Tales with truthiness

A photo I took last summer.

The St. John’s Storytelling Festival is upon us, and this Thursday will see the province’s first ever open mic tall tale competition.

Elling Lien spoke with tall tale expert and Pigeon Inlet resident Kelly Russell – the evening’s host – to uncover the truth about unbelieveable lies.

So what constitutes a tall tale?
Well, a tall tale to me is one of those stories that stretches the truth a bit – sometimes quite a bit. I guess like the story about the big fish you caught and then when you tell it again it gets a bit bigger, and a little bigger.

A tall tale is something like that. Exaggeration, basically.

So they’re all big lies.
No, often the stories are so outlandish that it’s quite obvious the story can’t be true. The stories I do are stories written by my father, Ted Russell… the Pigeon Inlet stories. Probably his most famous tall tale is the one about the string of squids, called “A Smoke Room on the Kyle”. The essence of the story is a man and his son are out fishing, jigging for squid. The boy gets a squid on his line, and latched onto that first squid is another one, hanging onto the first one’s tail. And another one, and another one, and another one are attached in a string. The string of squid is so long that there’s plenty of squid for everyone in the community, then it goes on down the coast to the next community, and the next community. Next thing they know everyone in all of Newfoundland has all the squid they need, all from this big long string.

Do you think there was ever any truth to that story? Two squid that had bitten onto each other?
You know, possibly that may have been the start of it. But these stories are common, not just to Newfoundland but all over the world. You find these in folk tales, stories of exaggeration where something has gone on similar to that. Another one of my dad’s stories is a about a man who goes out shooting geese. He fires his gun at these geese and they were a little bit too far away to get an effective shot. About 25 of these geese are stunned by the shots, and they fall to the ground. But they’re just unconscious, not dead.

So he ties them on with links of string. One end of string to the goose’s neck, the other to his belt. He has about 25 of them tied that way and then they all come to and they take off and they carry him with them. So he is up flying through the air with these geese.

So obviously, something like that never happened, but it makes for a good story.

But you never know!
The idea for a lot of them is that the circumstances are plausible. It’s just plausible enough that you do wonder, “gee, could that really have happened?”

So is that what makes a good one? That it’s kind of believable?
I’d say. Yeah. It’s got the ingredients of reality. It’s the truth stretched a bit.

And why the urge to stretch it? Why the urge to exaggerate?
I guess to outdo the other fella. I mean years ago people would tell these stories just to entertain themselves. Back in the days before TV, radio, DVD’s and this sort of thing. This was a form of entertainment. You’d try to outdo the other fellas so you’d use your imagination to come up with when you’re trouting through the ice.

And there are different ways fellas had of catching trout through the ice. One fella used to wave a little piece of red handkerchief over the hole and the trout would jump up through the hole, attracted to the red handkerchief. And as they jumped up through the hole he would bat them with a rolled up newspaper. The fella said the last time he was up there and he only batted about 36, so this place was getting a bit fished out. So he wasn’t going to bother with it anymore.

[laugh] So you’ve been telling these all your life, haven’t you?

Most of these I’ve heard from my father years ago, the ones he incorporated into the Pigeon Inlet stories. There’s quite a few of them. The main character that he created in these Pigeon Inlet stories was Grandpa Walcott. Grandpa was quite adept at stretching the truth and outdoing the other fella. Someone told a tall tale and grandpa would tell one that’s a bit taller.

Do you have any advice for people who are going to be participating in the tale tales event?
Oh goodness! Hard to say. I’m not judging it. No. Participants that have these stories, I imagine everyone has one or two in mind that they want to tell and my only advice would be engage the audience and make it seem as believable as possible.

So be able to lie outrageously.

The All Souls’ Tall Tale Competition will be held this Thursday, Nov 2 at the Masonic Temple. 8pm, $5. The official Tall Tale Ten Commandments can be viewed at thescope.ca/2006/10/31/all-souls-tall-tale-rules