An interview with The Mostly True Story of Tanner & Louise author Colleen Oakley.
Featured in this year’s Spring Book Picks, Colleen Oakley’s The Mostly True Story of Tanner & Louise brings an adventurous twist to the classic feminist movie “Thelma & Louise.” The cult classic follows the wild journey of housewife Thelma and waitress Louise as they flee to Mexico to hide from the law after Louise kills a man.
In Oakley’s version, Tanner Quimby’s mother kicks her out after an accident that caused her to lose her soccer scholarship at Northwestern. A small slip convinces Louise Wilt’s daughter that she needs a live-in caretaker. When these circumstances align, neither Tanner or Louise expect to hit it off beyond their silent car rides to and from appointments. After a few suspicious coincidences and one midnight phone call, however, the pair take off together in the dead of night and never look back. Thus begins the whirlwind adventures of Tanner and Louise. Through an action-packed, cross-country road trip, Oakley’s Tanner and Louise challenge gender stereotypes and navigate grief all while redefining friendship.
Colleen Oakley is a USA Today bestselling author of The Invisible Husband of Frick Island, You Were There Too, Close Enough to Touch and Before I Go, as well as a graduate of the University of Georgia’s school of journalism. She lives in Atlanta with her husband, four children and dog Baxter. Haley Roberts spoke with Oakley about her upcoming novel and its important themes.
Haley Roberts: Why was challenging gender norms with Tanner’s identity important to you in this novel? What would you like for readers to take away?
Colleen Oakley: It kind of lent itself to a lot of humor, really. I was exploring gender and feminism as a whole, obviously from two very different generations between Louise’s and Tanner’s perspectives. Tanner is typically a boy’s name, and I kind of turned that on its head. It was really important to me because I just think that I wanted to encapsulate where we are right now as a society. I’m always trying to do that in my novels—paint a picture of the zeitgeist, if you will. So, that’s what is important right now, that we do challenge these gender norms so that everybody feels safe and feels seen. As an artist, I think it’s important to challenge or push back against societal stereotypes, especially ones that can be harmful. If I can make even one reader think about or question gender stereotypes they may hold—sometimes without even knowing it—then I feel like that’s a good thing. If I can do that and also do it in a humorous way, all the better.
HR: What are the challenges in writing a book set in a “post-pandemic” world versus writing pre-Covid?
CO: That’s an excellent question and one that not just myself, but I know a lot of my author friends struggle with. It’s like ‘how much of the pandemic do you put into your book?’ For me, I think the resolution I came up with was that I tried to write an escape from reality for my readers and, gosh, we have been through so much these past few years. I just wanted to give readers an escape and a fun escape, something where they didn’t have to think about Covid and the pandemic and all of the terrible things that we’ve been through. Then again, I couldn’t just completely ignore it and pretend that the pandemic didn’t happen, because that’s also not realistic. I tried to slip it in when I talk about how Tanner’s father lost his job during the pandemic recession to make it like, yes, this is the world that you are living in, but we’re not going to dwell on all these really terrible things we’ve all been through.
HR: Where did you draw inspiration to create such a bizarre, yet heartwarming and hilarious, journey for Tanner & Louise?
CO: I love the word bizarre! I feel like all of my books are a little bizarre. They’re a little outlandish, and that’s what makes it fun for me to write them. I don’t like writing predictable books, and I don’t want the reader to ever kind of know what they’re going to get next from me. The bizarre idea actually was inspired by my grandmother, who I had an incredibly close relationship with. She was one of my favorite people on Earth. She had a wickedly sharp sense of humor. She was very pragmatic. She loved to travel. We actually would take road trips together. We also talked often on the phone and, about five years before she passed, she was diagnosed with late-onset Parkinson’s disease, which is just a tragic disease in itself.
Along with the symptoms of Parkinson’s, the cocktail of medications that one is put on causes the person who has it to have a lot of hallucinations and some very vivid dreams where they have a hard time telling what is real and what is not. So my phone conversations with my grandmother as she got deeper into the illness became very interesting, because she would start to say just really outlandish things. One time, she asked me if I had sent a $10,000 check for her gambling debts to New Jersey. She also thought that my aunt had just gotten out of jail because she had murdered me, so my family and I started to deal with our grief over what was happening to her by sharing these more outlandish stories and using laughter as a reprieve from our grief. My grandmother, herself, would have found these stories hilarious, but for me, of course, being a novelist, it sent my little novelist wheels turning. I just thought, what if my grandmother, who had an incredible life in her own right, what if she also has this other secret life and it was just starting to come out to her family at the end of her life? What if she did have gambling debts? Or what if she traveled so much because she was an international spy or a jewel thief or any one of these kind of crazy things? And how well do we really know the people in our family? Do you know them as well as you think you do?
