Photo courtesy J. Odell
Jonathan Odell’s new book, Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League, continues to dazzle audiences. The Minnesota author (by way of Mississippi) joins The Mother of All Book Clubs at Barnes & Noble, Galleria, on Thursday, March 19, beginning at 5:30 p.m. in the store’s Starbucks (downstairs), with a public discussion at 7 p.m. Both events are free and open to the public.
Here Odell answers five questions (and a bonus one)—on writing from perspectives different than our own, writing away from home place, and giving a novel a second chance.
1. You’ve been in Minnesota since 1980. What has living in Minnesota taught you about your Mississippi childhood?
Nearly everything. I don’t think you can know home or your family until you leave them. And the bigger the contrast the more that is true. Your entire definition of “normal” shifts. Living on the cool, rational end of the Mississippi River gave me the opportunity to become better acquainted with the fiery, emotional end.
2. You’re a white man writing from the perspectives of both a white woman and an African American woman (among other characters). What are the risks of writing so closely from experiences different than our own, and how do you work through them?
The danger is, of course, writing your own unexamined biases as gospel truth. It’s very important to remember for me as a white man that others have their own stories, and they are larger than just reacting to the power differential between themselves and white men. When whites write the narrative, because we have been taught so little about the richness and complexity in the lives of those who are different, we have a tendency to continually make ourselves the stars, the heroes, the driving force in our stories. I have many African American women friends whom I ask to read my early drafts. I ask them to look for three things: When can you tell a man is writing? When can you tell a white person is writing? And when do you find me as an author “disappearing” you from the page? Again, we white writers have a tendency to take away the individuality and the agency from others, especially blacks. We are more comfortable with the old “white savior” narrative, which depicts blacks as victims who are saved by white heroes, a la To Kill A Mockingbird and The Help, The Blind Side, Freedom Writers, and on and on. Not that these aren’t wonderful stories, they are just very skewed to the “white” story.
3. You’re mining your own childhood in this book (the boy is even shares your name), and I’ve heard you say that there’s a lot of your mother in Hazel, who crashes her car into a nativity scene while drunk. What's your advice for writers who'd like to write about their own childhoods?
First, don’t write a book to settle scores or to get even or to “defend” or explain your life. I forget who said it but the saying is true: the greatest gift a writer can give a character is to release him or her from the wheel of pre-determination. The characters need to be able to surprise and delight the writer or they will never surprise and delight the reader. Given that, the incidents in my mother’s life as well as mine are fair game, but I must let the characters feel free to let those incidents shape them how they choose. My mother started out the villain in the book and ended up being the hero. The character of Johnny began as a victim and ended up being a very willful kid to the point of being a brat.
4. This book is a rewrite/reissue of an already published novel of yours (your first). How does that second chance happen?
In a word, rarely. My agent and one of her clients, Pat Conroy, were both concerned that so many good books, through no fault of their own, never got a good shot at reaching their readership. Usually, as was in The View from Delphi’s case, it was because of very poor marketing. Marly decided to create her own imprint that would give these worthy books a second shot. I did a lot of rewriting, changed the name and cover and re-launched. It’s helps that the need for conversations about race and women’s struggles have never been more urgent, ten years after the release of of the first version.
5. You wrote this book away from your home place. Were there advantages to that? What advice do you have for writers living away from their home place?
I’m not sure if I can give advice on this. For me it was a necessity. I take Mississippi too personally. That is, when I visit, the homophobia and the religious intolerance goes right to my heart. I have a thin skin and it sends me into a depression. I know of others who can move to the South and let those things roll off their backs, but with me, it’s like my family rejecting me all over again. So I go down for a week or two at a time, take vigorous notes, inhale “home” then return to Minnesota, breathe out against some frosted pane and record my story in safety. I can’ write about the soup if I am in the soup.
Bonus question: You’ve spent a large part of your career working at the intersections of diversity, inclusion, and story, and this novel mines this territory. How can we all best go through the world with our hearts and minds open to the experiences of others?
Get really good at asking for and listening to others stories. If you do, and you really listen without judgment, letting them completely own their own story regardless or how it might challenge yours, you will be transformed.