Hello readers, I’m thrilled to publish this interview with North Carolina treasure, author Eleanora E. Tate, featuring her charming collection of short stories, Don’t Split the Pole. In this space Eleanora shares her wisdom on writing a book and her “Tate Tips”—invaluable advice if you’re an aspiring author.
Eleanora’s full bio and book blurb follow the interview questions.
Alice: Where did the idea come from for Don’t Split the Pole?
Eleanora: I’d already written several books with proverbs and sayings that reflected the books’ settings and regional vernaculars. With this book I wanted to pinpoint particular adages and wrap stories around them in a collection totally dedicated to short stories. “Pole” was originally published by Delacorte in hardcover in 1997 and in paperback in 1999, then went out of print. It was conceived as a middle grade work, since that level is my writing/publishing niche.
I hope to market this re-release of Pole to adult storytellers, folklorists, ministers, teachers for classroom use, counselors to share with troubled teens, and to anybody else who loves to read. My book can work as a springboard to inspire adults to identify their own meaningful sayings. Its story structures can help writers develop their own stories. Their contemporary time period also shows readers that the adages, which are as old as dirt, have relevance today.
A: All of the characters and situations in your book are so vivid and real, plus you’ve included a lot of diversity which I totally appreciated. I also enjoyed that you set most of these stories in North Carolina. What sets you apart from other authors writing in your genre?
E: My backstory: I was a shy, skinny-legged, short-haired, dark-skinned, plain little Black girl born in northern Missouri. I was raised by my grandmother, who loved to tell me stories. I’m sure she inspired me. I loved to write, but nobody in the family thought that writing (as in books and stories) was a meaningful skill. The only worthwhile purpose my mother saw in my future for writing was as a secretary, not a published writer. Writers didn’t make money, either, especially not colored ones.
I also had to deal in the 1950s with mean, blonde-haired, name-calling girls and big-butt boy bullies at school, along with a hysterical teacher who hated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and civil rights marchers.
Fortunately, I came of age in the 1960s in Iowa where I found teachers who loved my writing efforts and introduced me to the work of Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks (who later became one of my mentors) and other Black writers during those Civil Rights years. I saw people who looked like me stand up for themselves against racism from whites and negativism from colored people. On television and in newspapers and magazines I saw faces as dark as mine achieve mighty things around the country, no matter what others – Black or white — said about them or tried to do to them.
I became an adult during the Black Power, “Black is Beautiful,” Black Literary Arts years. My poetry and short stories were praised, and that gave me hope.
In retrospect, what I’ve seen and experienced through my own lens gave voice to my books, short stories, essays, and lectures, using the talents that God gave me. The world is changing, so who I am now may still be what sets me apart. I’ve had an amazing life, and God is not through with me yet.
What also still probably sets me apart a little is that I believe the best way to have more children’s books with more characters reflective of the human race is to have more writers and editors who reflect that humanity to do the writing and editing. The human race consists of a variety of ethnicities and citizens of the world, with a multitude of countries, tribes and peoples, abilities and disabilities, but we’re just one race – the human race.
In my world are people of different ethnicities, ages and abilities. Since I write about my world, naturally these folks are in my books, but only when they have a purpose to the plot, not just dropped in or painted different skin colors and dialects, not as accessories, not to make my books be called “multicultural.” I don’t like that word anymore; nor do I care for the phrase casual diversity. That’s just more labeling. C’mon!
A: What’s your secret to making the characters in your books come to life?
E: You should know that I decide first long before character—on setting. I fall in love with sense of place first, usually because I’ve just moved to a new town or state and crave to write about it. After I settle on a setting or sense of place, out of that arrives my main character. I’ve used this technique with all of my books. It’s different process from most writers, who insist that everybody must begin with character. Well, I end up with a character, but I don’t start out that way.
After I did all of that with Pole I decided on the character’s gender, based partly on my interpretation of the saying, the plot, and my character’s motivation.
