Tag Archives: Inspiring Interviews

Rahul Varma– Playwright

What made you want to become a writer?
I was born in India and came to Canada in 1976. In 1981, I co-founded a theatre company called Teesri Duniya Theatre (www.teesriduniya.com). My playwriting is linked to this company. There was complete absence of cultural diversity in Canadian theatre. With few exceptions, everything I saw on the stage or cinema screen was Euro-centric re-imposing the Anglo-French dominance without a serious scrutiny. First Nation communities, the original inhabitants of this land were completely ignored. Whenever ethno-cultural minorities were shown on the stage they were trivialized, exoticized and stereotyped.  I became playwright (a) in reaction to what was absent in theatre, (b) to give voice to ordinary people, reflect cultural diversity on the stage, and (c) to make literary contribution to the field by writing with political consciousness

Was the journey difficult?

It was and continues to be a challenging journey.  Writing about marginalized, under/misrepresented communities, writing about social justice with political consciousness, writing in a cultural milieu that is predominantly euro-centric, hierarchical as well as writing against the stream of plays that avoided critical themes and promoted otherness  – was an uphill journey. In addition, English is not my mother tongue – it is language of my adulthood. Writing in a language other than my mother tongue posed other challenges. But at the same time it has been a good journey because it has allowed me to offer an alternate viewpoint, give me a chance to dialogue with peers and colleagues, and challenge the status-quo.  It has been a difficult journey but also an enjoyable one. After all, we reach our destination only if the journey teaches you lessons of traveling the path.

What are themes and topics you like to tackle in your books?

Social justice and human condition has been the common theme that I’m dedicated to. Cultural complexities, racism, power-relationship, peace, human-rights, environment, women’s issues, gendered violence are some of the themes I have tackled in my plays.  While personal experience is essential condition in writing, I am not interested in writing about self-discovery and self-awareness.  To much of me, me, and me doesn’t interest me.

What inspired your play Bhopal?

The play Bhopal is about one of the world’s worst industrial disaster that occurred at the Union Carbide pesticide plant, located in the city of Bhopal, India. The play derives its title from the city’s name.

On the night of December 3, 1984, the American multinational Union Carbide exploded, engulfing entire city in a billow of deadly poisonous fumes. Small children fell like flies, men and women vainly scurried for safety like wounded animals, only to collapse, breathless and blinded by the gas. By morning, the death toll was over 500, by sunset, 2,500. By the following day, numbers didn’t matter — Bhopal had become the largest peace-time gas chamber in history. Over 25,000 people have died to date and counting.

Incongruously, I first learnt about this disastrous explosion on the TV screen in Montreal Canada which had become my home since 1976. The next day, newspapers brought images of mass destruction of lives in Bhopal. Land was littered with dead bodies and bodies gripped in pain. These horrifying images of destruction relayed directly into our drawing rooms by TV, on the one hand hugely disturbed me, and on the other hand raised the question “why did this had to happen”, and therefore “how do I respond?” The quest for response was precipitated by the image of a child named Zarina, which I saw in a hurriedly made documentary film called Bhopal: Beyond Genocide by Tapan Bose and Suhasini Mulay. The film traced 18 days short life of Zarina, who was one of thousands of babies born after the explosion. The film showed the heart-wrenching body of Zarina – her heaving ribcage and her collapsed heart that could be seen through the lesion on her melting skin.  Her autopsy report said, “Poisoned in her mother’s womb”.  I asked myself if Zarina had lived to tell, how will she describe her pain? Well, she didn’t live and at 18 days, she was too young to say anything. What could have been said, then, became my creative response culminating in the form a play Bhopal later translated into Hindi as Zahreeli Hawa by iconic Late Habib Tanvir.

Although the play is based on real incident, it is not a documentary play. The play fictionalizes the events and attempts to reach the truth behind such incidents.
For those of us who don’t live in India, what happened in Bhopal?
To understand Bhopal disaster, one needs to trace down the roots of Multinational Corporation called Union Carbide in India.

Union Carbide came to India in 1905 while the country was still under British rule. The company was best known for the manufacture of the Eveready battery. By the mid-60s the company had moved into agrochemicals, and by the mid-70s it had become one of India’s largest manufacturers of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Production of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, were part of a massive effort during the 1970s and ’80s known as the Green Revolution. This term described a movement that aimed to increase food yields through the use of new strains of food crops, irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides, and mechanization. The Green Revolution promised to harness the power of science, technology and industrial development to tackle hunger in the developing or Majority World. Unfortunately, the promises of the Green Revolution were never realized.

For example, even though the Green Revolution increased wheat and rice yields, nearly 5,000 children die each day of malnutrition. One-third of India’s 1 billion people are poverty-stricken, and can’t afford to buy the “surplus” food the Green Revolution promised. Green Revolution made even those farmers who could afford the growth, dependent on foreign technology, chemical products, and machinery.

Worse still, the technology that was used at the Indian plant was inferior to the one used in the western countries. And the chemicals that were manufactured in India were banned in North America and Europe because of their hazardous nature.  This was well known to the Union Carbide and the company covered up the ill-effects of its poisonous gases and deadly discharges that were leaking into the community. Nearby residents were experiencing diseases unknown to medical science, and animals near the company drainage pipe were dying. When animals were found dead near the pipe, the company responded with cash. It paid compensation to the animal owners in order to buy their silence. While the company succeeded in silencing the villagers, poisonous chemicals continued to make its way into the bloodstreams of the neighboring people, with tragic effects. Women gave birth to deformed babies and infant mortality rose to alarming levels.
Not only the plant was sub-standard, it was unsafely managed, which culminated in the form of the explosion resulting in 25,000 dead to date and leaving thousands more disabled or injured.
Has there been any justice as far as you know?
In the aftermath of the explosion, the Union Carbide site has never been properly cleaned up. Chemical wastes continue to poison people living near the abandoned factory. Testing conducted by Greenpeace found cancer, brain-damage- and birth-defect-causing chemicals in the soil and groundwater in and around the factory site, at levels up to 50 times higher than US Environmental Protection Agency safety limits. Mercury levels were 20,000 to 6 million times higher than levels accepted by the World Health Organization. A 2002 study by the Fact-Finding Mission on Bhopal found traces of lead and mercury in the breast milk of nursing women.

