Hello everyone. A couple of weeks ago I reached out to one of my favourite Canadian authors, the incomparable Aubrey Davis, who I met many years ago when he was kind enough to autograph a copy of Bagels From Benny for my kids. I asked if we could connect and learn about his journey as a writer. When we got news that he was available, we set up some time and had a chat with Mr. Davis. Here is his story. We hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed bringing it to you.
I’m Mauricio, managing editor at WOAL, and I had the unique privilege of spending some moments with one of Canada’s most cherished story-tellers and children’s authors. A world traveler, he has mastered the gift of recounting timeless traditional tales in both the oral and written disciplines for a modern day audience. We had a chance to reflect on writing, culture, books, movies, the state of the education but most indulging of all, to me, the distinct art of story-telling. He joined us via Skype from sunny downtown Toronto, on of all days, Mother’s Day.
Welcome Mr. Davis. We know early on you began your career as a story-teller, what inspired you to become a writer?
It began when I was a kid, I was 9 years old and I lived next door to a writer. I never spoke to him about his writing, nor did I see any of his writing, I just lived next door to him. One day I woke up and felt, I want to be a writer too. I kind of caught it like a cold. So I bugged my mom for a typewriter, and a great big Webster’s Dictionary and I started to write.
What I loved to write back then was funny things. I really loved humour. I was a fan of Mad Magazine and the Bible. I was a religious kid on my own, not through my parents. And I just kept writing funny things until grade 8.
Who were some of your champions supporting you early on? And what happened in Grade 8?
I think it was when I was a kid, my 6th grade teacher. I noticed all the other kids got their stories handed back to them and I was the only one that didn’t get a story back. I didn’t know what was going on. He read my story to the whole class, with tears of laughter running down his cheeks. And I thought “Oh, this is nice”. I loved to write in school.
I had a grade 8 teacher that wrote, “There’s nothing worse than humour poorly done”. That shut me down, and I didn’t write again until I was I was about 40 and I came into story-telling.
How did teaching shape your writing?
I’m no longer a teacher, I retired. I taught special needs kids. During my last 17 years teaching, I did an oral language program with story-telling and rhymes, laugh games and finger plays, trying to bring language to life for the kids. I tried to take a story and tell it simply, engagingly and dramatically through repetition. There were all kinds of things that worked orally with them that got me to shape stories – I didn’t realize this was training me to write stories for kids. It’s not perfect, because oral doesn’t translate perfectly into written. But it’s not bad, it’s about 80% of it, there’s another 20% you have to add to make it a written piece. But the foundation is incredible. You really get a sense of how the story moves along.
You have a certain skill telling the story, what were some of your challenges translating that into writing?
When you tell a story, it’s usually pretty spare. The things that describe a character are very bare-bones. Each individual listener will fill in the details – the appearance and characteristics themselves. But when you are writing a piece, you often have to describe that character just a bit more. It doesn’t have to be a huge amount, but a little bit more. I kept getting comments from editors that my characters were too flat. The same goes for the setting. I was told there was not enough detail in the setting. In a story, you generally don’t overly describe the place; you give just enough to move the story along. So, I think, in an oral tale it tends to be more plot-driven, at least in traditional stories.
Are you characters based on real people or just from your imagination?
Partly it’s memories of real people – even when I wrote Bone Button Borscht, it was the memory of my grandmother’s voice. It didn’t even give the character shape, it actually gave the voice of the tale. Same with Kishka for Koppel – my grandmother was Yiddish speaking, a Polish-Ukrainian woman, so she had an accent; a flavour of the way she was. It somehow emerged as I wrote. It’s not my natural language, but I was sort of channeling her, in a way.
Writing characters spills over from your life and your imagination. The story demands certain things. You can alter the story dramatically by changing the nature of the characters, but it initially demands a dialogue between the character and the story. As the character changes, the plot may have to change, as the plot changes, the character may have to change and so forth.
Tell me about Bagels From Benny, it’s a powerful and emotional story, what inspired that book?
Desperation! I was invited back to Montreal as a presenter, they loved Bone Button Borscht. Since I had already been to Montreal, they needed something new, so I researched some oral tales that I liked – stories I could tell along with it. As soon as Jewish folks heard a good Jewish tale, they wanted more.
There was a wonderful story-teller in Toronto, and I heard him tell this old story called Challot in the Holy Ark, Challot or Challah is a Jewish egg bread, it is a little bit sweeter. I heard him tell this story twice over the years. I said, that’s a great story! But, it didn’t have a child protagonist, and it wasn’t set in a contemporary setting. By shifting the scene to Toronto and making him into a child, it changed the nature of the story quite a bit, but the basic plot was similar.
Who are your most cherished authors? What makes them special to you?
My favourite author is Idries Shah, he was of Afghan descent, and lived in England. You remember I said that I really liked funny stories as well as Bible stories? I think his stories combined the two. Many were hilarious! There was a good character from Central Asia, Mulla Nasrudin. He was so outrageously funny.
Once Nasrudin was invited to deliver a sermon. When he got on the pulpit, he asked, “Do you know what I am going to say?” The audience replied “No”, so he announced, “I have no desire to speak to people who don’t even know what I will be talking about!” And left.
The people felt embarrassed and called him back again the next day. This time, when he asked the same question, the people replied “Yes”. So Nasrudin said, “Well, since you already know what I am going to say, I won’t waste any more of your time!” And left.
