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How Michele Carlo Went from Storytelling Slams to a Book Deal

Last summer, veteran storyteller Michele Carlo published her memoir, Fish Out of Agua. We caught up with her to get some storytelling tips for all authors.

Q: What advice do you recommend for reading a story aloud and engaging an audience?
A: Connection and commitment. Connecting with both your story and the audience. And committing to your story, even if you are not getting the response you anticipated.

Q: What inspired you to write your memoir?
A: I had been telling stories at The Moth for a couple of years when people started asking me when I was going to write my stories down–and my answer was always ‘one day.’ Well, ‘one day’ in 2007 I decided that if I wanted my life to change, I had to change my life.

So I joined a writing group, got serious about putting a book proposal together…and found the story I thought I was going to tell—simple anecdotes about growing up in the Bronx back in the 1970s ended up being quite a bit more. Fish Out of Agua ended up being like a red onion with multiple layers—with one of the most powerful (and difficult to articulate) story arcs being the thread that concerns the relationship between my mother and me.

Q: Can you describe your writing process?
A: Start. Stop. Start. Stop. (haha) Seriously? Once I decided I was going to put a book together, it was pretty much constant until one step was complete, then a short break, then constant again. I kept notebooks by my bed in case I woke up in the middle of the night with inspiration or solution—which happened more than a few times! I wrote on the weekends, I wrote on the subway, I wrote during downtime at work…sometimes I’d be out at a Moth slam or other storytelling show when something I’d hear onstage would trigger a memory and there I’d be, surreptitiously scribbling.

Q: The title of your book is very unique; how did you come upon it?
A: Divine inspiration? Luck? A singular moment of clarity after weeks of unceasing toil, brainstorming and agony? Actually, a combination of the three. Fish Out of Agua is really very simple when you think about it: ‘agua,’ or ‘water,’ is just about the most recognizable Spanish word to an English speaker. And a ‘fish out of water’ was exactly what I was.

Q: Was there any research involved considering this was your life story?
A: Yes, of course. For some stories I relied on things I had been told repeatedly since I was a child. For others, I spoke with some of the people who were involved. For others, the bookmarks toolbar on my computer was full of pages I consulted—to help confirm dates, for example, but also to help accurately recreate events that happened before I was born.

Q: Being a proud Brooklynite, please explain what is it about Brooklyn that attracts so many writers.
A: I can only speak for myself and my own experience moving here back in 1988: it was the only place where the ‘rent wasn’t too damn high’ (haha). Honestly? I have no idea. It’s almost kind of spooky, isn’t it? Maybe there’s some ancient Native American mystic pathway that runs through the borough or something (I’m being only partially facetious here) but Brooklyn just rules! ‘Nuff said.

Q: What’s next for you?
A: There are a few things I’d like to manifest in 2011. One, to take the Fish Out of Agua on the road and do readings in cities across the country. I have no touring budget, but I can sleep on a friend’s/ relative’s couch. I don’t have big bookstore connections, but I can do a reading in someone’s living room. Second, to create an hour-long solo show/monologue based on Fish Out of Agua, kind of like what James Braly did in Life In A Marital Institution, or Mike Birbiglia with Sleepwalk. Last, but totally not least, to enjoy this amazing adventure I’ve really just embarked on! I’ll be reading/telling stories in NYC throughout 2011, for dates, go here.

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