Survivors have not been properly compensated and culprits have not been brought to justice.  Warren Anderson, the CEO of now defunct Union Carbide lives as a free man in the US and has not been tried.
The only justice done is that in their death, the victims of Bhopal have given us a sense of awareness.

What are obstacles to achieving justice in India?
Pressure from multinational corporations, corruption in the government, bureaucracy and the judiciary are some of the reasons why justice has not been delivered.  I have talked to survivors who must bribe judges and bureaucrats to receive compensation.  The government doesn’t want to discourage foreign investment; hence it doesn’t impose safety regulation and does not punish polluting corporations.  Profit dictates the process of production.
Are you working on any new plays?

After Bhopal, I wrote a play called Truth and Treason that examines the so called war on terror. Truth and Treason tells the story of an American soldier of conscience, an Iraqi mother, her jailed husband and their 11 year old daughter killed in the war of aggression. As the play unfolds, audiences are drawn to  question not only what comprises ‘war’ and ‘terror’, but how, where and by whom the real ‘war on terror’ is fought… Truth and Treason premiered in 2009 in Montreal to an enthusiastic reception by the public

At present I am working on a new play called Unusual Battleground, which is a play about hidden identity. It is about woman survivors of genocide and rape who must hide their true identities in order to live. The play extrapolates Armenian genocide of 1915 Turkey, which is still contested by many — with genocide and rapes from Rwanda in 1994-95. The play links these two human catastrophes through memories of the Diaspora from these countries now living in Canada.
Are there common themes in your plays?

I have written over 12 full length plays both in Hindi and in English. Themes differ from play to play but they all have one thing in common – they are about human condition drawing attention to social justice with political consciousness. My attempt is not to write plays about reality but about discovering the truth behind the reality.
What is one theme or topic you would like to tackle but haven’t already?

My plays from the recent past have been on international and human rights themes.  After completing my work-in-progress Unusual Battleground, I want to turn my attention to a set of family plays that will examine gender issues among new Canadians. In this set of plays, I will also examine cross-cultural relations across communities.

 

Where can we find out more about what happened in Bhopal?
Some very good information is available on the web
http://www.bhopal.org,
http://www.bhopal.net,
http://www.studentsforbhopal.org/
I also encourage people to visit the website for Sambhavna Clinic Trust  headed by Mr. Satinath Sarngi based in Bhopal, India.

Where can we find out more about your work and your productions?
Those who are interested in my work, I encourage them to visit the website of the Teesri Duniya Theatre http://www.teesriduniya.com or email me rahul.varma.rahul@gmail.com
The book is available at the Playwrights Canada Press http://www.playwrightscanada.com/

 

Copyright 2005-2011, Jolene Owen. All rights reserved. This interview is free to copy, publish and circulate. You may reprint or publish it without permission in any format. Please credit: Jolene Owen as interviewer. The views expressed herein are those of the interviewees and do not necessarily reflect the interviewer or the official position of the publishing company, its various departments and/or the Institute of Interactive Journalism. If you’d like to be interviewed, or would like to send our team an interview, or just send us lots of gifts and candy, contact us at: inspiring.interviews@gmail.com.  Please do not try to contact interviewees through the institute. We never release confidential information or fwd messages. No exceptions.


Laura E Williams– Writer

What made you want to write for children?

As a child I was an avid reader.  I read everything from comic books to Nancy Drew to books like Charlotte’s Web and The Outsiders.  I’m still an avid reader, and I still love children’s literature.  In fact, I think some of the best writing being published is coming from children’s book authors!  I do think of writing books for adults, but my ideas always seem to come to me as books for kids.  Maybe it’s because I work with kids as a high school English teacher.  Maybe it’s because I remember being a kid and how hard it was.  Whatever the reason, I am proud to be a children’s book author!
What were your first steps ?  

The very first step to becoming a writer is being a reader.  Next, writing a first draft helps a lot!  It’s also one of the hardest steps.  In fact, I much prefer REwriting to writing that first draft.  I actually LOVE rewriting – adore it, it’s the best!  But that first draft is killer!  Then, after the first draft and multiple rewrites, it’s time to submit the story to publishers.  That’s when the rejections start rolling in.  Finally an acceptance comes along, and all that hard work is suddenly worth it!  There is nothing like getting published after all that writing and rewriting – well, maybe a big scoop of mint chocolate chip icecream on a sugar cone is close, but not quite!

What was the first book you ever published?

My first picture book was THE LONG SILK STRAND, which was published by Boyds Mills Press in 1995.  My first middle grade novel was BEHIND THE BEDROOM WALL, published by Milkweed Editions.   Imagine a girl during WWII who loves Hitler who finds out her parents are hiding a Jewish family behind her bedroom wall!  This novel is still selling strong – and the musical version of it just premiered this past spring.

What kind of stories do you think children relate to most?

Children relate to stories that don’t preach or talk down to them.  No one wants to be hit over the head with a lesson or a moral.  At least I didn’t when I was a kid.  I wanted entertainment and escape from everything.  Children look for a main character they can relate to, like a character who could be a friend.

How can we find out more about your work?

A good way to find out about me is to Google my name: “Laura E. Williams”  When you Google a name, be sure to put it in parenthesis as I just did above.  You could also check out my website at www.readlauraewilliams.com. Hopefully it’ll be up and running by this summer!

What inspired you to write BIBIM BAP FOR DINNER?

