Twenty years of corporate ladder-climbing had left Lalita Tademy weary and wanting. It was an honor to run divisions of some of Silicon Valley’s finest companies, but she didn’t want to “run” anymore. So Tademy, a Northwestern Mutual client, started planning her exit strategy.
So she could find her new self, she updated a financial plan and saved enough money to live income free for three years — no simple feat. Surprisingly, her search for new meaning hatched a passion for the past. She immersed herself in the history of her family and historical accounts of life in Louisiana in the mid-1800s.
Her Indiana Jones-like search for personal truth led her to a receipt buried deep in a library’s unindexed archives that recorded the sale of her slave ancestors to white landowners. Deeply moved and powerfully motivated, Tademy felt she had a duty to document what she had found. So she put pen to paper and wrote the critically acclaimed novels “Cane River” (an Oprah Winfrey book club selection) and “Red River.” Now, in her new novel, “Citizens Creek,” Tademy shares a largely untold story about Native Americans, blacks and whites in Oklahoma in the Civil War era. We chatted with Tademy in the midst of her book tour to better understand history — and her story.
LLD: What made you decide to change careers from corporate executive to author?
LT: I had been in the corporate life for almost two decades. I decided there was more for the next phase of my life. I just didn’t quite know what it was.
LLD: How did you plan for it?
LT: When I made my big transition from corporate life to the creative life, I saved three years of living expenses — one year to give myself the total freedom to explore options, another year's finances to operationalize whatever I discovered I wanted to pursue, and a third year to live on if I had to look for a job back in the corporate arena. That's planning.
LLD: When did you decide to pursue historical research and writing?
LT: When I left my job, people assumed that I left to write and I wrote a book, and then Oprah picked the book, and it was great. That’s not how it worked at all. When I left my job, I literally didn’t know what I was going to do. I had made a bargain with myself that for one year, no matter what kind of opportunity came my way, I was not going back into the corporate world. I ended up filling my days doing genealogy research. I had researched my family for years, but here I had unfettered time. I poured myself into research about my ancestors, still having absolutely, positively no intentions of writing it down. I started writing because these people who I was uncovering were so fascinating that I felt obligated to document them.
LLD: How did you research your roots?
LT: It was the 1990s. The internet wasn’t there. So anything that I got was by hopping on a plane to Louisiana, spending an enormous amount of time in courthouses, looking at land deeds, reading old newspapers, going to historical societies and talking to family members to get their memories.
LLD: How difficult was it to discover the “bill of sale” of your ancestors?
LT: That was the most difficult to process. To actually uncover the bill of sale of my great-great-great-great grandmother, her daughter and her granddaughter, all of whom were sold on the same day in 1850, was stunning to say the least. Through the bill of sale, I discovered that I descended not only from those slave women, but also the white men who purchased them. That document was by far the most impactful thing that happened to me in this writing journey.
LLD: Why did you decide against writing about your family history in Citizens Creek?
LT: I felt that I had been invasive enough in outing my family stories. A friend of my husband’s said, “I have a book that might interest you.” It was “Staking a Claim” by Jonathan Greenberg. It was about Jake Simmons, who founded a black oil dynasty in Oklahoma. I thought, “This is a very interesting man,” but there were a handful of pages in that book that were about Simmons’ mother and great-grandfather. “Citizens Creek” is about those two people. It’s about Cow Tom, who became the first black Creek Indian chief after the Civil War. He bought himself free from his Indian master and rose to a position in the tribe in which he became a Creek Indian chief. It’s also about his granddaughter, Rose, who was a gutsy pioneer-type ranch owner in Oklahoma. It was the intersection of three cultures — Indians, black and white — and I found that I couldn’t resist.
I pick up and the voice on the other end says, 'Hello, this is Oprah.' I said, 'Right.'
LLD: What’s your secret to success in writing?
LT: It could not be orchestrated. I didn’t know what I was doing. I wrote something and put my heart and soul into it. My “Cane River” drafts were rejected 13 times by agents over a year and a half. I kept sending it in to the next agent and they’d say, “No, thanks.” Then, I would rewrite it and send it again, and that kept happening until I finally got an agent. Once I got an agent, and [the book] went to New York editors, there was a bidding war. Then I got a call from Oprah, who said, “I want to make your book my pick of the summer.”
LLD: What’s it like to get a call from Oprah?
LT: Oh, you have no idea. I had been traveling all around the country to promote “Cane River.” I had come home to pack up again. I put in a load of clothes because I was going to put them back in my suitcase, and the phone rang. I pick up and the voice on the other end says, “Hello, this is Oprah.” I said, “Right.” She got really silent and in that silence, there was so much power and control. Then, she came back and said, “This is Oprah,” and I knew it really was. So, what it felt like … I was just not in that frame of mind that it made any sense to me at all.
LLD: What advice would you give someone aspiring to make a similar career leap?
LT: My advice would be that you never, ever let go of your dreams — but be smart about it and plan. Be prepared to fail. If you just say, “I’m just going to turn and do my dream now,” without planning, you might find yourself unable to outlast what comes at you. You have to be ready to say, “Yes, I’m going to go off the deep end for a year, and I’m prepared to do that.”
This article contains profiles of certain Northwestern Mutual clients, their personal financial needs and how Northwestern Mutual met their needs. The personal financial needs and results of the clients shown may not be representative of the experience of other clients. Also, working with a Northwestern Mutual financial representative or any other financial services provider is not a guarantee as to future investment success.