Today, Norm Goldman, Editor of the book reviewing and interviewing site Bookpleasures is excited to have as our guest, Amy Friedman, acclaimed writer who wrote Tell Me a Story for Universal Press Syndicate.
Good day Amy and thank your for agreeing to participate in our interview.
Good day, Norm, and thanks a million for having me.
Amy, please tell our readers a little bit about your personal and professional background. What is your background in children’s literature?
I think the road to writing for an audience of children began when I was a kid living in a house with two reading-addicted parents.
The furniture in our family’s den was barely visible beneath the books, magazines and newspapers, and my Dad, a lawyer, had always wanted to be a journalist; in fact before going to law school he worked as a sports reporter (combining his two passions), but in that era Jews had difficulty getting jobs as journalists, so Dad went to law school.
When I was about 12, I wrote my first short story, and I decided right then and there that I wanted to be a writer, though like all writers’ lives, the road to here has taken many surprising turns.
I studied English at Barnard College, with a minor in creative writing. In those days I wrote only fiction, and in the late ’70s, I went to City College for an MFA in writing because Donald Barthleme, a writer I admire enormously, was teaching there. He truly was the person who taught me how to write well, how to work hard, and how, too, to take deep pleasure in writing.
In the mid-80s my life took one of those glorious turns that feeds a writer’s imagination and nourishes the soul. I’d lived in Manhattan for nearly 15 years, but I fell in love with a Canadian and moved to a sheep farm outside–OUTSIDE–of Gananoque, Ontario. I adored the farm and discovered a marvelous the newspaper published in nearby Kingston. Then owned and run independently, The Kingston Whig-Standard published a stunning magazine, and this is where, ultimately, Tell Me A Story and my close involvement with children’s literature began. I had worked for eight years as an adult columnist, and that column led to two published two books, the first a memoir called Kick the Dog and Shoot the Cat, about the similarities between sheep farming and my previous work in New York, in film production (on such blockbuster Hollywood hits as Ghostbusters).
I still had no idea that ultimately I would be writing for children in those first years on the newspaper. I had, though, expanded from writing strictly fiction to writing nonfiction, personal essay, and plays.
Will you share a little bit about Tell Me A Story with us?
One day in the early ’90s I approached our editor, Neil Reynolds, and told him I thought the newspaper needed something for kids. I’d loved newspapers when I was young. Neil was all for it and told me to go figure out what this new feature should be and let him know.
There was a fabulous children’s librarian in the Kingston Public Library, Mary Beaty, and she spent hours leading me through old books of folklore. As we talked, I began to remember how much I’d always loved mythology, and when Mary showed me a version of the Finnish epic, The Kalevala and some old Chinese folktales I’d never known existed, I was hooked. Mary also led me to the Toronto Public Library collection in the Boys and Girls House, a collection established in 1922, the first children’s library in the British Empire. The Toronto Public Library’s relationship to children’s literature is a great story in itself, but that’s for another day.
Long story a little shortened, Mary also introduced me to Jillian Gilliland who by then had illustrated more than 20 children’s books. Jillian loved the idea of a column of retold folk and fairytales, legends and myths; we told Neil we wanted our column to be children’s fiction, new and old, illustrated all, and just a few weeks later, in November 1991, we began to produce The Bedtime Story, six days a week. I wrote only one or two a week and selected and edited other stories from mountains of submissions. Within a month ten other papers in Canada had picked up The Bedtime Story, and one day in the newsroom our city editor, Norris McDonald, pulled me aside to introduce me to Dan Dalton. Dan was a syndicate salesman, but this time instead of selling, he wanted to talk about the buying The Bedtime Story for Universal Press Syndicate.
Universal signed me to write ONE story each week, Jillian to illustrate, in color, and Tell Me A Story was born. It quickly caught fire and was soon running in hundreds of papers around the world.
We lost many of our clients when newsprint doubled in price in the mid-90s (the column takes up lots of space), but we still run in about 100 papers (the numbers vary monthly), even as far away as China.
My house now (I’m now in Los Angeles) looks a little bit like the Boys and Girls Room at the Toronto Public Library, and one of the best parts of the whole experience has been relationships I’ve developed over the years with people who’ve stumbled upon the column. For years I corresponded with a Kalevala scholar in Finland. I received a copy of a just-discovered Chinese manuscript from some folklore scholars in Hawaii. The folklore scholars keep me honest and are constantly teaching me new things about literature’s roots, for instance; and Jillian keeps me honest too because every one of her paintings is accurate down to the tiniest details. We do our homework, making sure to be true to the details of time, place, dress, flora, fauna, architecture, and so on.
The column has generated two books–Tell Me A Story and The Spectacular Gift, but I’d always wanted to make an audio version. In my life outside of Tell Me A Story I teach creative nonfiction and personal essay writing at UCLA, and through this work, and through my writing and performing personal essays, I’ve met dozens of extraordinarily talented actors.
How did you go about choosing the stories and music to be included in Tell Me A Story?
