Peering out through a window in Thomas McKean's studio on 13th Street in the East Village, the Empire State Building is framed between cracked wood, its spire's glow peeking out from behind distant buildings shrouded by fog. McKean, who has a cap of short dark hair and the misleading smile of a prankster, has lived here for more than twenty-five years; the sprawling collection of books and newsprint that surround him making clear he isn't going anywhere soon.
I first met McKean when I was six. He was a storyteller and author who visited my grade school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. When packing up my college apartment in Savannah, Georgia, I stumbled across his book, “My Evil Twin.” It’s a story about an only child who pretends to have a twin brother by dressing up in disguises every other day. Suddenly remembering that he told us stories, reliving my youth before committing to a career as a storyteller myself—took me aback. It reminded me of a time when storytelling was as simple as that–just a story, yet well told.
No better way to get started than reaching out to an established author, I figured. So I wrote to him, and it turns out he remembered me better than I remembered him, recalling a rambunctious and vocal audience member. I asked if we could meet; he invited me to a party at his apartment the same weekend I was due to arrive back in New York. That's where I met him for the first time in nearly two decades.
“I would tell stories to his class when you were what, seven?” he told the other guests at the party. Everyone thought it was funny. As the night came to an end I asked about his stories, the ones he used to tell. They were all impromptu, he revealed. He couldn't recount any of them. They were fickle and ephemeral, much like the nature of his storytelling, only lasting long enough for you to enjoy a single time.
It somehow bothered me to hear that the stories he told when I was younger were as fleeting as my memory. It seemed unfair. At that age I was led to trust the storyteller, to believe that even if the stories were fictional, they'd taken painstaking hours to craft.
That wasn't the case. McKean tells stories that require a listener's attention to a degree that is painstaking–but worthwhile. And while he may often make them up on the spot, his craft, too, is painstaking indeed. He formulates stories based on the ever-changing reactions of his audience. If the story lags, he compresses that section and immediately introduces doubt, or a question that needs answering. Once your attention is regained, he'll pause—extra long—to draw out the suspense. And then you're back in it.
During one particularly pregnant pause, when the rest of the listeners and I were wondering whether the three kids investigating a shifty stepmother are to be outed by their suspicious father, McKean uses the suspense to draw the scene by hand on an easel of paper. (He also uses whiteboards, loves chalkboards, but hates Smart Boards.)
He has plenty of other tricks for reeling the audience in. Kids don't question when, for example, the name of a characters' town happens to be the same one they are all from–they're just surprised and elated to become part of the story. When adults hear McKean’s stories though, they wonder whether they’re fact or fiction.
As the night went on I continually pressed him for a story—a true story, I insisted.
It's the mark of my generation to share someone else's story and not their own, so hearing one of genuine authenticity was refreshing. No one except him told me stories like these growing up. This much I remembered.
Once, McKean took part in a storytelling series called “Two Truths and a Lie,” in which three writers each tell a story each—two stories are true, one false one. Afterwards, the audience tries to guess which ones are which. McKean's story, the one you just heard, continually gets tagged as the false one—although all three segments of it are actually true. He even has the newspaper clippings to back up the macabre aspects of his grandfather’s tale.
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McKean’s uniquely interconnected brand of storytelling is a family tradition. Early on, his father and mother laid the cornerstones to his life of storytelling.
Just before leaving his apartment that night he pulled a packet of papers from his desk. The cover page was signed in tiny, pre-adolescent scrawling. It didn't occur to me what it was until I came across one signature with oddly familiar serifs below each letter.
“It's a thank you from your class,” he said. He couldn't believe he had found it. Neither could I. On it were the names of me, my twin sister and our classmates, along with our thoughts on his different stories.
I had apparently not cared much for the stories, but enjoyed the drawings. That's what my comments in the back of the packet said. But I was young, naïve, innocent—I couldn't yet see the pictures of my story playing out before me.
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Emon Hassan, Narratively's Director of Video & Multimedia, is a New York-based filmmaker and photographer. He is also a contributor to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook & Google+.