Written by Colleen Jones, Regional Advisor
Our featured SCBWI Ireland member for Autumn 2018 is storyteller and writer Liz Weir.
Photo: Liz Weir (taken by Winfried Dulisch)
Liz Weir is the author of two collections of stories for The O’Brien Press, Boom Chicka Boom (illustrated by Josip Lizatovic) and Here, There and Everywhere, as well as a picture book When Dad Was Away (illustrated by Karin Littlewood) (Frances Lincoln Books) and 15 titles to support the Thinking Skills and Personal Capabilities curriculum for schools in Northern Ireland. She is the writer of the Together in the Park respecting difference series for the Media Initiative for Children and has also written Tales from the Road, a story about the life of Traveller children for the Early Years Organisation.
I asked Liz a few questions to find out more about her experiences as a storyteller and writer.
SCBWI: You worked as Children’s Librarian for the City of Belfast in Northern Ireland, is that correct? What did you want to do when you were growing up?
Liz: I always wanted to write but, when I was a teenager, I got a summer job in the local library in my home town of Ballymena. After doing a degree in English, French, and Spanish at Queen’s University Belfast, I went on to do a post-graduate Diploma in Library and Information Studies. I worked as Children’s Librarian in Belfast from 1976 and moved on to heading the Schools and Colleges Library Service until I went freelance in 1990.
SCBWI: How did you get into storytelling? What was it like being a storyteller during the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland? How did you use storytelling to help the children caught in the middle of this conflict?
Liz: When I was at Library School, I did the Children and Young People’s option, and storytelling was something we learnt about – in those days it was mostly storytelling through picture books. I met my first American storyteller in 1980, and he told me people earned a living as storytellers in the States. This intrigued me. I learnt through telling to children in Belfast that storytelling allowed them to BE children at a time when they were forced to grow up all too quickly. I organised storytelling sessions all over the city at the height of the Troubles, taking storytelling out to parks and community centres and often going past burning buses to get there. The welcome was assured in every area regardless of political affiliation.
SCBWI: How did you get started as a writer? What was your first published book? Did you write it on spec or was it commissioned?
Liz: O’Brien Press asked me to do my first collection of stories and this was Boom Chicka Boom published in 1994. I followed that with another collection Here, There and Everywhere. These were stories that I told and am in many cases still telling—the idea was to encourage parents and teachers to share stories. I wrote When Dad Was Away, which deals with children with a dad in prison, way back in the mid-80s, but it took me over 20 years before I managed to get it published by Frances Lincoln. It’s increasingly more difficult to get books published.
SCBWI: How does writing a book differ from creating or learning a story for a storytelling performance? What do you like best about each format?
Liz: There is much more freedom in oral storytelling, as it’s not just the words but the intonation, gestures, and body movement that add to the impact of the story. Writing requires more discipline and it needs to be special so the words can be lifted off the page to fire children’s imagination.
SCBWI: What did you do to learn public speaking and performance for an audience? I read that you were timid as a child. What did you to overcome any nervousness?
Liz: I was very shy and actually am still an introvert doing an extravert’s job! I used to shake so much when holding a picture book, but I learnt to trust the story and the reaction of the audience gave me confidence and helped me develop my storytelling ability.
SCBWI: Can you name a couple of your favourite storytellers from anywhere in the world and what you like about them?
Liz: I was inspired by Grace Hallworth, who was also a librarian. From Trinidad and Tobago, she has shared her stories all over the world. She is a great age now, but her books of stories are still being read. I have just spent time with Len Cabral who lives on Rhode Island – he tells with vitality and spirit and is a warm generous person, a quality that comes through in his telling. Daniel Morden from Wales was over for this year’s Cape Clear International Storytelling Festival and I would stand in the snow to listen to him. His precision with worlds is remarkable and I have seen him work with all ages.
SCBWI: There is a lot of debate, around stories both spoken and written, about the fine line between cultural appropriation and respectful appreciation. How do you feel about telling stories from other cultures? Is there an etiquette to ensure the source is acknowledged for stories that you are sharing if they are not your own?
Liz: I always love the way Irish traditional singers when they start to sing often say “This is a story I got from…”. I try to do this with stories and love to remember the folk in whose footsteps I am following. I tell a lot of Irish and Scottish tales as that is my heritage but I also tell world folk tales. There is of course an etiquette as some stories are sacred to some ethnic groups, for example my friends who are from American Indian backgrounds. One has to be sensitive to the source of the story and be respectful about what we tell and when we tell it. Research is essential before blundering in and telling anything that takes our fancy.
