Tawni O’Dell’s astonishing debut novel, Back Roads, received widespread critical acclaim for its visceral portrayal of a family torn apart by violence. In her much anticipated second novel, Coal Run, O’Dell returns to the ravaged mining towns of western Pennsylvania, this time to the homecoming of a former small-town football hero, Ivan Zoschenko.
The Great Ivan Z was a rising star when an accident left his knee shattered and his future uncertain. After decamping to Florida, where he spent sixteen liquor-filled years hiding from his past, Ivan is reluctantly drawn back to his hometown of Coal Run by the news of a former teammate’s release from prison.
A once prosperous mining town, Coal Run—like Ivan—is a shadow of its former self and haunted by tragic memories. When Ivan was just six years old, Gertie, the town’s largest mine, exploded, burying in its tunnels nearly every man in town, including his own father, grandfather, and uncle. Though Gertie has long since ceased to function, the town is still very much defined by its former presence: each family descends from miners, most of them killed in the blast.
Despite Ivan’s bad knee, he is given the job of local deputy, a nod to his former glory. He perfunctorily fulfills his duty, though often making exceptions to the law and sobriety. But in the days leading up to Reese’s return from prison, Ivan can no longer repress the secret history of violence and irresponsibility that binds him to Reese—and to Reese’s wife, who remains comatose after the beating that led to his incarceration.
When Ivan attends the funeral of Zo, a family friend and elderly town figure, he encounters Val—a scarred Vietnam veteran, former neighbor, and childhood hero of Ivan’s—who is making his own belated homecoming. Reflecting on the boy he once was and the man he should have become, Ivan is tortured by memories of his Ukrainian immigrant father, his own youthful arrogance, and the still lingering consequences of his actions.
Ivan realizes that he must first reconcile his past in order to forge a path toward a better future, ultimately struggling with whether a man’s worth is intrinsic to his person or is instead the sum of his actions—whether through the acceptance of duty and responsibility, however belatedly, he might atone for his past. Rich in heart and the casual, indiscriminate brutality of both man and land, Coal Run is above all a story of redemption and healing, the acceptance of one’s shortcomings, and the infinite hopefulness of a new future.
ABOUT TAWNI O’ DELL
Tawni O’Dell’s debut novel, Back Roads, was a selection of Oprah’s Book Club. A western Pennsylvania native, she earned a degree in journalism from Northwestern University. In addition to earning wages as a bankteller and a waitress, she put herself through college working as an exotic dancer jumping out of cakes at bachelor parties. A mother of two, she lives with her husband in Illinois. Coal Run is her second novel.
A CONVERSATION WITH TAWNI O’ DELLQ. Your first novel, Back Roads, received widespread critical acclaim and was chosen as a selection for Oprah’s Book Club. How did this attention affect you and the writing of your second novel?
A. Success with a first novel can be a paralyzing force when you sit down to write your follow-up novel. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure put on you to write something “even better.” I had myself convinced that if I didn’t write a book equally as successful as Back Roads—both critically and commercially—I would be a failure.
I also had to deal with feelings of “I don’t deserve to be a bestselling author” because my success in that regard came directly from being an Oprah pick. I didn’t feel that my book had earned its success. I had just been very, very lucky in that Oprah Winfrey really liked it.
Before Back Roads was published, I was only writing for myself and my characters. I wanted to be published and have readers, but I didn’t truly understand what that would mean in regard to how I would start to second-guess my work. Once you’re published, your books become public domain, and everyone from editors and reviewers to the checkout clerk at your local Wal-Mart and your son’s soccer coach has an opinion about them, and you find yourself beginning to write what you think all these other people want instead of writing what you know your characters want. I was eventually able to silence all those exterior voices, but it was a tough process.
Q. Both of your novels are set in working-class coal-mining towns of rural Pennsylvania. In Coal Run, especially, the land is very much a character—its simmering heat and capacity for undiscriminating violence. What is it about this area that fascinates you as a writer?
A. I’m fascinated by the contrasts in the landscape and the innate conflicts that arise because of them and spill over into the lives of the people who live here.
