I was happy when I came across the book, 14 Cows for America, written by a long-lost friend, author and storyteller Carmen Deedy. We’ve since exchanged a few emails, caught up on our lives (to the extent that’s possible), and shared the unlikely hope that maybe someday we’ll find ourselves in same place at the same time. Usual stuff: “We’ll have lunch!” To date, it’s happened exactly once. In the meantime, Carmen is someone I’ll be rooting for, cheering from the sidelines. A true talent and a smart, singular woman. Today, I’m glad you’ll get to meet her. Because look, here she comes now . . .
Carmen, wow, great to see you again. We’ve met only once, a long time ago. Was it Paris, sometime after the war?
The Germans wore grey, I wore blue –– or was it plaid?
Oh, wait, I remember now. It was at a convention center in Raleigh. My bad. It’s so easy to confuse the two. So it’s been about fifteen years. At that time, as I recall, you had recently published The Library Dragon. Between then and now, your career has really blossomed.
That’s a generous assessment, old friend. Actually, I spent a whole lot of years as a single mom, and for nearly five of them I did very little writing. School author visits, a good bit of editing, but writing? Not so much. Getting three lovely and creative and maddening young women through adolescence while keeping the roof over our collective heads pretty much sucked every ounce of creative life out of me. “I am woman, hear me whimper,” was the sum and substance of my feminist credo in those days.
I’m fuzzy on the timeline. You’re an internationally known storyteller who has performed at The Kennedy Center and the Folger Shakespeare Library. You gave a talk to the TED folks –- and I’m pretty sure they invite only brilliant people with fertilizer ideas worth spreading. You were (or still are?) a regular contributor to NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Did that all happen after the girls were grown?
Nope. Just wasn’t doing a great deal of writing. The aforementioned events were short and sweet and helped bring in the bacon, as it were. But I couldn’t seem to carve out many stretches of time to write during those years.
Do you see yourself as primarily a storyteller, rather than a writer? What’s the distinction?
The distinction? Um, the WRITING STUFF DOWN part. Storytelling, on the other hand, is the ancient art of live narrative. In other words, someone (preferably carbon-based, as opposed to a dvd, mp3, etc.) opens his or her mouth and, without props, video enhancement, sets or backdrops, or fellow performers, conjures up an entire world –– makes something out of nothing if you will –– employing only the spoken word.
Ah, but I didn’t answer your question. Do I think of myself as a writer or a storyteller? Short answer: a writer. Nonetheless, one art form informs the other.
How does a person become a professional storyteller? Do you just hang out a sign on the front lawn? I mean, forgive me, but it seems like such a phony baloney job. Bankers must look at you and say, “You re a . . . what?!”
My dear Mr. Preller, if I am applying for a loan, I never say I’m a storyteller (and, by the by, saying you’re a writer doesn’t gain you much traction with the banking lot either). I say raconteur. It’s sooooo continental.
I know as a writer of children’s books, I’ll often get those baffled looks from some folks at parties after they ask the usual question: “So: What DO you DO?” You know who I mean, the guy in the suit with the big job. And he’ll always follow up my answer with another question, not even bothering to feign disinterest, “Any books I might know?” This from a guy you can’t imagine having read a children’s book –- even as a kid. So I’ll answer something like, “How ‘bout those Yankees!”
I think it’s pretty common for most people, particularly those who don’t make their living from writing, to read a children’s book and think, “Piece of cake.” When I hear that, I usually smile sweetly, lean in, and whisper, “Dare ya.” The truth is, of course, that children’s picture books do not occupy the same place in the literary world as, say, the works of Leo Tolstoy. But you do have to say a lot with a little — and in that respect, writing a picture book is kind of like taking War and Peace — and turning it into a haiku.
When you started as a storyteller, an old friend came to see one of your early shows. Afterward, she told you, “The truth? I don’t think you’re a storyteller.” How did you overcome that? Is there enough ice cream in the world to heal that wound?
Never underestimate the curative powers of Rocky Road, my friend.
Where do the stories come from?
Brooklyn, NY. It’s the last place you look. But I suppose you want an answer that’s a bit more serious-minded, so I will say this: stories swirl around us constantly: in the subway, at the lunch counter, around the corner from the cereal aisle. They are everywhere, vying for the writer’s attention. Tragically, I can be a mite distractible; I know I’ve let some great ones pass me by.
Your new book, Carmen, 14 Cows for America . . . wow.
What a remarkable story, beautifully told. It’s already gotten some great press. You must be thrilled.
I am very happy that it’s been so well received.
There are a lot of great lines in the book, but the ones that conclude the book really hit me:
“Because there is no nation so powerful it cannot be wounded,
nor a people so small that they cannot offer mighty comfort.”
Those words were especially resonant, like a bright, burning quiver shot to the heart. Do you remember when you first wrote those words? Did you realize –- you must have realized! -– how good it was at the first instant?
I have a nameless elementary school girl to thank for that. Not the precise words, of course, but the sentiment. She reminded me of Aesop’s fable –– the lion and the mouse –– big things need small things, said she. From the mouth of babes.
Yes, but you heard her. You listened. Maybe that’s the real secret to good writing.
