Throughout Kate Farrell’s life, the prolific author has fulfilled positions such as a librarian, university lecturer, and most importantly (and her favorite), a storyteller. In addition to her extensive literary portfolio, such as penning Story Power: Secrets to Creating, Crafting, and Telling Memorable Stories and editing the anthology, Wisdom Has a Voice: Every Daughter’s Memories of Mother, Kate also founded the Word Weaving Storytelling Project to train educators of all levels!
This interview dives into her childhood, what sparked her love for words, her writing process for Story Power: Secrets to Creating, Crafting, and Telling Memorable Stories and more in her true-to-fashion method of inspiring storytelling.
Kate attended UC Berkeley, earning a degree within the School of Library and Information Studies. She has also served as the Past President of the San Francisco Chapter of the Women’s National Book Association, Youth Event Manager and Presenter for San Francisco Writers Conference, and a retired librarian of SFUSD.
I understand you’ve lived a life largely led by your love of language. Can you dive deeper in what initially sparked this passion of literature, writing, and words?
This early childhood experience of literature was vivid and unforgettable. With nothing to distract me, I was drawn into the world of The Jungle Book as my mother read it aloud to my older brother and me. The magic of language, the pictures it painted in my imagination, transformed our barren motel cabin into a lush jungle.
The Initial Spark
It was a cold winter’s day in January 1947, when my mother decided to move us to the Gulf Coast town of Corpus Christi, Texas. She had three of us in tow on the long journey by train and bus from Chicago: my infant brother, four months old, my older brother, six years, and me, just turned five. We were to wait in Corpus Christi until my father sent for us to join him in a town along the Rio Grande where he’d found work. My mother walked to a motel near the bay and rented a summer cabin.
Late in the afternoon with my baby brother asleep, the three of us bundled in bed for warmth, my older brother and I on either side of mother. She was propped up on pillows with The Jungle Book in her lap as she prepared to read the first story, “Mowgli’s Brothers.” I lay on my back at first, staring straight up at the white ceiling and fixating on the cracks in the plaster. But soon I was lost in images of the lush jungles of India and the dark cave of Mother Wolf with her four tumbling cubs. The bleak chill of the cabin receded as my mother read aloud. The white plaster ceiling seemed to become the rugged rock of the ancient cavern.
My mother finished reading that story and put down the open book on the bedside table. She rose to prepare our supper, mixing a box of macaroni and cheese with water to warm in a pot that the three of us would share. But I lingered by the borrowed book, concentrating on the printed words. I’d not seen many books before; we always traveled light. As I stared at the page, I suddenly understood that different words on the page made separate sounds. In a brightly lit, aha moment, I knew what reading was.
My five-year-old self was overcome with this great discovery on that dreary evening in a darkened room. I picked up the book and fingered the words, thinking I already knew what they meant. I found myself sounding out “that” and “the.” Over the next several weeks, I quickly learned to read.
You’ve mentioned that ‘stories define us, give us identity and shape us into who we are and will become’, can you share a specific story that has defined who you are, today?
During a challenging storytelling performance in the Los Angeles area years ago, I was observed and critiqued by a friend and award-winning theater director, who was able to penetrate to the essence of the art and who I was as a teller.
My Essential Gift
One extraordinary event was a defining one: I was to be the dinner entertainment for hundreds of Los Angeles teachers attending a conference in a massive, all-purpose room in a public school—a formal stage at one end and cafeteria tables scattered throughout. The clatter of a buffet service and the din of voices echoed in the brightly lit, institutional hall. I stood in front of a dusty, closed curtain on the edge of the stage, gripping a handheld microphone, preparing to tell the story of Scheherazade and her murderous husband, Sultan Schahriar.
I was especially nervous because I’d invited a theater friend to observe my performance, the Tony award-winning, artistic director of a Southern California repertory company. As I began to tell the tale of Scheherazade, the first of A Thousand and One Nights, the background noise in the hall lessened. Instinctively, I grew stock still—no hand gestures or body movement. Somehow, I knew that the more I focused on voice production, the more the restless audience would listen. I felt like a statue, off to the side of the stage, a disembodied, live voice. No cameras, no stage set, no lighting, no supporting cast, I abandoned my dramatic style.