When I decided I was going to produce the CD on my own, I knew I’d need partners. First my husband, Dennis Danziger, a writer and teacher, enthusiastically joined me, but he wanted to be a sort of silent partner. I had performed in a spoken word venue known as Melt in Your Mouth which is produced by Lori Ada Jaroslow and had so admired her work, both as producer and as a director, I invited her to co-produce. She was immediately intrigued.
Last summer I handed Lori a stack of more than 100 of my stories, and Lori began to read, ultimately winnowing the selection to 50. Lori also suggested three possible sound engineers and composers. When I heard Laura Hall’s music (and remembered seeing her on Whose Line Is It Anyway, and feeling such great energy emanating from her), I decided she was the one.
Laura, Lori and I spent days sitting in coffee shops talking about the selections–finally narrowing our list to 25. We looked for range–different parts of the world, male, female and animal leads, funny and serious, stories that had different rhythms and different messages.
But we couldn’t get below 25, so we called in Laura’s two daughters, Ruthie, age 7, and Eva, 9. The girls read all 25 and gave us brilliant post-it notes; they also negotiated with each other–Eva giving up her favorite when Ruthie gave up hers, and so forth.
We winnowed to 10, and then, once we began recording, we realized we would have to lose two more. Our mixer told us once a CD goes over 72 minutes, quality is sacrificed, and the stories read longer than we’d anticipated.
We’ve promised Ruthie that her favorite story, a French Canadian tale called The Talking Cat, will be included on one of our next cds.
Could you tell our readers something about the different people who narrate the stories and how were they chosen?
This was sheer joy. Lauren Tom was first on my list. I met Lauren when years ago she took a writing class from me. I’ve seen her perform on stage, in films, on television, and I’ve heard her voice on the many animated shows, but maybe most importantly, I’ve watched her at play with her two sons who she adores.
Kathleen Wilhoite’s a similar story. When I first heard Kathleen read one of her stories at a spoken word theater (and heard her sing as well), I knew I wanted to work with her. Her voice is inimitable–husky, funny, sweet, sassy, beautiful, and wise. And Kath too is a devoted mom to her son and daughter. Lori was a given; she’s a longtime talented singer and performer, and she’s worked with some of the finest actors around. It was Lori’s contacts and instincts which took us to Jack
McGee, Charlayne Woodard, and Poppy Champlin. Eventually we decided we wanted to cast against type; that is, that we didn’t want Lauren reading a Chinese story because she’s Chinese American, or Charlayne reading an African story because she’s African American. Perhaps one of my favorite moments was the day
Jack McGee with his gruff, tough, New York street-wise voice that lots of people recognize from Rescue Me came in and read Two Frogs from Japan. Every time I hear Jack on the CD saying, “Spahkle and Shimma, Spahkle and Shimma” (or, in regular-old-English, sparkle and shimmer, sparkle and shimmer), I laugh. Every time. And I’ve heard it thousands of times.
Laura’s husband, Rick Hall, is both hilarious and a serious, seasoned performer, and maybe best of all, he loves Anansi stories. I remember thinking when I first heard him read, “ohhhh, so THAT’s how Anansi sounds.” And his trombone playing–he’s one of those all-around talents. One day we suddenly changed our minds about a story and we needed at the last minute to find a reader with a rich, deep, powerful voice. Laura suggested her friend and neighbor, actor and singer
William Thomas Jr. William had just finished taking an exam (he’s studying for the Seminary) but pro that he is, within the hour he was at the studio, reading the story as if he’d rehearsed for weeks.
Maybe my favorite day was in the studio with Poppy Champlin, one of the most versatile comediennes around, when she came in and started channeling animals. When she suddenly became a raccoon telling ghost stories on Searching for Fear, I couldn’t catch my breath for the laughter. None of us could. We had to take a break from recording. Sometimes in the middle of recording, Lori and I would look at each other in wonder at the magic in that studio, and when Lori sang Laura and me a lullabye she remembered her father singing to her (her dad for years played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway), Laura and I convinced her she had to include it in her telling of A Sense of Theft, and that, as I recall, is when Laura says she first began to hear the music.
How long did it take you to put together your CD and what challenges or obstacles did you encounter while putting together the CD? How did you overcome these challenges?
We began selecting stories in late summer ’05 and by October 2005 we were recording in Laura’s studio (Laura was both composer and engineer). The recording went quickly. Each of the performers was exceptional–they walked into the studio with their pages, cozied up to the mic and offered up their enormous talent.
Afterwards, though, Lori and Laura spent days and weeks editing various takes; they kept me out of the studio because we all agreed I was too close to the stories, and too, because we wanted to make sure once they had put together the best cut, someone would have a “clean ear” to listen and make the final changes.
One other note: after day one, after Kathleen Wilhoite and Charlayne Woodard had finished recording, we realized we hadn’t asked them to record the titles. Because we were working on a tight budget, Dennis, my husband, said, “Well, what if instead of asking them to return to the studio, the girls record the titles. Laura’s girls.”