Maybe. Then again, maybe I just got lucky.
It’s an interesting perspective to think of 14 Cows as a retelling of “The Lion and the Mouse.” How did the book come about?
I read about the gift in April of 2002 in The New York Times. I sat on my porch stoop and wept. It would be many years and a great deal of research later before I would hold a finished manuscript and eventually find the protagonist, Kimeli Naiyomah, and ask for his blessing. Little did I know that he would join us as a sort of cultural consultant, and even adding his own end note to the book. It has been, in many ways, an strange and wondrous and indescribable journey.
To me, with such a huge story, I’m impressed by your economy of language. I would have been overwhelmed, not knowing where or how to begin. How did you find that voice? Did you have a first sentence, an image? I guess I’m asking, what was the door that first opened for you, allowing you into the story?
I was at the Carson McCullers House, in Columbus, Georgia.
I had been granted a writing fellowship and was having a devil of a time getting the story down. I should note here that this was, by now, 2007. I had notes, articles, documentaries, and sundry documents that I had compiled and hauled to Columbus; it amounted to years of research and only served to further overwhelm me. I wasn’t new to picture book writing and well knew the perimeters. I had fewer than 32 pages to work with. I was near despair, when I woke up one morning and reminded myself that this was a story for children, and needed to be told simply, just as I would have liked to hear the story when I was a child. To sustain a sense of immediacy, I opted for the present tense. That kept it simple, as well.
Well, you succeeded brilliantly. Lightning round. Five favorite foods?
My mom’s arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), Vietnamese Bubble Tea, chicken pot pie, watercress salad, Thai mango and sticky rice, coq au vin, my dad’s empanadas . . . sorry. It’s not that I can’t count, it’s just that I LOVE food.
Nobody makes a good chicken pot pie anymore.
Or yeast rolls. What ever happened to yeast rolls in school cafeterias? Now it’s low-fat granola bars. I tell you, my friend, we are witnessing the de-evolution of our race.
As my mother would say, “We’re going to hell in a hand basket.” Still one of my favorite expressions. I love channeling my parents that way, filling my mouth with their words. Now that my father is gone, I make a point of keeping those echoes bouncing around. It’s strangely satisfying to repeat a phrase that he used to say, keep it alive, like a postcard with “Love always” written on the back.
I know what you mean about those voices that linger in our heads. My wonderful and wickedly wise dad love of Cuban aphorisms. Among my favorites: Our wine may be bitter, but it’s our wine. (This one in 7th grade when I was complaining about my mother, my hair, zits, and the banality of reading Steinbeck.) He who laughs alone is remembering his own mischief. (This, when I caught him sitting at his desk, howling to himself, in what he thought was a solitary moment. I never learned what marvelous memory he was recalling, but it only served to increase his mystique as a Man of Mystery.) And my favorite, one that touches on love and true camaraderie, When you cry, I taste salt.
That’s a beautiful line. Of course, the bitter wine aphorism reminds me of a great line spoken by Lt. Frank Drebin in “The Naked Gun” movie: “It’s a topsy-turvy world, and maybe the problems of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans. But this is our hill. And these are our beans!” Next impossible question: Five favorite books?
Shadow of the Wind, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Charlotte’s Web, Great Expectations, The Book of Unholy Mischief.
A diverse, challenging list. What do you admire most about Dickens, or if you prefer, Great Expectations?
Well (coyly), one of my new books (not out yet) is about a street cat, a tower raven, and Charles Dickens. I just re-read Great Expectations this summer, and there were places where I laughed out loud. What a wordsmith, what a keen observer of human nature. Dickens made you see the human being within the characters. Why, even the loathsome and repulsive Miss Haversham (the elder) becomes a pitiable creature by book’s end. And his descriptions, and the marvelous names for his characters . . . ya know, I AM aware that it’s not cool to love Dickens anymore. I mean, a full page devoted to describing a room? But, oh, what a room . . . (I am officially out of the nerd closet now, and I want you to know I’m okay with that.)
Five things about your native homeland, Cuba, that you miss?
My family, heat that penetrates your bones, my first language, cobble stone streets made for perambulation, the sea and its sticky brine perfume.
Politics, briefly: What is your hope for the future of American-Cuban relations? I have a friend from England, a drummer, who visits all the time and loves it there. I’m jealous of him, and jealous of Sky Masterson.
I wish there was openness. Am I wrong about that?
Okay, you are on your front porch at your home in Georgia, peaceful under the stars. There’s a song playing and a drink in your hand. What’s the song? What’s the drink?
Carlos Gardel singing “Volver” . . .
. . . accompanied by a whiskey and soda, twist of lime.
Thank you very much, Carmen. It’s really great to catch up with you again. I mean this: I’m so proud of you and all that you have done with this lovely, meaningful book. I hope it finds a place in every library in America. As a parting gift, please accept this (still warm!) cheeseburger from Sonic Drive-In.*
Does it come with plantains?
* No Masai cows were injured in the making of this cheeseburger.
Note: If you enjoyed this interview with Carmen Deedy, you might also like this recent interview with author Lewis Buzbee.
Let’s close with Carmen telling a story . . . for that happy-go-lucky TED crowd.