Christina Cheakalos
July 24, 2000 12:00 PM

Once, back when she earned extra cash for college by bursting out of giant cakes at stag parties, Tawni O’Dell composed her own obituary. “The cakes were made of papier-mâché, really gorgeous, but inside they were just plywood,” says O’Dell. One time, the top was so solid she couldn’t break out. “I was terrified and thought, ‘This is how Grandma is going to hear I died, stuck in a cake with splinters in my butt.’ ”

Relax, Grandma: Nowadays, it’s all icing. O’Dell—who has called herself “an educated woman with a stripper’s body and a biker chick’s name”—can add “bestselling author” to her colorful résumé. In January she published her debut novel, Back Roads, a vivid tale of love, incest, violence and survival in the backwoods Pennsylvania of her youth. By May, a few weeks after being anointed by Oprah‘s Book Club, the novel had shot to No. 2 on the New York Times list, where it remained for eight weeks. When O’Dell, 35, was featured on the April 27 Oprah Winfrey Show, Winfrey gushed, “You are no ordinary author. You are a writer!”

Whose middle name should be Perseverance. In 13 years of trying, O’Dell had amassed six unpublished novels and 300 rejection slips. “I’m gonna quit this writing thing once and for all,” she remembers thinking one day while taking a quiet walk in the Allegheny Mountains, during a March 1998 visit with her grandmother in her old hometown. That would be “Indiana, Pa., home of Jimmy Stewart,” she says. “That’s how you say the name of my hometown. It’s mandatory.”

During the same visit, she began imagining a story about an endearing, darkly funny character she called Harley Altmyer—a composite, she says, of all the guys she grew up with in the hardscrabble former coal-mining town. Harley is 19, works two dead-end jobs and struggles to raise his three younger sisters after their mother has been sent to prison for killing their father. “I felt this great fondness for Harley—at the same time he was very disturbing,” she says. “I realized, ‘Aw, nuts, I’m gonna have to write about this.’ ”

A few weeks later, O’Dell began Back Roads at her desk in the middle of her living room in the Chicago suburb of Grayslake, Ill., amid the chaos of two energetic kids—daughter Tirzah, now 8, and son Connor, 5. “I’d just find time whenever I could,” says O’Dell, who married her college sweetheart, Mike, a biochemist, in 1987. “When Connor started playing with his dinosaurs, I’d run to the computer.”

O’Dell sent the first 100 pages to her agent—who told her, first, that the book was wonderful and, second, that she, the agent, was quitting the business. “I convinced Tawni to finish the book,” says her banker father, Joe O’Dell, 54. “I told her, ‘I gotta know what happens next.’ ”

He has always been his older daughter’s No. 1 fan. O’Dell and sister Trina, 32, a homemaker in Shelocta, Pa., spent part of their childhood basking in middle-class comfort. But when O’Dell was 14, her parents divorced. The family also struggled financially. “We went from the upper echelon of this small-town society to being really poor,” she says. When her mother, Judy, 54, a receptionist, remarried, O’Dell rebelled. “I went out with a lot of guys, did a lot of crawling out of the bedroom kind of thing,” she says. But she was also a loner who found comfort in writing and dreaming of escaping her hometown.

The first in her family to attend college, O’Dell graduated from Northwestern University in 1986 with a journalism degree. That career didn’t take; she hated being a reporter, she says, because “I wanted to write stuff I made up.” Her husband urged her to quit her job and write fiction. She sent off a book every two years or so; like boomerangs, the manuscripts, accompanied by a rejection letter, reappeared in her mailbox. “After every one, I’d say, ‘I quit!’ ” she says. “My husband and my father would roll their eyes.” And insist she continue.

Through a new agent, O’Dell sold Back Roads to Viking and has another novel on the way. Grandma—Naomi Burkett, 85—loves Back Roads, even if she’s a bit tetchy about the risqué parts, telling O’Dell, “You know, I’m not going to be able to order this for the church library.”

Christina Cheakalos

Champ Clark in Grayslake

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