Interviews with storytellers - Sophie Snell

Sophie Snell is a member of the Flying Donkeys Storytelling Club. Growing up surrounded by books and stories, Sophie has always known the power of story. She starts by telling us about her early influences.

I grew up surrounded by books, stories and poetry – Dad was an academic and mum a teacher and words were the means to improve your lot in life. I graduated with an MA in mediaeval history and a smattering of Anglo Saxon, but what had fascinated me were the personal stories, the chronicles, letters, church records and early “books” like Beowulf and Chaucer.  In early history, where the sources are less statistical, the people really come alive – strong individuals who shape the politics and the struggle of ordinary people to survive and find pleasure where they can.

I had read and wrote a lot from very young, but it is a struggle to make a living from writing on your own, so I turned to a corporate career, qualifying as a chartered accountant and working in finance / consultancy.   For several years I worked internationally – Europe, Korea, Taiwan and the US – it was absolutely fascinating, but very hectic.  When I met and married Rob, it wasn’t long before we started a family.  There was another life changing moment, I gave up work to become a full-time mum, had 3 boys and was very busy as a mum and doing some voluntary arts work.

Then Cat Weatheril came to our village for an event I organized as part of the Derbyshire Literature Festival 2005, and I “discovered” storytelling.  Wow!  I then sought out the local storytelling clubs, saw so many wonderful tellers and as the boys in turn grew from babies to toddlers and started school, I began to attend workshops to learn to tell myself - and loved every moment of it.  It was a challenge, and definitely out of my comfort zone, but full of wonder, rediscovering old stories, and the lyricism of words.

Where in the world are you? How long have you been telling stories?  Where do you perform?

I live in a village just outside Derby.  I started telling as a keen amateur in 2006 / 7 and by late 2008 my youngest had started school, and I had more time to develop, attending courses, practising, building repertoire and performance pieces.  I started to get offered little bits of paid work which just about paid for the courses, and as my confidence grew took the decision to turn “professional”, register as self employed and see where all this might lead.

I am still based in Derby, but travel all over the place – in the last year Oxford, Cambridge, Devon, all over the Midlands, Yorkshire, Cheshire – last year I even ended up in Ireland touring County Wexford for 2 weeks for the library service.  I tell for all ages and in all places – I have become a regular teller for the National Trust locally, do other “big” houses, tourist attractions, arts centres, small theatres, arts and outdoor festivals, clubs, village halls, and of course schools and libraries.  I have even been invited to perform in a mental health hospital and last week found myself telling to prisoners on day release from an open prison.

Besides performing, I lead workshops for both children and adults, give talks and speeches – not just about storytelling but communication and performance skills generally.  I do conferences and a bit of university work, research and writing commissions and corporate consultancy, blending some of my old experience with all that I have learnt from storytelling. It has surprised me just how varied and interesting the work enquiries have been.  Half the pleasure of telling stories is meeting people and finding that common ground of a story shared, and it has lead myself - and my family - to places and people we would never have seen otherwise.

Why did you become a storyteller?

Just enjoyment of the stories – like many I think I was seduced by the stories I heard as well as the manner in which they were told.  There are tellers who can make any story sound great, infusing their passion, style and humour into the most simple of tales.  Every teller has their own personality which is integral to the telling.  But the same goes for a good story – they have a way of floating off into the air – with a life of their own, and there is a real buzz from discovering a story that you know you can make really work.  Watching people’s faces as they listen is a delight.  A teller flies or falls by their last story, so it is high adrenalin stuff – scary, but so sweet when you know people are there right with you in the heart of the story.

Where do you get your stories from? What kind of stories do you like to tell?

I spend a lot of time hunting out stories, in all places – books, the internet, snippets of half remembered tales from when I was a child come back to me as I read, and of course listening to other tellers wherever I get the chance.  Though I do like to find a story other people are not telling, partly so as to bring people something new and partly because otherwise it is hard to separate the telling from the tale itself!

Not all stories jump out at you at first, some need a bit of figuring out.  Initially I told mainly folk tales, especially from the British Isles, where I felt more familiar with the setting and culture.  But now I am exploring epics and wonder tales from much further afield.  I love finding tales that have traveled, a Scottish tale echoed in an older Indian or Chinese tale, giving clues as to what people remembered, what caught and held their imaginations. 

What kind of stories do you tell? What’s a good story?

All my stories are traditional - it is very hard to tell stories you have written yourself – though I do tell a couple - every word and line matters and it would end up a script - you have to let go of the words to find the story, the images beneath.

So I look for a traditional tale that leaps from the page – a story with a good heart to it.  I don’t mean a moral or a message, but an emotional core that lends itself to twists and turns you can carry people along with.  I scan the page or a book or the screen, looking for the bigger picture, the sense of the thing – stripping out any colouring from the writer or teller as much as I can.  What is left – how does it turn, what did I enjoy about the story and why?  How would it translate into spoken word?  Once a story catches my ear, I research it, find the original, any variations, relevant background material.  That might sound a lot of effort, but it always yields results, and hopefully a version of my own that has integrity, and a fresh take.

I look for a good story line, an interesting setting or character, or something quirky or intriguing – that you can get your teeth into and play with.  But also something I can tell with commitment, because I know it works for me, and gets a good response from the audience.