That is when the character of Louise was born. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to have this older protagonist who has lived this life that perhaps her family had no idea about, this big secret life. Maybe she was a little different than who they thought she was. I think we write off older people in our society to our detriment. Older people have lived all these lives, they have all this great experience and knowledge and wisdom to share with us if we would only listen and pay attention.
HR: At the beginning of the novel, both Tanner and Louise are actively grieving. Can you talk a little about this contrast in the emotions of youth and old age?
CO: I think for Tanner, when you’re so young and you have something happen to you that kind of derails your life, you don’t have the life experience to understand that you can overcome it and that it’s not the end of your life. That is kind of Tanner’s journey. She has to realize that just because this door closed doesn’t mean that her life is completely over. For Louise, her grief is just as valid and just as real over the death of her wonderful, wonderful husband. But it doesn’t derail her life because she does understand that life is long, and she has been through many different experiences that she’s had to grieve over. It doesn’t make her grief any less, but she knows that she will survive. So, that’s the lesson that I think she can help impart to Tanner. My grandmother had been with my grandfather for 50 years when she lost him and, to me, I’m like how do you even get up in the morning? But she did, and she persevered and didn’t let it slow her down or stop her from living the rest of her life, which was admirable.
HR: How were you inspired by the 1991 movie ‘Thelma & Louise?’
CO: ‘Thelma & Louise’ is one of my very favorite movies of all time! I think they are the best fierce, feminist duos of the big screen—that’s what I call them. They’re incredible, and that movie has held up. I saw it for the first time when I was 14 or 15, and it was really the first time as a young woman that I felt validated in any kind of anger or unfairness that I felt against the world. You didn’t really see that on screen in the ’80s and ’90s, and it was really the first time that you felt a woman’s rage on screen. I thought it was just brilliant. Rewatching it again when I was writing the book for research, it was a great inspiration for the book, obviously, because of the road trip and because of the feminist angles. I also wanted to not necessarily update the movie but update its themes. Every man in ‘Thelma & Louise’ is a terrible man. Even Bradd Pitt, who is the eye candy, ends up robbing them blind. I’ve had a lot of great men in my life, and I don’t think that every man is terrible. It was really important to me to show that there are good men behind these wonderful women as well, so I made sure to do that in the book.
HR: You live in Atlanta. How did your experiences in the city play into the setting of Tanner & Louise?
CO: I do love to write some of what I know, especially in places, so that it feels realistic. I love setting my books off from Atlanta. My husband and I actually took a road trip with our four children, and we drove out to Denver, Colorado, a couple of years ago. We took pretty much the first half of the road trip Tanner and Louise take, so I was very familiar with the routes and the steps that they were taking. We even stopped at the St. Louis Arch and all of the different things that they drove through, so it was great fun to relive that trip through the book as well.
HR: Famous authors like Jodi Picoult, Taylor Jenkins Reid and Mary Kay Andrews wrote blurbs for the book. What does this mean to you?
CO: I can’t even really put it into words. I have been an avid reader my whole life. I used to work at Marie Claire, and I worked on the book section. I would read books, and I interviewed authors as part of my job. I actually interviewed Jodi Picoult herself. It was 2006, so many, many years ago, and I was so nervous. I remember telling her that I had ambitions to write a book one day, and she was just so kind. She said, ‘you should do it and I believe in you, and maybe I’ll read it one day.’ Of course, it’s just a nice thing to say. You never actually think that’s going to happen, so for her to not only have read my book, but to offer such a kind blurb was the biggest full-circle moment for me. And Taylor Jenkins Reid is just the largest author on the planet right now and has also been so kind. Then, Mary Kay Andrews, we live in the same town, and she’s been nothing but supportive. Speaking of strong female relationships in this industry, where people like to paint women as being competitive and catty and tearing each other down, I’ve found nothing but support in women building each other up in the author industry. It’s just been so incredible.
The Mostly True Story of Tanner & Louise releases on March 28.