Interview with Bill Harley

Bill Harley is a beloved singer-songwriter, storyteller, and author. His work has influenced generations of children, performing artists, and educators. Bill has authored a middle grade series, several novels, and a number of picture books, including Bear’s All-Night Party and Sitting Down to Eat. Full of humor, vibrance, and wit, Bill’s stories remind us of our common humanity and challenge us to be our very best selves.

Maggie: You were writing and performing as a student at Hamilton College. How and when did you start playing music and writing stories?

Bill: I took those piano lessons that we all had to take, and then I played trumpet in junior high and high school. At the end of high school, I went back and started to play piano. I got a guitar when I started in college—it was at a time when songwriting was just what you did. I can say also that my mom was a children’s writer. She also taught writing, and my dad was an editor of law, so I had professional editors at home growing up.

Anyway, the writing was kind of natural. At some point, I started to pay much more attention to oral traditions, folk songs, and traditional narratives. My friends and I, including my now-wife, Debbie, ran a summer daycare together. I had a guitar, so at the end of the day I’d play a dozen songs and tell a story or two—I told Pete Seeger’s Abiyoyo over and over and over again. For me, the connection between song and story was always something that just seemed to make sense.

Maggie: How did you then develop your love for storytelling and songwriting?

Bill: I did a couple things when I got out of college, but I always performed on the side, especially three or four years out of school when I decided, I’m going to do this for a living. It was a very organic growth, and for years I didn’t make very much money. But I learned how to do it.

Debbie and I moved from New York state where we were living to Providence, Rhode Island. That was when I really started to perform. I went to the State Arts Council and told them that I was a storyteller. They didn’t have any person on their roster that was a storyteller, so they said okay. Two or three weeks later, I was working in school classrooms a couple of days a week.

Maggie: As someone who expresses his stories through both songs and books, how do those creative processes differ for you?

Bill: You get to say one thing in a song. And good spoken stories you really have to pare down, too. I get one line, and then you start to ask yourself questions. As you strum your guitar and play your piano, you ask, “What might that feel like?” And you’re looking for some kind of form. As soon as you write one line, you’ve defined what the tone of the song’s going to be, the kind of language you’re going to use.

Written stories are a little more complex. I think the crafting of stories, the plotting, is really difficult. Many times stories disappoint, especially when you get to the end. When you come across an ending that has some kind of elegance to it, it’s really pleasing. With the longer books I’ve written, that’s a whole other kettle of fish; there’s a lot of gestation. Picture books tend to be a little simpler and more straightforward.

Maggie: Do you ever have story ideas that you can envision as either a song or a picture book? How do you determine which medium to express your story idea in first?

Bill: Yeah, that definitely happens. I have this story that’s also a song. It’s called “You’re Not the Boss of Me.” I was standing in line at a fast food restaurant, and these two sisters were in front of me. The little one said, “You know, you’re not the boss of me,” so I got out my notebook and wrote that down. I wrote the chorus the next day. I tried to write the song, but it wasn’t working, so I decided to make it a story.

The story’s about a skunk family, and one character is told to set the table, even though it's not her turn, by her older brother. And she refuses and nobody's asking her politely. So she just keeps saying no, and it just keeps escalating and escalating. When it became a story, I said, “I think this is a story.” I think you go back and forth like that. If you find a particular line that sings well or that has a great rhythm, you can even use that in the story. I don't know, it's just like, what does it feel like this morning?

Maggie: With all of the national and international touring you have done as an author, performing artist, and keynote speaker, what has been a particularly memorable or meaningful experience from your travels?

Bill: I mean, I’ve been really lucky that I've gotten to go so many places. There are times when you do a performance and the room is electric. I can think of times, like when there was a national storytelling festival. Gamble Rogers, who's a great storyteller, died too young. And I wrote a piece. The place was packed, and it was 1,500 people. I did this piece, and the room ended up just dead quiet. At that point, it's not about you anymore; it's about the experience of people being there together.

There's this street philosopher I've been thinking about a lot lately. The guy's name is Hakim Bey, and he talks about when people come together in an unplanned way and suddenly something amazing happens that underlines our commonality. He calls these moments, “temporary autonomous zones.” It's like when the rules of traditional society have broken down, and suddenly we're just people being with each other. And I think that's what I'm after when I perform.

Maggie: Do you have a favorite memory or two from the times when you’ve performed at schools?

Bill: You know, I’ve done something like 8,000 performances. One time a kid stood up at the end of the show and he just yelled, "This is AWESOME!" It was this little fifth grade boy. And sometimes when I’m telling a story I choose one kid to come up on stage. Then I say, "Okay, I'm going to point at you, and you tell me a big animal and I'm going to put it in a song." And so I do this whole thing where they say “lion” and I go, "I was thinking lion." Then they say "tiger” and I say, “Tiger, can you read people's minds?" So one time I was doing this story, and I had this nine-year-old boy up. And I said, “Can you read people's minds?” He said, "No, but I can paralyze them." So I put the guitar down, and I said, "Can you paralyze me right now?" It was like, who cares about this show at this point? I just fell over on the floor and I'm twitching, you know. One teacher had to leave—she was laughing so hard. And then we went on and finished the song. A song can become a vehicle for this interaction with the audience, which is a blast. Total blast.

That’s what performance is for me: a place for us to be together in something.

Maggie: You collaborated with composer Paul Phillips to develop Weedpatch, the opera based on the story of Oklahoma migrants at the Arvin Federal Migrant Camp. Was it challenging to switch genres and write the words for an opera?

Bill: I had heard about this story about how the kids in this Arvin migrant camp built their own school because they were being discriminated against. I thought, well, that's a great musical.