This is a place of great natural beauty but also a place marred by man’s industrial ugliness. It’s a place where nature provided a livelihood, but it was a livelihood that killed and maimed. The mountains here are not young and jagged and spectacular: they’ve been worn down by time; they’ve been invaded by the coal-mining industry; they’ve been pockmarked with depressed, blue-collar towns and abandoned mines and factories. Yet there’s a pride and a calm and a wisdom to them that only comes with age and survival. Looking at them, you’re filled with a sense of security and dependability. I think the land shares many characteristics with the people and has played a big role in forming their personalities and fatalist outlook on life.
Q. Both of your novels are written from a male perspective, specifically that of a man learning to accept himself as an adult. What challenges do you find in writing from a male perspective?
A. I find writing from a male perspective to be relatively easy. For me, it’s the ultimate adventure in playing make-believe. I enjoy trying to put myself inside the mind of a man and figuring out how he looks at the world and what he feels is required of him and what he’s willing to give. I’ve been fortunate in that what I perceive to be a male point of view has turned out to be fairly accurate according to the men who have read my books.
Ironically, I have a much harder time writing female characters. I’m not sure why exactly. It may be that for me, writing fiction is an exercise in using my imagination and, being female myself, I find female characters to sometimes be too familiar.
Q.The question of identity plagues Ivan. He is equally uncomfortable being known as a football hero, a son of a Ukrainian immigrant, an uncle, and a father. How much choice do you feel a person has in determining his or her identity? Is it unchangeable, like a person’s birthplace, only to be accepted? Or is it the result of a series of choices?
A. I think a person’s identity is greatly determined by factors beyond his or her control, such as birthplace, ethnicity, gender, economic class, educational opportunities. The type of parents a person has is one of the most important forces behind a person’s identity because this determines how he or she will be raised. What a person chooses to do with that identity and what type of person he chooses to become is up to him to a point. The choices he will make in his life and the amount of commitment he will give to those choices will be influenced by how he responds to his own identity. This is what I find fascinating about human nature. Two people can have the same basic identity—such as Ivan and Jess in Coal Run—but make different choices and react to the same situations in entirely different ways. How much of this is determined by the shackles of their “identity” and how much is done of their own free will? I love to write about this conflict in all of us.
Q.You have a wonderful way of writing from a child’s perspective, which can be a very difficult thing to do. In both children and teenagers, you expertly capture their innocence and frustrations, and create for them honest, distinct voices that are adorable without ever being cloying. They also add levity to the novel. Do you find it easy or hard to write in a child’s voice? What is it about them that attracts you to them as characters?
A. I find it easy to write in a child’s voice. I think one of the reasons is that I have two children and spend a lot of time trying to assess the world through their eyes. I also like kids. I like talking to them and hearing what they have to say. I try to understand them and respect their opinions before I send them to their rooms.
Children are honest. I don’t mean to say that they don’t sometimes tell white lies, but even their lies, in a sense, are honest. They’re straightforward. You understand why they tell them. They don’t have hidden agendas like many adults do. And they’re not disillusioned yet. They possess a kind of optimism that adults simply don’t have despite the fact that children have a tremendous amount of pressure put on them and have to deal with many fears and dangers that previous generations were spared.
This optimism and honesty are two of the reasons why I like to use them as characters. If I have an adult character who is mired in adult emotions and experiences, I can let a child take a look at that same situation, and by interpreting what he sees with an unfinished mind and unjaded heart, the child can bring about a whole new perspective.
Q. How important do you think a father figure is in a boy’s life? Do you think society creates unfair expectations for the modern man?
A. A father figure is extremely important in a boy’s life and a girl’s life. I think the problem we’re facing nowadays is defining what role a father is supposed to play. I think it’s important that a father be a figure of respect and authority, and in order to do this, there has to be some element of emotional distance.
Now fathers are supposed to be more involved in their children’s lives, but this is also done at the risk of compromising this distance. Instead of the role of father evolving, it seems as if men are floundering around trying to imitate the roles of mother or pal, which is frustrating for everyone.
A man’s role in society is in a similar crisis. Traditionally men have been providers and protectors. Now they’re being told that women can also provide for themselves and the family, and that the things we need protection from are too huge and oftentimes unfathomable for a mere man alone to have any power over.
It’s been difficult for both men and women to cope with the changes that have come along with our quest for sexual equality, but on some level, I feel that women have adapted better to these changes than men have. We were told we were supposed to do more and be more, which is difficult but at least straightforward. Men were told they should do less of what they’re used to doing and give more of what they don’t know how to give. I think many of them just feel lost.
