stopped paying attention to the frustrating ups-and-downs of filmmaking.

"I have to just pretend that project doesn't exist," she says. "That's what you have to do, or you go crazy."

Liza Dawson, a veteran of the publishing industry and O’Dell’s agent, says ‘One of Us’ has also been in the works for the past three years. She says O’Dell spends time getting to know her characters when working on a new novel, allowing the plot to grow naturally.

“With ‘One of Us’, she spent a lot of time figuring out who Danny really was,” Dawson says. “That’s why writers write – to explore the arc of their transformation and find out what’s going to happen to their characters.”

O’Dell says this process can be difficult, especially when the characters are especially off-kilter, like the wounded Harley Altmyer of ‘Back Roads’ or the psychopathic Scarlet of ‘One of Us.’ She describes being an author as “kind of playing God,” brining tragedy to characters she loves.

“You feel like you’re living that life with them, like being an abusive relationship with your characters,” O’Dell says. “Anytime something bad happens to the characters you love, it feels like a stab in your heart.”

Despite this, she has repeatedly thrown her characters into turmoil across her five novels. ‘One of Us,’ like much of her the rest of her work, is a kind of thriller novel – a style that O’Dell loves, having written several unpublished crime-suspense novels before ‘Back Roads.’

Dawson says that O’Dell is a literary writer, but all her books have been thrillers in that “you’re turning pages as soon as you start reading.” Balancing humor and character study, Dawson says she always “creates a dark secret of some kind to solve.” 

Though ‘One of Us’ hasn’t even hit shelves yet, O’Dell is already waist deep in another novel. Tentatively titled ‘A Small Fire,’ it is the start of a crime-suspense series, bringing her full-circle with her first forays into writing. While some of her works, like ‘One of Us,’ took years for the characters to come together, she felt an immediate understanding of the protagonist of her new novel. 

She’s a fifty-year female police chief in, as is customary for O’Dell, a small coal town in Pennsylvania. Though she shares some traits with the author, O’Dell says this new protagonist is a character she struggled to write before now.

“The main character of my next book is someone who loves her small town and never left it,” O’Dell says. “Maybe I can write that character now; I couldn’t do that before.”

With frequent visits to her daughter in New York and her father in Indiana, O’Dell feels like she’s finally resolved her divergent roots and passions. Now, with the film and her new novels coming out, she has accepted the past and is looking toward the future.

“I’ve come to the point where I’m content with myself and where I come from,” O’Dell says. “Which is good; life is too short to get caught up in negativity.”


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Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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