Bibim Bap is a Korean dish that I learned about when I went to Korea several years ago.  I was actually born in Seoul Korea and adopted when I was 1 1/2 years old.  I don’t remember anything from when I was an infant.  But when one of my former students was there teaching English, I jumped at the chance to visit her.  In my time there, I grew to love Korean cuisine.  When Bebop Books asked for proposals for books, I thought about having a kid making a traditional Korean dish.  Bibim Bap is easy to make and fun to eat.


Tina Karle– Writer

What made you want to publish hiking books?

I wanted to share the beauty of waterfalls that the state of Ohio has to offer, for everyone to enjoy!

Any lessons learned on your writer’s journey?

There are many lessons I’ve learned along my journey of writing. For one the way sentences are worded plays a key part in sentence structure, along with learning the rules of punctuation all over again! Also, that not everyone, takes kindly to certain phrases that have been listed in my books.

How often will you revise and re-write your work?

For the current hiking book, I am working on, I am up to my fourth revision and corrections for said book. I will keep working on it, and letting people peruse the book, to gain their insight, before it is published.

When is the best time to go hiking?

Pretty much anytime is fine to go hiking. It just depends on what you are going to see and if you wish to tolerate the current weather condition. For my book, I list the best seasons to go and visit the falls. Also spring is usually the best time to go as the weather is more comfortable and water flow for the falls are at their best!

How many pictures will you take on one hike?

When I go out on a phot shoot, I take anywhere from 50 to 400 pictures depending on what my agenda is for the day. If I am out on an all day hike I can take anywhere of over 1000 shots. Those have to be sorted through and only 3 or 4 of those pictures will make it into the book. For my current hiking book that I am working on, I have over 703 photographs listed for the book.

What is one saying or proverb you live by?

One of my favorite sayings is “I walk by faith and not by sight, and I trust in the Lord Jesus for everything.”

Where can our readers find out more about your work?

My work can be found by internet search(using my name, or waterfalls), Lulu.com, Amazon.com, or Barnes and Nobles book stores.


Sherry Norfolk– Storyteller

From the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, TN to the Hong Kong International School in Hong Kong, China, (and hundreds of places in between!) Sherry Norfolk’s passion for storytelling incites the imagination of young and old audiences alike. In addition to an electric stage presence developed through professional storytelling since 1981, she embodies the term “teaching artist” – that is, an artist who can not only talk the talk but walk the walk.

As a teaching artist, she leads residencies and workshops internationally, introducing children and adults to story making and storytelling. She is on the roster of seven state arts councils, a testimony to her value as a teaching artist. Her dedication to and deep interest in children and literacy have been recognized with national awards from the American Library Association, the Association for Library Service for Children, the National Association of Counties, and the Florida Library Association. Sherry is the co-author with her husband Bobby of The Moral of the Story: Folktales for Character Development (August House, 1999); they are currently working on a series of Anansi stories for the new August House Story Cove label.

What made you want to become a storyteller?

I’ve always looked for ways to make learning meaningful for kids, and ways to motivate them to read. As a preschool and primary teacher, I haunted the library, searching for stories to introduce new topics and inspire the kids – and me – to learn. Later, as a children’s librarian, I discovered that storytelling was the most effective way to lure kids to the library and into books. I was sold!

Was the journey difficult?

The first steps were natural and easy – like breathing. Telling stories to the kids in my north Miami library district led to telling county-wide (it’s a HUGE county), and that led to telling at festivals all over the SE. Any help? Along the way, I was very fortunate to be helped by wonderful storytellers like Melinda Munger in Miami, and to be able to attend the NAPPS Institutes which were being offered at the time. When I married Bobby Norfolk — a fabulous storyteller, already internationally famous — he encouraged me to take the leap and become a fulltime teller, and has been my mentor and inspiration every step of the way! Any obstacles? Well, it’s scary! Leaving behind a guaranteed paycheck and benefit package and striking out into the unknown felt like walking off a cliff! I HATED the marketing aspect — and I still avoid it whenever possible! But I’ve been remarkably lucky. We received a contract for The Moral of the Story: Folktales for Character Development (August House, 1999) just before I left the security of the library, and that kept me productively occupied as my performing career got off the ground. We also spent the first 6 weeks of my new life in Anchorage, AK, telling and workshopping for Alaska Children’s Services. That led me to the discovering how much I love to TEACH kids to tell and to write their own stories.

What were some of your favorite stories growing up? 

I got hooked on the Hans Christian Andersen stories — the more maudlin the better, it seems. “Little Matchgirl” was a special favorite. Maybe I jsut loved th power of story to evoke emotion!

Is there a difference between writing a story and telling a story? For me, it’s one and same: I create text as a told story first — honing and polishing it with by responding to the audience reactions. When writing the same story, there’s a translation process — translating the actions, sound effects, character voices, etc., into words. You can’t see the audience response — no immediate gratification!

What is the difference between a fable, a parable, and a fairy tale?  The intent: a fable teaches a moral or lesson, and so does a parable, but the fable does it explicitly where the parable relies on intrinsic understanding. Fairytales often teach lessons, but that usually is secondary to entertainment value!

If you could be one character in a story who would you be and why? I love the title character in the Russian folktale, Woman of the Wood. She is brought to life and given the gifts of beauty and intelligence — but she chooses freedom above all else. A truly wise woman!

If you could have coffee with one famous storyteller who would it be and why?

My favorite storyteller and human being will always be my husband, Bobby Norfolk. ‘Nuff said!

What inspires you as a storyteller?

The faces of the listeners…their total surrender to story..their joy and surprise! Nothing better!

What advice would you give a storyteller faced with writer’s block?

Go tell stories, get away from the computer and work with living, breathing, responsive human beings. That’s where the inspiration is.

What stories are you working on presently?

Bobby and I are developing a series of Anansi storeis for the StoryCove label, and we have a picturebook titled Billy Brown and the Belly Button Monster in production.