Q. In many ways, Coal Run, a land ravaged by tragedy and loss, reflects our post-9/11 world. Did global events influence your writing?
A. I began writing my first draft of Coal Run well before 9/11, so I don’t think those events shaped my writing, but possibly they made my novel and the world of Coal Run more relevant and comprehensible to the rest of America.
Our lives changed dramatically after 9/11 in that we never feel completely safe anymore. Our sense of security has been shattered. We’ve had to adapt to the idea that just going about our daily routines can end up being deadly. This is how mining communities have always lived. Every shift when a coal miner went off to work, he and his family had to live with the knowledge that he might not be home again.
Another similarity is that the forces behind these cataclysmic events are forces that are beyond our control. We can’t control terrorism, and miners can’t control the forces of nature they have to deal with when they are miles beneath the earth’s surface.
Q. What writers have influenced you the most? What have you been reading lately?
A. If I had to pick one literary idol, it would be Flannery O’Connor. Many other Southern writers have influenced me, such as Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, William Styron, and Robert Penn Warren. J. D. Salinger has had a great impact on my writing. Also John Irving and Richard Russo.
I just finished reading Victim by Gary Kinder. It’s a nonfiction account of a multiple murder committed in Utah in the seventies told from the perspective of one of the survivors and his family. Many people have compared it to Capote’s In Cold Blood. It’s incredibly powerful. Everyone should read this book. I also recently read Songs in Ordinary Time by Mary McGary Morris; the biography Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams by Lyle Leverich; Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov, a collection of stories about life in the Soviet labor camps of Kolyma in northeastern Siberia; and Tumbling by Diane McKinney-Whetstone. I highly recommend all of them.
Q. What are you writing next?
A. I’m working on my next novel.
- Lost identity is a recurring theme in this book, both locally, in the Pennsylvania boys’ forgetting their hometowns, and in a larger sense, in Americans’ forgetting their ethnic identities. From tales of Magadan to the portrait of Volodymyr that sits above the Zoschenko dinner table, allusions to Ivan’s father’s former life in Ukraine and Russia are made throughout the novel. Discuss what Ivan’s heritage means to him.
- The land of Coal Run is inexplicably, irrevocably part of each character, drawing back those who leave it. Discuss each of the very different homecomings of the book—those of Val, Reese Raynor, Ivan, and John Harris. What is it that ties each character to the town?
- Compare Ivan as a little boy to Ivan as the narrator of the novel. How does his voice change? How are his relationships to Val and Eb similar?
- Ivan loses his father, uncle, and grandfather in the Gertie mine explosion and Val to the Vietnam War, then denies the existence of his own son. None of Jolene’s three sons have any kind of relationship with their fathers. Discuss the lack of male role models and father figures throughout the book. How does this affect the men of each generation?
- The loss of Ivan’s knee, his heroic self, and his chance to forever leave Coal Run all occur at Gertie. Discuss the significance of his choice to self-destruct at that location.
- The burning land of Coal Run, with its simmering unstoppable fires beneath the surface, literally sucks down people, homes, and objects to its fiery depths. The festering rage of each character similarly manifests itself with violence. Discuss how the violence and anger of Bobbie, Reese, and Ivan differ.
- Discuss the role of women in this town that is defined by mining, a very male profession. Ivan’s mother, his sister Jolene, Zo—are they better at coping with tragedy? Are they stronger?
- In many ways Zo and Dr. Ed mastermind the fates of several of the characters, guiding their fates, yet without reprimand or condemnation. Dr. Ed anonymously sends the clipping to Ivan. Zo leaves her home to Jolene and her grandson, forever tying Randy to Coal Run. Discuss the silent but strong (and effective) techniques of this generation.
- Ivan’s father is able to separate the profession of coal mining from the fact that he learned it while in Siberia at a work camp. Reese, though an abusive husband and a murderer, at one time behaved honorably by marrying Crystal when Ivan would not. But Ivan cannot separate his identity as a football hero and town figure from who he is inside as a person. Discuss how profession and the ability to provide shape male identity. How is male identity tied to duty?
- The demons of the past haunt several characters, most notably Ivan. How does the past literally and figuratively cripple him and prevent him from embarking on a future of any kind?