Today, I have the privilege of interviewing Kate Farrell, founder and editor of Wisdom Has a Voice, a multimedia memoir project in which women write about their relationships with their mothers.
Watch the following video of the interview (in 2 parts), or scroll down and read Kate’s answers to the interview questions.
AS: Kate is a graduate of the School of Library and Information Studies at UC Berkeley, a language arts teacher, author, librarian, lecturer, and storyteller. She founded the Word Weaving Project in 1979-1991, and is author of multiple books and resources for teachers to use and teach storytelling in the classroom. Her newest publication is a young adult novel titled Girl in the Mirror. Currently Kate is a part-time school librarian in San Francisco and lives in Santa Rosa, California.
Now I’d like to welcome you Kate Farrell. I’m happy to have this opportunity to discuss the Wisdom Has a Voice Project with you.
When did you first conceive of the idea for Wisdom Has a Voice, and what triggered the idea?
KF: When my mother died at age 95 in 2006, I felt the lifelong “holding patterns” that had existed between my mother and me simply dissipate. As I let go of these patterns or tensions based on our different expectations of one another, I began discovering who my mother really was in her own right. In reflection and writing, I learned to understand why we were so different, why we had to be different, given our generational influences—from coming of age in the Chicago Depression era to the San Francisco ‘60s.
I wished that I had been able to “separate” and appreciate my mother while she was still alive. But it was only in her absence that I could see the legacy that had always existed between us, how it had defined us, and its hidden power. How much better if I had done so before.
In the months that followed her death, I wrote one memoir after the other about her, about us. Noticing that the in-depth experiences between mother and daughter were not commonly discussed or published, I decided to gather these as stories, as memoirs from many women.
AS: Once you realized this was something you really wanted to do, what was your next step?
KF: In 2007, I began the Wisdom Has a Voice project, first writing a book proposal, then conducting small, local workshops in 2009-2010, just to see what would happen—what insights would emerge.
AS: Your background is primarily in Language Arts education and storytelling. How has this background influenced your approach to Wisdom?
KF: My background as a storyteller was vital to this memoir project. In my decades-long work in education, from classroom teaching at all levels to director of a statewide storytelling project in California, I saw the effectiveness of “story” in learning. But as the cultural context for traditional folklore fragmented, I slowly began to understand that “memoir” was the new folklore. And while the function of traditional folktales was to transmit a cultural truth using metaphor and archetype, the personal narrative as the modern folktale is the same: to tell a truth based on a real experience, a meaningful story.
The problem in our dominant culture is that women’s truths, the feminine voice, women’s experiences and their understandings of life across the generations, are not given the same status as that of men. My work as university adjunct faculty (St. Mary’s College) included research and implementation of adult development theory. In this capacity, I came across the work of Mary Belenky and Carol Gilligan (below) who describe the stunning truth about women’s lack of authentic self-expression.
It was the combination of my work as a storyteller and in adult development work (through teaching reflective essays) that motivated me to begin this project and to name it: Wisdom Has a Voice.
AS: Talk a little about the process of soliciting and selecting the stories in Wisdom, as well as putting together your editorial team.
KF: First, I was determined not to follow the advice of every agent to whom I spoke over the years from 2007 to 2010: that the anthology had to include memoirs written by celebrities about their mothers. This advice, even from New Age editors, was that without “names” no anthology about mother would sell. More importantly, the agents/editors wouldn’t touch the project.
But if these memoirs were to be authentic, real folklore, then they had to be grassroots stories, told by women who were literate (of course), but neither famous nor reputed as authors. It was encouraging to find outlets for women’s memoirs online, groups, networks, associations, e-zines, newsletters, etc. By joining these groups or paying for a Call for Submissions with clear guidelines posted on the website in more detail, I was able to target just that pool of women writers. It was even more wonderful that the final group of 25 authors represented a range of age, ethnicities, races, and geography. That was very exciting. Not only was there an international range among the memoirs, but a variety of mother-daughter relationships.
The editorial team was close at hand: my colleagues who’d worked with me on Redwood Writers anthologies and other Redwood publishing projects over the years. Our relationship was easy, local, informal, and hands-on. However, I maintained all communication with the 25 authors.
AS: What kinds of storytelling and writing touched you the most deeply?
KF: The most touching and most healing memoirs for me were those that describe a nurturing mother. I could experience and recognize in this writing the unconditional mother love that we all hunger. I finally understood that Mother Love is sometimes most present when it is missed.
AS: How did you find this publisher (Unlimited Publishing) and what was the submission process?
KF: After 3 years of struggling with query letters and book proposals, I returned to my friend, Danny Snow of Unlimited Publishing. Danny and I had worked on anthologies for CWC branches and other CWC publishing projects following our meeting at the SF Writers Conference in 2006. Ironically, we had first discussed my idea for a book of memoirs about mother in Fall 2007 at some length. He was extremely supportive of the idea since Mary Belenky had been his professor at Harvard—so he understood the need for women’s voices in contemporary society. He suggested the subtitle (Every Daughter’s Memories of Mother) to indicate that this was not by rich and famous women. In Spring 2010, we put together a production schedule and followed up with a final contract package August 2010.
To this day, Danny is supportive of the mission behind the book and is assisting in its launch and promotion. It is a great benefit to have a publisher partner whose business is based on marketing success.
AS: On the website, it says that Wisdom is a “multi-media project.” Do you have plans for an audiobook or other forms of media?
KF: Yes, I’ll begin with simple audio files, excerpts read by the authors next week, using Audio Acrobat, that I’ll post on the website along with the brief text and a photo. We may have video files as well. An audio book is a perfect idea.
Even better would be a documentary series for cable TV, a concept the publisher and I have personally discussed with a producer in LA, Kate McCallum of Bridge Arts Media: http://www.bridgeartsmedia.com.
AS: What do you see for the project’s future? Do you plan on a sequel?
KF: Because the authors reside throughout the US, Canada, UK, and South Africa, there are many opportunities for their own initiative in promoting the book and the project. We’ll do a local Book Tour locally in the Bay Area at launch and I’m planning a Blog Tour in April prior to Mother’s Day. I would also like to promote use of the Book Club Discussion Guide.
I do plan on publishing another anthology in 2013 and would hope to have explored cross media platforms by then.
AS: What’s on your desk now (any projects, writing, speaking, etc.)?
KF: Promotion: Book Tour with author readings, implementing Social Media tools, attending literary events and conferences, developing concept papers for media properties based on the anthology, query letters out to women’s mags for serialization, etc.
AS: Is there anything else you’d like to share about yourself and/or Wisdom Has a Voice?
KF: I am so GLAD that production is OVER and the print book is due to launch Sept 1st! This was a long journey that I was privileged to make. It may sound strange, but I have felt the support of the “mothers” in this work through the long months of selecting, editing, and production. May they be proud!
Notes: The seminal work of Belenky (1986) examined “women’s ways of knowing” and found that the first stage in female development was silence. Significantly, women feared self-expression, suppressed through generations of conditioning, and denied a right to an independent voice. Women’s experiences were typically discredited and their constructed knowledge dismissed as “old wives’ tales.” Yet what women have to share through self-reflection, focusing on generational truths communicated matrilineally, is essential to the balance of our contemporary society. Women’s voices, silenced, debased and ignored for centuries, are vibrant, lively, and full.