5. Rebecca Rule
Northwood, New Hampshire // March 2016
Rebecca Rule is a writer and storyteller based very firmly in New Hampshire, where she is appropriately beloved and celebrated across the state. She tells stories that are all explicitly grounded in the local culture of northern New England, and for years I've known people all over New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Maine with her CDs in the car and her books on the shelves. Her stories and her live programs are funny, open-hearted, and regionally specific in a way that I find incredibly compelling. We first crossed paths in person at an arts event in the White Mountains a few years ago: I was there to play piano, and she was there to tell stories, but rather than putting on some big show, she had set up a little station at the side of the room at which she was conducting one-on-one story-sharing sessions with various participants who signed up on a list. Every time I looked over at it, she and whoever she was sitting with were both roaring with laughter, and I was impressed and inspired by her commitment to treating her craft as an interpersonal exchange rather than as a one-way performance.
I was thrilled when I wrote to her several months later and she agreed to be one of my earliest interviewees for this project. In a large sense, her stories are completely about place, and they capture it in a way that has much more to do with people than with landscape; it's a different lens than I'm used to looking through, and I was excited to talk with her about that. We also ended up talking a lot about the unexpected similarities between being a musician and a professional storyteller. In general, this conversation was a ton of fun; you'll notice that we laugh a lot. Between that and her tendency to leap in and out of different character voices, this one was sometimes tricky to transcribe, but I hope I pulled it off.
More about Becky's work is here, you can pick up her books here, and a list of all her upcoming appearances is here. I urge you to check it all out. But in the meantime, I hope you enjoy this conversation we had at her house in Northwood over two years ago.
When I started recording, we were in the middle of talking about weirdly-pronounced town names in New England – like Barre, Massachusetts, which is pronounced "Barry."
- - -
Rebecca Rule: …oh yeah? How do you spell Barre?
Ben Cosgrove: Ah, B-A-R-R-E. And the one in Vermont is spelled and pronounced the same way – I guess that one was founded by a couple people from Massachusetts and they literally fought over who got to name it.
RR: And the Barre guy hit harder.
BC: Ha, yeah, exactly. There’s this whole crazy, weirdly detailed account of it in this book I found a while back. I guess one guy wanted it to be called “Holden,” and the other wanted “Barre,” and the whole dispute was resolved in a literal brawl where the two of them just beat the crap out of each other. At the end of it, the winner jumped on a table and yelled, “THERE, THE NAME IS BARRE, BY GOD.”
RR: [laughs] Wow! That’s excellent. Barre… I’ll have to check that out.
So. What can I do for you? Are you still at the very beginning of this?
BC: [laughs] Kind of! I guess I’m doing this thing where I talk to people – and so far it’s mostly been people who are involved in some kind of creative profession – about the influence of place and landscape on who they are and what they do.
BC: But more generally, people who have any kind strong affiliation with place, since I’m interested in figuring out what that entails.
RR: And are you primarily a musician? So this is a departure for you?
BC: Yeah – well, only kind of a departure. I’m mainly a musician and sometimes a writer. But it’s not really a departure for me, in that all my music is also about exactly this sort of thing.
RR: Right – right!
BC: It’s basically just an excuse to talk about stuff I’m really nerdy about with people whose work I like a lot.
RR: Aw, great. Okay!
BC: But I was specifically interested in talking to you because you deal with… well, you kind of traffic in a different kind of place-expression from the kind of thing I do. For you it seems to be a sense of place that’s built on a collective personality, rather than on landscape or topography necessarily.
RR: Right. That’s well said! It’s a lot about character. And it’s, it’s not really – it’s sort of like, well – Ken Sheldon (Fred Marple; that’s his alter-ego – do you know him?), he has invented a town called Frost Heaves, New Hampshire. It’s right next to Rock-On-The-Side-Of-The-Road, or whatever. [laughs] “Ditch."
RR: But the New Hampshire that I talk about – and people say this to me all the time – it’s not exactly the real New Hampshire. I mean, it’s real in some sense –
BC: But it rings true –
RR: Yeah, it does ring true!
BC: – but it rings true especially with… I mean, I think it’s interesting that it resonates so well with the people who actually live in the places that are the source material for this kind of fictional world. It’s maybe a caricature but not a cartoon. Is that fair to say?
RR: Yeah, definitely. Because it’s enhanced, not to say exaggerated. A lady the other day said, “I seen you on TV and I thought, ‘she’s got to be exaggerating that ac-cent.’” And I said, “Huh, I might be; I don’t know.” And she said “They’re gonna think everybody in New Hampcha talks like you!” and I said, “Well… they kind of all do.” And then, right away, she said, “Yeah… we kind of all do.”
RR: But I suppose in performance I exaggerate it. I know I do – I don’t mean to, but I do. Sort of getting into the character of a storyteller.
BC: Ha. Well, I mean - that makes sense. In fact, just as a result of doing your work, I'm sure you’ve ended up with a better sense of subregional accents in northern New England than pretty much anyone else on the planet has.
RR: Yes! I do. Yeah. They’re very different. Like the North Country of New Hampshire has its own, certainly. And it’s influenced a little by the French too; you can hear the words up there. Rumney, Danbury, Bristol – those towns are where my people come from – their accents are very similar to mine. The western part of the state, they’ve got a little Vermont twang. You know, I can’t nail you down exactly, but I can almost always tell what part of the state you’re from. And Massachusetts is wonderful – I’m sure Massachusetts has its own subregionals…
BC: Oh god, yeah, are you kidding?
