Sapporo Storytelling – interview with George Polley (23 March 2009)

georgepolleyIntroduction

George wrote to me about a week ago saying he’d like to be interviewed. When he told me he’d moved from America to Japan to live, I was pretty sure he’d be a person with an interesting story to tell. I was not wrong and I hope that, like me, you’ll find his story interesting. Without further ado, have great pleasure in introducing you to George Polley …


Aneeta: George, thank you for writing to me.

George: Thank you for responding,  Aneeta.

Aneeta: Let’s start with something personal – where were you born? Where did you grow up? What do you do for a living and where to do you live now?

George: I was born in Santa Barbara, California. My parents moved to Tacoma, Washington, where my father was from, and I spent my first seven years there before we moved to Seattle, Washington, where I lived until I went to college in Oregon. After completing my undergraduate degree (B.A. in sociology and anthropology), I spent a year at the University of Washington working on a Master’s Degree in anthropology, but dropped out to attend seminary in Berkeley, California in 1960, completing an M.Div. in 1963. After three years as a pastor in Illinois, I entered the University of Illinois, where I earned a master’s degree in social work. I then spent the next 41 years as a mental health professional in California, Minnesota and lastly in Washington State, retiring at the end of 2007.

From the late 1960s on, I also began my writing career. So, as you can see, I’ve been fairly busy, and still am, as I am a full time writer, spending four to six hours a day writing.

My wife, Aiko, and I moved to Sapporo, Japan at the end of March 2008 to fulfill her dream of returning home after I retired. We are both enjoying life here in this beautiful city on the north island, where we celebrated our 29th wedding anniversary the 23rd of last month.

Aneeta: Congratulations! The document you sent to me shows an impressive career as a writer. I’ve also read a little more about your work on your website, http://www.geogepolleyauthor.com. Please tell me a little of the kind of work you’ve had published thus far.

George: I began with writing a couple of articles for a Baptist religious journal called Foundations, an article for a mental health journal, and a couple of articles about writing that were published in The South Dakota Review, which also published one of my short stories, called Jonah’s Birth. In 1974 while working on a short story, I began writing poetry because my typewriter broke. Seems like a silly reason, but it isn’t because handwriting takes so long that I am always running ahead of myself. So while my typewriter was being repaired I wrote some poems. Friends liked them and I began getting published, a wonderful incentive to continue. I still write poetry on a regular basis, such as the following poem, which author Barbara Becker-Holstein has called “A beautiful and painful poem.”

Sound of sorrow
There is a sound, and it is heartbreaking.
It is the sound of a mother wailing
the loss of a child. It doesn’t matter how
her child was lost; what matters is that
her child is dead.

Do you hear it? It is there, rising and falling
in ululating rhythms like a wind
wailing through walls, windows and trees,
tearing your heart with its agony.

You don’t want to hear it, but you must. It is insistent.
Listen closely. For nine long months she carried and nurtured
her child, labored and then gave birth. And now her child is gone,
taken from her. It doesn’t matter how.

The pain is the same no matter how her child died.
What matters is that her pain, expressed, is heard.
Hear it. Take it in until her wail becomes yours
and changes your heart. Hear it, so that each time

you decide to start a war, or take a life in war, or want
to take a life for any reason, you hear that heartbreaking
sound ululating in your ears and it stops you.

Listen. Can you hear the sound, rising and falling
like a wild wind wailing through city streets and
battlefields? Quiet, now. Listen carefully. Her wailing
calls, demanding your attention.

Listen.

—Sapporo, 10 February, 2009.

The poem was inspired by a comment in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner: “It is a heartbreaking sound, Amir jan, the wailing of a mother.”

I’m continuing to write and publish poems, one of which is due for publication in the London-based Graffiti, which is published by the GreenSpirit organization. But my main work is with fiction.

