Storyteller Jay O'Callahan - Home Page

An Interview With Jay O'Callahan


Mid-Ocean News, Hamilton, Bermuda



Q. Is Oral storytelling going the way of the Auk?


A. It's hard to say because it's my work and I know a lot of storytellers in America and around the world. I have seen it growing during the span of my career. I have seen people in Africa continuing their old storytelling traditions and the native people in America doing the same. I actually see it as an art form that is growing. It is something that creates a sense of community. When people are listening to a story they tend to trust one another. It is a different feeling from when people watch a film together.


Q. How did you begin?


A. I started in an elementary way, telling stories to my brothers and sisters when I was 13 or 14. I would look at the palms of their hands and make up little stories about this bump or that one on their hand. I also told stories about a little detective named Tiny Tim.


Q. You are a professional storyteller?


A. Yes, I spend a lot of time writing stories to perform, all over the world. I perform for children, at colleges, schools and for adults. I do a certain amount of writing on commission.


Q. You mean people ask you to do stuff?


A. That's how the Great Auk Story originated.


Q. How do you choose your material?


A. Many of the stories I have done in the last ten years have been about growing up in a very interesting neighborhood called Pill Hill in Brookline, Massachusetts.


Q. Why did you choose oral storytelling instead of the written medium?


A. I think it chose me. My gift is to create sound, movement and people. This is a form that demands the work be done with people. There is something about sound and rhythms that fascinates me.


Part of the challenge about the story I performed at City Hall was to give a sense of rhythm and consistence. (He bursts into song: "Paddle up the left side, paddle on the right. Paddle up a wave and down the other side . . .")


We're talking about 30,000 paddles here! In writing you could do the "Shushhh . . ." sound of the wind, but you probably wouldn't. You would most likely describe it.


Q. How much of the Auk story is Dick Wheeler and how much is you?


A. It's almost Zen. The art of Zen is to startle, to draw you in. There is a mysterious central character relationship between Dick and the sea. Sound is something I've always explored. "Shushhh . . . Beep, Beep, Beep" (Guillemot sounds).


Q. How did you find out what Guillemots sound like?


A. I've seen them, but I haven't heard them. That came from Dick. They were with Dick the whole way from Newfoundland to Massachusetts. So I went over and over with him what they sounded like. He would give me suggestions about this and that.


Q. Did you try to imitate him exactly or did you try to create your own Dick Wheeler?


A. The character becomes his own character when you create a story. It is my own Dick, but I was doing my best to keep it true to the story. Much of it is the real Dick.


Q. What was he like?


A. He was full of fun. The phrase about "aggressive hospitality", and St. Johns not being "kayak friendly" was pure Dick. I was very careful of the facts, the colour of the Auk's eggs, the exact date and time of their extinction - June 3, 1944, before noon.


Q. We have a similar story in Bermuda involving the Cahow. That bird was thought to be extinct for a long time, but a few pairs were found and now they are slowly making a come back. Do you think that might happen with the Auk?


A. I don't think so. It took scientists a long time to face reality that the Auk was gone. It's the only species in the world where we can pinpoint the exact date and time of its extinction. If you wipe out a species it's gone.


Q. What brought you to Bermuda?


A. It was to perform this story for the BBSR. My wife and I were here once two or three years ago. We were here during February and we were surrounded by water and I really wanted to tell this story.


Dick had been here to speak earlier in the year. I'm afraid we'll have to cut this trip short, because I pinched a nerve. Sadly, we haven't seen too much of the island today.


Q. Have you seen any results from your story?


A. No, I think the results will just be letting it stay inside people.


Q. Do you think this is a story about greed?


A. It is much bigger than that. Dick always says it is not just a story about the sea or the fish, it is a spiritual problem. It is about how we relate to the earth. Is there anything that is important besides humans? I don't think this is just a fix-it problem. What is important on this earth?


Q. People Dick met were telling him the Cod Fish were disappearing, were they right?


A. In Newfoundland one of the problems is if the fish are gone the people there lose their culture and way of life. Some fishermen have said maybe we should pay attention to the fish themselves. If they had paid attention to the fish themselves they wouldn't be in this predicament.


Scientists should have been asking how many do we need for them to reproduce instead of how many do we need per year to keep our tonnage up?


Q. Have you ever performed this to the people of Newfoundland, which it is primarily about?


A. No, I haven't, but I would like to perform it there. It is a sad place now. In fact, the fishing has been shut down now. The fishing did collapse.


There is a moratorium on commercial fishing. We talked to some people recently who said that in Newfoundland now a lot of houses there are just empty. People have left. A whole culture and way of life is gone and it's very sad. Now the people there have to imagine a whole different way of life.


Q. Do you think there is anything they can do to turn the tide back?


A. No, I don't think there is much that can be done now. You get a lot of people saying it looks like the Cod might be coming back, but I think it is all wishful thinking. If they do come back there probably won't be the political will to get them out there again.


Q. How does the fishing community feel in Newfoundland?


A. Many fishermen there were angry with the government about how things were being handled. The fishermen felt they weren't listened to. There really wasn't a conversation going on between them and the scientists. The government and scientists should have talked to the fishermen instead of to their computers. They needed to pay attention.


Dick Wheeler spoke to one scientist. He said he knew the fish were there because he could see them right there on his computer.


Q. Was the ocean environment something you were passionate about before?


A. I have always been interested in the sea and the beauty of the earth. Before I met Dick I wasn't aware of the seriousness of the problem. My sense is that we tend to look at the earth as if it is a machine. If you kill the worms then you'll just invent a new chemical that will fix everything. I think of it as a philosophical and spiritual problem.


Q. The same thing is happening with the whales, isn't it?


A. We've hunted whales mercilessly in the last 500 years. Now with the technology we have it's not about men getting into a little boat. It's about simply pulling the trigger. It's easy now. We could wipe them out in no time flat. We could easily clean out the oceans. What a depressing thought.


Mid-Ocean News, Hamilton, Bermuda
November 27, 1998


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