Then I look for a hook in the tale and things can build up from there.  You might play with the structure, perspective and setting; reinvent the story by turning it on its head – what if, why, how would the audience react if…  trying out different ideas until that one works.  Speaking out loud the story is the acid test – what seems good in theory in your head can be naff or painful when spoken!  So the process of developing a story has to start with the telling, retelling and repeated telling – preferably in front of an audience – their response is so informative – it is not about indulging myself!  I start with the cats, move onto the kids, friends, husband, then maybe a story circle or club, and retell in different settings as often as I can and watch the listeners very carefully.  If I have it right, it will grow into something to fall in love with – and that generally shows, for every teller.

Do you have a favourite story? And why do you like it?

OOhh – that is very hard to choose – I tell a version of Hairy Toe (aka The Teeny Weeny Old Lady) that always goes down a storm whatever the audience – it was one of the first stories I really learnt to play with, adding a new (and what was for me) stronger ending and some little mischievous twists, so has a special place in my repertoire.  But every new story is a new love affair – so whatever I am currently working on could be described as my favourite! 

I am currently working with Blodeuwedd (The Lady of the Flowers – from the Welsh mediaeval epic, The Mabinogion) – it is a cracking tale of betrayal and confused, even distorted love – a sort of Lady Macbeth meets Desperate Housewives meets Camelot…  And so much to go at in terms of imagery – the whole idea of a woman conjured out of flowers for a specific purpose yields all sorts of possibilities – throw in a bit of courtly love underpinned by simmering passions, incest, denial, neglect, a father’s love for his child born out of shame, strange riddles, a wild Welsh setting and hugely graceful birds – definitely one to play with.

Who is your favourite storyteller?

Now that is really hard to answer!  I admire so many different tellers for different things:  Cat Weatheril (for her vivacity and vivid, unusual imagery); Mats Rehman (hugely visual and really in tune with his audience); Xanthe Gresham (such a wonderful voice “like lemon drops”); Michael Harvey (a warm wit and gentle deft touch); Ben Haggarty (stage presence and intellectual honesty); Daniel Morden (dramatic, statuesque and precise, beautiful language); Jan Blake (charismatic, and commitment to the story);  and …  But some of the best stories I have heard have been one off gems told in a club open night, tucked away in some village hall, where the moment just blossoms and the teller inhabits the story in a very personal, intimate and engaging way – no artiface, no staging, no obvious technique, just pure story and the audience leaning in…

What are your three tips for aspiring storytellers?

  • Listen and watch lots and lots of tellers.  Travel all over and watch and learn.
  • Tell only those stories you fall in love with – it’s a nightmare trying to tell a story you don’t really like just because you are asked to!  It shows when you tell something you love!
  • Tell, tell, tell – wherever and whenever you can.  It is like exercising a mental muscle – the more you use it, the stronger it gets.  Seek out new venues to experience the response of different audiences and learn what works and why.  You learn the painful way, but it works!  Every audience is different and working the audience is as important as knowing and loving the story you tell.  Having said that - don’t plan which story too much – go with alternatives and judge which one to tell when you get there.  Work to the audience, not yourself!

What are you reading at the moment?

I have a stack of books I dip into – I picked up a second-hand copy of The Pentamerone by Basile recently so that is top of the pile, along with Alan Garner’s latest collection of folk tales.  Beyond “work” (though it never feels like work) I am reading Roald Dahl’s “BFG” with my youngest, “Assassin’s Creed” (based on the computer game) with my eldest, and the last novel I read was Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” – a grim read but gripping and so beautifully written – elegaic – couldn’t put it down.  I have a copy of “Eldest” by Christopher Paolini which I am hoping to read over Christmas.

What's your favourite piece of music?

“Silver Waters” by Howdenjones – they are a Lancashire acoustic music duo – they have been to our village three times now for concerts and I never tire of listening to them.  This particular song they very kindly let me put on an audio book of my own stories I recorded in 2006 – it was a perfect follow-on from the first story on the CD and I love it still – it makes me think of growing up by the sea, my children and the landscapes of Britain that I love.

Music attaches to memory and mood – I listen to a lot of folk / acoustic music these days – Bellowhead, Show of Hands, Horse’s Brawl, but still love most types of music, rock, pop, 80’s stuff!  I was brought up on a diet of Mozart piano concertos, Beethoven, Schubert and opera, so my other favourite is Verdi’s Rigoletto – my Dad used to play it when I was young – along with arias from La Traviatta, the choruses from Aida, the Marriage of Figaro, Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne…  They take me back.

How do you relax?

Well apart from listening to stories, and music…  at home I love a good TV series, the odd documentary, the cinema is wonderful escapism with the boys and my husband or a friend (and it is great to see the parallels with traditional storytelling).  The boys are great company going out or staying in and with a park out the back of the house we often go for walks down to the lake or through the woods.  There’s little to beat an evening with a good friend or two, eating and chatting, mulling over the wider world.  And talking to our cats - we have three adorable, intelligent, gentle cats, with another kitten arriving later this week as I write…   

But when I have free time on my own, which seems rare these days, I love to paint – usually something impressionistic with acrylics layered one colour over another or with pastels you can shade and smudge – it is very satisfying when something half decent emerges and the colours on soft pastel sticks are brilliant – vibrant and beautiful. 

Find out more about Sophie here.