Finally, what advice would you give kids who wish to pursue a career in storytelling?

Follow your heart! Find out what aspect of storytelling is the most appealing to you, and learn everything you can about it. Listen to lots of tellers and talk to them about their own choices and why/how they made them, then make your own choices — and most of all, believe in the power of story!

Where can we find out more about your work?

My website is www.sherrynorfolk.com and there’s plenty of info there!

Copyright 2005-2011, Jolene Owen. All rights reserved. This interview is free to copy, publish and circulate. You may reprint or publish it without permission in any format. Please credit: Jolene Owen as interviewer. The views expressed herein are those of the interviewees and do not necessarily reflect the interviewer or the official position of the publishing company, its various departments and/or the Institute of Interactive Journalism. If you’d like to be interviewed, or would like to send our team an interview, or just send us lots of gifts and candy, contact us at: inspiring.interviews@gmail.com.  Please do not try to contact interviewees through the institute. We never release confidential information or fwd messages. No exceptions.

 


Michele Lang–Writer

 

Michele Lang writes paranormal tales set in contemporary, urban settings:  the stories of witches, lawyers, goddesses, bankers, demons, and other magical creatures hidden in plain sight.  In addition to writing fiction, she has practiced the unholy craft of litigation in both Connecticut and New York.

As a lawyer, Michele founded and directed Project Dandelion, a program dedicated to helping women to escape poverty and achieve self-sufficiency.  Project Dandelion, created in 1992, helps women and their families by offering workshops, one on one consultations, written materials, and legal advocacy.

Michele lives with her family in the village of Sea Cliff, NY.  Ms. Pendragon is her first novel.

What made you want to become a writer?

Books.  I’ve been a fanatic reader since I was two years old, and even when I’m not reading, stories tell themselves in my head.  Books are the most magical objects I know…think of it!  Someone who’s been dead for hundreds of years can speak directly to you through his or her words, and you can complete their story simply by reading it.  Writing fiction is the greatest job in the world.

But it goes deeper than that.  I believe with all my heart that we are here for a reason.  Part of why I am alive is to help other people to rev their own creative engines and get them excited about their own missions in life.  As a lawyer, I helped women to find their way through the legal system and out of dangerous situations.  As a writer, my work is designed to amuse, inspire, and liberate people from the more deadening aspects of daily life. My books celebrate the power of dreams to change the world.

Was the journey difficult? Any help? Any obstacles?

My primary obstacle was fear.  And my greatest fear was that I wasn’t good enough to write the stories down as I heard and saw them in my mind.  I also feared that I didn’t have the right to tell my own stories at all.  I had to learn to believe in myself, trust my talent.  Once I accepted the fact that my job was to tell the stories, not judge how good or bad they are, I could get out of my own way and write them.

My sixth grade teacher, Mr. Brady, helped me a lot.  He called my parents into school to tell them I was the best writer he’d ever taught.  His encouragement gave me permission to become a writer.  Writers don’t need someone else to tell them they can write.  But Mr. Brady’s belief in me meant so much.

 Any lessons learned on your writer’s journey?

It’s never too late to have a happy childhood. If you love something and it makes you wildly happy to do it, believe you are meant to do that very thing, and give yourself the time and permission to do it right.  You deserve it!  And for all you know, someone out there needs you to do it, too.

Where does that inner drive to write come from?

Sometimes it’s a whisper, sometimes a roar, but that inner voice keeps on telling the stories.  If I don’t write them down, I start to go a little crazy.

How do you keep readers turning pages?

Most people learn and grow as a result of surviving their worst nightmares.  When a reader cares about a character and their troubles, they will keep reading to find out how they make it through the train wrecks and disasters. I love all my characters, especially my villains.  But I’m terribly hard on them.

How often will you revise and re-write your work?

It depends on the needs of the story.  My first draft comes at a white heat, and I’m careful not to go back and edit what I write as I’m getting that first draft down on paper.  After I let the rough manuscript sit for awhile, I go back and do a hard edit.  Sometimes I edit so hard that I end up rewriting huge chunks of the story.  But once I do that hard edit, the toughest part is over.  I do a light polish to make sure the manuscript shines before I send it off to my editor.  After my editor takes a look, I sometimes do another hard edit…but it’s never as extensive as the first one.

 What are some creative ways you’ve learned to generate ideas?

I love transmuting the affairs of the world into fiction.  What in society infuriates you?  Drives you to despair?  Makes you laugh for joy?  Take those passions, those struggles, and put them in a fictional place, give these problems to fictional characters to grapple with.   For example, like many people I find myself obsessed with the threat of terrorism.  I take my desolation and my hopes and churn them into my stories.

I also mine ancient legends, like those of Robin Hood, King Arthur, or the Greek gods.  What would those characters do in a different setting?  With different enemies?  I’ll interview characters and legendary figures to get answers to these questions, and before I know it, they’re telling me their story.

What are some practical solutions for writer’s block?

Deadlines.  Get some – if you can’t get a publishing contract that forces you to write, find a writer’s group that can give you an outside deadline to meet.  I find that writing fast shuts down the inner censor because I don’t have time to listen to it.

Also, try to write something every day, even if only a sentence.  It keeps you in contact with that inner voice, the stream of stories that keeps flowing under the surface.

 Do you have a favorite book?

I love so many books — I can’t pick a favorite.  I will say that I loved reading Watership Down by Richard Adams. I first read it when I was twelve, and I read it over and over again. I loved the quest in that book, the loyalties of the characters, the deep struggles they all fought to survive.

Do you have a favorite time of day when you like to write?

The early morning.  I’m all alone, the outside world is quiet, and afterwards, I can enjoy the rest of my day knowing that I got to write first.

 What is one saying or proverb you live by?

Never give up on your dreams.  Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams,” and I think she was right.

Advice?

