Tawni O'Dell is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels Sister Mine, Coal Run, and Back Roads, which was an Oprah's Book Club pick and a Book-of-the-Month Club Main Selection. She is also a contributor to the anthology, Becoming Myself: Reflections on Growing Up Female. Her work has been translated into 8 languages and been published in 20 countries. Back Roads is currently in development to be made into a film by Michael O'Hoven at Infinity Media, the producer of the Academy-Award-winning, Capote.
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 home to Pennsylvania.
Gallery Books, 2016
From the New York Times bestselling author of the Oprah Book Club pick Back Roads comes this fast-paced literary thriller about a small town police chief who's forced to dig into her own shadowy past as she investigates the murder of a teenage girl.
On the surface, Chief Dove Carnahan is a true trailblazer who would do anything to protect the rural Pennsylvanian countryside where she has lived all fifty of her years. Traditional and proud of her blue-collar sensibilities, Dove is loved by her community. But beneath her badge lies a dark and self-destructive streak, fed by a secret she has kept since she was sixteen.
When a girl is beaten to death, her body tossed down a fiery sinkhole in an abandoned coal town, Dove is faced with solving the worst crime of her law enforcement career. She identifies the girl as a daughter of the Truly family, a notoriously irascible dynasty of rednecks and petty criminals.
During her investigation, the man convicted of killing Dove's mother years earlier is released from prison. Still proclaiming his innocence, he approaches Dove with a startling accusation and a chilling threat that forces her to face the parallels between her own family's trauma and that of the Trulys.
With countless accolades to her credit, author Tawni O'Dell writes with the "fearless insights" (The New York Times Book Review) she brought to the page in Back Roads and One of Us. In this new, masterfully told psychological thriller, the past and present collide to reveal the extent some will go to escape their fate, and in turn, the crimes committed to push them back to where they began.
Shaye Areheart Books, 2010
When their hard-drinking, but loving, father dies in a car accident, teenage brothers Kyle and Klint Hayes face a bleak prospect: leaving their Pennsylvania hometown for an uncertain life in Arizona with the mother who ran out on them years ago. But in a strange twist of fate, their town's matriarch, an eccentric, wealthy old woman whose family once owned the county coal mines, hears the boys' story. Candace Jack doesn't have an ounce of maternal instinct, yet for reasons she does not even understand herself, she is compelled to offer them a home.
Suddenly, the two boys go from living in a small, run-down house on a gravel road to a stately mansion filled with sumptuous furnishings and beautiful artwork -- artwork that's predominantly centered, oddly, on bullfighting. And then there's Miss Jack's real-life bull: Ventisco -- a regal, hulking, jet-black beast who roams the land she owns with fiery impudence.
Kyle adjusts more easily to the transition. A budding artist, he finds a kindred spirit in Miss Jack. But local baseball hero Klint refuses to warm up to his new benefactress and instead throws himself into his game with a fierceness that troubles his little brother. Klint is not just grieving his father's death; he's carrying a terrible secret that he has never revealed to anyone. Unbeknownst to the world, Candace Jack has a secret too -- a tragic, passionate past in Spain that the boys' presence threatens to reveal as she finds herself caring more for them than she ever believed possible.
From the muted, bruised hills of Pennsylvania coal country to the colorful, flamboyant bull rings of southern Spain, Tawni O'Dell takes us on a riveting journey not only between two completely different lands, but also between seemingly incompatible souls, casting us under her narrative spell in which characters and places are rendered with fragile tenderness.
Three Rivers Press, 2008
Shae-Lynn Penrose drives a cab in a town where no one needs a cab -- but plenty of people need rides. A former police officer with a closet full of miniskirts, a recklessly sharp tongue, and a tendency to deal with men by either beating them up or taking them to bed, she has spent years carving out a life for herself and her son in Jolly Mount, Pennsylvania, the coal-mining town where she grew up.
