Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Author Interview: Tim Tingle, Choctaw Storyteller & Author

Tim Tingle (right) with his son, Dr. Jacob Tingle,
photo courtesy Oklahoma Center for the Book.
By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

On April 7, 2018, author Tim Tingle received the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award.

Named in honor of an author who served as Oklahoma Center for the Book's first president, the award is presented annually  for a body of work contributing to Oklahoma's literary heritage.

Congratulations, Tim! What a wonderful honor. Tell me what it was like getting that news. 

I have attended several Oklahoma Center for the Book Award ceremonies, as Crossing Bok Chitto (Cinco Puntos, 2006) won Best Children's Book, and Walking the Choctaw Road (Cinco Punto, 2005) and House of Purple Cedar (Cinco Punto, 2014) were finalists in their categories.

I was there when a dear and admired friend of mine, Rilla Askew, received the Lifetime Achievement Award.

When I received the phone call letting me know I was selected as the 2018 recipient, my first response was disbelief. I had studied most of the previous American Indian recipients in lit courses at grad school at the University of Oklahoma (OU). "I am so far from that level," I thought to myself.

When I hung up the phone I decided that I still have maybe 15 years of writing ahead of me (I'll be 70 years old in November), and I will dedicate the remainder of my life to earning this award—the award now hanging next to my fireplace in Canyon Lake, Texas.

I called my son first, Dr. Jacob Tingle of Trinity University. I had been asked to select someone to introduce me at the awards ceremony, and Jacob agreed.

Roadrunner Press, my publisher of the How I Became A Ghost series (2015-), purchased a table of eight for my family and friends. I invited Dr. Geary Hobson, a Cherokee poet and my lead professor during my OU days, and his wife, Dr. Barbara Hobson, former Chair of Native American Studies there.

My son told of riding with me one summer in the Maxwell House Coffee truck, as I repaired coffee machines at small town restaurants in the Texas Hill Country. He shared anecdotes I would never have remembered, and how my work ethic and respect for working people was evident in all that I did. During my acceptance speech, I told of Dr. Hobson, and how without his encouragement I would never have written a single book. His wife later told me he sat at the table and cried.

The circle of friends that evening will always remain very special to me, and among them was Gene Burks of Dallas. He spotted Doc Moore and I telling stories at Six Flags Over Texas in 1994 and invited me to share Choctaw stories in the Garland school district, where he was on the school board. That was the beginning of my full-time storytelling career, and eventually lead to the publication of Walking the Choctaw Road (Cinco Puntos, 2005).

I closed my speech by singing "Shilombish Holitopama, Amazing Grace" in Choctaw, and George Nigh, a former governor of Oklahoma and the evening's emcee, sang in English from his chair on the stage behind me.

Governor George Nigh with Tim at Oklahoma Book Awards,
photo courtesy Oklahoma Center for the Book.
Which came first? Your work as a storyteller or as a writer? What have you done to hone both crafts? 

I began writing when I was in the second grade at South Houston Elementary School. I had read several Hardy Boys books (1927-2005) and listened to my Uncle Kenneth tell backyard stories about my Choctaw Mawmaw's tough life growing up in the racial quandary of 1890s Oklahoma.

My teacher, Mrs. Palmer, tapped her knuckles on the desk and said, "Everyone listen. Free time, so pull out your Big Chief tablets, your crayolas, and draw. I will be grading tests."

Photo by Lisa Reed
I decided to go with "free time" rather than crayolas, and I began a screenplay for "Zorro" (1957-1959), my favorite television show. Mrs. Palmer spotted me, snatched the unfinished first page, and tossed it in the trash. "Never do that again, not in my class," she said. So I didn't.

For forty years, I kept my writing to myself and told oral stories. But before that, in my mid-twenties, I went from college basketball player to modern dance soloist with the Michael Sokoloff Ensemble, a touring group back when the National Endowment for the Arts was well-funded.

As I moved with the rhythm when I danced, I now write with my headset and music. For the past decade my soundtrack has been The Chieftains, an Irish folkish group.

Doc Moore and I co-wrote three Texas ghost story books, published by Texas Tech University Press, before I decided to focus on Choctaw history and stories, with fictional twists and turns.

Most of the stories in my first book, Walking the Choctaw Road, were originally oral stories, performed at festivals and schools throughout the United States, Canada, Germany, Ireland, and Mexico.

At the age of 50, I realized my oral stories would be buried with me someday, so I took a hiatus from performing and attended graduate school in Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma, where I earned an M.A. degree and completed Walking The Choctaw Road.