RR: …but the Boston accent. People out west say to me, “are you from Boston?” and I’m like “NO, I’m not from BOSTON.”
RR: Yeah, I’m not from BAHST’N. [laughs] Although I love the Bahst’n accent; it’s wonderful.
BC: Yeah, my… my father’s side, they’re from down that way and most of them tend to have some version of that accent. And my mother’s side is all from, you know, north-central Mass, the Montachusett region, so they have this totally different one, which really sounds significantly more New Hampshire-y. When you were reading that journal earlier, before we started recording, you were kind of doing your grandmother’s voice, it sounded shockingly like my own grandmother’s.
RR: Oh… was I doing it? [laughs] I don’t know when I’m doing it.
BC: [laughs] Yeah?
RR: I’m a mimic. I hear voices in my head.
BC: I mean, that probably works to your advantage! But so, speaking of that, how did you – how did you come to do this as your career?
RR: I started out as a very serious fiction writer! I was in a fiction program at UNH, an MA. They have an MFA now, but I was in the MA program. And I wrote out of angst, you know? You know how writers write.
BC: Interesting! Right. Yeah. I mean… well, to be fair, I have probably made a lot of stuff out of angst.
RR: I did too, I know, I know. [strained, tortured voice] “I’m just so screwed up… I just… I just have to FIGURE this OUT mySELF…” But after my first couple books, I had, eh… well, I’d figured it out. [laughs]
BC: But were you always so interested in regional identity?
RR: Always. And it goes back to – when I was small I had a little book, and I don’t know what happened to it, but I would write down little expressions that I’d hear people say. Like my dad, or my grandpa, or my grandma. I would write – I remember my dad said once, “Well, his brains was so small, they was like a B.B. in a boxcar.” And I just thought – here I am, six years old – I need to write that down! [little kid voice] “B.B… in… a… boxcar.” I just loved – I’ve always loved that stuff. And I look back at my papers from… well, we recently burned all of them… [laughs]
BC: Like, ceremoniously? Or –
RR: No, just… we were cold.
Anyway, I’m looking at my mother’s diaries, my great-grandfather’s diaries, and then I’m thinking, about my own old diaries, “I… don’t want anyone reading this shit.” (Ooh… is it okay that I said “shit”?)
BC: Psh – oh, totally. You can say whatever you want.
RR: I found all my high school creative writing papers, and just like, “auggghhh, these are so awful.”
BC: Jeez, yeah, that’s got to be mortifying.
RR: MORTIFYING. I found all these letters between my girl cousins and me, and I said to my cousin Shari, I said “I found some of your letters from when we were teenagers,” and she said “Oh my GAHHHD.” And when I said “I burned ‘em,” she said “THANK YOU.” Ha. My husband’s love letters, I burned ‘em all, and when I said, “should I save any of these?” he said, “Oh my GOD, NO.” So I burned 'em. And I feel much better. But wait, what were we talking about…? [laughs]
BC: [laughs] You know, I have no idea; I was totally sucked into this… this story of you suddenly incinerating your entire past.
RR: Yeah, I’m incinerating my past, but because – because I’m a writer, it’s all in my books. It’s all in my books.
BC: That’s true – you write, but you also travel around performing, as a storyteller. And I wondered how you feel about the relationship between those things, or whether you feel more at home in one medium or the other. Well, I won’t say “more at home,” because clearly you’re at home in both, but–
RR: Well, I will tell you that in the last five years I’ve written almost nothing, except for articles that I was asked to write and given a deadline for – like New Hampshire Magazine or whatever – I recently wrote a book that I was asked to write, too. It’s coming out soon, actually; I’ve got the galleys now.
RR: Yeah, ha, it’s called N is for New Hampshire – it’s an ABC book.
BC: Oh! Cool – is it for that series…?
RR: Yes! It is. A is for Acadia, so on. It’s from Islandport, which has published other stuff. And I’ve only been able to work to deadline and on assignment because for a while I was taking care of my mother full-time. And when I took that on, I knew that I couldn’t write because writing… well, you know. You’ve got to be in a place where you’re not worried about everything going on around you. And when you’re a full-time caregiver, that’s all you do, is worry about everything going on around you, 24/7. So we tried to have two people in the house all the time, because you know, she was incapacitated, and we couldn’t move her. So that was IN. TENSE.
BC: Jeez, I’ll bet. I’m really sorry. How long was that, if you don’t mind my asking..?
RR: Oh, it was about five years. For three years we’d go back and forth to her house, because she was living alone, and–
BC: She was in Boscawen?
RR: She was in Boscawen. And we’d cook her meals, we’d take care of her house, you know. And it started out twice a week, but then it was five days a week, and then it got to seven days a week. And it got to, “oh, we’re staying overnight.” So we ultimately said, “you’ve got to just come live with us.” So for two years she was here! And it was wonderful, and really a lot of work, but I couldn’t write.
But what I could do – and this is finally getting back to your question! – is go out and tell funny stories for an hour.
BC: Which was probably pretty therapeutic as well, I have to imagine…
RR: Oh, yeah! Yeah. I would get in the car, and I could drive an hour and perform and just… just leave it all behind. And listen to people’s stories, and get into their lives.
