Q: You are a writer, professor and filmmaker. Why has storytelling become such an important component in your life/work?
A: Storytelling is important in everybody's life and work. I realized a while back that though I was telling stories in my writing, teaching and filmmaking, I wasn't telling stories the same way. I got to thinking about the rhetoric of narrative and how we do some storytelling without any conscious thought at all, much the same as the way we drive our cars, and other storytelling requires very careful planning, organizing and editing. So my work shifted from working in or with stories to writing about stories and the making of them.
Q: You describe stories as “a group of details arranged in a structure.” How did you come to study and analyze stories?
A: At least ten of my books are comprised of narratives or are about narrative. That is obviously the case with my novel, The Programmer, but it is also the case with my books based on interviews. In each of those I had to discover or figure out the optimum way to translate the spoken word to the word on the printed page, how to organize the great mass of primary material in which the narratives were embedded into a book in which they were organic. Each time I was looking at a subject, not at stories: the world of career or professional crime, the world of middle-class adolescent drug users, the world of children of divorce, and so forth. But after a while, I began thinking more and more about the narrative process itself, and how, as my late friend Robert Creeley put it, “the words have their own reality.”
Q: When I hear/read a story, I believe the story even if it’s a lie as long as the details are good. What do you think are the best techniques for storytelling?
A: Telling the story in a manner appropriate to the situation in which it is being told. We all have stories we can tell long or short, complex or simple, depending on the listener or audience. If someone asks you “What did you do last weekend?” the response depends on who is asking, your relationship, how much time you've got, the context. Bad storytellers don't match the story to the situation, so it goes on too long or not long enough.
Q: In one chapter, you describe your son’s disappointment in seeing “Billy the Kid’s” gun because he prefers a fictitious gun to the truth. Why do you think people prefer to believe the stories they want to, rather than the stories that are true?
A: That's because his West was a fictitious West, the West of TV and film, so when he saw a fairly puny pistol it seemed ‘untrue’ to him because it wasn't true to the vision he'd grown up with. When that man showed him the gun and said it had once belonged to Billy the Kid, Michael was thinking of the Billy the Kid he knew, not one who may or may not have owned that gun or one like it in the 19th century. Beyond that, I have to tell you that the more I look at stories the more difficulty I have with the words “true” and “truth.” You have to ask, “True in terms of what?” Stories aren't like laboratory measurements. They're all products of human sensibility. They're true, every one of them, in the fact of having been uttered that way at that time to that listener, if nothing else. Beyond that—beyond that is a conversation.
Q: In your section on oral narratives you address the way telling stories shifts over time. For example, the narrative about your daughter Rachel’s hermit crab and its death affecting her deeply years after the event as she recounts the tale at your kitchen table. What theories do you have about how people internalize and present personal stories?
A: Personal stories are protean. We retain and tell and retell stories that are meaningful to us; stories that are not meaningful don't get told, or they don't get told very often or very enthusiastically. But the meaning of our stories changes over time because we change over time. Our understanding of life changes. The fact of death has a different meaning when you're ten or thirty or seventy. You might tell the same story at different times in your life for very different reasons, just as you might read a great novel at different times in your life and find yourself understanding it in very different ways. But oral stories are, by their nature, more variable than print stories. When I say “the same story,” as I did just now, I mean a narrative with certain plot elements, but the telling may vary hugely over time.
Q: You also present well known stories such as Bob Dylan going electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival or O.J. Simpson story. What was your intention in explaining “What Really Happened?” with these events? Are you trying to set the record straight, or just show how the narratives took on a life of their own?
A: Both. Bob Dylan going electric was one of the seminal moments in American musical culture of that period. The stories told about that moment have more to do with other things going on in the culture than what really happened. The soundboard audio recording, which I happened to have, proves that the stories have it wrong. But there's a truth to the stories—the fact that they were told and continue to be told. So there are two kinds of truth here: what “really” happened and what happened in the popular narrative. That disjunction occurs all the time.
Q: You have a chapter about “Stories that Don’t Make Sense” and another which features the conundrum “Somebody Got Killed but Nobody Killed Anybody.” You talk about the differences between reality and fiction and how events are perceived. How do you explain/interpret stories that don’t quite cohere?
A: We expect stories to make sense. We expect them to have endings that resolve everything. Look at the hullabaloo over the final episode of The Sopranos: a lot of people went nuts because the series had an open ending. But there are certain circumstances in which we not only accept stories that don't make sense but use them as evidence of something. Sometimes we use people's inability to make the right connections as evidence of their mental state: they're insane or drunk or pilled-up. In newspapers, we expect both sides of most major issues even though the two sides may contradict one another in all regards. Very young children tell stories that are paratactic—“This and this and this and this and this”—with no structure and often no counterpart in reality. All of those stories that don't make sense are fine with us, as long as they keep their place. When stories don't make sense outside of those contexts you're in trouble, as someone who doesn't get his or her story straight when being questioned by the police or a spouse.
Q: You spoke with poet Steven Spender, met with a dying lifer at a Texas prison hospital and attended a commencement speech given by Senator Charles Schumer. Did you conceive of these ideas for your book at the time of these events? What prompted you to include them? Why do they make good stories/chapters?
A: The conversation with Spender was when I was in graduate school and the conversation with the dying lifer was only a few years later. I had no idea I'd ever do a book like this then. But the stories stuck with me because they were good stories. What I mean by “good stories” there is they do a job, they illustrate something, they contain more than the words needed to tell them. The story of the dying lifer, for example, was about a time he was escaped from prison and killed a policeman. What was special about it was the way he used the passive tense when he got to the killing part: “There was a gunfight in which a chief of detectives was killed.” He was doing something very subtle with language there. He never graduated high school, but he was using words the way Henry James used them. So I always thought it was an important story and I've told it for years. When I thought of this book I knew it had to go in. I wrote the Chuck Schumer story just as the book was going to press. I heard Chuck give that speech, for maybe the sixth time, and I said to my wife, who was sitting next to me on the platform, “This has got to go into the story book.” I went home and wrote it and tucked it into the copyedited manuscript.
Q: In your chapter “Words to Kill By,” you describe the role of language in storytelling. What is important about how people talk about themselves or events in a narrative?
A: We define ourselves in our language. We explain our actions in our narratives. Our narratives are the way we tell the world who we are, or who we think we are, or who we want the world to think we are. It's important to understand two things about this: everybody does narrative, not just the professionals like the moviemakers and fiction-writers; and the stories we tell one another are every bit as meaningful as the stories we read in books or see on screens.
Q: You end the book with a very poignant meditation on death, and how stories never quite end, they just get passed on through others. What do want your book to pass on to others?
A: Stories are social acts. Writers do it alone, but they posit a reader out there. Radio storytellers imagine an audience out there. Filmmakers constantly envision their work in terms of people sitting in the chairs of a movie theater. We don't sit alone on a rock and tell stories to the sea. We are always imagining or looking at the person to whom the story is addressed. That collaborative act of making and receiving a story is one of the key things that makes us human.
Q: What are your favorite stories? Do you prefer to read, listen to, or watch stories? A: I love them all, just not at the same time. Sometimes it's words on a page and sometimes it's words in the air and sometimes it's action on a screen. I love telling them, I love reading, hearing and seeing them, and I love talking about them.