Two years ago, five of Shae-Lynn's miner friends were catapulted to media stardom when they were rescued after surviving four days trapped in a mine. As the men struggle to come to terms with the nightmarish memories of their ordeal along with the fallout of their short-lived celebrity, Shae-Lynn finds herself facing harsh realities and reliving bad dreams of her own including her relationship with her brutal father, her conflicted passion for one of the miners, and the hidden identity of the man who fathered her son. When the younger sister she thought was dead arrives on her doorstep followed closely by a gun-wielding Russian gangster, a shady New York lawyer, and a desperate Connecticut housewife, Shae-Lynn is forced to grapple with the horrible truth she discovers about the life her sister's been living, and one ominous question: will her return result in a monstrous act of greed, or one of sacrifice?
Tawni O'Dell's trademark blend of black humor, tenderness, and keen sense of place is evident once again as Shae-Lynn takes on past demons and all-too-present dangers.
New American Library, 2005
With her eagerly awaited second novel, Coal Run, O'Dell takes us back to the coal mining country of western Pennsylvania, the territory she renders with such striking authenticity. Thirty years after a mine explosion took the lives of nearly half the men in the small town of Coal Run, the repercussions are still being felt by the residents and particularly by former football hero, Ivan Zoschenko, who lost his father on that fateful day.
Returning after almost two decades of a self-imposed exile after a freak accident destroyed his promising professional career, Zoschenko, still known to locals as "The Great Ivan Z," is now a reluctant deputy spending a week seemingly preparing for an old teammate's imminent release from prison, a man who lived his life by the same philosophy he used when playing ball: a crippled man cannot score.
While he waits, Ivan introduces a rich cast of characters including his wise, comic, and persevering sister, Jolene, a mother of three fatherless boys and a beauty pageant veteran who describes herself as "queen of a lot of things;" his childhood idol, Val Claypool, who left a festering wound in Ivan's young life when he went to fight in Vietnam and never returned; Dr. Ed, Ivan's former pediatrician who brings a zealous new meaning to the words "house call;" Crystal, a comatose woman in a convalescent home that Ivan has developed an inexplicable attachment to, and Zo, the recently-deceased matriarch of the town whose gift-giving from the grave is one of the threads holding the community together.
During this week, Ivan also reveals himself to be a man whose conscience is burdened by a long-held and shocking secret that he must finally reckon with if he has any hopes of being able to stay.
Ivan's struggle to accept the love he feels for a place he blames for his failures will ultimately determine if he will stay or go. His search for a new identity within his old world mirrors the region's search for a new purpose after the loss of the mining industry. The results may enable him to finally forgive the people who he believes ruined him with their adoration and to finally forgive himself for a mistake he made a long time ago.
Filled with the same unflinching honesty, riveting characters, and understanding for a place and a way of life that made her first novel such a huge success, Coal Run is another stunning example of O'Dell's ability to find humor and humanity in the bleakest states. It is an uncompromising and absorbing novel that advances on, even transcends, the promise of Back Roads.
An Oprah Book Club Pick!
Paperback: Signet, 2001
An intense, vibrant debut novel set among the back roads of Pennsylvania's mining country
Harley Altmyer should be in college drinking Rolling Rock and chasing girls. He should be freed from his closed-minded, stricken coal town, with its lack of jobs and no sense of humor. Instead, he's constantly reminded of just how messed up his life is.
With his mother in jail for killing his abusive father, Harley is an orphan with the responsibilities of an adult and the fiery, aggressive libido of a teenager. Just nineteen years old, he's marooned in the Pennsylvania backwoods caring for his three younger sisters, whose feelings about him range from stifling dependence to loathing. And once he develops an obsession with the sexy, melancholic mother of two living down the road, those Victoria's Secret catalogs just won't do the trick anymore. He wants Callie Mercer so badly he fears he will explode. But it's the family secrets, the lies, and the unspoken truths that light the fuse and erupt into a series of staggering surprises, leaving what's left of his family in tatters. Through every ordeal, the unforgettable Harley could never know that his endearing humor, his love for his sisters, and his bumbling heroics would redeem them all.
