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Acclaimed Children’s Writer Amy Friedman Interviewed

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.

Norm:

Amy, please tell our readers a little bit about your personal and professional background. What is your background in children’s literature?

Amy:

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.

Norm:

Will you share a little bit about Tell Me A Story with us?

Amy:

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.

Norm:

How did you go about choosing the stories and music to be included in Tell Me A Story?

Amy:

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.

Norm:

Could you tell our readers something about the different people who narrate the stories and how were they chosen?

Amy:

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

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