Over the years I’ve had several short stories published, and have one, The Storm, which is scheduled for publication in the UK magazine The View From Here in an up-coming issue. And I have two new books out, Grandfather Stories and The Old Man and The Monkey, published by Abbott ePublishing, of Manchester, New Hampshire, which I am very excited about. Both are set here on the island of Hokkaido, the first in our neighbourhood, and the second in a tiny village several hours north of Sapporo. I’m currently working on a novel about Mexico City, where I lived for a short period in 1973-74, and on a long short story about an invisible rabbit that lives across from us on the driving range of the local golf center.

Aneeta: That poem is very soulful. Thank you. As you’ve said, you now live in Japan. Has this transition from America to Japan been difficult or easy? Why?

George: It’s been both. When we moved into our condominium, we had to have it upgraded, with new windows, new wallcover, and so on. Then we had to get health insurance, get plugged into health care, and find our way around on the bus and subway system. Aiko hadn’t lived in Japan for nearly 29 years, and never had lived in Sapporo; plus, she had to squire me around, since I neither speak nor read Japanese, which was a tremendous pressure on her. For me, it has been less so, especially since I’ve been able to connect with physicians who speak excellent English, and who are also excellent physicians. What I’ve missed the most is sitting down for coffee with old friends. Having Skype on my computer has helped tremendously, because we’re able to connect via videophone, and also with my four children and most of my ten grandchildren, all of whom live in the U.S.

Aneeta: Since your career as a writer has been so varied, I would like to know, what particular aspect of writing did you find difficult and how did you overcome it?

George: Mainly learning how to write a good story. I devoured interviews with well-known writers about the craft of writing fiction. I read every copy of the Paris Review I could lay my hands on, and read their interviews. I read their work avidly: Kazantzakis, Henry Miller, Durrell, Jorge Amado, Donoso, Llosa, Endo, Updike, Fuentes, Poe and lots of others. Today I read Hosseini, J. K. Rowling and Haruki Murakami, among others.

When living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, I joined a writer’s workshop, and gave poetry readings, both wonderful ways to get feedback. I also write a blog (as Jorge “Toasty” Tostada), which gives me the opportunity to write commentary, short articles, essays, and an occasional review. You’ll find it at www.tostadaspeaks.blogspot.com.

Aneeta: As you know, this website is catered towards storytellers. What advice would you give to those who would like to venture into storytelling?

George:

(1) Read lots of stories so that stories be come second nature to you.
(2) Read your excellent article, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. Wish I’d had something like that years ago; would have saved me a lot of time.
(3) Listen to the stories people tell about themselves. I have a credo that I follow: “Every person is important, and every person has a story. Listen, find the story and tell it.”
(4) Don’t question where your stories come from; when they arrive, welcome them. The Old Man and The Monkey came to me in a dream about a big snow monkey; the story about the invisible rabbit just popped into my head; Grandfather Stories came from an encounter with some teenage boys here in Sapporo, having a big raven fly over my head with a loud and raucous Caw, and watching a news story about a deer that had fallen through the ice and struggled to get out.

One of the most helpful things to me was something I learned in graduate school, and that was how to do “process recording”, which was paying close attention to the process of what went on in an interview: what participants said, the flow of conversation, who said what, etc. Then tie it to story. One of my most successful stories, Requiem for Blue told the story of an old ex-convict in his words, using a technique that I’d learned from Mario Vargas Llosa.

Aneeta: Thank you for sharing so much, George. This is all I have to ask. Is there anything you’d like to add?

grandfatherstories oldmanandmonkey

George: My two books, Grandfather Stories and The Old Man and The Monkey are available from Abbott ePublishing, at www.abbottepub.com, and are available in pdf. and Mobipocket formats. They’ve both had wonderful response from readers, who really enjoy them. The Old Man and The Monkey is illustrated with drawings by Aurora, Colorado artist Calisse Weidner. They are both books of my heart.

Aneeta: George, thank you.

George: You are most welcome, Aneeta. I have to confess that I did smile when you asked me to write a little about my work; isn’t that like asking a food editor to write a little bit about food? In either case, you’re likely to end up with an hour’s worth :).

Aneeta: Well, this is a column called ‘Blow Your Trumpet!’ after all!


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