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Showing posts with label Conversation with Willy Claflin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Conversation with Willy Claflin. Show all posts

8.26.2012

A Conversation with Willy Claflin

I have now posted reviews for three Maynard Moose books, all written by the great Willy Claflin and illustrated by James Stimson. But who is this Willy Claflin, you have no doubt wondered all throughout the series.  His website informs us that he was born before television, but I felt certain there had to be more to him.

Willy is a professional storyteller first and foremost, who has only recently ventured in the realm of picture books. For me, that immediately made him interesting, and I became curious about the relationship between storytelling and storywriting. 

But first, I thought I'd start with Maynard.

Maynard the Moose has been telling stories to children and adults for the past thirty years. He's very popular at the National Storytelling Festival, even at the late night cabaret; and is always featured in my performances for children. Although I'm not really a puppeteer, I'm a storyteller. They heard Maynard, and came to think of me as a "puppet guy." 

How has he evolved over those thirty years?

Well, the puppet was a lot smaller than the current one. He had a major growth spurt in the mid 90's, when he began performing for larger audiences! And listening to Maynard's older recordings from the 80's and early 90's, I can also hear how his voice grew much deeper as he grew.

His repertoire has also expanded. He used to do only fractured fairy tales; but in the last few years he's taken to Greek Moosology, epic doggerel Mooseboy Poetry, and tales of Moose life in the Northern Piney Woods!

Now how did the notion to do picture books first come about? Was it something that was put forward to you, or something you actively sought?

It was something I'd often thought of, but up until a few years ago, we couldn't figure out how to do it, given Maynard's unusual use of language! Then I teamed up with artist James Stimson, and I felt that he captured Maynard's spirit very well. We decided to add audio CD's, to help the readers understand his personality, and included the Glossary of moose words at the beginning to make his meanings clear. It's interesting to see how James imagines the characters, and the collaboration has been fascinating.

The advantage of having pictures, though, is also the disadvantage. I mean, when you tell a story, everyone in the audience is imagining it in their own way. This is the magic of storytelling: the audience helps create the tale. With books, that particular magic is lost.

However, when the illustrator is someone as good as James, much is gained. For instance, in Rapunzel, when the dwarfs charge all the animals 25cents to see her, and set up the Punzel museum...I never imagined anything near what James created - an entire Punzel Amusement Park! And James has his own set of visual jokes and surprises to match Maynard's turns and twists of phrase.

Sounds like some real symbiosis. I’ve heard that in other cases, the writer and the illustrator barely interact.

It is indeed an interesting collaboration, and I am very lucky. He is also helping me see that these tales need to be changed subtly to make them suitable for children's books. The stories have, over the years, become quite ironic, full of adult humor, and often have no conventional resolution at the end. James helped me re-learn what is satisfying to children, especially when it comes to tidying things up at the conclusion, so everyone can live "happily for never afterwords."

In Rapunzel and the Seven Dwarfs you make a very specific point that Maynard can’t quite figure out what the moral of the story is supposed to be. It sounds like maybe you yourself were likewise struggling to shape it into a conventional resolution.

Well, Maynard is a very different persona from Willy. Willy is opposed to morals at the end of stories. Rather strongly opposed, in fact. I feel that putting a moral at the end of a tale narrows and limits its meaning.

It seems to me that true works of art, from simple children's stories to great symphonies, express our humanity, in all of its complexity, with all of its contradictions, revelations and conundrums. A moral at the end of a story, from my point of view, turns a minor miracle into a didactic tool, radically diminishing its significance. If you live with a story for years, and revisit it from time to time, new meanings are constantly emerging. In fact, I would go so far as to say that didactic art can't really be art at all. Art exists for the sake of itself, to reveal who we are.

Maynard, however, comes from a Moose culture that highly values moral lessons. According to him, mooses say that "a story without a moral is just mindless entertainment - might as well just stay home and play video games."

So part of the odd humor is the difference between me and Maynard, especially to those who hear us live. The morals to Maynard's stories are always quite bizarre. [For example, the moral of the story Turtle and Bunny from his live CD is: "The fastest person wins the race."]

Except in the case of The Uglified Ducky. In the original oral version, there was no tidy summing-up at the end (everybody is a beautiful something or other, etc.) Instead, it closes with the humorous observation that some us do, indeed, feel as if we've been born into the wrong family.

Yes, there is a lobster in his pocket.

I lost the battle over the ending here, as I did in The Bully Goat Grim. Typically, I wanted the old (bizarre) Moose Moral from the oral version: "Learn to recognize a double negative - it could save your life!” But James fought for - and won - a pointed comment at the close: "Demember - nobody likes a dubnoxious beasty."

In other words, I had to drop my focus on an ironic 'adult' sort of joke at the end, and go with something that would give children a sense of closure and fair play.

Do you think there’s a sense that the picture book medium – just by virtue of being a physical product - is limiting the story?

It is a little like putting a butterfly in a glass case. Stories are like living things, and the old ones feel almost like autonomous spirits, making their way down through the generations.

I have often thought of jazz and storytelling as very similar in certain ways. Not only are tales and tunes different every time they're performed, but live performance allows for a whole variety of solos. The best tellers, in my book, are the ones who can go off on extended tangential asides--ad lib observations, riffs and extensions of the material, eventually bringing things back to the narrative melody. Obviously, that's lost in a book.

The other issue, of course, is the pictures. It's great to have a talented illustrator - a wonderful thing! But does it compare with the hundreds of individual illustrator/animators in the minds of a live storytelling audience?

But I have finally made peace with what happens when the spoken word becomes the written word. They’re just different.

Do the stories you've turned into picture books continue to live and change in your storytelling?

Yes, but they don't morph quite as much with the telling as they used to, and I now even occasionally go back to the book and see if Maynard is telling it "right."

What’s the future for you and Maynard?

I've thought of other projects. Worked on a TV pilot, but nothing came of it. I also have a side career as a singer and guitar player: Traditional roots music, especially a capella ballads from the British Isles and Appalachia, which I often sing together with my son. And there are other oddments and detours, some of which are mentioned on my website…

For Maynard, his Piney Woods world will be the entire setting for the fourth book in the series, The Little Moose Who Couldn't Go to Sleep.

Who knows how many Maynard Moose books there will be? There are two dozen tales in his repertoire, so we'll see... The future is impenetrable, as my Buddhist friends say.

Watch Willy and Maynard in action in the video below!

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