So, I don’t know what that means, but the writing and the storytelling come from different places and take a different kind of energy.
BC: That makes sense.
RR: And now that she’s been gone, I’m easing back into writing. It’s really quite different – it’s sort of like teaching and writing. They’re such different energies, and when I’m teaching I can’t write.
BC: Huh! Does it feel like teaching, at all? The performing?
RR: ...Nnnno. It feels just like being in a room with a lot of people who want to laugh. And we all laugh together. It’s fantastic. It’s not at all like lecturing or anything like that.
BC: That’s very cool.
RR: It IS very cool. It’s like… they say that when you’re really engaged with something you lose track of time?
BC: Yeah, that great book by... by the guy with the long name!
RR: Exactly. It really is like that, though. On the way there it’s, you know: I gotta get there, I gotta get directions, I gotta get to the place, I gotta get inside, hello, hello, gotta see if the mic works… but then the audience sits down. And I start talking. And it’s like [snaps fingers] THAT. Two seconds. And then I’ve gotta go home… [laughs]
BC: How far afield do you travel for your performances? Are you mostly in New Hampshire, or do you go farther out?
RR: Mostly New Hampshire, but I get out. I get invited to Vermont and Massachusetts; I performed in Colorado last year.
BC: Ahh, the ol’ Vermont, Massachusetts, and Colorado circuit.
BC: Where did you play out there? In Colorado.
RR: Well, it was a student I’d had in the early 80s – he was a graduate student – and he’s now ready to… god, he’s ready to retire. But he had me out to talk to his teachers; he’s a supervisor of teachers. So I went out to Colorado, and I had to adjust my stories! That was interesting. They didn’t get some of it.
BC: That IS interesting. What sort of thing did you have to change?
RR: Well, lots? [laughs]
RR: Yeah, I guess I’d forgotten that the audience has to know stuff! So stupidly I started with a story that’s like… well up here it’s like my greatest hit. And I got halfway through and realized that, ooh, they’re not with me at all. And it’s because they didn’t understand the story. The story goes like this – it’s a short one:
So, years ago a group of citizens in the North Country got an idea from – of all places – Massachusetts for a social program for the North Country. (Now, in Colorado, they have no idea of what Massachusetts means to New Hampshire, or the relationship between… so I’ve lost ‘em already. They’re gone. But I go on. They’re all out there like “Massachusetts?”) So they got this idea, the North Country people. And they’re going to submit the petition at Town Meeting. (And of course, they don’t have Town Meeting in Colorado, so they’re even further gone. They don’t know anything. I’ve lost ‘em again.) And they took the petition to Town Meetings in various towns in the North Country of New Hampshire (Which means nothing to these people in Colorado. Gone.) And so the highlight of the story is, I go: well, it’s a program we all know about now; it’s called hospice. And of course that’s very helpful to people at the end of life, but in those days nobody had HEARD about it way up in the North Country of New Hampshire.
So here we are, at Columbia Town Meeting, and the moderator reads it out (they’ve got no idea about a moderator, obviously): he goes, “AHTICLE FIVE, TO RAISE AND APPROPRIATE FIVE HUNDRED DOLLAHS FOR HOSS PISS.”
And that’s… the punchline of the story, and -- let me tell ya -- it really knocks ‘em dead in New Hampshire. But I’m in Colorado, and I finish the story and a hundred and fifty people just go: [makes a completely blank facial expression].
BC: That’s great.
RR: IT WAS AWFUL! [laughs] Because I was… I just started! So I had to push on. And they really were nice people, and they wanted to laugh, but it was just… they were all out there like “is that the end of the story?” and “what is she talking about?” and “what is hoss piss?” So I learned in the first five minutes that I had to translate.
But here! Here is my people.
RR: And now, up here, I tell that story about going to Colorado and not being able to communicate with the people out there, and they love that up here. Because, you know, we share that! You know, you were asking about the land, the place… part of place is our shared culture. And I think that one reason that people – especially older people – like stuff like this, like my stories, is that they sense we have that shared culture. Or kids will say, “you talk just like my nana!” Which is a different version of the same thing.
BC: Well, it’s interesting – you also alluded to something earlier that I wanted to touch on a little more, which is the way in which… well, I always struggle to explain to people from outside New England about the strength of, you know, the town as an entity, as the first round of municipal government and community-identification and so on.
RR: Absolutely. Absolutely!
BC: Which really changes dramatically in places even as close as New York. And I’m sure your work has led you to develop a unique sensitivity to how communities are… well, organized differently in different places. People identify differently.
RR: Definitely. It’s all about the town here. Town government – I mean, the race for selectman here in Northwood is going to be a huge deal, but it sure won’t be a big deal for people ten miles that way. Which you’re right, that is pretty fascinating. But hoo… it’s gonna be really hairy this time. I should show you a few of the candidate statements in the paper here.
BC: What is this newspaper?