Read everything you can get your hands on.  And write.  For so long I aspired to write. I dreamed of writing, read voraciously, wrote long journal entries about writing.  It was all good, but at some point, you need to stop analyzing and dreaming, and commit.  Embrace the inevitable dreck of your early efforts, and despite the dreck, believe.  Have faith in your ability to improve and have the humility to admit how much you have to learn.  Your love for words will take you everywhere you need to go.  Please don’t wait any longer to get started.

Don’t be afraid of the day job.  I could never have become a writer if I hadn’t practiced as a lawyer first – I learned about human nature, and how to finish what I start.  Find a job that stretches you and brings you in contact with a lot of people, if your temperament suits you to that kind of job.  Give yourself time to get good at that job, and to make friends with people who aren’t writers.  The more deeply you live your life and love the people in your life, the more material you will have to write about.

If you write in genre fiction, do yourself a huge favor and join a local or national writers’ group like Romance Writers of America.  I’ve learned about the business of writing from generous writers who’ve shared so much knowledge with me.  If you can’t afford to join, haunt the blogs of your favorite authors and learn from them.  But please don’t stop yourself from writing while you learn, because the best way to learn is to set yourself free and write.

 

Where can we find out more about your work?

 

For excerpts, contests and more, please visit my website:  www.michelelang.com

 

I also give talks at libraries, reading groups, and schools.  Please contact me at Michele@michelelang.com regarding interviews or speaking engagements.

 

Finally, my first novel, Ms. Pendragon, comes out this month in paperback.  You can find it at your local book store or on Amazon.com

 

 

 


Melanie Zimmer– Puppeteer

Melanie Zimmer has worked as a storyteller for fourteen years and also performs puppetry as Dancing Bear Puppet Theater. She has worked across the country, performing in a variety of venues, live and for television audiences. She has performed with marionettes, rod puppets, hand puppets and shadow puppets and is the current president of PGUNY, the Puppetry Guild of Upstate New York, a local arm of the Puppeteers of America. As a storyteller, she has performed live and on television, performed symphony narration and spoken at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the League for the Advancement of New England Storytelling.

Melanie Zimmer has created puppets using a variety of techniques including carved wood, jigged wood, polymer clay, sheet foam, fabric, and paper mache. She also is an experienced mask maker and has created masks using a variety of media.

What made you want to become a storyteller?

When I was young, I was quite shy and embarrassed to speak in public so when I was in college at the University of Texas in Austin, I decided to overcome that, I would practice public speaking. I joined Toastmasters, a public speaking organization, and that did help me. Years later, I heard a group of storytellers perform and I thought that storytelling was an even better medium of expression because there was so much more that could be done with that using gesture, facial expression and character voices. I joined a storytelling guild in Clinton, NY called The Pearl in the Egg. The group was named after a medieval storyteller. Little is known of her other than the name she called herself, but the group was very helpful. I was able to listen to other, more advanced storytellers and to tell stories myself. In the guild, you could bring a completed work to present, or a fragment that you were working on. After you told, you could ask the group to critique you. Much of the advice was very useful and helped me develop as a storyteller. The other advantage the guild offered was that it would find you work. There were a certain amount of work that came into the guild, and it was distributed among the storytellers who wanted jobs. Being in front of an audience of strangers was essential to developing my skill as a storyteller. Sometimes I would go to the Salt City Storytellers in Syracuse, NY. The group was so-named because salt used to be mined in the Syracuse area. That group was quite different from the Pearl in the Egg. Salt City did not offer you jobs or critique you, but they did have open mic once a month where you could perform or listen to other tellers. They also, at that time offered inexpensive workshops on issues of importance to storytellers. Salty Sam (William Lape) gave a workshop on telling for radio. Another woman gave a fabulous talk on types of fairies and so on.  The Pearl in the Egg also offered workshops, but only occasionally. Their workshops were not given by members, but by well-known storytellers who were hired for the day and so I was exposed to the wisdom of a number of great tellers through that. As I became a better storyteller, and bolder, I took on more work. During this time I was still working full time elsewhere. Eventually, I decided to begin working on puppet theater as well with a partner. We were called A Room in the Woods since my last name – “Zimmer” means “room” in German. Julie’s last name “Waldas” meant “Woods.” We also performed masked interactive Greek theater. Though the partnership did not last, I remained both a storyteller and a puppeteer forming Dancing Bear Puppet Theater after my partner left.

Was the journey difficult? 

Iam not sure if the journey was difficult or not. Perhaps it was and is both. I was helped by many kind people and great advisors. I was helped by my reading and research, and I was helped to start economically in a strange way. When I decided to become a full time performer, I had been an independent contractor selling non-fiction books to libraries (public and school libraries) across New York and Vermont. When I began selling books from my supplier, they promised I would always be paid when the order was sent in. However, within months, they changed their plan and paid only when the libraries paid them which was sometimes a year after the order was taken depending on their budget cycle. That left me with a horrible financial gap in the beginning, but later when I decided to start the puppet theater, it enabled me to stop selling books to build the theater, and still have an income from sales made six month to a year earlier.

One of the biggest obstacles I have is time. As a performer, I have to generate my own publicity, book my own shows, build the shows in the case of the puppet theater, load, unload, drive to the destination which may be very far away even in a different state, and perform. Sometimes it is hard to do it all. If I get busy performing, sometimes the other areas are ignored and then later I will see less work because of it. It is a bit like doing two or three jobs.

The other major obstacle has been my voice. Because I do extreme character voices, often by the end of a telling session or after several consecutive sessions, I would become hoarse. I worked very hard to overcome this studying with a speech pathologist, an expert on the Alexander Technique, and taking a college course on speaking voice. This situation has improved tremendously. It is very dangerous to abuse your voice and if you have vocal discomfort, you should seek training so that you do not permanently damage your voice. After all, a storyteller without a voice isn’t much of a storyteller.