Now the people were really perplexed. They decided to try one more time and once again invited the Mulla to speak the following week. Once again he asked the same question – “Do you know what I am going to say?” Now the people were prepared and so half of them answered “Yes” while the other half replied “No”. So Nasrudin said, “Let the half who know what I am going to say, tell it to the half who don’t!” And left.
He played every human role you can imagine, and it’s up to you to figure out who he was playing, and your reactions to him are every bit as important as what he was doing. He also wrote all these wonderful, almost Arabian Night-type stories that were fantastic.
They made me think: I write stuff that’s entertaining on the surface but also has something else under it that will engage people beyond the surface. Enjoy the surface because it’s important to the story, it has to be entertaining, so people will pay attention to it, and it will survive. But for me, it has to have something more. His stories had this depth that I love.
I like Doris Lessing very much. As an adult writer, I like F. Scott Fitzgerald. Mark Twain – my very first book that I loved as a child, I was out in the country when I read it, was Tom Sawyer. Only in the last few years did I finally get to Huckleberry Finn. They are classics. I don’t read kid’s writers so much.
Do you have any advice for young writers?
I’m kind of radical in a sense. You probably shouldn’t read any writing books and you probably shouldn’t go to any writing workshops. I think the best thing to do is to read what appeals to you. Read a lot. Then read what doesn’t appeal to you. Read widely. And then write. Just write, and write and write. It’s like any kind of exercise, you just keep doing it, eventually you will get to the point where you will want to share it with someone and get some feedback from them.
I came back to writing from being a story-teller for about 13 years, before I ever submitted a manuscript. I didn’t realize I was actually training myself as a writer through all that – it was really focusing on the story. It is such as intimate experience when you take a story inside you and you tell and re-tell, and re-tell. In a way, you are editing the story, you are re-writing, re-writing and re-writing. The nice thing about an oral situation, unlike a written situation, you are getting immediate feedback. You are seeing what’s happening live. That is the way I came at it. Now, I don’t know if you have to do that to write, but at some point you do have to get feedback. It can work with writing too because whoever you are addressing on the page is somebody you are talking to in a way.
I heard one of your favourite movies is Groundhog Day. What do you enjoy about it?
(Laughs out loud) … It actually represents for me an experience I have with literature. When I read stories with layers, again and again, as I experience it a little bit more, the story alters to some extent. There are more dimensions to the story as it goes – and there is more understanding for me as I go along. The film shows the same events occurring again and again, and they become more and more rich, more possibilities emerged from the same pattern. There’s also an insight that may trigger at a certain point in time for you. Where you are going through the same thing again and again, reading the same thing again and again, then – Oh my gosh! It’s not just about the story, it’s about you, and what have you have learned at this point. It was one of the closest films, I’ve ever seen, to the kind of experience I get with literature.
When you are not writing, what do you like to spend time on?
A lot of my time is taken up with a charity I’m involved with – The Institute for Cross-Cultural Exchange. We are an all-volunteer organization and I’m on the board. We donate books to Afghan and Pakistani kids as well as Mexican and Canadian kids. With the Afghan kids, the books are their traditional tales – their stories. The kids’ parents have lost touch with their own traditions because of the devastation of war and chaos, so we’ve been repatriating or giving back their own stories, translated back into their own languages – Dari and Pashto, in picture book form.
In the US, our sister organization got a state department grant and donated over 4 million books so far. In Canada, we’ve donated 100,000 books so far, to kids in need – same traditional stories, translated to English, so they can understand what we have in common with these people. We can learn from them – this is where the cross-cultural aspect comes in.
If you were not a writer, what profession would you have followed?
I was already a teacher; I think that was a good run. I really loved the special needs kids, they gave me so much, in so many ways, it was an amazing experience. I hope they got as much as I got out of it. In some ways, I wish I could have been able to teach in the regular system. I find it too constraining, which is unfortunate because I don’t think it should be. I wish the experience of teaching regular children could be as rich as that special needs experience because nobody could tell me how to teach those kids. Unfortunately the curriculum is very politically driven and very constrained. They think they know what is important but not necessarily what I think kids really need.
We know that you are a well-traveled writer. Where have you visited and where would you still like to go?
I travelled all over Europe and across North Africa to the Canary Islands. I was heading east; I really wanted to go to Central Asia, Turkey, Afghanistan and further, to India. But I got tired. I was travelling for a year and a half. Enough was enough. So I ended up back in England for another year and a half, I settled. I think Turkey is one place I would really like to see. Afghanistan also, but not now, I think it’s too volatile right now.
What can we look forward to in your near future?
I don’t want to specifically describe what I’m doing right now because I’m not sure it will be exactly as I tell you. I’m working on a couple of original stories. I’ve found that all of my stories so far have been heavily influenced by traditional tales. There are a couple of ideas I’m working on as well, one related to my grandmother and where she grew up – the first years of her life in the lower east side of New York City. Also, my grandkids just moved out to Fredericton this May. They used to be a 10 minute walk to my house. So there is a story about Fredericton that I’m thinking about. I won’t say too much, talking about it may not help the story too much.
We want to thank you so much for your time, we learned a lot today. We wish you great success and hope that you have a great day – today is Mother’s Day!
It is, I have to get back to my wife and son. Thank you. It was a pleasure.
From Chandler, Oklahoma to Toronto, Ontario and all over the world – from logger to farmer, to salesman and teacher, Aubrey Davis has done it all. He’s been a champion for children and a consumate entertainer; but most of all, a kind and charming story-teller. And, there are more stories to come. Aubrey, thank you for sharing yours with us.
And, of course, one of our favourites:
Learn about his charity work here.
And of course catch up with Aubrey’s events and workshops on his blog.