Russell James’s motivation in “A Hard Head Makes a Soft Behind” is to go noodling, or canoodling—to catch a big catfish by hand, despite being told that he’s too young. I wrote this story about catching fish by hand long before it became a television show! Way back in the 1990s I had been told about canoodling by a friend in Missouri who also said it was a tradition “handed down from father to son.”
I could have broken the rules and made the narrator a girl, but because of my friend’s revelation I chose not to and used this sport’s macho quirkiness and Russell James’ yearnings to propel the story. Russell James is white partly because I patterned him after my friend. Had my friend been African American or Chinese or Ojibwa, Russell James would have ended up as that ethnicity.
In “Never Leave Your Pocketbook on the Floor” Shaniqua Godette is so addicted to Gurdy’s Greasy Grape Groaners Squirt Gum that she chews it when she isn’t supposed to and bites off more than what she can chew. I know that many girls love to chew gum, so I gave this story a female character with an obsessive gum-chewing flaw, which becomes the springboard for problems galore.
As to points of view, the main characters in “You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks,” “Slow and Steady Wins the Race,” “A Hard Head Makes a Soft Behind” and the title story “Don’t Split the Pole” — spoke most strongly to me in third person, for psychic distance. The characters in “What Goes Around Comes Around,” “Big Things Come in Small Packages,” and “Never Leave Your Pocketbook on the Floor” made better fits with first-person voices.
Each story maintains only one point of view, which I like. Giving narrators strong voices reveals much about their behavior and their reactions to things around them, which can make for great storytelling.
I switched POV back and forth during revision until I knew I was through. If I’m truly through I can feel it in my gut. If I’m not really through I’ll feel it there, too.
A: How long did it take you to write the first draft of Don’t Split the Pole?
E: Too long. Selecting the sayings was easy. Coming up with convincing stories using each saying as a vehicle for plot and theme was not. I approached my editor with my idea in the early 1990s, when I was living on the North Carolina coast, having just moved from Myrtle Beach, SC, where my Carolina Trilogy (The Secret of Gumbo Grove, Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.! and A Blessing in Disguise) took place. After weeks of dismal literary meanderings, I finally pretended I was holding a conversation with an unconditional, loving, best friend by talking into my tape recorder: “I want to tell you about the time …” rambling along until the seed of a viable story sprouted.
When about one-third of the stories still stubbornly refused to germinate, I went to the beach with my recorder and climbed among the dunes. While watching the seagulls, dolphins and the ocean, I “talked” again to my best friend, and finished the book.
A: What’s the hardest part about writing for the middle grades?
E: Middle grade students—the 9-13-year-old, fourth through sixth or seventh grade crowd—have unique traits, needs, and personalities. They’re too old to be called babies but not old enough to hang with the tough, cool, know-everything middle-school world. After the publication of my first book Just an Overnight Guest in 1980 with nine-year-old Margie Carson, I began to spend more time in the schools, getting to know young people, trying to see the world through their eyes, reading the books that they liked and disliked, to give myself ideas about the publishing market, and knowledge about the characters and categories that this age of young person enjoyed.
Writers who want to get another feel for this group’s physical and emotional challenges, I suggest that besides hanging around in school libraries and going to centers where these kids are, they can also read Norton’s Through the Eyes of a Child: Introduction to Children’s Literature. There’s a detailed breakdown of student reading interests according to age that’s invaluable.
A: What are a few pieces of advice you would give a new writer?
E: Here are some Tate Tips:
Do your homework. Understand what conflict, point of view, climax, voice, plot, epiphany, setting, psychic distance (a John Gardner original) and other writing terms mean, and apply them to your work. Research everything and double-check all subjects in your manuscripts, even if you think you already know all there is about the subject. What you learned thirty years ago might have been disproved twenty years ago. Don’t rely solely on the Internet or the Discovery Channel.
Learn to correctly spell, punctuate, and paragraph, and use Spellcheck, the thesaurus, and the dictionary. Your creativity will take you far, but knowing the English language and how to use it will take you farther.