Funny and heartbreaking, O'Dell's pitch-perfect characters capture the maddening confusion of adolescence and the prickly nature of family with irony and unerring honesty. Back Roads is a riveting novel by a formidable new talent.
One of Us
Gallery Books, 2014
From the New York Times bestselling author of Back Roads comes a fast-paced literary thriller about a forensic psychologist forced to face his own demons after discovering his small hometown terrorized by a serial killer.
Dr. Sheridan Doyle—a fastidiously groomed and TV-friendly forensic psychologist—is the go-to shrink for the Philadelphia District Attorney's office whenever a twisted killer's mind eludes other experts. But beneath his Armani pinstripes, he's still Danny Doyle, the awkward, terrified, bullied boy from a blue-collar mining family, plagued by panic attacks and haunted by the tragic death of his little sister and mental unraveling of his mother years ago.
Returning to a hometown grappling with its own ghosts, Danny finds a dead body at the infamous Lost Creek gallows where a band of rebellious Irish miners was once executed. Strangely, the body is connected to the wealthy family responsible for the miners' deaths. Teaming up with veteran detective Rafe, a father-like figure from his youth, Danny—in pursuit of a killer—comes dangerously close to startling truths about his family, his past, and himself.
In this masterfully told psychological thriller in the vein of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, the past and present collide to put Lost Creek's long-lived ghosts to bed.
SELECTED REVIEWS FOR
"O'Dell's love for the fallen-on-hard-times coal country shines through in her fourth novel. A unique blend of such disparate elements as baseball, bullfighting, and fine art along with O'Dell's multifaceted major and minor characters combine for intriguing vision. Her hard-hitting, well-crafted story packs a wallop."
-- Library Journal
"In this tough and tender tale, O'Dell's triumphant portrait of loss and rejection, sanctuary and redemption, shines with poignancy, dignity, and transcendent joy."
"O'Dell crafts a strong, moving story about a rich old lady and two poor boys who help each other overcome shattering losses... Sensitive, observant Kyle, sophisticated, salt-of-the-earth Luis and cantankerous Candace rotate as narrators, showing the grief-stricken boys and the walled-off woman tentatively forging a healing connection until the return of monstrous Rhonda provokes a crisis. O'Dell's eye for class conflict remains as sharp as ever, but she's broadened the reach of her sympathies...found new depths in her subject matter and her human understanding...Her most mature [novel], opening new paths for this talented writer."
[O'Dell] is a pro at capturing dialogue, and some characters' wisecracks are laugh-out-loud funny...this gritty novel is a memorable read."
-- Publishers Weekly
SELECTED REVIEWS FOR
Be prepared for an emotional roller-coaster ride with this latest from O'Dell. . . O'Dell successfully combines the story of negligent coal-mine owners and unfortunate, disabled, or dead miners with Shae-Lynn's own troubled past in this intense, racy, raucous, and often hilarious novel . . . she also packs this gripping tale with loads of action, intrigue, and suspense.
-- Library Journal
A masterfully unfolded, absolutely engrossing story as smart and sassy as it is wise...love [is] at the heart of it all, in crisp, insightful prose that sweeps the reader along. A knockout.
-– Booklist (starred review)
Narrator Shae-Lynn Penrose, the author's first female protagonist, is a ballsy, sassy delight...Many wonderful scenes bear witness for people too often left voiceless in American Literature.
O'Dell, whose debut, Back Roads, was an Oprah pick, returns with a terrific third novel set in a Pennsylvania coal country of broken families, altercations and smalltown coping...O'Dell demonstrates her mastery of set-piece dialogue, reeling off stingingly acute encounters that are as funny as they can be crushingly sad... crackles with conflict and a deep understanding of the complications and burdens that follow attachment, sex, love and kinship.
-- Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Tawni O'Dell is a great American storyteller. Sister Mine is hilarious and poignant, the details glitter like King Cole from a writer who knows it well. This is a story of family, friendship, and how secrets can bury us or redeem us . . . in the gifted hands of Tawni O'Dell, you can bet on redemption.
-- Adriana Trigiani, author of Home to Big Stone Gap
SELECTED REVIEWS FOR
. . . This is rich, compassionate storytelling.
Publisher's Weekly (starred review)
O'Dell explores the dynamics of a tiny Pennsylvania coal-mining town in her probing, heartbreaking second novel . . . This is a fierce, sharply drawn and richly sympathetic tribute to working-class America.
Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 2004
Triumphantly fulfilling the promise of her bestselling debut (Back Roads, 2000,) O'Dell examines the tangled, enduring bonds of family and community in a Pennsylvania mining town . . . a searing tragic vision of working-class people whose dignity comes from stoically doing their jobs . . . powerful and uncompromising, yet radiant with love: this one's pretty close to a masterpiece.
Booklist (starred review)
A glorious story of love and loss, of achievement and disappointment, of hope and despair . . . The novel takes place over the course of only one week, yet O'Dell manages to give the story an epic dimension.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In her utterly compelling second novel, Tawni O'Dell chronicles her characters' struggles with passion and wisdom . . .
The Denver Post
Tawni O'Dell illuminates timeless issues with keen insight . . . She pulls disparate threads together, weaving a powerful yet subtle tapestry of one man's tentative journey toward the personal understanding and acceptance that must precede redeption.
SELECTED REVIEWS FOR
The New York Times Book Review - March 12, 2000
Tense, conflicted and involving, O'Dell's novel deftly captures the voice of a teenage boy who's in trouble and facing profound challenges...
A vivid writing style that makes for enjoyment reading.
San Diego Union
O'Dell offers up a remarkable tale.
New York Newsday
... O'Dell has tackled the real stuff of stories, and she's done it with compassion and a unique voice.
Los Angeles Times
O'Dell's storytelling has natural flair.
A strong, thoughtful first novel that hews to time-honored fiction traditions, rooting a voyage of personal discovery in beautifully rendered particulars of character and place. We don't know exactly what kind of trouble 20-year-old Harley Altmyer is in when the story begins with him being interrogated by police officers, but we quickly learn that he's seen plenty of bad times already. Its been two years since his mother went to jail for shooting his father, and two now dead-end jobs are barely enough to support Harley and his three younger sisters in a dying western Pennsylvania town poisoned and abandoned by the coal industry. Sixteen-year-old Amber screws every guy in sight, daring Harley to do anything about it. Twelve-year-old Misty, favorite of their deceased father which means he beat her more than he did the other three seems not to care about anything. Six-year-old Jody writes notes to herself (FEED DINUSORS/ EAT BREKFIST) and keeps secrets she's not quite aware she possesses. Harley keeps his court-mandated appointments with a psychiatrist, but resists her efforts to make him open up. Smart and sharply funny, though hardly anyone catches his irony, Harley is trapped in the man's role he knows is a crock but can't let go. O'Dell does an impressive job of getting inside the head of a member of the opposite sex, creating a first-person narration of painful veracity as Harley rants against his mother and defends his father (He didn't like his job, but he went to it every day . . . . He was a flesh-and-blood man who couldn't stand it if you spilled something). The dysfunctional dynamics of a family scarred by domestic violence and incestuous longings lead to some luridly melodramatic twists, but the author's compassion and love for her characters shine throughout. When O'Dells plotting achieves the maturity of her character development, she's going to write a really extraordinary novel. This one is pretty darn good. (Book-of-the-Month Club main selection)
-- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
Visit Tawni's personal website for additional information on her books and events.