Writers Dream, Mothers Nightmare

By Tawni O’Dell

As originally appeared in
Ladies’ Home Journal
February 2001 issue 

First Person:
A writer’s dream,
a mother’s nightmare

When I found out my book would
be Oprah’s next pick, I thought life
couldn’t get better. Then my little
girl’s health took a turn for the worse

By Tawni O’Dell 

When the call came I was making dinner: beef stew, something I rarely prepare, but it was late February in Chicago – a cold, gray, endless time when even the most health-conscious seek solace in gravy.

I glanced at the phone, suspicious. At this time of day, with my hands caked in beef and flour, it could only be a telemarketer. “Get that, Mom,” my daughter, Tirzah, shouted from the adjoining room where she and her five-year-old brother, Connor, were watching TV. “It might be for me.”

At age eight, she already received more calls than I did and had a much more enviable social calendar.

The phone rang again. A little voice in the back of my mind urged me to answer it. Then it came to me: This call could be important. After a lifetime of writing and a decade of trying to publish a novel, Back Roads finally had been published the previous month by Viking Press. The reviews had been good, some even glowing. Sales had been respectable for an unknown writer. Now I was more than Tirzah’s social secretary: I was an author.

I wiped my hands on a dish towel and answered the phone. “Can I speak with Tawni O’Dell, please?” a woman’s voice asked.

“This is Tawni,” I said without enthusiasm.

“Tawni, this is Oprah Winfrey.”

I laughed. “Yeah, right.”

I knew about Oprah’s Book Club, of course. Once a month, she announced a book on her show and it became an instant best-seller. But I never thought my book, Back Roads, was the type of book she would pick. She usually chose books with female protagonists who triumphed in some way by the end of the story. My novel was about Harley Altmyer, a nineteen-year-old boy trying to keep his blue-collar family afloat after his mother is sent to prison for killing his physically abusive father. Set in one of the bleak coal towns that dot the western Pennsylvania countryside where I grew up, even the novel’s landscape is ominous and ruined.

The voice on the other end responded, “I really am Oprah Winfrey.”

She sounded like Oprah. Okay, so it was a decent impersonation. Who did I know who could play this kind of practical joke on me?

My cousin Kenny. Years ago, when I was trying to sell the first novel I’d ever written, I mentioned the name of an editor at a certain publishing house who was reading the manuscript. He called me, disguising his voice and pretending to be the editor, and had me convinced that they were going to buy my book – until he couldn’t stand it anymore and busted out laughing. Just last week we had been talking about Back Roads, and he’d asked jokingly if Oprah had called yet.

“I’m not stupid,” I informed the caller. “You‘re someone my cousin Kenny got to imitate Oprah.”

“I don’t know your cousin Kenny,” the voice assured me. Then she said, slowly, “I really am Oprah Winfrey.”

This time I listened hard to the voice and heard a calm, straight-forward mix of firmness and patience in it. It was Oprah Winfrey, and I had insulted her. Book or no book, this couldn’t be good.