What were some of your favorite stories growing up? 

Quite honestly, I have no recollection of anyone reading folk tales or anything else to me when I was young. I must have heard them somewhere because I knew the common fairy tales, Mother Goose rhymes and the like, but I don’t recall hearing or reading them. My first memory of reading is lying in bed between the age of five and six reading a pictorial dictionary. Strangely, I still do read dictionaries sometimes. Words and language have always interested me. It doesn’t surprise me that no one would read to me before bed. As a small child, I had horrible vivid nightmares such as being eaten by a lion, and other grotesque dreams. My father had been the same as a boy. He shared a room with his brother, and once awoke in the middle of the night convinced they were trapped in the hold of a ship. It was so real to him, he was actually able to convince his brother of this, and the two of them knocked a hole in the bedroom wall trying to escape. By the time I was in second or third grade my nightmares had ceased, or at least I did not remember them any more. I do remember seeing a monster when I was maybe between eight or ten, though. I had gone to bed and was just laying there in the dark. The bedroom door was open and the light from the hall illuminated the doorway.  I looked over, and there was a short creature standing there with its hand on the door knob. It didn’t stand much taller than the door knob, and it had a long tail. It stood upright, but instead of flesh, its body seemed composed of flashing, moving energy like it was made of electricity or some such thing. The movement was in jagged fashion, almost the way lightning moves and was bluish in color. I was horrified and just stared at it for the longest time and it watched me, still standing in the doorway. Finally, I was so scared, I ducked my head under the covers and curled up tight. I stayed like that for some time. When I dared look again, the creature was gone. I never saw it again. I never told my parents. Years later, though, when I was an adult, my mother confided in me that she had often seen strange creatures around her bedroom and bathroom at the house when we were living there. At least I wasn’t the only one seeing things.

I do remember in Junior High School when I would stay with my grandmother she would read to me after lunch from library books. In High School and Junior high I liked to read mysteries, science fiction and biographies. I do know my grandmother was a storyteller when she was young. She would tell the neighborhood children ghost stories, and scare them half to death, but she never told me any. My grandfather on my father’s side was an amateur historian specializing in Maine local history and the American Civil War. He would make up the most ridiculous things to tell us girls. I think storytelling was present in members of our family even though I might not remember having been read to or reading stories when I was young.

 Is there a difference between writing a story and telling a story?

I think there is absolutely a difference between telling a story and writing a story. Perhaps the most important thing I do in learning a story to tell is to not write it, or if I do, to write it after I have completed creating it. I have found that if you simply memorize writing on a page, two things happen. First, if you forget one little thing, you are suddenly lost, struggling for the next word or line. Secondly, if you are thinking about words on the page, you are not as likely or able to interact with the audience, such as have good eye contact with them, etc. For that reason,  I recommend if you are creating a story to be read, write it. Then the words are all important. However, if you are creating a story to be told, tell it, then write it afterward or record it electronically as you tell it if you think you will forget it and need to refresh yourself later. Storytelling involves words, but also the face, the eyes, the voice, the body. None of that can be written easily on the page. Also, there are big difference in the way things will be said. If you have a written story, you will likely see things like “Sally said…” “He said…” In telling a story, you probably would not say that. You can tell by your body and voice who is speaking. To say “he said” or “she said” would just be boring.

Traditionally there was a world of difference between on oral story and a written one. Societies that had no written language or societies in which few people wrote, told stories in a completely different way. Things were repeated again and again with small variations throughout the story in ways which would lose an audience’s interest today. The whole structure was different. I think telling a good story today is a compromise between the old way and the written way.

What is the difference between a fable, a parable, and a fairy tale?

I think I would like to expand this question to include also, folk lore and folk tale because it can be confusing. First, let’s look at the words “folk lore.” “Folk” means people, and “lore” is any kind of wisdom or knowledge. Folklore, then can be any kind of wisdom of knowledge that was or is passed down among the people it can be stories, it could be some sort of craft or medicinal knowledge. “Folk tales” are specifically tales or stories that were told by the people. This is different from a modern story. Each piece of modern literature is written by a person or perhaps a couple people, in some cases. Folk tales are not. They were passed down orally – mouth to mouth. No one person invented a folk tale. Sometimes you will see books containing a folk tale and it will say “ by” and then an author’s name, but this is, in fact, inaccurate. In actuality, it should read “retold by” because the “author” has not made up that story, but simply told it in his or her own way. A folk tale has been passed down generation to generation, changing over time, often existing with many variations, and often existing in many countries. There is no author. Many folk tales were collected and written down during the 1800’s and so we think of them as being static, as being what we see on the page, but that is only the version that was recorded. A fairy tale is something different in a sense. A fairy tale is often a magical story that involves, if not fairies, magical creature or events, typically in an unspecified time and place, and often has a transformation included in the story.  It may or may not be a folk tale. Some folk tales are fairy tales, some are not. Hans Christian Anderson wrote (he made up) fairy tales, as have other authors. The Brothers Grimm collected fairy tales that were folk tales, and did not make them up. To make this even more confusing, at the time of the Grimms, (they were German) there was no distinction yet between folk and fairy tales as there is today. The word they used which meant both was marchen Now for parable and fable. I am actually going to get out my dictionary for this one. I infrequently tell fables. According to my old Websters Dictionary a parable is a species of fable. A parable is a “story or allegorical relation or representation of something real in life or nature from which a moral is drawn for instruction.” The same dictionary describes a fable as “A feigned story or tale , intended to instruct or amuse: a fictitious narrative intended to instruct some useful truth or precept.”  Hmmm…I believe I would like to leave this distinction to someone wiser than myself.  I’m not certain how much more I can add to that discussion beyond the hint if you always use the word “fable” for either of the two, you’ll not be wrong.

 If you could be one character in a story who would you be and why?

