Two-time Grammy Award-winning storyteller, musician and writer Bill Harley recently released a new book entitled, Now You Say Yes. The novel tells the fictional story of young girl, her on-the-spectrum brother, and their monumental cross-country journey after their mother passes away.  

The Massachusetts-based author spoke with Zydalis Bauer about the book, how his career began, and what he enjoys most about being a storyteller.  

This interview originally aired on September 10, 2021.

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: Two-time Grammy Award-winning storyteller, musician, and writer Bill Harley recently released a new book entitled “Now You Say Yes.”

The novel tells the fictional story of a young girl, her on-the-spectrum brother and their monumental cross-country journey after their mother passes away.

The Massachusetts-based author spoke with me about the book, how his career began, and what he enjoys most about being a storyteller.

Bill Harley, Author: When I was in college, I got a guitar and I started to write songs and my friends and I, we ran a — we started a day camp in the in the town where our college was. And I had a dozen songs, we’d sing every morning and in the afternoon when the campers — the counselors — were sick of the campers and vice versa, they would say, go see Bill. And so, I kind of became the default public health program there.

And I had a couple of stories that I would tell to go along with that. And I’ve always been interested in how a story kind of contextualizes, it puts something in its place — whether it’s a song — it explains in a way that nothing else can. And I was just mystified when the kids would just drop whatever they were doing as soon as you say something like “once upon a time,” it seems to work when nothing else does.

Zydalis Bauer: Your latest book, “Now You Say Yes,” tells a story about a cross-country journey made by a 15-year-old and a nine-year-old on the spectrum brother after their mother dies.

Where did the inspiration behind this story come from?

Bill Harley: Well, you know, it’s funny how it happened. And I — for me, stories, whether there are books or stories that I tell, they they are all kind of thought experiments that, you know, asking yourself, “what if?”

And the genesis of this story was my niece from Los Angeles, where the main character, Mari is from, was visiting us and she was 14. I said, “You should come visit us more often.” And she said, “Airplane tickets are just too expensive, Uncle Bill!” And I said, “Well, you could drive.” And she said, “Uncle Bill, I’m just 14!” And I said, “What if you had to, though? What if you had to drive? Could you do it?”

So, that was really the genesis of the story.

Zydalis Bauer: This book explores the foster care system and the Autism spectrum.

How are you able to authentically portray these characters when they’re not necessarily a reflection of your own life?

Bill Harley: Well, you know, it’s a really good question, and my first response is I hope I have, and I hope I’ve honored people who have both of those experiences.

So, obviously I did a lot of research, both about the foster care system, I talked to a number of people, I read a lot and I thought about it. And also thought a lot about Autism and hung out with people who are on the spectrum and turned to people who are very active in that community. And then after I read the book, I vetted it with him.

That said, you can still get it wrong. And probably in somebody’s mind, they’ll say, “Well, that’s not — I don’t think that’s right.” But in the Autism community, one of my friends says, “Well, you know, we say, if you’ve met one Autistic person, it means you’ve met one Autistic person.”

And that’s absolutely true for kids who have been in the foster care system. You can say some things generally, but the specificity of it is something you wrestle with. So, I said, very — like the answer is very, very carefully and hoping that you get it right.

Zydalis Bauer: One of your rules of the universe is we are more alike than we are different.

How will we witness that in your latest book and why is that rule so near and dear to you?

Bill Harley: Well, this book is really, I guess…I mean, all my work, whether it’s been songs or spoken stories or books, I’m asking myself all the time is, “What’s the universal in this story I’m telling or this song I’m singing? What does it say about who we are as human beings?”

And so in this book, Mari has really — her identity is at risk, and she feels isolated. She feels that there’s no one really that gets her, and she’s she’s afraid of what’s going to happen to her. But, through the course of the book, through the people she meets and the experiences she has, she begins to understand the ways that we are all connected and at the…really one of the heart, the climax — it’s not the climax, but kind of the emotional or spiritual climax of the book — she sees people in a way to understand that everybody is broken.

And in some ways it’s that brokenness that we most have in common. And when you see that, the defenses kind of drop and you open yourself a little. So, that’s very much at the heart of what this book is about.

Zydalis Bauer: You’re very well known for your songs and stories tailored for young readers.

What do you enjoy most about writing pieces for this demographic, and what themes really resonate with you?

Bill Harley: I think a kid — kids are first checking you out to see what your attitude towards is them and a lot of work for children is prescriptive and also can be condescending, like this is something that you need to have. And my work has always been, “Does this sound familiar to you? Is this something you might have been through?” Do you get what this…with the feeling that if I can make that connection, then we’re going to be we’re on an equal playing field and they’re going to go along with me.

So, my work tends to be more descriptive than prescriptive. And, you know, children are immediate in their response. And you — although middle graders, middle schoolers are a little more reserved. But, you know from a kid, whether it’s working or not, and they buy in. Adults — and I do a fair amount of work with adult audiences — you know, they’re all kind of sit there and be polite or not. But if your stuff is not working with a kid, you find out pretty fast and you have to adjust.

And I just appreciate that immediacy. And there’s an openness to the world that adults, you know, we’re covered more. We’re all covering up and kids are less likely to cover up, and I love that about them.