Interview with Author Eleanora E. Tate

Posted by Tamera Wissinger

Today, author Eleanora E. Tate is joining Smack Dab In The Middle Blog for a guest interview. Eleanora’s middle grade novel DON’T SPLIT THE POLE: TALES OF DOWN-HOME FOLK WISDOM, Author’s Guild Back-in-Print Edition published by iUniverse, Inc., rereleased in May 2014! Congratulations, Eleanora, and welcome!

Photo by Andy King
Here is Eleanora’s Biography:

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.  She’s on the faculty of Hamline University’s Masters degree seeking low-residency program “Creative Writing for Children andYoung Adults.” She taught children’s literature at North Carolina Central University, Durham, NC and has been an instructor with the Institute of Children’s Literature at West Redding, CT.

Her book Celeste’s Harlem Renaissance (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2007), is a recipient of the 2007 AAUW North Carolina Book Award for Juvenile Literature, and an IRA Teacher’s Choice Award winner.  In addition to Don’t Split the Pole, her other books are 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.” 

She 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, African American Review, 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.


Nine-and-a-half-year-old Russell James finds that "a hard head makes a soft behind" when he tries to catch a catfish by hand. 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. " And when twelve-year-old height-challenged Tucker Willis saves a life with the help of a ghost, he proves that "big things come in small packages. " A celebration of storytelling and folk wisdom, this is a perfect collection for sharing and reading aloud.

Here are ways to connect with Eleanora and her newest release:

Here is our Smack Dab in the Middle Blog guest, author Eleanora E. Tate:

Tamera Will Wissinger, a delightful writer and Hamline University MFAC alum, brought me to this blog. What a hoot! Her intriguing questions about writing and my books, most specifically my recently re-issued Don’t Split the Pole: Tales of Down-Home Folk Wisdom, reprinted by iUniverse  (May 2014) made me think hard. Delacorte Press first published it in hardcover in 1997 and in paperback in 1999. It’s been out of print until now. Goes to show that you can’t put -- or keep -- a good book down!

1. Don’t Split the Pole: Tales of Down-Home Folk Wisdom consists of stories told from different points of view. Can you talk about how the idea for the book came to you, and the virtues and challenges of writing a book in short story form?

To paraphrase a familiar adage, “Beauty (and a saying) is in the eye (and mind) of the beholder (reader or writer),” a proverb or saying can be applied to many dissimilar events, depending on how different people interpret it.

Proverbs and sayings have been part of all cultures ever since people first gathered around fires or in their huts to share feelings and embrace community. Proverbs and sayings are also known as aphorisms, mottos, Biblical expressions, similes, or rich brief anecdotes. They explain a truth or a moral, offer opinions, summarize an action or thought, are phrases or tidbits of songs repeated so often that they enter the lexicon, and so on.

I’ve written several books that contained proverbs and sayings and that reflected their settings’ regional vernaculars, but with this book I wanted to pinpoint particular adages and wrap stories around them in a short story collection. Short stories aren’t any easier to write than novels, but they can take less time.

As to points of view, four stories -- “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 in third person, for distance.

The remaining three stories -- “What Goes Around Comes Around,” “Big Things Come in Small Packages,” and “Never Leave Your Pocketbook on the Floor” made better fits through their narrators’ first-person voice. I switched POV back and forth during revision until I was satisfied. Each story maintains only one point of view, which I like.

Choosing the sayings was easy. Coming up with convincing stories using each saying as a vehicle for plot and theme was not. At the time I approached my editor with my idea I was living on the North Carolina coast, where I’d already written Retold African Myths and A Blessing in Disguise. After weeks of dismal literary meanderings, I finally pretended I was holding a conversation with a unconditional, loving, best friend. I started out by talking into my tape recorder (remember those?): “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 stubbornly refused to germinate, I climbed among the dunes on the beach with my tape recorder. While watching the seagulls, dolphins and the ocean, I “talked” to my best friend. That’s probably why most of the stories take place on the North Carolina coast and several involve a coastal environment.

2. Was Don’t Split the Pole always for middle-grade readers? If so, why did you choose middle grade? If not, what had to change for it to be considered a middle grade novel?

It was conceived as a middle grade work, since that level is my writing/publishing niche. Now I’m hoping to market it 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 also can be a springboard to help folks to identify their own meaningful sayings, and to develop stories to tell or write to illustrate those meanings.