If I could be one character in a story, I might like to be Baba Yaga, from Russian lore. She is the witch-like character who lives in a house that stands and rotates on chicken legs and is surrounded by a fence of skulls and bones in the woods. She rides in a mortar rowing with a pestle and sweeps away her tracks behind her with a broom. Yes, she is strange, but what I like about her is this. All the heros and heroines are always lacking something, and so venture forth on a journey to find that thing, be it wife, a husband, a kingdom, riches, a key to unlock a spell, whatever it may be. They go on a journey, at last obtain what they need, and it is over. They live happily ever after. Baba Yaga, however is just there. She is unchanging, and unconcerned with those things. She has an eternal quality about her and is surrounded by symbols of life (seeds) and death (bones and skulls.) She is powerful and deeply connected with nature. Recall her three riders, the red one – her dawn, the white one-her day, and the black one- her night. She is full of mystery and appears as some sort of primeval natural force. I like her for that.

If you could have coffee with one famous storyteller who would it be and why?

I might like to have tea (I’ve never been one for coffee) with either Jacob or Wilhelm Grimm. I am fascinated by their collection process – scouring old libraries for manuscripts and interviewing peasants for their folk tales. However, I am also interested in the other work of the Grimms. Jacob, the older of the two, did a great deal of work regarding the classification of languages, discovering the roots and origins of the languages that spread across Europe and beyond. Inside an unabridged dictionary, you might well find a language tree showing the relationship of all the Indo-European languages. We owe this tree to Jacob Grimm. He and Wilhelm also created a German dictionary that was so great in scope, and took so long to compile, that it was not finished until almost a century after they began its work, in 1960 though the project was begun in the 1852. That would certainly be something to discuss over tea! (Though rumor has it the brothers passed on sometime during the entries for the letter “F” so I’m not sure if they’d have the full picture on the project.) Jacob and his younger brother Wilhelm, the sickly, and more social of the brothers translated the Elder and Younger Eddas. The brothers  taught themselves to read a dozen languages, and much of the knowledge we have today of the old Norse myths stems from their translation work of the Eddas.  Again, that would make for very interesting conversation. Another option might be to speak with a now unknown Celtic storyteller as I would be curious about how stories were studied, learned and told, and since the Celts had no written language, much of that process remains mysterious today.

What inspires you as a storyteller?

This has changed over time. Initially I was interested in the actual physical telling of the story – the sound of the characters, what they might be like. Now I am more interested in noticing the transition between the oral tradition and the written tradition, and also the world wide similarities among folk tales.

What advice would you give a storyteller faced with writer’s block?

Sometimes the best way to make progress is to step away from the work. My greatest inspirations come at times when I am not just sitting at a table with a pen in hand, but rather when driving, walking my dalmatian, Cuchulain, in the woods, lying in bed, or even soaking in the bathtub. ( I heard Agatha Christie, the mystery writer, used to write in the tub. I think she was really on to something.) The key is to be in a relaxed state where you can access your imagination. I also helps to have a great deal of knowledge about a variety of subjects so that you may draw on that, combine things in new ways and be original.

What stories are you working on presently?

I am working on a puppet show and it involves a leprechaun that comes to the New World, but I won’t tell you any more. It’s a secret! (Leprechauns are known to be secretive, you know.) Actually, the idea comes from a talk on leprechauns I gave years ago. When I was researching them, I was astounded at the number of people I personally met who claimed to have seen Leprechauns in the U.S. so I thought I would do a show on that premise. Apparently we have a large indigenous population of Leprechauns here, or maybe they emigrated at the time of the potato famine. Whatever the case, they certainly weren’t registering at Ellis Island. Interestingly, the people who testified to seeing Leprechauns here weren’t necessarily Irish or Irish descendants but were from a broad variety of backgrounds including Native American so keep your eyes peeled!

Finally, what advice would you give to someone wishing to pursue a career in storytelling?

First and foremost, tell stories. You will improve as you perform, and as you age too as your understanding of the stories will deepen. There may seem a great deal to learn at first, but really, it an illusion. When dealing with folk tales, eventually you will find that there is a tremendous repetition of plots among them. These storylines exist regardless of the location world wide with only slight variations and so like me, you will find a story from Norway will be almost identical to one told in China. (This is true of folk tales, not modern literary tales.) According to one classification system of folk tales, there may be as few as a hundred of these story possibilities, even when the plot seems relatively complex. Sometimes the elements are mixed and matched. Sometimes the story is almost the same entirely. And the story lines can skip from folk tale to myth, and remain relatively unchanged. What this means for you, is that learning a great body of material is entirely possible. Often when I am telling stories, kids will ask me how many stories I know, and I really don’t know how to answer as there are a limited number out there, with many variations. Once you get to a certain point, you find the stories are repeating, and so they become very easy to learn, since you already know the story. Someday, when someone asks you how many folk tales you know, perhaps you will be able to  quite honestly answer “all of them.”

Though I know this article is about storytelling, and storytelling is an interesting profession, I would like to encourage young people to go into puppetry. The truth is, there are few itinerate puppeteers left. Almost no young people are entering the profession and old puppeteers are dying off or retiring. If this continues, once the middle age puppeteers reach retirement, live puppet shows will become rare indeed, and many young people may never experience the excitement and wonder of that kind of live performance. In one sense, puppetry is a form of visual storytelling and the two profession share many techniques. Both puppetry and storytelling tell a story. Both require voice work. Puppetry is more labor intensive, but creates a worthwhile and unique experience that I believe is worth the extra effort, and it allows the artist to create mobile visual art as well as using the artist’s vocal expression. For those intending to go into puppetry, you may search out Puppeteers of America online for information and resources. (There are also Canadian members, in fact, the Great Lakes Regional Conference was held in Canada this year.) For those interested in storytelling who wish to join an organization there is LANES or the League for the Advancement of New England Storytelling, and also NSA or the National Storytelling Association that has a yearly conference in Jonesborough,TN each October for those wanting to surround themselves with great storytelling.