My tall, theater friend, Marty Benson, was standing along the sidelines watching. Afterwards, over drinks, he commented on my storytelling performance as a tribute to the human imagination: mine and that of the audience. With his practiced director’s ear, he said that I had a special quality of voice. The bare, naked, stripped-down presentation had highlighted the essential dynamic of the art, and who I was at my core: a spinner of tales, made from thin air.
What inspired you to pen Story Power: Secrets to Creating, Crafting, and Telling Memorable Stories?
When I retired from San Francisco schools in July 2018, I was at loose ends. A family member asked me whatever had happened to that first book I’d written on storytelling forty years prior, a book I’d lost (Word Weaving: A Storytelling Workbook). Using my librarian skills, I went looking for the book, only to find it was archived in the San Francisco Public Library historical collection, in the University of California, Berkeley collection, digitized in the Internet Archives, and on microfilm in a federal educational resource (ERIC), as well as in public and university collections around the country—a stunning discovery.
I was finally able to purchase a copy through a non-profit, amazed to find it came from the Chicago Public Library’s Resource Center—laminated to preserve it. Reading it once again, I was struck by the quality of the writing, and by the relevance of storytelling today. With further encouragement from friends and family, I was inspired to update the decades-old workbook to a commercial how-to book on the art of storytelling, an art that is trending in the marketplace, on stage, and in public speaking.
What was your writing process for this book? How did this align or differ from your previous experiences as an author?
My writing process clearly aligned with the first storytelling book, not only in style, but in the exact timing of writing a draft in 1979/2019 with publication in 1980/2020. I worked from an outline, and structured my work so that I could set individual deadlines. I was able to submit each chapter in draft form to Mango, as I once did throughout the summer of 1979 from a Sierra mountain town to a foundation in San Francisco. But in 1979, I worked on a manual typewriter, stuffed the manuscript for each chapter in a manila envelope, rode my bicycle to the photocopier, and mailed the original MS onion skin pages at the local post office.
What is it about storytelling that intrigues and captivates you?
I love to watch a live audience listen to stories, how engrossed they become, sometimes closing their eyes, or otherwise seeming to be elsewhere. There is a depth of silence that comes when the story takes hold.
I am fascinated by the inclusivity of stories, that everyone has a story to tell, and that almost everyone loves listening to stories, live and in person; that the ancient oral tradition is appealing in our postmodern, tech era.
On that note — do you prefer traditional methods of storytelling, such as verbal stories, or do you believe there’s intersectionality between technology and the preservation of stories?
I prefer a live oral telling, in the moment, with the audience part of the immediate, creative process. This is difficult to achieve in the virtual environment, even when live. We storytellers continue to experiment with technology to create interaction. A work in progress! We might have to become telepathic and tune in to virtual audiences with a sixth sense. (LOL)
Looking back on each position you’ve fulfilled, an author, librarian, university lecturer, and storyteller, which has been your favorite and why?
Beyond any doubt, my favorite occupation has been a storyteller, because it is at the core of my communication in all the other positions. A storyteller connects, intuitively, to the audience, with an emotional subtext and by projecting images. This immediate rapport has served me well in writing, teaching, and as a librarian educator, serving other teachers and students.
What do you hope readers of Story Power: Secrets to Creating, Crafting, and Telling Memorable Stories, ultimately take away from your book?
I hope that readers will become open to listening and telling personal stories without judgment. If so, they will create an environment for personal and social change, the ability to transform experience.
Rapid Fire Questions:
Favorite color? Turquoise
Favorite scent? Pine needles
Nature or City? Gulf of Mexico’s coastline in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas
Favorite era? Early 60s, the Beat culture, poetry, coffeehouses, and jazz
Favorite dish? Breaded flounder fillet with garlic and parmesan
Dogs or cats? Dogs
Best band? Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band
Favorite song? “You Know When You Get There” Herbie Hancock
Secrets to Creating, Crafting, and Telling Memorable Stories
Stories are everywhere. The art of storytelling has been around as long as humans have. And in today’s noisy, techy, automated world, storytelling is not only prevalent—it’s vital. Whether you’re interested in enlivening conversation, building your business brand, sharing family wisdom, or performing on stage, Story Power will show you how to make use of a good story.