Read, read, read other writers’ quality stories and books. This will give you knowledge about techniques of craft so you can identify them in those writers’ works. See how you can correctly apply them to your own work. Study books that teach writing – not just for children’s picture books but for adult books, too. Good writing is good writing. The methods you learn from books by John Gardner, Janet Burroway, Roy Peter Clark, Francine Prose, and other literature craft masters should be applied to juvenile literature, too.
Write about your own backyard first. When you begin to write, you should write about what you know, as Richard Peck once said, so that your words have strength and authenticity. To that I add, “Write about what you care about,” so that you’ll survive the long haul to the finish. As you grow in confidence you’ll grow in ability, and then, maybe, perhaps you can expand into other people’s neighborhoods, other people’s cultures. But just because you have a “Black” (or Chinese, Spanish, blind, elderly, or wheelchair bound) friend doesn’t mean you automatically know enough to write about it well.
If you’re writing only for yourself and don’t plan to publish (who are we kidding?), these tips probably aren’t applicable to you, because nobody but you will read what you write. But if you want to share your work or try to get it publish, make good use of them.
A: Besides writing, what other talents or hobbies do you have?
E: I’m an introvert, but I like to travel, garden, hike, exercise, listen to jazz, R&B, classicals, and gospel, drink beer, go to festivals and movies, date cute guys, read, and sleep.
A: Thank you, Eleanora!
Eleanora E. Tate, author of eleven children’s and young adult books, has been an author in schools, libraries, on university campuses and at literature conferences around the country (and in Canada and Bermuda) for over 40 years. A former newspaper reporter and a former owner of a small public relations company, she taught children’s literature at North Carolina Central University, Durham, was an instructor with the Institute of Children’s Literature at West Redding, Connecticut, and is on the faculty of Hamline University’s Masters Degree seeking low-residency program “Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults.” Her book Celeste’s Harlem Renaissance (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2007), was a recipient of the 2007 AAUW North Carolina Book Award for Juvenile Literature, and an IRA Teacher’s Choice Award winner. Her other books include The Secret of Gumbo Grove; Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.!; Front Porch Stories at the One-Room School; Just an Overnight Guest (made into an award-winning television film); African American Musicians; To Be Free; A Blessing in Disguise; The Minstrel’s Melody; and Retold African Myths. Two books are audio books; another was both a Notable Children’s Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies and a Bankstreet Child Study Book Committee “Children’s Book of the Year.”
Ms. Tate was a Bread Loaf Writers Conference Fellow; a National Association of Black Storytellers (NABS) Zora Neale Hurston Award recipient, and a former NABS national president. Her short stories have appeared in American Girl Magazine, Scholastic Storyworks Magazine, Gold Finch Magazine, and in numerous short story book collections. Her latest essay “Harking Back to Hargett Street” is in the 2013 anthology Twenty-Seven Views of Raleigh. She is a member of the Authors Guild and the North Carolina Writers Network where she is a children’s manuscript critique in its critique service.
About Don’t Split the Pole
These seven short stories, six take place in North Carolina, take proverbs and sayings to new tellings. A sampling:
— A giant glob of Gurdy’s Greasy Grape Groaners Gum attacks eleven-year-old Shaniqua Godette, who learns the hard way that you should “never leave your pocketbook on the floor.”
— Despite his short height, twelve-year-old expert surfer Tucker Willis saves a big man from drowning with the help of a ghost, proving that “big things come in small packages.”
— Brothers Dart and Lizard ignore the warning sign “don’t split the pole” and run into trouble when they claim an abandoned flea market building for their skateboarding headquarters.
In a starred review Publishers Weekly wrote, “Adult rules and regulations are turned on their heads by this crafty author whose stories leap off the page and lodge straight in the funny bone. This collection of seven short stories … are unconventional and exuberant.”
For more reading links about Eleanora E. Tate’s books, visit HERE
Don’t Split the Pole: Tales of Down-Home Folk Wisdom (May 2014)
By Eleanora E. Tate
An Authors Guild Back-in-Print.com Edition, $10.95
To order, visit your local bookstore or go HERE