Mary Hamilton has always been a storyteller.
In the introduction to her new book, Kentucky Folktales: Revealing Stories, Truths and Outright Lies (The University Press of Kentucky, $29.95), Hamilton describes how her gift for shaping oral narratives surfaced during her childhood in rural Meade County.
When she and her classmates were asked to share what they did over their weekend, Hamilton delivered an entertaining and highly embellished tale about her horse-riding escapades.
"I was the kind of kid that I'd be talking and I'd exaggerate a little bit," Hamilton said by phone. "My listeners' eyes would light up, and they'd say, 'Really?' and instead of saying, 'No, I made that last part up,' I'd say, 'Yeah.'"
Despite her natural ability to spin a good yarn, Hamilton, who will sign her collection Saturday at The Morris Book Shop, didn't learn about storytelling as a professional art form until she was studying for her master's in library science at the University of Kentucky.
The degree led Hamilton to a position as a children's librarian in Grand Rapids, Mich. But in 1983, she was laid off from her job.
Since then, Hamilton, who lives in Frankfort, has made her living as a full-time teller of tales, entertaining audiences at libraries, museums, schools and festivals, among other venues. She also teaches workshops to aspiring storytellers as well as professionals who use oral narrative skills in their work, including teachers, docents and clergy.
In 2009, Hamilton received the Circle of Excellence Oracle Award from the National Storytelling Network, a distinction that paved the way for a book deal with The University Press of Kentucky.
In writing Kentucky Folktales, which draws from Hamilton's extensive repertoire of tall tales, ghost stories, traditional folktales and personal narrative, she was mindful of the difference between writing and storytelling, and carefully crafted her tales to convey as much of the oral experience as possible.
"The stories lose facial expression, sound, gesture, but I wrote them as close to how I tell them as I could," she said.
Another way the book pays homage to oral tradition of storytelling is by including essays at the end of each story that detail the origin and chronology of its evolution.
"I intentionally wanted readers to be able to see that storytelling is a living, breathing, changing art," Hamilton says in press materials for the book. "It is not lively recitation of a fixed text, which I think is a common misconception of the storytellers' art."
Unlike actors in a play, Hamilton's live performances do not require memorization — she simply knows the stories. And she tailors the delivery and content of each to suit each audience.
Hamilton explains that though there is a "kinship" between storytelling and writing, as well as storytelling and theater, what makes storytelling different is the storyteller's flexibility and direct relationship with the audience.
"Storytellers often talk about it as theater being out in front of your eyes", Hamilton said in an interview, "where storytelling, all of that is behind the eyes."