RR: It’s the Pawtuckaway Forum. Pawtuckaway is a little mountain near here, and the paper serves the four towns in the shadow of Pawtuckaway. Candia, Deerfield, Northwood, and Nottingham. And it’s all entirely volunteer-run, which is great. I help edit, so I put articles up in Home & Health and Outdoors that people submit, and I get about two articles for each of those a week. The best are the letters to the editor, though… old people just go AFTER each other, oh my god…
RR: Oh my god. Just awful. This one woman – see, to me, this is place! This is place. I mean, it’s not so much the physical place, although the physical place is wonderful – we have our lakes and our mountains and it’s great, and everybody loves living in this place – but place is also this culture of small town, no-holds-barred interaction with each other. The stuff that happens in a small place.
BC: What is the population of Northwood, actually?
RR: Well this is all in a neighboring town, but Northwood, hm, we’re three thousand, four thousand. Closer to four thousand, probably. Oh, it’s a big town, I’ll tell ya.
BC: A glittering metropolis.
RR: It is a metropolis. [laughs] You know, you’re right, though. I love the idea of the town itself as this contained, strong unit. And that is a major factor in how culture works up here, how the place is formed. People in town are really engaged in what goes on in town, and I bring up the paper just because it shows that; it shows that every day. It’s, you know, What’s Going On. “What’s going on? I’ll open the paper.” And it’ll say, like, “someone hit a streetlight in downtown Candia.” And that’s riveting stuff. “Oh my goohhhhd, that’s the streetlight down by Barbara’s house.”
BC: It’s interesting too because I feel like that focus on the town creates a higher, more atomized type of regionalization than you see elsewhere, where people identify more with their county, or even their state. Places where the landscape is bigger and the units of place are too.
BC: I mean, do you find, as you go around performing, that you can perceive those changes in regional personality across relatively small distances? You know, I’d imagine you’ve got a pretty nuanced taxonomy of Yankee characters worked out.
RR: Absolutely. I actually write about it in one of my books, the one I wrote about town meetings. Moved and Seconded: New Hampshire Town Meetings, Past, Present, and Future. Soon to be a major motion picture.
RR: (bemused) No… no. [laughs] Are you kidding? It’s a joke. [laughs for a long time]
You’re just like – so I wrote this article for the paper because they asked me to write something. And as you can see, they used the big font because, well, they don’t get a lot of articles. But it’s about how to get through winter, and whatever. “Take all the photographs of relatives you no longer speak to and burn them for warmth,” that kind of thing. But I close the article with this one: “Join a group! Friends of the Library, Historical Society, Women’s Club, Quilters Anonymous, Senior Café, We Love Chihuahuas Association, three of which I just made up!” And I got an email from a lady today, saying “could you put me in touch with the people from Quilters Anonymous?” [laughs] And I had to write back to this poor woman and say “No, I can’t; it was a joke! I made it up!!!” I almost felt awful.
BC: [laughs] It would be amazing if this resulted in the creation of the Quilters Anonymous club, though… like if you get a few more of those emails, you could just put those people in touch with each other.
RR: Ha! There is a non-zero chance of that happening.
BC: I love that. The best part is that the name, Quilters Anonymous, really suggests that... that its participants enjoy quilting so much that it’s become, you know, a problem.
RR: Ha, I know! It’s not just for enthusiasts. It’s for the severely affected. But anyway, that’s also part of it. When I say something like “soon to be a major motion picture” to a group of fifty people in New England, they laugh! Because they know it’s not true. Except for the one lady at the end who comes up and asks where she can go to see it. But for the most part, people are laughing because they know it’s a joke, and then we’re just a bunch of people in a room together, laughing. We have that commonality.
BC: I… God, I was just totally that lady. [laughs]
RR: We’ll give you a pass. But yeah, now I’m trying to think – I mean, we have the southern region, the northwestern region, the French-Canadian region… we have that, and all those people can appreciate the same stories, in different ways, because I try to focus on stuff that’s specific enough that we can all wink at it, but no so specific as to alienate anyone.
BC: That’s interesting – you have to hit on just the right level of regional specificity.
RR: I love listening to some of the storytellers on this radio program from Canada. There’s a guy up there who’s got a wonderful show and he has people on there and they tell stories. And I appreciate the stories, because people are people, but there’s something special about hearing stories that are about people who are a lot like you.
BC: For sure. You feel seen. Or like, it helps you to feel like you know who you are – that there are other people like you, with similar life experiences, who can laugh at the same things. You’re not… well, you’re not alone.
RR: You’re not alone. And that’s part of place too, isn’t it?
BC: Huh, interesting. Say more about that?
RR: Yeah – we make up this place, we are this place together. We share this place. The things we have in common, that’s what make this place what it is.
BC: That’s fascinating, too – are you… well, I don’t know the world of storytellers so well. Are you unique in that you present as “I am a member of your community, and here are some things we share,” or is that common? I can imagine that it would be possible to be a kind of Mark Twain, too, right? Where you go around telling about the places you’ve been and what it’s like there?
RR: Well, that’s still similar, I mean –
BC: I guess you’re right; the attitude there is like “you guys aren’t going to believe what these crazy people over there do,” or like, “I knew you’d understand; I’m one of you and thank god I’m back among my people.”
