Interviews with Storytellers - Priscilla Howe

Priscilla Howe
Priscilla Howe is from Kansas City, Kansas, near the geographic center of the continental US. She has been calling herself a storyteller since 1988, when she was a librarian in Connecticut. In 1993 she moved to Kansas to be a full-time storyteller. She tells stories in schools, libraries, festivals, house concerts, juvenile detention centers and at special events. She has worked all over the US, as well as in Belgium, Germany, Bulgaria, Mexico, Brazil and Peru.
How did you start storytelling?
When I was 13, I didn’t know I was a storyteller. I just thought I was a babysitter. I liked hanging around with kids, making stuff up. Many years later, first as a children’s librarian and then as a full-time storyteller, I realized I was still doing what I liked: hanging around with kids, making stuff up.
Why did you become a storyteller?
I couldn’t help it. I got a job at a library where all the children’s librarians told stories. They invited me to join them at a school and asked if I would tell a story. I told two, one by Philippa Pearce and one I made up when I was thirteen. I was hooked from that very first session.
Where do you get your stories from? What kind of stories do you like to tell?  I get stories from books, from my own life and from other tellers. With younger kids I use puppets in between the stories. I tell folktales, literary tales and my own stories. I like to say that all my stories start with the seed of truth. Where they go from there is anybody’s guess!
How do you find the stories you tell?
I’m always looking for new stories to tell. I haunt the public library and websites with full texts of traditional tales. I read French, Bulgarian and Russian (and can bluff some related languages), so often I search in books in those languages. I’m looking for that ineffable spark, that feeling of “Oooh, this is the story for me!” When I find it, I look for other versions of the same story. Often, I do a bit of research on the culture of the story. I try to look at the story from as many angles as possible so I can understand both the story and the backstory. What does the main character dream of? What does the kitchen in the castle look like? Who else is in the garden? If I know all of this, the story will have depth. I tell the story to myself as I pace around my house or as I walk down the street. I’m a kinesthetic learner, so I do this to get the story into my body, into my bones, into my breath.
What makes a good story ?
That’s a hard question. The story must in some way leave the both teller and listener satisfied. The listener must not walk away saying, “So what?”
What is your favourite story? And why do you like it?
My favourite story is the one I’m telling at the moment. I believe there’s only one big rule in storytelling (along with lots of suggestions): only tell stories you love. I love every story I tell. If I don’t, the listeners won’t like it either.
Who is your favourite storyteller?
Another tough question. Here are my current top five (subject to change, of course): Willy Claflin, Claire Murphy, Dolores Hydock, Joel Smets and Bill Harley.
What are your three tips for aspiring storytellers.
  • My friend Papa Joe says, “If you want to be a storyteller, tell stories. If you want to be a better storyteller, tell more stories.” He’s right.
  • Listen. The best storytellers are deep listeners.
  • Find your own style. In the beginning, many of us imitate storytellers we like. Then we move through that stage to our own way of telling.
What are you reading at the moment?
I just picked up Our Secret Territory: The Essence of Storytelling by Laura Simms.
What's your favourite piece of music?
Just one? Depends on my mood. I’ve always loved Schubert’s Trout Quintet, but you might as easily find me listening to Bonnie Raitt or Tom Petty or Zydeco music or bluegrass or swing or crooners from the 40s and 50s.
How do you relax?
Daydreaming, reading novels, swimming, hanging out with friends, playing games (not all of these at once).
Find out more about Priscilla Howe here.