Today, I am interviewing the next author in the series, the dynamic and divine Pati Hailey. Over her career, Pati has written state legislation, online training for large corporations, lesson plans for teachers, and literature for children and adults. She is a frequent speaker at conferences and schools. Pati’s articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines, including Cricket and Hopscotch. Her contribution to this series, TE ATA: Oklahoma Cultural Treasure, is her first published children’s book.
Valerie Lawson: What excited you about this project?
Pati Hailey: People have fascinated me since my earliest memories – picture a preschooler, so shy she can’t tell you her name, sent to stand in the corner for asking a grownup personal questions. Although I never found those corners interesting, what I heard while standing in them was.
How people live and dress, what they believe and value, what they think about, what they find entertaining, who they love and hate, what motivates and demotivates them, and so much more intrigues me.
The idea that I could share that fascination with kids by writing biographies about important Oklahomans was my first surge of excitement. When I began the project, Te Ata was unknown to me. Getting to know her through my research sustained that initial excitement. Talk about a fascinating person!
How did you get involved in the project?
PH: Darleen Bailey Beard brought the idea to our critique group after a school librarian told her of the desperate need for biographies about Oklahomans written at 3rd and 4th grade level.
When Darleen asked if the group was interested in pursuing filling the need, I immediately wanted to be involved even though it would pull me away from other projects of great importance to me.
VL: Good thing you took advantage of this opportunity when it presented itself.
You’ve had many writing occupations, how did that prepare you for the world of children’s writing?
PH: My B.A. is in Human Resources with an emphasis in juvenile delinquency. My first profession was as a caseworker and counselor. Soon after I started, my boss assigned the projects requiring writing skills to me. I didn’t know then that many professions require strong basic writing skills, and it was years before I understood that many, many people find writing difficult, even the basics. I never had.
What I’ve learned along the way is that those basic writing skills transfer regardless of whether I am writing case notes, legislation, technical or people-management training, online communication or marketing, processes and procedures, articles for newspapers and magazines or even emails. All require concise wording, carefully structured so that the meaning is not misinterpreted. (Okay, legislation might be an exception!) Writing for children requires the same basic skills.
VL: So true! Wish more of an emphasis were placed on strong writing skills for all, but I digress.
How did you choose the subject for your project in this series?
PH: We wanted the series to be reflective of Oklahoma’s diversity in ethnicity, sex, and vocation so our design had specific criteria for the first set. One was that each of the five subjects represent a different part of the state. When we first came to the drawing board, two of us had chosen someone from central Oklahoma and we had no representation from southeastern Oklahoma. We also needed another female. So, I started researching and when I came across Te Ata’s story, I was immediately hooked.
VL: How was she a great Oklahoman?
PH: Te Ata faced incredible challenges as a Native American and as a woman throughout her life. She was a talented performing artist from the Chickasaw tribe and even performed on Broadway. What made her a great Oklahoman was that for more than seventy years, she used her acting talent to show people around the world the beauty and wisdom of Native American cultures through her one-person performance of Indian folklore. Her determination, passion, and conviction helped change opinions about Native Americans held by both powerful and ordinary people. Oklahoma honored her work by inducting her into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame and by designating her as the first Oklahoma Cultural Treasure. The following quote says so much about her.
“I wanted to be of some service to my people and I wouldn’t allow myself to do anything in the program that would harm my people. I wanted to do something different from all the scalpings and wars that people were seeing in movies, and show the creative and spiritual side. I selected with care the things I did.”
Te Ata died in 1995 shortly before she turned one hundred. Today, people from all over the world come to the Chickasaw Cultural Center to learn and experience the Chickasaw culture. If Te Ata were born today, practicing Chickasaw traditions would not be taboo. What a great Oklahoma role model for living a thoughtful, purposeful life.
VL: Wow! She was indeed a fascinating person.
What have you learned from this publishing experience?
PH: This was a challenging project for me. I’ve always admired writers who work in early chapter books because not only are you restricted to a low word count, you are restricted to a specific readability level. I often found that the word that best conveyed what I was trying to say was too advanced for this age group.
As I came to know Te Ata through my research, it became ever more important that I write about her life with the same thoughtfulness, care and honesty that she exhibited. My biggest challenge was writing about Te Ata’s work and its impact in contextual terms third and fourth graders could grasp.
I could not simply say she was born in Indian Territory and move on, I had to discuss the impact Oklahoma becoming a state had on her life as a Chickasaw. I could not say she grew up to be a talented actress without discussing how she used her talent as the means to achieving her life-purpose of preserving the culture of Native Americans. Which meant discussing why the culture was being lost. In 1900 words.
VL: That seems quite the daunting task, and yet you did accomplish this. Wonderful!
What advice can you pass on to other writers?
PH: Hone the basic skills until they are automatic. Don’t be lazy or afraid to stretch and pick up advanced skills and knowledge. If you aspire to writing as a profession, be open to varied publishing opportunities. I had dreamed of writing biographies but I never imagined writing biographies for children as part of a series for the publishing arm of the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. Dare not only to dream, but to say yes to opportunities that stretch you.
VL: What’s next for you? What are you currently working on?
PH: A good night’s sleep! Then back to finishing my final semester of classes in pursuit of a MFA in Creative Writing at UCO with the goal of being an artist-in-residence.
I’ve turned my focus back to the two young adult novels I was working on before this project came along. One is in final revision (hopefully) and I’m about two-thirds through the rough draft of the second. Last week, characters from a third began talking to me, so I’m jotting down notes about it.
VL: What a wonderfully busy time for you! I can’t wait to read all about Te Ata and I wish you the best of luck with this book!
Thank you so much for sharing your time with us and your wonderful stories.
Tomorrow, we’ll talk with author Cheryl Schuermann about her book from this series.