RR: Ha! Exactly. I think a big part of being this type of performer is just that: you want to identify with people and you want people to identify with you. I mean, I’ve often said – well, people come up to me and say “oh, you’re a comedian.” And I say “I am NOT a comedian; I am not even close.” I always have to try to figure out exactly what it is that I do. I’m not an actor, and I’m not a – well, okay, my friend Susan Poulin. Do you know Susan? She does Ida: Woman Who Runs with the Moose? Anyway, she’s a wonderful actress, and she does many stage shows. She was helping me to put on a show out in Maine -- she was producing -- and the first night I was totally freaked out. And I realized it was because I couldn’t see the audience. And I just couldn’t do it; I have to be able to see the audience. I can’t do it in the dark. And the closer I am to the audience, the better. Sometimes I sit on people’s laps; that’s not an exaggeration. Anyway, I told this to Susan, and she said “Wow. When I perform, I absolutely want them to be in the dark and I want to be in the light.” And that’s the difference between an actor and a storyteller.
And the other thing that I know about comedians is that there’s a – and obviously this isn’t true of all comedians – but I feel like there’s often a sort of antagonistic relationship between them and the audience. You know, “I dare you: make me laugh” and on the other side, “I know you think I won’t make you laugh but I’m going to prove you wrong, dammit,” that kind of thing. And I really do feel that my audiences come to my performances with a different set of feelings and expectations. With storytellers, it’s all about doing something together.
BC: And also, with storytelling, the implicit promise is not that you’re going to, you know… surprise them or trick them or dazzle them, or whatever. You’re coming to each other in good faith.
RR: It’s not about me at all – I figured that out. And that’s why I don’t get nervous. I mean, I have good stories. And since I have good stories, it’s my job to present those stories to people who want to listen to them. Some are mine, but a lot of them I collect from the people I meet and the places I go. Those stories tumble along, and they grow and change, and I’m just a part of the whole thing. I’m like a utility. They’re not going to judge my talents, or my intelligence, or anything else; it’s about the stories themselves. There are some good stories that deserve to be heard, and these people want to hear them. So just don’t screw up.
BC: What’s the ratio of stories you tell that you’ve collected to the stories that you tell that you’ve written?
RR: Oh, I’d say… 95% collected.
RR: Yep. Almost all collected. There are a few I’ve written – one about, you know, the dump, that kind of thing. But I don’t tell them; I read them. If I’ve written it, it’s a different thing. I write stories on my blog, but they’re a different animal. All the stories I tell, almost all, they’re stories that have been told to me. And what happens, I have learned – and I learned this from… well okay. I got a tape, years ago, from my friend Heather Pike, of her grandfather, Warren Angus Wilbur. And the tape had been made in 1974. And it’s a tape of him sitting in the kitchen, telling stories, all about life in Seabrook, New Hampcha. And he was in his nineties when he was telling these. So she gave me this audiotape, and said, “here, tell some of these stories!”
So I was trying out a few, and two or three persist – I’m still telling them ten years later. But I got asked to give a workshop, and so I went back to the original tape, and the transcript of the tape. And I compared what he actually said to what I was telling… and they were so, so, so different.
BC: That’s so great. It’s like folk music! You’re like a type of folk musician.
BC: Yeah! There’s this whole tradition – I’m especially thinking of, you know, Appalachian folk music – by which tunes sort of dribble down through the ages by having their lyrics or melody swapped with another song’s, or taking a verse from one song and putting it over here… each generation kind of gets to put its own spin on them, and as a result these very old tunes are able to constantly remain vibrant and alive and relevant to the situation they’re being performed in.
RR: Yeah! It’s the same thing – I never did it on purpose, but one of his stories is about ice fishing, and he talks about… the ice formed on the pond, and the dam broke. And in his story, it’s a dam that was built by loggers, to float the logs when they were clear-cutting. But in MY story, because I come from a long line of trappers, at some point it became a beaver dam.
RR: I don’t know how that switched. Maybe because I didn’t quite understand his version of it? But I got enough of it to be like, “oh, it’s a beaver dam. And the beaver moved out, and the dam broke.” And at some point it evolved into that, without my even thinking about it. Isn’t that strange?
BC: But of course, it doesn’t make it any less true, either. If anything, it makes it more true. You absorbed this thing and the version you tell now is more completely a part of you.
RR: Absolutely. Ha, though – the end of that story on the tape is that this little kid goes “Grandpa, is that a true story?” And Warren Angus, he goes, “well, yup, most of it.”
But it’s not just the type of dam – I mean, and this is true of all stories, but just speaking of this one, as I told it for ten years, it became different. It got much longer in the telling, and several key components changed. But it’s still the same story. It’s the exact same story.
But what’s interesting is that I never had any intention of changing that story, or any awareness that I was doing it. But the more you tell it, and the more you see how the audience reacts, and you react to them, it takes on a new shape.
BC: It molds to the space it’s in.
RR: It does!
BC: That seems necessary, even. To have it become something that you personally connect to, as the storyteller. To make it into a part of yourself. I mean – my impression is that during your performances you’re very authentically yourself; you’re not adopting a persona with which to dispense the stories or anything. Which has to make the whole thing feel more honest and gratifying for everybody.
RR: Yeah, there would be no point! I’m remembering them, the stories, I’m not reciting them. The key to storytelling is that you’re not remembering the words, you’re remembering the events that happened as though they happened to you. You’re picturing them in your mind’s eye and describing them to the audience.
When I first started storytelling, I took a class with George Radcliffe – Uncle George – down at Concord High School. It was a sort of after-school adult education thing. And I was memorizing. But then at some point, and I don’t even know how it happened, it clicked: you’re not memorizing, you’re remembering. I guess it’s all practice. But now the way I do it is, I mean, once I get a couple of key words locked away, I can tell the story. I just need a couple of key words and then I’m in.
