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"I'm pretty well adjusted for a writer." 3 Qs for Tawni O'Dell, author of "Fragile Beasts"

Tawni O'Dell's Fragile Beasts is fresh out in paperback this week. Yesterday, we gave you a peek inside the PR kit and steered you toward Tawni's excellent op ed on gender bias in literary fiction. Today, as promised, she takes a moment today to answer 3 Qs.

Tawni, thanks for your time. I know a lot has happened since the hardcover release last year, including the making of a Back Roads movie. How have readers reacted to Fragile Beasts?
I’m happy and relieved to say that my readers seem to love it. I’ve been hearing a lot of, “it’s your best book so far,” which is something you want to hear as an author because you want to grow and improve with each novel but there’s also that part of you that wants to defend your others. It’s sort of the way you feel when someone compliments one of your children and you feel obliged to point out that your other child is equally impressive. But I agree with them. I don’t like the use of vague superlatives like “best,” but I think it’s my most mature and ambitious novel yet and I’m happy with it.

I think the major appeal of the book comes from the contrasts between the dual narratives of the two very different main characters - Candace Jack, a wealthy woman in her seventies, and Kyle Hayes, a deprived boy in his teens - and the two very different settings of modern-day Pennsylvania coal country (my usual setting) and the bullfighting world of Spain in the 1950s.

PW loved the dialogue in Fragile Beasts (as did I), and I know you're screenwriting as well. What are some of the elements key to writing delicious, credible dialogue?
Dialogue comes very naturally to me. It’s the easiest element of novel writing for me and like all things that come easily and naturally to me I don’t like to stop and ask myself how I do it for fear of screwing it up.

I will say that in order to write good dialogue you have to know how people really talk. You can’t write how you “think” people talk or how you “want” them to talk. And in order to do that you have to get out there in the world and be around a lot of different people and be a good listener. I grew up in a family of talkers who were great storytellers, and I was a born observer and mental note-taker. I decided early on to sit back and listen and learn.
You also have to be able to let your characters completely inhabit you. That way when you speak for them you can’t help but sound authentic.

Candace is a complicated character to love - and to write. How did she get into your head? And how did you get into hers?
Candace - like all my characters – just appeared in my head one day. This doesn’t mean I was instantly able to write a novel around her. It took me almost two years of thinking about her before I knew her and her story well enough to put it down on paper.

I don’t go looking for my characters; they find me. I don’t intentionally try to write about a particular type of person and I never base my characters on real people; I find that creatively restrictive. But like all writers, the people and places and experiences of my own life shape my material.

One of the most important people in my life and one of my greatest role models was my grandmother, Naomi, who passed away this summer at the age of 95. Candace began to form in my mind at a time when Grandma’s health began to deteriorate and she had to move into an assisted living facility. In hindsight, I’m sure my preoccupation with her during those years led to a desire in me to create a strong, compelling older female character.

It’s also not surprising to me that part of Candace’s story takes place in Spain. My husband has a home in Mallorca and my children and I have spent our past nine summers with him there as well as doing a lot of traveling throughout the rest of Spain. The country has had a powerful effect on me, and I knew it would end up in my writing someday.

Bonus Q: What are you reading?
I’ve been immersed in rereading all the H.P. Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson I can get my hands on because the novel I’m currently writing, Company Town, is partially a ghost story, and they’re both masters at terror. They’re two of my favorite authors in general but my absolute favorites in the genre. I also just finished reading Blake Bailey’s biography of John Cheever which – like most biographies of authors I’ve read - made me feel like I’m pretty well-adjusted for a writer. I keep telling my family this. They’re still not convinced.

Visit Tawni O'Dell's website for more.


Barbara Sissel said…
I really enjoyed this interview, Tawni. The point about dialogue was interesting to me, in that you don't think about it, that it simply flows. For my taste, a novel can have other flaws but bad dialogue can break it. I can't wait to get my hands on Fragile Beasts. For one, I've been a fan since Back Roads and I'm excited to hear it's to become a movie. Everything about Fragile Beasts sounds intriguing from the two settings to Candace Jack. That name ... I love it and also that she's older and from the description, she's complicated; she has real character. Thanks so much for doing the interview, Tawni and thanks for bringing it to the blog, Joni.
Thank you so much for stopping by, Tawni! I read your piece about gender bias in literary fiction and LOVED it, especially the part about the woodland nymph! How crazy! Thanks again for stopping by. :)

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