Seemed like everybody in northern Missouri (where I was born, in that triangle with Illinois, Iowa and the Mississippi) and Iowa (where I grew up) spoke so colorfully that the words almost knocked me off my young feet!

The regional vernacular that I fell in love with  -- some call this vernacular “voice” -- in Missouri and Iowa was what I placed in my first book Just an Overnight Guest, which takes place in Missouri. After I moved to South Carolina in 1978, I was introduced to a distinctively southern, specifically South Carolinian vernacular. The Secret of Gumbo Grove, Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.! and A Blessing in Disguise, which take place along the coast of South Carolina, are full of the Palmetto state’s language of home.

3. How did you choose which sayings to wrap stories around? 

My first story, with Maggie the basset hound and One-Foot the seagull in “You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks,” came from my “dunes-top” experience. Maggie’s voice is in third person. “Don’t Split the Pole,” the title story, is a saying I’ve heard all my life, and I wanted to try my hand at re-interpreting it for young readers. It came from watching boys on skateboards whiz up and down my street, smash into cars and crash into flower beds. I grumbled that they should have their own skateboard park and voila! A ghost-inhabited flea market vision appeared to me.

“Never leave your pocketbook on the floor” was so unusual that I had to include it. I’d never heard it expressed until I moved to the south. What if a creepy crawler or somebody’s fingers crept into my purse that set on the floor? My imagination sizzled!

My “slow and steady wins the race” tale is not the same as how Aesop the Ethiope wrote his, but the themes are, and I still include a turtle.  My inspiration came from a small pond in our back yard that snapping turtles, herons, snakes, rabbits, fish, and dozens of other creatures called home.

“A hard head makes a soft behind” adage left a very personal impression on me when I was four or five years old. After trying to climb up on a stool in an ice cream parlor against my grandmother’s wishes I landed on the floor on my butt. In my story when a boy tries to catch a catfish by hand (a Missouri tradition) he gets the point  -- the hard way, too.

“Big things come in small packages” was easy. I wanted to honor height-challenged boys and also write about Richard Etheridge, a Lifesaving Station hero. “What goes around comes around” grew out of thinking about how girls support or hurt each other in their relationships. But I also wanted to make it funny, which is how Mother Gratify and her Psychic Network got involved.
The time period in all the stories is contemporary, to show readers that these adages have pertinent applications in today’s world.
By the way, I wrote a short piece about some of the origins of those sayings for inclusion in the original manuscript, but space and politics killed that. Well, I plan to write a full essay about those origins now!

4. When Don’t Split the Pole was first released in hard cover in 1997 (in paperback in 1999), Publisher’s Weekly wrote in a starred review, “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.” Can you talk about the process of re-releasing a book? What, if any, changes needed to occur?

After my book went out of print (OOP) a few years after the paperback was issued, I requested from my publisher that all rights be reverted back to me, and this was granted. I’ve since been able to have two of the stories reprinted in anthologies and in educational publishing programs, so they continue to bring in money.

Last fall Hamline faculty member Liza Ketchum told me that the Authors Guild writers organization (we’re both long-time members) had a “Back in Print” program through which Authors Guild members can get their OOP books reprinted at no charge. I jumped at the chance.

If my book sells well on this next go-round I’ll reap nice royalties again. That’s important when senior citizen writers like me are on fixed incomes. Keep your fingers crossed for me!

A final note: In order for OOP books to get reprinted by other publishers, writers should already have reversion of rights provisions in their contracts with the original publishers. When their books go out of print they should immediately contact their publishers and request written reversion of rights letters. This speeds things up or at least keeps things less complicated when they decide to take that reprint step. When negotiating with new publishers, they should carefully read the fine print in all contracts and instructions, and question anything they don’t understand or that they disagree with.

The publishing world evolves at warp speed these days, and writers need to be aware.

Happy reading!

Thank you for joining us, Eleanora. Congratulations, again, on the rerelease of DON’T SPLIT THE POLE: TALES OF DOWN-HOME FOLK WISDO


  1. Tamara,
    I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Thanks for introducing us to Eleanora's work!

  2. Thank you for the enlightening interview. All writers should have a "best friend" like yours.

  3. Congrats on the re-release and all best on those royalties, Eleanora! I look forward to reading.DON'T SPLIT THE POLE.


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