Tim Tharp was born in Henryetta, Oklahoma, a small town in the eastern part of the state. At seven, when his father landed a job as associate editor of a big city newspaper, he moved to Midwest City, a suburb of Oklahoma City. While in grade school, he created two comic strips, Monster Mag and Bush Miller, the latter being the continuing saga of a hapless bush-league baseball player. In fifth grade, he fell in love with fiction writing, and vowed that one day, in addition to becoming the greatest professional football player to ever play the game, he would be a writer.
By high school, his professional sports ambitions had dwindled, though he continued playing football on Sunday afternoons on the lawn of the local YMCA. Writing, however, was still close to his heart. He was editor of the school newspaper for which he wrote a regular column and a serialized mystery story entitled Nehi Bolt after the main character, a wise and rugged small-town Oklahoma sheriff. In addition to writing for the school paper, he also began to write short stories modeled after his favorite writers at the time—Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens, and Kurt Vonnegut.
Upon graduating from high school, he attended Oklahoma State University, his father’s alma mater, majoring first in journalism and then psychology. After two years, his thirst for adventure lured him to the open road. First, he hitchhiked to Chicago to visit a friend and then to California and back to Oklahoma. Still thirsty for new experiences, he then set out for Florida in an aged and weathered pickup truck with a college friend. Unable to locate jobs in Miami, the pair found shelter and earned three-hundred dollars each by taking part in a testing laboratory’s study of an aspirin substitute. This was enough money, and more, for a trip back to Oklahoma.
Settling in after life on the road, Tharp worked the nightshift at a mental hospital before returning to school. However, he now found college life too restricting, and after a misfire semester, he left school for five years, taking the time to read novels, history, psychology, and philosophy while working first in a rubber hose factory, then at a record store. During this time, he also experimented with a variety of styles and genres of writing. He did not intend to submit these experiments for publication. Instead, he kept a tall cardboard box by the side of his typewriter and discarded each page into it as soon as he was finished.
When he finally began to submit short stories for publication, he received what all writers must consider as badges of honor—rejection letters. His stories, some of which could only be described as Oklahoma Kafkaesque, were not like the stories in the journals and magazines he submitted to; however, that is not why the stories were rejected. The stories were simply not very good and he did not know how to make them better. At this time, he decided to return to college and study literature in a more formal way.
This time he graduated with a B.A. from the University of Oklahoma, where he won both the Gloria D. Cooksey Memorial Award and the Dr. Betty Evans Scholarship for superior fiction writing. Subsequently, he was accepted into the Brown University Graduate Fiction Writing Program and headed off to Rhode Island with all his belongings stored in the back of a slightly less aged and weathered pickup truck than the one he had taken to Miami.
Some people believe that M.F.A. programs tend to mold writers into copies of each other, but this was not true at Brown. Several writers in Tharp’s class went on to publish books, none of which were anything alike. Most importantly, at Brown, Tharp finally learned the objectivity toward his own writing that is necessary for successful revising. By critiquing the work of his extremely talented classmates, he realized that he could make the same kind of heavy-lifting revisions to his own work that he suggested for them. With this discovery, revising became his favorite part of the writing process.
While at Brown, Tharp taught an undergraduate fiction-writing class and discovered a second love—teaching. After graduating, he returned to the wide-open spaces of the southwest to work as a freelance writer and adjunct instructor at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, and Redlands College in El Reno, Oklahoma, before landing his first full-time teaching position at Oklahoma State University—Okmulgee. In the small Oklahoma town of Okmulgee, he wrote two novels, both of which did not find publishers. The third novel, however, was more successful.
In 1999, Falling Dark, the story of a family whose lives are shattered by the senseless killing of the husband and father, won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize and was published by Milkweed Editions. To find a publisher, Tharp had done extensive research on what books various houses were connected with and pared down his list to three publishers. When the call came from Milkweed, Tharp found the news vastly more satisfying than that of the rejection letters he had collected previously.
Two years later, Tharp returned to Midwest City to teach in the humanities department at Rose State College. While here, a teacher at a local high school asked him to talk to students and teachers about Falling Dark. Previously, he had been pleased by the response of teenagers to his book, but this was the first time he had met with a large group at one time. He very much enjoyed the way the students talked about the characters in the novel as if they were real people. It reminded him of how he had responded to novels when he was a teen, and he began to think about writing books for this age group.
While at Brown, he had written a short story about two high school football players, and he saw now that the story would make the perfect seed for a young adult novel. He wrote the whole novel in the third person, as the short story had been written, but decided that approach did not bring the story to life sufficiently. He went back to the manuscript and rewrote it in the first-person voice of small-town linebacker, Hampton Green. With this change and the help of a very enthusiastic agent, Knights of the Hill Country soon attracted the attention of three different editors at major publishing houses, and after a suspenseful auction process, Knopf Books for Young Readers acquired the manuscript.
Knights of the Hill Country went on to be named to American Library Association’s best books of the year list and won the Oklahoma Book Award. Numerous states have adopted the novel to their state reading lists. The book received many outstanding reviews, but the author’s favorites have come from teenage readreaders.
Encouraged by the enthusiastic response, Tharp immediately set to work on a second young adult novel, which resulted in his latest release The Spectacular Now. A comical story with dark undertones, this novel follows the misadventures of teenage party boy Sutter Keely whose charm and good humor threaten to lure his girlfriend along on his decent into alcoholism. The Spectacular Now was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award.
Presently Tharp continues to enjoy teaching at Rose State College where he is also the co-chairman of the Write of Spring High School Writing Workshop. This annual event attracts high-school students from all over central Oklahoma to hear readings and advice from guest authors as well as to practice their own poetry and fiction writing. He has also made appearances at various high schools and other writing events around the state. He is currently at work on another novel for young adults.