Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Lynette Latzko is talking with J. Robert Keating, author of Poteet Victory.
FQ: Though your current book is about the life of Poteet Victory, I see you co-authored another book, Bag of Tricks: Power of the Pen, in the past. Can you tell readers a little about yourself and how you got started in writing?
I think it was probably my background as a musician that turned on the creative switch. As a young person, I played in a rock band. As that effort matured, I worked at writing lyrics and composing music. When the “rock star” career fizzled, I wrote computer software for a living. I also wrote articles, technical manuals, employee handbooks, and every other thing that needed to be written. I can’t seem to turn off the creativity spigot and don’t really want to. Writing books seemed like a natural step for me when the opportunity presented itself.
My first book, Bag of Tricks: Power of the Pen, was a way to inform people about a very real issue I had at the time. I had become alarmed about a particular vulnerability with the Internet and wanted to do something about it. My co-author, Ralph Heatly, said, “I don’t know what we can do about the Internet, but this would make a great premise for a novel.”
I agreed, and we started working on the story right away.
FQ: Your book doesn’t specifically state when the character Elliott Jacobs (aka you) interviewed Poteet for this biography. I’m curious when all your interviews took place, and for how long?
KEATING: Most of the interviews with Poteet and Terry took place in 2019. I made the trip from Ft. Worth to Santa Fe about once a month. Mostly, we talked in his studio. The interviews were much like the sessions in the book Poteet and Terry had with Elliott. I would usually come in with a few questions in mind, and we’d just talk. You could never tell when a word or a phrase would trigger a story. I recorded everything.
Once COVID hit, I quit going out there. I think it was the summer of 2021 before I made that trip again. I spent most of 2020 transcribing the audio files—deciding what should be used and putting those parts in an order that made sense. I used about 25% of the interview material. The book is long, but I actually had misgivings about taking certain stories out.
FQ: Why did you decide to fictionalize part of this biography?
KEATING: After working with Poteet for several months, I decided that the book shouldn’t read like an interview or just be a collection of his stories. The more we talked, the more it seemed like his maturity and development were the story. As such, I wanted the book to read more like a novel. Creating the Elliott character helped me to do that.
It also seemed to me that his life has the potential of becoming an engaging TV series—so many of his stories could be full-blown, stand-alone episodes. So, I thought I would just go ahead and make that case through the book, and Elliott is the one always thinking about movie potential.
To be clear, 98% of Elliott’s dialog were my own words. 99% of Poteet and Terry’s words were their own. I’ll admit to a few edits to their comments to better fit the plotline or to transition from one story to the next.
FQ: An important part of this story is about Poteet’s attempted mission of honoring Native Americans and educating the public about the Trail of Tears. Can you recommend any further readings on this important subject?
KEATING: When Poteet started his mural project thirty years ago, very little was being done to teach people about the Trail of Tears. Poteet was able to get moral and financial support from so many tribes, because their leaders all knew he was trying to educate the public.
Since that time, many of the tribes have established their own museums and done other things to commemorate that part of their tribal history. Although I haven’t seen it yet, I’m told that the recently opened First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City is quite impressive and covers the Trail of Tears’ history quite extensively.
FQ: This biography is quite large but has so many fascinating and often amusing stories to read that I had a hard time creating a short summary in my review. What were the best, and the most difficult parts in your writing process?
KEATING: That’s easy. The best part of the process was spending time in Santa Fe with Poteet and Terry. The hardest part was transcribing the audio files to text.
Regarding your struggle with the summary, I understand what you’re saying. I still flounder with that very thing. Is it a “rags-to-riches” story? Is it about the mural and the support from the tribes? Is it about the drama and mistreatment by OU? Is it the entertainment value and the humor of Poteet’s stories? Is it his art career and how he became “The Most Collectible Artist in Santa Fe”?
For some, it would be about New York City and Andy Warhol. I’ve described the book as being about the truly great people Poteet has known and how they influenced his life. For some, it could be a self-help book on romance or how to deal with anger. Some might say that it’s the nuggets of insight into mid-20th century modern art. Terry would say that it’s the genius of the Abbreviated Portraits. If Harold Stevenson were still alive, he would agree with Terry.