BC: That’s so interesting. I never really thought about that. I mean, it’s a different thing, but I tell a bunch of stories on stage when I play, and a thing I sometimes have to fight is the tendency for them to calcify – you know, to become more and more the same thing each time. You know? If I get a good reaction from tweaking something about the way I tell something, I’ll all but unconsciously do it that way from now on.
RR: Well, yeah – you just have to keep tweaking, I suppose. And I’m sure it happens naturally; you can’t help it. As long as you’re not reciting, it’ll always work. You might find that they haven’t calcified that much at all.
BC: I guess that’s a good point. But going back -- I’m super interested in your key word thing. You must just have an intuition for noting all the inflection points of a story and then getting there right away. Do you pick the key words strategically, or do they just present themselves naturally to you?
RR: At the beginning, it’s strategic, for sure. I can show you!
[she goes off to get a notebook]
I always take a little notebook like this with me to do gigs. And I put down the key words here… and as you can see, as I’m sitting in the audience I cross out ones I don’t think they’ll go for. [laughs]
BC: You’ve got “conveyor belt” crossed out. So this audience wasn’t going to take to the conveyor belt story?
RR: No, sir.
BC: Huh, it’s like a set list.
RR: Exactly. But yeah, I’ll cross out, and I’ll move things around as I’m waiting to go on. And these over here, these are the NEW stories I get from people at each gig. Like, oh, this one was great. It was a woman who came up and told about how she was wearing an apron with a cat on it once, and her granddaughter said to her, “Grandma, are you a cat person or a dog person?” And this woman said, “Well, I don’t think I’m either, dear; I don’t care for cats or dogs or plants. I don’t like anything I have to keep alive.” And the kid said, “Oh, like Grandpa?”
Isn’t that a cute story??
BC: It is cool to look at these, though! Because they’re written in what to me is a pretty inscrutable shorthand… that one you just told me is just written here as “keep alive / like Grandpa.”
RR: And this one… they went to Fort Ticonderoga. And they crossed the river, and the fella rowed them across. Or wait, I’m sorry – he didn’t row them, he guided them with a oar, but he was pulling them across on a chain or a rope. (I haven’t written it down, so it’ll change.) But the rope was anchored in the middle of the river, and they came up on either side and made kind of a triangle, so they could be pulled across. Kind of weird.
BC: Yeah, I… I’m not sure, but I think I get it.
RR: Yeah, seems strange that it’d be anchored in the river. But anyway, what’s what they said. So anyway, he says to the oarsman, he says, “well, how far down does that rope go?” And the oarsman looks at him, and looks at the river, and says, “I dunno. Never been down to look.”
That’s a great story, isn’t it? I don’t know. I just collect these things, and I’ll write it down, and I’ll try to tell it, and some stay, and some go.
BC: What’s this one, this note?
RR: Oh, this one – Chet and Althea are relatives of mine, and they lived in a particular house in South Danbury, over near the Wilmot line. I wrote that down because she seemed to think I should know it, but I didn’t.
BC: Ooh, that’s… that’s Donald Hall territory over there.
RR: Yeah, they were next-door neighbors!
BC: ...no way.
RR: She calls him “Donny.”
BC: That’s unreal. I’m a raving, obsessive fan of so much of his work.
RR: Oh yeah? Of Donny Hall?
BC: Yeah – I’ve never met him. But I just think his essays – and his poems, obviously, but some of his essays are just so tight, and so poignant and so affecting. I always feel like good poets make good essayists because they’re so able to… distill things effectively, you know?
RR: Oh! You have to meet him.
BC: Oh man, I don’t know what I’d say. Probably wouldn’t go well.
RR: Write him a letter. You could talk about New Hampshire.
BC: He has this great story about being in Washington to receive a big award – there was a dinner before or after the ceremony, and he was seated at a table surrounded by all these random congresspeople and their spouses, none of whom knew who he was or could care less about this random, unkempt poet at their table. So halfway through the meal, one of the congressmen leans over, bored, and says, like, “So, Mr. Hall, what is it that you write about?” And without even thinking, Donald Hall immediately responds, “Love, death, and New Hampshire.”
RR: [laughs] Ha! That’s fantastic. What a good answer.
BC: Yeah, right? May we all aspire to that.
RR: Yeah. You know, I don’t know how his health is, but you could sure write him a letter. He doesn’t answer his phone… you know, I actually interviewed him for the New Hampshire Authors series. Which you can watch online, the whole series! You can see me interview Don Hall. But we had an awful time getting a hold of him. We had to write him a letter, because he don’t do email. We had to write him a letter and say, “Would you like to do the New Hampshire Authors series?” And he’d write back: “Yes.”
RR: And then I’D write back and say, you know, “DO YOU THINK YOU COULD DO IT IN FEBRUARY?” And he’d write back, “I think I could; what’s the date?” And I’d write back: “HOW ABOUT THESE DATES IN FEBRUARY?” [laughs] And then he’d write back. It was quite a process.
BC: So he's like, single-handedly funding the postal service over there.
RR: Oh yeah. Because he only did mail! And at that time he had a secretary who helped him with that stuff, but I’m not sure how he’s doing now.