And now, when listeners first hear Ruthie’s voice announcing, A Sense of Theft, they swoon. Perfection. It was another one of those magical “accidents.”
I don’t know that we’ve actually encountered obstacles. In fact, along the way what has struck me most of all is how extraordinary every person who worked on this has been, how each person performed beyond all my expectations, from the readers to the musicians, Larry Hughes, a clarinetist I found through an old childhood friend, a studio musician in LA, and Luke Hannington who played bass, recorder, and guitar and is a friend and colleague of Laura’s, to Laura, of course. The inimitable, ultra-talented Laura. I cried when I first heard her music. I mean truly wept, it was so far beyond what I had dared imagine it could be.
Matt Lands who did the mixing and mastering listened to the first story and understood in a heartbeat what we wanted, and some of the touches no one but we probably will ever notice are the result of his Matt’s magic hand. When we had finished the final mix, I called on Walter Green of Weingart Design in Cleveland, Ohio (going back to my childhood hometown); he listened to the CD and instantly understood–this was a classic and the design had to be too.
The most difficult part for me has been learning all the elements of production; I spent days poring over pages of what at first seemed gobbledygook as I tried to understand the manufacturing process and select our manufacturer. But mostly the process has been hard but joyful work. The CD feels, to me, filled with the spirit of all those people whose gave of their talent, and as a physician friend told me when he heard it, “You can hear the joy of all the creators in this.”
I guess if there’s one part that makes me uneasy, it’s the marketing. That part’s hard, and out of my realm of experience. So, again, I’m learning.
How will you be marketing your CD?
We’re learning as we go. Universal Press Syndicate is involved; we have contacted all the newspapers in which the column appears, and hope to reach a lot of our readers that way. As you know, I’m reaching out to reviewers, most of whom I’ve come upon through my membership in the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. We’ve also sent the CD to several award competitions and to dozens of children’s radio hosts around the country. We are performing at as many venues as we can, and our first performance will be on July 8 at Hollygrove, in Hollywood, where Carrie-on, a day recreation facility for children with life-threatening illnesses, is holding a series of open houses.
A while ago I met Tracy Mestres who created Carrie-on, and I knew instantly this was the charity to which we would be donating a portion of our proceeds. Carrie, Tracy’s daughter, was before her death at the age of 13, a writer and an artist; I never knew her but a student of mine was her teacher. Angelica used to bring Carrie’s stories to my class, and I remembered those stories; somehow the light that was in Carrie’s stories seemed like the light that emanates from our CD, and from this whole experience. The match seemed just right.
We also plan to perform at The Geffen Theater in Los Angeles in conjunction with their education program and I hope too, we’ll be in other places, in other cities, in bookstores and beyond.
We’re also seeking to interest librarians and teachers, and I am still building into the website, www.mythsandtales.com exercises teachers can use in the classroom, ways to use the CD and other folktales to teach.
Where can we buy your CD?
For now, the CD is available online at CD Baby, CDbaby.com/cd/friedmanhall. It will be a little while before we can make it available to retail outlets, but people who are uneasy about ordering online can contact me at [email protected], and I will either mail them a copy or direct them to a store in their neighborhood where they can order it. Soon I hope it will be more widely available, but that’s part of this marketing thing.
But besides, CD Baby is a great self-made, small company, and I’d like to support them the way they support so many independent musicians and story tellers.
Is there an underlying message you wish to convey with these stories?
The truthful answer is yes. But there’s more than one. First, maybe most vividly, the message is that people should involve themselves in community, should resist the lure of selfishness and self-involvement to work together; a little bit the message is not only in the stories but in the whole collaborative result–in what quality results when a group of people working together to create, whether it’s a CD or a better world.
Second, and this surprised Lori, Laura and me, but after recording, we discovered that we had created a dynamic we hadn’t exactly intended but were pleased to find. Zena in A Sense of Theft, Hannah in A Clever Girl, Sal in The Boatman’s Howling Daughter, and The Selkie Bride are such dynamic, optimistic, truthful, powerful women that their energy seems to fuel the CD, making it tilt, perhaps a little, toward the female. An 11-year-old girl told me the other day that she loved the CD. “I’m like Sal,” she said, “and like Hannah. And my name’s Hannah…” She was grinning, ear to ear. But then her brother said, “I like Gregory, the raccoon,” and I remembered that we have a lot of fabulous male stuff in there too.
The bottom line message, ultimately, is that kindness, generosity, curiosity, determination and wisdom are far better traits to possess, and ultimately bring far greater gifts, than do selfishness, greed, and fear.
What are your hopes for the CD?
We hope people will feel as much joy in listening to it as we experienced making it, and we hope it will reach listeners far and wide. We also hope it will be just the first in a series. Laura, Lori and I have already begun to talk about who and what will be on the next one, and besides, we promised Ruthie.
And Norm, I want to thank you for being so generous as to offer me this opportunity. Meeting you, and your offer to do this interview, feels like one more piece of the magic.