I call Poteet’s life, “Inspiring.”
FQ: Can you tell us a bit about the portrait of Poteet that is on the cover?
KEATING: What a great question—and so intuitive to ask.
The portrait on the cover was painted in 1965 by Poteet’s mentor, Harold Stevenson, another great American artist. Poteet was just 18 years old at the time, and it was one of the portraits Stevenson did as part of a series called The Great Society. It was commissioned by the U.S. government and was to be 100 portraits of just common, everyday people. Poteet was one of those people.
At some point, the University of Oklahoma decided that they wanted this collection of Stevenson’s work for their art museum. However, they’re missing one of the portraits. They only have ninety-nine portraits. Poteet has the other one—the one of him. And that’s what we used for the cover of the book.
He brought the actual portrait out one day to show me, and it’s beautiful. It’s a great painting, and I think it’s perfect for the cover.
The fact that there’s some history between Poteet and OU makes the whole thing more intriguing. And I love that part too.
FQ: What are Poteet Victory and his wife, Terry, up to now?
KEATING: Poteet and Terry have a great life. Poteet loves to paint, and that’s what he’s usually doing. He’ll tell you, “I’m here seven days a week.” They loved the gallery they were in, but a couple of years ago they moved into a new place. Poteet bought a building near the plaza known as the Delgado House. It’s an historical landmark, and it works perfectly for them.
And this is so Poteet...
A month after he bought the building and before they even moved in, Poteet was contacted by a movie company about using it for an upcoming production. They came to terms, and it was used in the Tom Hanks’ movie News of the World. I was out there when they were preparing the building to look like an attorney’s office from the 1880s. It worked perfectly, because that’s when the house was actually built. It was fun to watch for those parts in the movie.
Regarding their current lifestyle, Poteet likes to spend his evenings at home. Terry says she’d go out every night, if she could. They compromise. If you ever have a chance to have dinner with Poteet and Terry, you’ve got to do it. Some of Poteet’s most interesting stories came out after a couple of cocktails. We had so much fun. It was a delight for me. I recorded some of those dinners but not all. I hope the good times and laughs we had as friends can jump off the page and bring some of that joy to anyone who reads the book.
FQ: Though Poteet has been through much adversity and has accomplished a lot in his lifetime, he appears to be a humble man. I assume you presented your completed work to Poteet after you finished it. What were his reactions?
KEATING: I wasn’t there to see it. But I’m sure it was a relief that the book was done.
Through the process of writing the book, I tried to keep Poteet and Terry in the loop as much as possible. As I wrote the manuscript, I would send new chapters as I got them done. I’m sure they felt overwhelmed with materials from me most of the time. When I felt like the book was finished, I sat in Poteet’s studio and read the whole thing aloud to him and Terry—from page one to the end. I wanted to make sure they hadn’t missed anything.
Regarding Poteet’s emotional state of mind, Poteet hasn’t always been a humble man at peace with himself. He has learned to “let life flow through him.” A significant portion of the book, especially at the end, is about Poteet’s spiritual journey. He says that when he was young, he “had a lot of anger,” and he always had to deal with that. He had a lot of reasons to be angry, and that anger often turned into aggressive behavior.
In one of our conversations, he estimated to me that he’d been in more than a hundred fights. I didn’t grow up in that type of environment and had to work through my own issues to understand how someone could be in a hundred fights. I came to accept that Poteet had to fight to survive. He saw a lot of fights growing up and knew he didn’t want to be the one on the ground getting his head bashed into the concrete. I understand and respect that now.
Dealing with anger has been one of Poteet’s issues in his lifelong journey.
FQ: Are you working on any new writing projects?
KEATING: Yes. I am working on my next project. I have begun to again work with Ralph on our Henry Vanzant Series. We are reviving the second book. I had it finished before taking on Poteet. But my editor had issues, and it was never published. I’m glad that it wasn’t, because so much has changed in the world.
Ralph and I are excited about dusting off our characters and putting them back into action.
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