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All publishers ask new authors to fill out a biographical information form. In the section that asked about writing workshops, MFA’s, literary awards, fellowships and previous publications, I had nothing to put down. My credentials consisted of being a voracious reader all my life and obsessively writing since I was a kid. When I put that on the form, there was a lot of blank space left to mock me so I decided to fill it with tidbits about my life experience that might make me seem like an interesting person since I couldn’t make myself seem like a serious writer.
During my sophomore year at Northwestern University, I worked for a semester for a company that provided live party entertainment — everything from superheroes and clowns to belly dancers and guys in gorilla suits — and one of my jobs had been to jump out of cakes at stag parties. I innocently mentioned this fact buried among many other facts. Big mistake.
Unbeknownst to me, in one fell swoop of the marketing axe, T.L. O’Dell ceased to exist. Overnight I went from being a male literary genius to being an ex-stripper with a thesaurus.
I was devastated again. And really confused. And starting to get angry. Then just when I thought I couldn’t possibly be further degraded and misrepresented as an artist, along came Entertainment Weekly.
Don’t get me wrong; they loved my book. They loved it so much that merely reviewing it wasn’t good enough. They wanted to do an interview, too, complete with photos. They even insisted on sending their own photographer.
Their request coincided with the end of my book tour, which happened to be in Pittsburgh. My publisher had planned it this way so I could also do a signing in my nearby hometown. I assumed EW would wait and do the shoot once I got back to Chicago. It seemed to me to be a more hospitable environment for an L.A.-based celebrity photographer than the wilds of Western PA, but they thought otherwise.
I was busily signing books at a table set up in the middle of the mall when I happened to look up and saw an anxious, overcaffeinated little troupe of petite Ray-Banned androgyny and ethnic ambiguity all dressed entirely in black and all clutching cups of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee coming toward me. (We didn’t have a Starbucks.) As they did so the wide-eyed, whispering herd of extra-large Steelers sweatshirts and camouflage hunting jackets milling around me split decisively in two to let them pass. The parting of the Red Sea couldn’t have been any more dramatic.
They turned out to be my photographer, Nathan (pronounced the French way, Nat-on,) his assistant, his other assistant, a makeup artist and a stylist.
One of the assistants informed me that Nathan would like to shoot me outside in some authentic Pennsylvania woods because his favorite scenes in my book had taken place in the woods and he envisioned me there. I told the assistant to tell Nathan, who was standing right beside us but apparently didn’t like to participate in his own conversations, that it was January and it was snowing. The assistant then told me not to worry, they would keep Nathan warm.
They then loaded me into their van like I was a kidnapping victim and off we drove in search of some authentic Pennsylvania woods. We didn’t have to go far. We found some behind the mall. A bunch of my family and friends that had been in attendance at the signing also came along. Nothing in the world was going to keep them from seeing this.