Excerpted from "Pulling a Rabbit Out of a Hat," Stroke Connection Magazine March/April 2004When Tim Podell was 12 years old, he wanted to be a professional magician. He was fascinated with magic tricks and he loved entertaining people. He graduated from college with a psychology degree, but stayed faithful to his dream.
He became a “50-miler.”
“That means I was able to make a good living as a magician without ever leaving a radius of 50 miles from home.”
Tim also wanted to become a television producer in his hometown of Ossining, New York. He had volunteered to assist in public access television during college – doing everything from shooting and editing film to hosting programs.
He had an idea of producing documentaries and commercials, so he bought a lot of television equipment. The day after the equipment arrived, he had an ischemic stroke. He was 24.
The stroke paralyzed his right side. He spent seven months in the hospital in recovery. After two years of rehab, he recovered many of his abilities. He walks now, with a slight limp and has residual paralysis in his right arm and hand. The stroke left him with no clue about what he would do with the rest of his life. He spent two more years getting back on his feet mentally and emotionally.
“Finally I decided I was ready to get out there and do something,” Tim says.
In 1991, he called Jean Craighead George, a children’s book author whom he had interviewed while working in public access television during college. He asked to interview her for a video, and she agreed.
Tim hired a film crew and visited Jean at her home in Chappaqua, New York. “When we got there, we worked out the details on how to shoot the video. I interviewed Jean about how she became interested in writing, the techniques she uses and how she develops characters and plot in her stories. We also took footage of her and her dog interacting.”
Tim took the video to all the publishing houses in New York, thinking they might be interested in his interviewing other authors. His idea was totally rejected. Disappointed but not discouraged, he sent his video to the School Library Journal, which reviewed it positively. The review said his video was a useful tool for encouraging students to read and write.
Soon Tim got calls form schools across the country wanting to order copies. With the help of some neighborhood high school students, Tim filled orders in the basement of his parent’s home. “We took 4x6 photos of the author and used rubber cement to attach them to the tape covers.”
From this small beginning in his parent’s basement, Tim started expanding his business. His father loaned him $6,000. Tim began contacting other children’s book authors for interviews. He began visiting librarian conventions and schools to market his work.
He also rented warehouse space where he could fill orders. Then he contracted with a nearby fulfillment company to mail the videos. He opened his own office in Ossining, and hired a secretary to e-mail orders to the fulfillment company.
“Interviewing children’s book authors was really a fluke,” Tim says. “It was not necessarily a particular interest of mine at the beginning, it has since developed into an interest for me.”
In his “Good Conversations” video series, Tim asks authors to explain their writing techniques, how they develop their characters and plot, what inspires them. Authors talk about what time of day they like to write, where they work and how many pages a day they produce. “In the interviews, I am not the center of attention. The whole point is for the author to be the center of attention.”
His videos reveal what daily life is like for the author. “Kids enjoy getting to know the author. The authors are no longer these mysterious people, but people like their mom or dad.”
He has interviewed more than 40 children’s book authors, including many Newberry Award winners, the Oscar equivalent for children’s literature. He has traveled across the country and even to Scotland to conduct interviews.
He loves the thrill of meeting writers. “I hope that enthusiasm comes across in my videos.”
His interviewing style is casual. He usually wears jeans and visits authors at their homes, because he wants them to feel at ease. “Plus I can’t tie a tie, so I usually don’t wear one,” Tim says. Although he sometimes has difficulty finding words since the stroke, this isn’t a problem in his interviews. He is proud that most people can’t tell he had a stroke.
He has also produced “All About the Book!” video for elementary and junior high school students. In these videos, he talks to a panel of students about their reactions to a certain book. He explores the theme of the book and how that theme applies to their lives. Teachers say that these videos spark classroom discussion about social issues. Tim makes presentations to classes using the “All About the Book!” videos. When he makes his presentations, he always includes some magic tricks to entertain the kids.
His next goal is to bring children’s literature to the big screen. He has already purchased the rights to the book Goody Hall from Natalie Babbitt, an award-winning children’s author and writer of the modern classic Tuck Everlasting. He plans to turn her book into a feature-length film, and has already talked to several production companies about the project. He has contacted other authors about turning their books into films as well. “Because I have developed a relationship with these authors, they know that I have their interests at heart.”
Tim attributes his success as an entrepreneur at least partly to his ability to stay positive. “I never take negative thinking to heart,” he says. “Some of my friends thought I was crazy to start a business after my stroke. I didn’t worry about that, I just moved forward. You need a strong belief in yourself to succeed. Listen to everyone’s advice, but weed out the negative things and focus on the positive.”
Tim took what was available to him – his background in public access television, a contact he had made in college and a loan from his parents – and created a successful career that enriches children’s lives.
The late Christopher Reeve inspired him, he says, as do the stroke survivors profiled in Stroke Connection Magazine. “They are all making a difference in the world despite their disability."
“I hope my story will inspire other survivors to pursue their dreams. There are so many people sitting on great ideas and not pursuing them. Just do it!”