Storyteller Jay O'Callahan - Home Page

By Jay O'Callahan

 

When I was 14, I began to make up stories for my younger brother and sister. I did it hundreds and maybe thousands of times. Telling stories out loud was very natural and it became my way. Some grow up playing a fiddle or a flute. Telling stories was my flute. Print seemed stiffer and less natural to me. Later I became a storyteller and although I created my stories I created them with sound and gesture and storytelling in mind. In fact, most of my early stories were told to my children. When Peachtree Publishers of Atlanta Georgia came to me and suggested my story, Herman and Marguerite be a book, I wondered if it were possible. Herman and Marguerite is a story of a worm and a caterpillar who want to cheer up a lonely orchard. The story is filled with rhythms, sounds and silences, and I tell it using lots of gestures. How would this translate?

 

I found the process interesting for many reasons. I was forced to rethink the story. I thought I knew what it was about. But there were parts of the story which I had not consciously thought through. The first thing the publisher, Margaret Quinlan said is, "What is the story about?" I said, "It's a story of friendship between a worm and a caterpillar. Margaret continued, "What else is it about?" "Well it's about the courage of a shy worm." "And what else?" she said. "And it's also about change." "Ahhhh," said Margaret. "What do you mean it's about change?"

 

The rethinking process made me realize the orchard never had its proper importance. If it is clear that the orchard is lonely, and the readers or listeners are concerned about the orchard, they care much more about Herman and Marguerite succeeding in cheering it up. Suddenly I realized in all the years of telling the story, interest seemed to sag just before the end of the story. Audiences loved Herman and Marguerite but didn't care about the orchard because I hadn't made it a character.

 

I also realized change is everywhere in the story. Herman changes, the orchard changes, and most powerfully Marguerite changes. The image of Marguerite in her chrysalis became very powerful for me. It occurred to me that we human beings go into our own sacs, our chrysalis, like Marguerite, but we do it over and over in our lifetimes, and we come out of it with different wings and fly in a different way: when we learn to walk, go to school, stand up for ourselves, go to camp, come through a disappointment or failure. We continue to change in major ways. Each time it's frightening. So in the print version, I wanted both the words and the illustrations to capture the terror and the beauty of change. I wanted the orchard to be a character.

 

I was learning things. The telling story was deepening because I was struggling with the print story. I was seeing the story afresh!

 

Once I'd begun to wrestle with the bigger questions, the publisher wanted to know what scenes I could cut out and what language I could sharpen. In the telling story, Herman is nearly eaten by a bird. I cut the scene for the book because it doesn't add much. In the telling it allows another frightening moment for Herman and his reaction provides a bit of humor. But it isn't missed in the book.

 

There is a scene I considered essential. Marguerite, afraid of changing, gets furious at everyone including Herman. Margaret called one night and said,"It just occurred to me, the angry scene can go." I thought she was wrong but the cut in the print version makes it clearer. Sometimes you need an entirely fresh eye. In the telling version I can play with complexity more than I could in the print version.

 

As to sharpening, here's an example. The telling story used to begin: Deep in the dark, rich earth. The publisher said, "'Rich' is too vague of a word. Can another word describe the feeling of the earth better?" So now the book reads: Deep in the dark, crumbly earth. The word "crumbly" has texture. In telling the story I suggested the texture of the earth with my voice and gesture. The reader needed words. So I also added a sentence to describe the underground world: Herman squirmed by a millipede, squiggled past a roly-poly, and slithered by a snoring slug.

 

And in the telling version, I become two fat frogs with my hands and belly and voice. In print I added: Next, two fat frogs came. They looked like paper bags full of wind.

 

The major decision with Herman and Marguerite was choosing the illustrator. Peachtree Publishers had artists from different parts of the country submit paintings and drawings. There were some very beautiful ones.

 

On a hot night in Miami, the publisher, Margaret Quinlin, and her staff and I sat in a steamy room after an American Booksellers convention, and poured over drawings. There were ohhhhs and ahhhhs, but none totally alive. I showed Margaret art work my daughter Laura had done. Margaret liked her work and asked lots of questions then said, "Laura grew up with this story. She did the cassette cover when she was twelve. I'll hire Laura as a consultant to this project, she can look at the art as it comes in."

 

For a year Laura and Margaret and other Peachtree people looked at drawings that came in from all over. At the end of the year Laura and I and Margaret all met in a room in the Boston Public Library and Margaret Quinlin said, "Laura, I would like you to be the illustrator. This work that you've done with Herman under the earth has life. One of the reasons I want to do the book, is because few books deal with what is under the earth, and you have captured it."

 

For the next two years, Laura did drawings. Laura would send drawings and Peachtree would say, "That's good but you can do even better." After a full year, Laura discovered that the great challenge was to bring a worm alive. A worm has no eyes, no ears, no hands and no feet. So how do you show expression? Laura solved it by having Herman the worm in different positions. Sometimes you see just a bit of Herman emerging from the earth, other times he 's almost dancing with Marguerite. When Herman is emotionally full and feeling his power, Laura makes him enormous. And Herman has a mouth. Amazing how expressive a mouth can be!

 

It was a long and sometimes very lonely journey for Laura, but it was a rare opportunity for both of us. Next time I'd try to consult more so that she doesn't feel as isolated.

 

To summarize, turning Herman and Marguerite into a book helped me rediscover and strengthen the story. The orchard became a key character, and the moment of chrysalis became not merely a magical moment but a powerful image for times of change. I got to struggle for nearly two years over the wording, going over and over sentences sometimes for hours with the publisher. And I got a chance to work with my daughter, Laura.

 

After a concert in New Bedford, Massachusetts recently, a woman came up and said, "I teach with inner city children and they love the Herman and Marguerite book. I use it all the time." That made me as happy as Herman the worm was when the orchard lifted its limbs, opened its blossoms and danced in the breeze.

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