SCBWI: What do you do as part of the mentoring scheme?
Liz: I am a mentor with the Poetry Ireland Writers in Schools Scheme. Before authors or storytellers are accepted on to the scheme they must shadow a mentor, and then the mentor has to watch them work with groups and report back on it. I also take on apprentices who come and live at my place and shadow me, getting on-the-job experience.
SCBWI: What might someone learn at a storytelling workshop that you run?
Liz: It depends on the workshop – it can deal with a specific age group, for example, pre-schoolers or teenagers, it could be about developing repertoire. Mostly my workshops give advice n selecting, preparing and telling stories,. I also do workshops on inter-cultural storytelling or on working with children or adults with disabilities.
SCBWI: How do people get involved in shadowing you as a storyteller? How long does that scheme last and how often would you take on a new “apprentice”?
Liz: People simply ask, and if it suits me, and I think they have potential, l I take them on. They usually stay at least two weeks but ideally it’s longer than that. I have had people from Canada, the US, Germany, Switzerland, and various places. They have to help out in my tourist hostel in exchange for bed and board.
SCBWI: You are also involved in telling stories to people with Alzheimer’s? How did you get involved with that? What are the benefits to the people involved?
Liz: I do a lot of work with groups dealing with people who have various forms of dementia. It can be a magical thing to see how memories can be stirred by a story or song. As Storyteller-in-Residence with Libraries NI, I often go into nursing and care homes or work with voluntary groups.
SCBWI: How do you get gigs as a professional storyteller? Do you have an agent?
Liz: I set up all my own work and always have. It’s a word of mouth thing. I always say it’s not about brochures or websites, quality of work is what gets you work. I advise people starting off to do some gigs and make sure they get feedback that they can show to other potential clients. I do workshops on that as well.
SCBWI: Do you travel a lot for your gigs? Where have you been and where would you still like to go?
Liz: I have told on five continents from Australia to Canada, from Russia to South Africa, and everywhere in between. I’d like to go to South America, but all in all I am pretty content.
SCBWI: How do you juggle your time between organizing events, performing at storytelling gigs, writing, running Ballyeamon Barn, and daily life? How much time do you actually have for writing and storytelling?
Liz: Storytelling is what brings me my living, though it is supplemented by my tourist hostel Ballyeamon Barn. Writing does not bring in very much money, which surprises everybody except writers! As I am moving towards retirement, I intend to devote a lot more time to writing, especially my memoir, in which I will tell lots of stories!
SCBWI: How long have you been a member of the Storytellers of Ireland? When did you start the Yarn Spinners in Belfast? Storytelling groups have flourished in both the Republic and Northern Ireland in the last ten years. How do you see storytelling helping to bring people together, especially with long-standing and deeply personal conflicts such as The Troubles?
Liz: I was a founder member of Storytellers of Ireland. I started the first Yarnspinning group in Belfast in 1985 and had a dream that groups would develop all over Ireland—that dream has come true. Storytelling brings people together to LISTEN to each other, and the listening is more important than the telling. Even if you don’t agree with another person’s point of view, if you do them the honour of listening to them, you are showing respect, and that is the base for conflict resolution.
SCBWI: What tips do you have for anyone who wants to get started in storytelling and performance, either in addition to their writing/illustrating or as a separate interest?
Liz: Go and listen to as many different tellers as you can, so you can see what style you enjoy and what might suit you. Attend lots of events and watch what works and what doesn’t. I think every writer who reads their work aloud should do some training—I have heard fine work ruined by poor delivery. It’s not for everyone, but everyone can improve their skills.
Thank-you so much, Liz, for sharing some of your experiences and wisdom and letting us glimpse into the exciting world of storytelling! It has many more applications than I ever could have guessed!
Liz Weir is a storyteller and writer based in Northern Ireland, who works with all age groups promoting the traditional art for which Ireland is world famous. A children’s librarian by training, she travels the world telling stories to adults and children, organising workshops on storytelling, and speaking at courses for parents, teachers, and librarians. Her wealth of stories is drawn from both the oral and written traditions. Along with her many creative activities and events, Liz runs the Ballyeamon Barn in Glenariff, which is a hostel that also hosts music and stories.
Liz firmly believes in the power of storytelling to promote understanding and aid conflict resolution.
For more information about Liz, visit: https://www.lizweir.org/