Getting Personal: Patricia Hruby Powell
Getting Personal is a Q&A with a local personality. Here, Champaign resident Patricia Hruby Powell, a dancer, storyteller and writer, chats with The News-Gazette's Melissa Merli. She recently started playing piano again, 52 years after she quit it cold at the age of 11.
Congratulations on the success of your latest book, "Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker." How many awards did you win for it?
"Josephine" has won five major honors — the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award, honor; Boston Globe — Horn Book Award, nonfiction, honor; the Coretta Scott King Book Award, illustrator, for Christian Robinson; the Bologna Ragazzi; and Parent's Choice Gold. It's also on many lists of best books — all reported at my website, talesforallages.com.
What inspired you to write a book on Josephine Baker?
I'm a dancer. Also, a librarian. While working as a sub at the Urbana Free Library, I became acquainted with a particular group of unfocused preteen girls who seemed to need a role model. I decided that would be the razzmatazz Josephine Baker.
Josephine started out the poorest of the poor in St. Louis and ended up in Paris, France. She did most everything she set out to do: dance, sing, spy, become a hero, civil rights work, adopt children of all races, become rich and famous. I hope Josephine might help inspire readers to do wonderful and exciting things themselves.
What are you working on now?
"Loving vs. Virginia," a documentary novel for young adults that comes out in March 2016. "Struttin' with Some Barbecue," a picture book about Louis Armstrong's wife, jazz musician Lil Hardin Armstrong, is in the pipeline for publication. I just put away a young adult Jazz Age novel to rework — "MADDY," a middle grade novel based on my life — you know, Patty/Maddy.
How did you make the transition from dancer to storyteller to writer?
In 1980, while performing in South America and Europe with my dance company, One Plus One, I started writing an adult novel backstage between performances, knowing that I couldn't dance forever. I never submitted "Loon Dive" for publication, but I knew I wanted to write.
In the '90s, I got a master's degree in library science and became a storyteller who danced in my stories. But I realized I had more passion for writing the stories than telling them. I had to choose. Writing it was.
Do you still dance or tell stories?
I dance all the time. Occasionally I perform, as I did at the Urbana Free Library staff Prairie Wind concert. I dance with Spinnin' Slidin' Scratchin' with three musicians, one being my slide trombonist husband, Morgan Powell. I sometimes tango. And I tell stories when I do author visits in the schools. Or, you know, just tell stories, to friends.
Tell us about your hound dog, Lil, and how she can climb trees.
Lil is a rescued tree walker hound — that's a breed. She actually jumps straight up 7 feet and pushes off a tree, but it looks like she's running up the trunk. She came to us, with a rib cage like a xylophone, from a field in Kentucky via Mobile Mutts, for which I was volunteering. Lil is now the fittest dog who ever ran, leaped and climbed trees on Earth.
What time do you typically get up? What do you do the first hour of the morning?
By 8. I drink cappuccino that Morgan makes. I make us a fruit smoothie. I eat chia and flax seeds with granola. I read The New York Times if it's not too depressing. And then I set to writing unless it's my turn to run Lil.
What do you consider your greatest achievement or accomplishment?
Marriage. I couldn't have held out with anyone but Morgan.
What do you regard as your most treasured possession?
The memory of my mother.
Do you have a guilty pleasure and what is it?
Cream puffs, but I haven't figured out how to make them gluten- and milk-free. And I don't feel at all guilty. Back to the drawing board.
What book are you reading now? What is your favorite book ever?
I just finished "All the Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr. It is my favorite book until the next favorite comes along, which probably won't be soon. And a young adult novel, "And We Stay," by Jenny Hubbard.
Where on Earth are you dying to go? Why?
I've done a lot of traveling throughout the Americas, Europe, the Caribbean. Lately, I prefer to be home, unless I have to travel.
Tell me about your favorite pet.
Lil is our darling. Besides climb trees, jump, run, leap, chase balls, dig for rodents, she likes car rides. She bites at the passing cars. When I mock her, she sometimes gently nips my nose.
Before Lil, my favorites were Labbies: Jazzabelle, Luther (Louie), Ella. Before that, Kerry blue terriers, Deirdre, Macushla, and mutt Chocolate. Along the way, kitties: Billie, Elsie, Coltrane, King, Bobo. I'm doomed to have children that don't live much beyond 12 years old.
What would you order for your last meal?
You mean like before I'm executed? Crispy fried chicken, asparagus, salad and fresh strawberries with cream on shortbread. I guess it doesn't have to be organic.
If you could be reincarnated after you die, what would you like to come back as?
Something that flies. An owl.
Who are your favorite musicians and why?
Morgan Powell. His musical ideas, whether improvised or composed, are remarkable — so interesting. Bach — his music is genius and passion. Same with Bob Marley. Astor Piazzolla for tango.
What's the happiest memory of your life?
I'm ecstatic when I jump/fly in my dreams. I'm always surprised that I can soar 100 feet into the air, land gently and fly up again and again. The surprise is part of the ecstasy. I guess I have moments like that in my waking life. They're small moments. No childbirths to recount.
If you could host a dinner party with any three living people in the world, whom would you invite? What would you serve?
Meryl Streep, Judith Jamison and Helen Mirren. I'd serve sauted grouper with bok choy and new potatoes and a salad with lots of baby arugula and avocado, along with good crusty bread (mine would be gluten free). And pinot noir.
Which historical figure do you admire the most and why?
Emily Dickinson. Nearly 150 years after writing them, her poems are still modern. She didn't let society or public opinion influence her work. Could I have Emily to dinner with Abraham Lincoln? And Albert Einstein?
What personality trait do you most hate in other people? Most hate in yourself?
In other people? Greed. It's the root of the immense gap between rich and poor, desecration of the Earth, war, so many wrongs. In myself? I'm a workaholic and I'm impatient. But I'm getting better at lounging.
What's your best piece of advice?
Try it. What's the worst that could happen if you don't succeed? No need to live with regrets.
What was your first job and how much did you make an hour?
Kresge's cashier, ham slicer, pet carer — whatever they needed. $1.15 per hour.
What was a pivotal decision in your career and how did you arrive at that decision?
Would I write or tell stories? I had to devote my complete passion to one. Writing won.
Do you have any regrets in your life? What are they?
A filmmaker/entrepreneur/friend offered to manage my dance company in NYC in the '70s. As much as I wanted to stay there to choreograph and dance, I couldn't live in all that concrete. But is it really a regret? I love my life. I love my husband, my family, my friends. I love Champaign-Urbana.
How do you handle a stressful situation?
I dance if I can think to do it or ride my bicycle fast or roller-blade and/or take Rescue Remedy. Oh yeah, breathing is good, too.