Interview with Helen McKay at Glistening Waters

Helen: Michael Parent, you’re from Maine, USA. Tell me about yourself.

Michael: I come from Maine where I spent all my growing up years. I then lived in Virginia for about 20 years until I moved back to Maine, for health reasons.

Helen: And you’ve been storytelling for many years?

Michael: Since 1977.

Helen: Tell me how you began as a storyteller?

Michael: I was a high school English teacher and found that my natural tendency was to use stories as examples or illustrations. I come from a very verbal French Canadian culture. I was naturally one of those people who use stories to make points so I did that more and more with my High School pupils. I actually invented a couple of characters that had an ongoing life in the classroom; they were composite characters – Harry Jabone and Abigail de Magere. Whenever something happened to me or my friends<197>or even<197>for things I just made up, I would convert the stories into the characters Harry Jabone and Abigail de Magere – around the kids’ own ages. I used the Harry and Abigail stories all the time when I was teaching in Boston. I needed to move back to Maine for health reasons in 1977, so I decided to invent a new job for myself. At that time there were very few people storytelling professionally, but I’d friends who were doing puppet shows. I came across Brother Blue – a well-known US storyteller. I went to see him and, while I was teaching, had him come to my classes. That was the seed. At that point I decided I would do some things I really loved, such as, telling stories, juggling and singing songs. I just began to do it everywhere.

Helen: Singing? You’re from a folk tradition?

Michael: Well yes. My people were custodians of tons and tons of songs and stories, in my family everybody has a song to sing; we were really a singing family. My paternal grandmother knew all the old folk tales, so she was in her way, the official storyteller of the family.

Helen: So the stories you tell came down through the generations of your family?

Michael: Yes, there’s a very strong oral tradition; my people are a very verbal people. Since they were workers, they were not too educated, in a literary sense. My father left school after the 5th grade and my mother was considered quite educated, because she stayed at school ’til the 8th grade. So it was a very oral culture and it would follow that I have in my blood and bones this special gift of theirs.

Helen: And the oral culture came through in your childhood. I believe once are set in early childhood these special talents tend to surface in later life.

Michael: Absolutely! I think those are our most impressionable years.

Helen: I agree. In those first three years so much of the brain development occurs; its a really important learning time for children. So that’s a great cultural background to have grown up in.

Michael: Yes I was pretty lucky. I’m actually fortunate to be able to make enough of a living to keep doing something I enjoy. Storytelling is quite a good job.

Helen: And it takes you around the world.

Michael: Yes. I’ve been to France and other countries in Europe, New York, and now, New Zealand. One of my great dreams is to see the world. So doing this job – I feel quite blessed.

Helen: Do you direct your stories at particular age groups?

Michael: No. I always have a couple of stories for `age specific’ audiences ready that I might need to tell.

Helen: I was watching and noticed the connection and reaction of the teenage section of the audience. Do you focus on teenagers?

Michael: When I saw there were young kids in the audience I thought it would be good to do the old `tough guy’ thing. The thing is, the kids might get lost if I told a sophisticated grown-up story, but the adults have all been teenagers, so everybody in the room has had that experience. For instance; if you were in a family group and you told the story about a child’s struggle, you’d have all the kids but, since the grownups also have that experience, the story works for all age groups. I think you run into trouble when you don’t factor in their experience and understanding. For instance when you are telling a sophisticated story to a family group, of course you will lose the kids – they’ve never seen life from an adult perspective.

Helen: Yes we experienced that at a gathering where we expected a mainly adult audience and a large group of children turned up. The adult stories quickly lost the child audience and it was quite tricky. They were very restless.

Michael: Well if you are a serious storyteller you have to have enough other stories in your pocket to be able to cope when the situation changes.

Helen: So you frequently step from one foot to the other.

Michael: Absolutely.

Helen: Do you work with older people?

Michael: Yes. My first unconscious training experience was when I helped my Mum in a nursing home. She worked in nursing homes for nearly thirty years. I’d learned to play guitar; of course we had a lot of singing, etc. in our house. I never worried whether or not I was a good singer; I just liked to sing. Every once in a while I would go to one of the nursing homes where she was working and I would sing songs, in both French and English, I’d tell a few jokes and some stories. I just loved it, because I had such wonderful connections with the old folks.

Helen: They’re the toughest audience you can perform to.

Michael: I attribute the good connection with the old people to my own connection with my grandparents whom I loved dearly. As a result I loved old people. Most of the songs I do, are oldies but goodies and they make the connection for me. The oldies just love it. I also have the experience gained when interviewing older folk and asking for family stories. So that way I’m getting some wonderful stories.

Helen: You tell a lot of family stories?

Michael: A fair amount. The stories that I like to make up are based on somebody’s real experience. I give myself the freedom to fictionalise it. Either to take out the identity of the person or to give myself poetic license. An example is the story I just told about Spooky and Buck, the two tough guys. It’s based on this kid I know called Spooky, but I made up a story based on those people; the events in the story did not take place. Sometimes when I tell these tales I introduce it by saying this story didn’t necessarily happen – but it could have, because in that time and place those kind of things did happen.

Helen: That gives it credibility.

Michael: Yes. I often find when I hear stories of events in a family I get three or more different stories. It is important to find what the truth is in each of the different versions of the story. Each person has a different personality and deals with drama in their own way.

Helen: You find a path down the middle and tell that.

Michael: Yes. The path has to, at least, touch faithfully and with integrity, on the basic truth of the situation, because when you tell that story, the listeners will find that that truth triggers off memories of their own experiences. I find people respond by wanting to tell their own stories. I see that happening with fictional original stories, fictional literary stories and personal tales. But it seems to happen more with stories told in the first person.

Helen: Thank you Michael, for this interview. We look forward to seeing you in Australia some time.

by Helen McKay