I feel that the spoken word experience gives strength to the first person narrative, and use it often in my writing.
Tim at Sequoyah's Cabin with Fort Smith high school teachers
who were teaching House of Purple Cedar in their classrooms. 
You have two more books out this year in the No Name young adult series, No More No Name (2017), A Name Earned (2018) and Trust Your Name (2018)(7th Generation). What gave rise to the character of Bobby Byington, a Choctaw basketball player? 

See Kirkus Reviews
When my editor called and said she very much enjoyed the premise to "No Name,” the original book in the series, but "the idea of a boy digging a hole in his backyard and living in it when his alcoholic father was home—that's so unrealistic."

I took a deep breath before answering.

"If my big brother were still alive, he could tell you. That's how we survived. We dug a hole in the field behind our house and dragged an old junkyard door over it. My dad never found our hiding place."

My brother played basketball for the University of Houston Cougars, along with Elvin Hayes and Clyde Drexler, and I played junior college basketball on a scholarship.

We were also warned by my grandmother never to tell any of our friends we were Choctaw, for fear of what might someday happen.

The racism and bullying in the No Name series were always just around the corner of my youth.

The long-awaited sequel to your award-winning middle grade novel, How I Became A Ghost, is finally here. Any pressure in writing When A Ghost Talks, Listen (Roadrunner, Aug. 7, 2018), knowing how well the first one was received? What challenged you the most in writing this second book? Will there be more books in this series? 

I so love the characters of this series that popping on my headset, flipping the music button, and entering the world of shape-shifting panthers, rattlesnakes and soaring ghosts was and is a joy.

Pre-order When a Ghost Talks, Listen 
I know rattlesnake Stella. She is based on an elderly Choctaw friend of mine, Stella Long, who gave me permission to use her name. I later told her she was on the cover of the book, and imagine her surprise when she saw her "rattlesnake-self" grinning back at her.

I have maybe eight shelves of Choctaw and Southeastern Indian books surrounding my writing desk, fiction and nonfiction both.

I spent a few years researching the facts behind book two, including two trips to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

The questionable death of Chief and United States Army General Pushmataha was a strong inspiration in the writing process. I still feel him standing over me, watching, nodding, and wiping away a few tears.

I do plan on continuing the How I Became A Ghost series, with a World War I Choctaw Codetalker book (in book two, we learn that Choctaw ghosts can time-travel) and a book moving back and forth from the Trail of Tears to the Irish Famine in the future.

As I learned during a trip to Ireland a few years ago, "historical" accounts of the causes and death tolls related to the Famine are as false as most popular Trail of Tears narratives.

I hope to keep Isaac alive (as alive as a ghost can be) for at least another decade, accompanied by his bilingual dog, Jumper.

Tim speaking at the Smithsonian
Any writing for children and teens that we’ll see from you in 2019 or beyond that you’d like to share?

Yes, I'll have two new book releases in 2019.

From Lee & Low comes Stone River Crossing, a 250-page middle grade novel based on my picture book, Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship and Freedom (Cinco Puntos, 2008). The narrative follows the family of escapees from a pre-Civil War plantation. As they are rescued by nearby Choctaws, the battle ensues over "ownership."

What the western world labels as magic realism, but what we Choctaws recognize as everyday life abounds.

Also, the first book in a series from Scholastic Press arrives in 2019, Timmy the Choctaw Detective and the Graveyard Treasure, a middle grade novel of a twelve-year-old youngster, our narrator, who sees himself as the best detective in town.

The lead detective of the local police force gives Timmy his first cell phone for his birthday, and they become partners in crime solving. Timmy’s neighbor is Doc, an elderly man living by himself with advancing dementia, accompanied by acute observational skills.

Timmy discovers that Doc's maid is also an aide at a nearby nursing home, and part of a gang that steals only from the elderly. And where does the gang bury their ill-begotten loot? In the centuries-old mausoleum of the town cemetery. And when does he make this discovery? After midnight, of course, with a gang member looking over his shoulder.

Wow, Tim, you’ve already got me looking forward to 2019 and these great books you’ve written. We appreciate the preview.

Cynsational Notes

Tim Tingle is an award-winning author, much sought-after storyteller, and an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

His great-great grandfather, John Carnes, walked the Trail of Tears in 1835 and passed-down memories of this family epic that fueled Tim’s early interest in writing and storytelling.

He has twice been honored with the American Indian Youth Literature Award, for How I Became a Ghost in 2014, and again in 2016 for House of Purple Cedar (Cinco Puntos, 2013).

He is represented by Andrea Cascardi of the Transatlantic Agency.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children's-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.


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