BC: Well yeah… he’s been a very good chronicler of his own journey through the aging process.
RR: And illness process, and everything.
BC: Yeah, that last book, the Essays After Eighty one – did you read that? It goes into all of this in considerable detail. But all of those essays are – man, they’re just so good.
RR: “I’m ancient.” That’s what my mother would say. “I’m ancient.”
Anyway. How did we get here?
BC: Ah - your notebook!
RR: Right! So people love it when I write things down, somehow. Someone will make a wisecrack or something, and I’ll say “I’m writing that down,” and dig out a notebook like this. And then they’re all like “AHH HA HA SHE’S WRITING IT DOWN! SHE’S WRITING IT DOWWWWN!” And half the time I don’t remember what it was. But they’re so cute when they make these little wisecracks…
BC: I meant to ask you this – and I guess you touched on it – but here’s a pretty basic question that I just blew past: when did you really first start storytelling?
RR: It evolved. I did two books of short stories – well, I’ll go back. As a kid, I was very quiet and shy; you wouldn’t believe it.
BC: Is this connected to the angsty phase you were talking about?
RR: Ha, well, yes! My main thing was that I was raised in a family of trappers and hunters. And fishermen. And there was death all around me, all the time, and I… well, I didn’t like it! It really bothered me, as a kid. But, I mean, that’s how we had clothes, and how we had food, and yet it was just horrifying to me. There were some images from my childhood that I just couldn’t get past. And I loved my parents so much, and I loved our house, and our way of life, but I just… yeah, it was a real struggle for me.
So I wrote a lot about that, when I started writing – about people who have these real struggles about who they are in the context of their families. So I wrote about it, and wrote about it, and… well, then, like I said, I got it out of my system!
BC: Huh, that’s… that’s… well, what a relief to know that that works. That that’s possible.
RR: Also, I went on antidepressants. [laughs] I think there’s a connection. But I really think I worked it out, that at some point I had really just sorted through all my feelings and really worked it out. You know? Okay, some things are just hard on a kid, and it was hard, and there were some things that weren’t great about my childhood, but there are some good things too. And I got some good stories out of it.
So the first two books were sort of those… angsty stories about, you know, nitty-gritty New Hampshire crap that Tom Williams – do you know Tom Williams? He’s a writer at UNH, where I was doing this – he loved those stories, because, you know, he’s a hunter and a trapper – a trappah – that kind of guy, and he just loved it. He loved that it was coming from, you know, this shy little girl. He thought that was great, and he really encouraged me.
And then, when I started going out into the world and reading stories – because you have to do that – I was very shy at first, but I still did it, because it was my job. But then people started laughing… and that was it. That was it. I was hooked. And I started writing stories to make people laugh. And then at some point, I realized it was more fun to put the book aside altogether and talk to the audience. And that was the biggest turning point, absolutely.
BC: Oh, so it grew out of your doing readings! That’s interesting.
RR: Yeah, out of readings! I found I could connect with the audience, and I realized that that was… I mean, that was what I really loved, and what I was really good at. Now it’s very hard for me to read to an audience, because I want to just talk.
BC: Yeah, it must feel so comparatively stilted. Or, I mean, literally scripted.
RR: It does, exactly. And I lose my place, and… it feels awkward.
BC: Ha, man – that really… I feel the exact same way.
BC: Yeah, this is interesting! This is almost like talking to a musician; I feel like we lead similar sorts of lives. You’re sort of describing the same reasons that I feel much more like a folk musician than a classical musician.
RR: Huh! Yeah?
BC: Yeah! I mean, at first I never liked performing at all, but then gradually realized that each show could be an unpredictable, unique, unscripted, natural relationship with a particular audience, and that changed everything. It kind of relieved all the pressure of worrying about hitting the right notes and that kind of thing. Once I realized no one was, you know, sitting there with crossed arms waiting for me to screw up, all this space opened up for improvising, and telling stories, and just tuning the whole show to the room and the place.
RR: Right, right, right, right, right!
BC: And also, just that whole business of how half your career is going around having these meaningful interactions with roomfuls of people, but the other half is sitting at home, making new stuff and living in your head.
RR: Absolutely. And the problem has been that for the last five years I haven’t been able to get in my own head. You must have that too.
BC: Well, yeah, it can be hard to do when – I mean, I kind of run around a lot. Which can make the development of new stuff challenging at times.
RR: Yeah. Yeah! It is! You can’t – so my friend Marie Harris once said to me, “you can’t be inside and outside at the same time.” And you can’t.
BC: Well, hey, she’s clearly never heard of a porch.
RR: Yeah, you – HA! [laughs for a while] That’s very good. Nice. No, but what she meant was, to write seriously, even if you’re writing funny stuff, you need to really be in your head, and not be worried about the outside. And to perform, it’s very different from that. You’re out, and you need to be paying attention to people, and reading them, and reacting to them, and everything. Same with music, right?
BC: Oh god, yeah. That thing you were talking about earlier, about how you make all these crazy adjustments to your setlist after you get into the room – that’s a thing I do every night. All mine are written with these sort of arrows and question marks and parentheses, and I generally throw the whole thing out the window halfway through the show anyway.