 

Where can we find out more about your work?

My website is www.thepuppets.com.

 

Copyright 2005-2011, Jolene Owen. All rights reserved. This interview is free to copy, publish and circulate. You may reprint or publish it without permission in any format. Please credit: Jolene Owen as interviewer. The views expressed herein are those of the interviewees and do not necessarily reflect the interviewer or the official position of the publishing company, its various departments and/or the Institute of Interactive Journalism. If you’d like to be interviewed, or would like to send our team an interview, or just send us lots of gifts and candy, contact us at: inspiring.interviews@gmail.com.  Please do not try to contact interviewees through the institute. We never release confidential information or fwd messages. No exceptions.


Mark W. Dooley– Writer

Mark W. Dooley is a husband, father, and grandfather. He describes himself as a student of life and a wanderer growing roots. He is a drummer, a writer, storyteller, and a friend to many. He likes to divide his time between the western mountains of North Carolina and the eastern mountains of West Virginia, where he is currently involved heavily in the study of nature spirits and at work on at least two books, The Second Coming of Mother Earth and Song of ‘O Henry.

What made you want to become a writer?

I have always loved words; they are my favorite toys. I often take them out in the forest or to the top of some mountain and let them dance on the end of my tongue. I have echoed them across valleys and caused them to bubble up from my favorite swimming hole; but I could never get them to hold still or get them where I could look at them for long.

Until I discovered writing. With writing, I could sneak up on them, capture them, and hold them until I could get them delivered to the eyes of a reader, where they could then be rescued and released into the mind and imagination of others.  Writing gave me the ability to share my toys and gave me a way to express my dreams and share my ideas,  hopes, and laughter.

Was the journey difficult?

Perhaps the most difficult part of all was allowing myself to write. It was tough getting permission to do so …….. from ME. I soon discovered that I couldn’t always get the words to come out on the paper nearly as pretty as I’d imagined them in my head nor could I always get them to look like they had sounded when I was speaking them alone in the forest.

My biggest help came when I realized that if I waited until I could write as perfectly as I thought I should to start writing I was never going to get any writing done. But as I allowed myself to write anyway the words came out, I could always fix them better later, in fact, the more I wrote the more they begin to sound like I thought they should.

What were some of your favorite stories growing up? What made those stories so special?

Faerie tales of all kinds, westerns, and animal and wilderness adventures. They always took me to the places in the stories and I became actively involved in the story. I could visit anywhere in the world that I wanted and always be back in time when mom called out that dinner was ready.

 What inspires you as a writer?

Nature, wind and rain, people on the street and in shops and cafes, and watching and listening to my own family.

 What inspired you to write ‘Song of the Forbidden Mountain?

Song of the Forbidden Mountain is the story that I made from my own personal journey of discovery of who I am and how the things around me work. Writing it allowed me to “see” and be reminded of all the wonderful discoveries I’d made along that journey.

What was the process like?

The process of writing Song of the Forbidden Mountain was very long for me. Much more so than most stories that I write. It took me through nearly twenty years of personal life changes, caused me to travel across the United States and into the Carribean area. It caused me to keep countless notes and journals and constantly changed my patterns and preferences for living my daily life. Writing Song of the Forbidden Mountain took me away from a life of dull and ordinary existence and carried me to a life that is full of constant wonder and amazement and has made me glad to be alive and able to share stories with others.

What lessons did you learn in writing ‘Song of the Forbidden Mountain’?

I learned to take time to live. I learned to take time to laugh and sing, and to notice all the magical wonders around me. It taught me to enjoy my family and friends and caused me to want to share life with everyone. I learned to be present in the moment and to enjoy each one of those even as I’d always enjoyed words. And it taught me to listen …. to myself and others, and to discover yet many more words that I did not know existed.

What advice would you give a writer with writer’s block?

First of all, allow yourself to have it … admit that it exists. Then write a five thousand word essay why you have writers block. By then, perhaps it will be gone. If not, realize that to everything there is a season, corn is not always eaten from the ear, there is a large amount of time that must grow and there is even a time that it lies dormant as a seed. Allow yourself the same courtesy. Be easy with yourself and in the proper season, you will find the words again bursting forth from the pen.

What are you working on presently?

Two books in particular, The Second Coming of Mother Earth and the Song of O Henry. In addition I’m doing extensive research and notetaking on nature spirits and the energies that make up our lives. I’ve written a series of essays on these subjects and await the season to see exactly what they will become.

What advice would you give kids who wish to pursue a career in writing?

Write something everyday. Allow yourself to write however you can at the moment and make the time to do so. Write for yourself first of all and allow yourself plenty time to see what type of writing you most love and are comfortable with. Reasearch and study and experiment with the many fields of writing, but most importantly, follow your dreams …. allow your imagination to run wild in the fields of your mind, and only listen to reason to the degree that it agrees to be unreasonable.

Where can we find out more about your work?

Song of the Forbidden Mountain

http://www.amazon.com/gp/offer-listing/1411698215/ref=dp_olp_2/002-5515095-8224011?ie=UTF8

Dare We Dance the Faerie Dream

http://www.lulu.com/author/item.php?fSubmitContentView=1&fCID=359551

Copyright 2005-2011, Jolene Owen. All rights reserved. This interview is free to copy, publish and circulate. You may reprint or publish it without permission in any format. Please credit: Jolene Owen as interviewer. The views expressed herein are those of the interviewees and do not necessarily reflect the interviewer or the official position of the publishing company, its various departments and/or the Institute of Interactive Journalism. If you’d like to be interviewed, or would like to send our team an interview, or just send us lots of gifts and candy, contact us at: inspiring.interviews@gmail.com.  Please do not try to contact interviewees through the institute. We never release confidential information or fwd messages. No exceptions.