So I started doing a lot of research. [Eventually] I was approached by this little theater, this opera company in Cambridge. I went to Paul Phillips and asked him if he'd write the music. So I had worked on the story for a long time and then we kind of sat down and figured [out] where the songs were, where the arias were. So we didn't need to go back and forth as much.

It’s interesting to take a story and just do it in verse. You have to figure out what the moments are. I kind of immersed myself in musical theater. I was trying to figure out how you express movement and emotion in a musical piece, in a musical narrative. So it wasn't a huge switch, but it was a concentrated amount of work.

Maggie: Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theatre in New York, once described the way your unique artistry seems to transcend the various genres you’ve worked in. He said that your work “resonates” because you remain “simultaneously a son, a father, a husband, a child, and a grown up.” How do you manage this rare feat?

Bill: I think if you talk seriously—and I don't mean not humorously, but I mean if you take childhood seriously—everyone listens because then kids know that they're being validated. My work with kids is more descriptive than prescriptive. Most adults are telling kids what they should do, and I am more interested in saying, “Does this happen to you? Because it happens to other people too.” It affirms their emotional lives and that's really important to me. And I think if you do that honestly and straightforwardly, people will go along with you because you're touching the adult, who remembers it too. And it's a good thing for the father part of you to be reminded of what it feels like to be a kid.

We're constantly directing kids…and the thing about a story is people enter into it on their own terms. A good story doesn't say, “You did this, you did this.” It says, “This happened to somebody. Does it have anything to do with you?” And so the listener or the reader enters on their own terms, and they take from it what they want or what they need at the time.

Maggie: You are well-known and much-admired for the wit, humor, and wisdom you infuse into your creative work. Where do you think your unique knack for comedy coupled with subtle insights comes from?

Bill: I think I was smart in school, but I soon figured that I was not interested in being the smartest kid in the class. I would figure out things pretty quickly and then I would get bored. I don't think I was really conscious of this at the time, but looking back on it, I was really interested in seeing if I could get the teacher to laugh.

And then, you know, growing up…we listened to this guy, Stan Freberg, who was on the radio. He was hilarious. And I listened to Bill Cosby, and he was a huge influence. That kind of thing was delightful to me.

I think the other thing…is that I have an ability to look into the emotional moment: to see what could be a powerful in that moment. So when you put those two things together, laughter opens up people in a way that they're not really aware of. It opens up their heart a little bit, and they drop their defenses. So when those powerful moments come, they're caught by surprise and more likely to be touched by them.

Maggie: In your afterword for Bear’s All-Night Party, you discuss the difference between performing stories and writing stories. You said that audience reactions and repeated performances allow a storyteller’s tale to evolve, whereas a writer has only one editor. Can you expand a little on these differences?

Bill: To some extent the performance becomes your editing process. In a performance, if you're able to pay attention - and that's very hard to do - you find out things about the story that you didn't know before. There are a number of stories I tell about me growing up. I always think the story is about me, but as I’m telling the story, I discover that it’s actually almost always about someone else in the story, some change they're going through.

On the written page, after the story comes out, if you have readers you trust, you might discover Oh, I wish I had written it this way. But with a spoken word story, I think you have to tell a story in front of an audience like 40 or 50 times before it's really hits home. Which is a lot, right?

Maggie: What are some of your favorite children’s books?

Bill: I think Katie DiCamillo is great. And growing up, I was in love with Matt Christopher sports books. Oh my gosh. Every kid needs a book that you just inhale, you know? I also remember loving The Twenty-One Balloons by du Bois, about this kid’s trip around the world in a balloon. And A Wrinkle in Time, and Beverly Cleary, and The Yearling, which I read [to] both my kids. And one of the books that I loved reading to my kids is this Salmon Rushdie book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which he wrote for his son after he had a fatwa put on him. It’s an incredible story about a storyteller whose son tells him, “What good are your stories? They’re not even true.” And he loses the ability to tell stories, so his son goes on this epic quest to recover his father’s lost stories.

Maggie: After performing at over 2,500 schools over the years, you have inspired and entertained so many children with your storytelling. What advice would you give to young aspiring authors and songwriters?

Bill: First of all, and this took me way too long to learn: you have to set a time aside for writing almost every day. I met Russell Banks once; he’s this great novelist. And I was just struggling. I said, “I'm trying to write, you know,” and he said, “I think if a writer writes for an hour a day, they'll do their life's work.”

So I think there's that, and I think the other thing is to not be afraid. It's interesting, when I talk to kids about writing, I say, “I have this little guy in my head”, I call him the editor, “and as soon as I start to do something or write something or think something, he says, ‘stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid.’” And I say to the kids, “Anybody had that one?” It's amazing, the number of nine and ten-year-olds who raise their hands. What I've learned is I have to put that one aside. I think people who manage to express themselves are people who have learned to do that, to step away from that inner critic. Because that guy will keep you from writing everything that you really want to do.

Maggie: I hear that you keep two beehives at your home in Seekonk, Massachusetts. How did you become interested in beekeeping? What do you enjoy most about taking care of bees?

Bill: So we’ve lived in this house since 1985. It's an old farmhouse, and I've always felt like sense of place is really important. I think it's one of the reasons we've messed up the planet: we haven't recognized it as our home. And so when we came here, I was like, I just want to really know this place.

One year we had a really good harvest; we probably got about 80 or 90 pounds of honey, which is pretty good for me. We made these little jars and we just put them in the mailbox for everybody within three quarters of a mile of us saying, “This is, in a sense, honey from your yard and from your flowers.”

You begin to see that a beehive is one living thing. There's 40,000 or 50,000 bees in a hive, but it's one living thing, that’s what it is. And when you begin to see the world like that, then you begin to watch - who we are as a species, or who we are in relation to each other and to observe the world around us a little differently.

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