RR: I heard a comedian the other day, on the radio, talking about how when he tried out new material and the audience wasn’t reacting the way he thought they would, he’d found it was best to just go on with it, and push it to the end! You know, to trust your material, and see what happens with the audience if you push them too. And that’s true too, to an extent. But I think it’s still good to tweak it, like you’re saying.
BC: I guess it depends on the context.
RR: It does, absolutely. But that made a lot of sense to me, that feeling of “ohh, they’re going to hate this.” But you’re in the middle of a story, and instead of going quickly to the end, what I tend to do is slow it down. If I think I’m losing ‘em, I’ll just lean in, get a little closer, and slow… it… down.
BC: Jeez. I’m slowly learning how to do that, but man, it can be easier said than done.
RR: Because you’ve got to trust that this is a good story.
BC: And you gain nothing by cutting its legs off. That’s the thing I’ve found, which sounds like what you’re saying – that if you just rush through something when you feel you’ve made an ill-advised turn, nobody wins at all.
RR: Oh, it is guaranteed to be bad if you rush through, no question about it. Guaranteed. And it’s also weird – it’s weird when people laugh at the wrong place, you know? It’s just… [makes bewildered facial expression]. That’s now where you’re supposed – sometimes I say that, “that’s not the funny part, you guys.”
BC: [laughs] Yeah, “I don’t know what’s wrong with you people, but…”
RR: [laughs] Seriously. But then you learn certain lines to hold onto, when you’re in a situation like that, when you’re improvising and people grab a hold of it in a way you hadn’t expected. And you’re like “Oh, I’m going to do that again.” Like there was this one time, I tell this story – it’s a Warren Angus Wilber story – and I say, you know, “OK, just to give you an example of this guy’s sense of humor: Warren Angus Wilbur was walking down the road one day in Seabrook, New Hampshire and he saw his friend Allen. And he said, ‘Allen, how you doin’?’ and Allen said, ‘good.’”
And then I look at them and I say, “...pretty good story so far, isn’t it?” and somehow that never fails to win over the whole room. One night I just did that and found it worked! And now I just do it again – it becomes part of the story! And other things you do once and they don’t work and you don’t do it again. But that’s how the stories grow. I always say that in that moment, onstage, I have no filter. I don’t know what’s gonna come out of my mouth. You have to try everything and see how it goes.
BC: I love that – I’d never really thought of it this way, but you’re really subjecting all these stories to a sort of Darwinian process. Where new mutations show up all the time and the advantageous traits survive through the generations and the weak ones drop off and fall away.
RR: Yes! It is. It’s absolutely Darwinian. You’re culling the species all the time, but it only works if you keep dropping in new mutations.
RR: And they get better, and they get better. If you tell a story a hundred times, in a hundred different places – and that’s important too – that story’s going to be pretty good. On the other hand though, another thing I have to say whenever I perform is “this is the first time I’m telling this story, so don’t expect too much.” But you have to tell everything a first time, or a first ten times, or a first hundred times. So in all my programs, I try to tell at least one brand new story, one story I’ve never told before.
Like the story of the Fort Ticonderoga oarsman and the rope and whatever, that’s… that’s a little rough right now. [laughs] I have to be able to picture it in my head to tell it, and I don’t think I have a clear picture yet.
BC: I guess that one is also just such a weird scene to have to visualize in the first place…
RR: Yeah, you have to set it up. I think I’ll probably have to do some research on it and see what it looks like. Because I really see it tied tree to tree, but then that doesn’t work in the story – I just don’t get how it’s anchored to the bottom of the river.
I’ve got another story where someone pulls themselves across in a bateau up on the Androscoggin. And in that one it’s a cable that goes tree to tree. Which works. So maybe that’s what’s throwing me off. Because for this other one to work, it’s got to go down, but…
BC: You’ll have to go down to look.
RR: HA! [laughs] Yeah. “I haven’t been down to look.”
Yeah, I’ll have to look into it. I need to figure out what the heck is going on with this mechanically, or I’m gonna get it screwed up every time.
BC: Just keep telling it until you come across some engineer who will correct you from the back of the room!
RR: Ha, there was one time I was telling that story, the beaver dam story, to some Fish and Game people, whatever. And there was one old guy who was heckling me – I loved it; I loved him so much, he was correcting me the whole time – and afterwards, he came up and he said, “I don’t think that was a beavah dam.” And I asked why, and he said, “Well, you know, beaver dams don’t break.” And I said, “Well, in the original story, it wasn’t a beaver dam,” and he said, “Well I knew that.”
Anyway, with the river crossing, maybe I’ll just keep making stuff up.
BC: I hope you do. Hey, thank you so much for giving me all this time – it’s been a ton of fun to talk with you.
RR: Oh! Is that good? Already? That was so easy!
BC: It was awesome.
RR: But, ah, I feel bad – I hardly talked about place at all…
BC: Oh, I disagree! I actually think you talked about it in a way that no one else I’ve done this with really has yet. Unless you’ve got anything else you wanted to say…
RR: Nope. Well, just… [adopts a faux-mystical voice] Place is culture and culture is place. Place is culture, culture is place. Place…is culture. Culture… is place.
BC: “I’m writing that down.”
RR: [laughs] “She’s writing it dowwwnnn!” Well, great! Hey, you’re a lot of fun.
BC: Thanks! You are too. Thanks so much again. This really was a blast.
[END OF TAPE]