Delayed and bored in an airport several years ago, performers David Holt and Bill Mooney needed to kill time. So the performing duo began trading urban legends -- that strange breed of storytelling that passes from mouth to ear and changes subtly along the way, a more sophisticated version of the child's game "Telephone." (For example: When asked to take a poodle for a walk, an auditorily challenged Chinese waiter returned with the canine simmering in a wok.) Before long, a group had gathered, and the two kept their impromptu audience mesmerized.
After years of touring, Holt and Mooney last year released Spiders in the Hairdo, an audio collection of such tales, on Holt's High Windy label. They soon realized that what they had on their hands was no myth: the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences recognized the pair by nominating them for a Grammy in the best spoken-word category.
On the fitting date of April 1, August House, a publisher in Little Rock, Ark., will release Spiders in the Hairdo in book form. The publisher was so buoyed by the Grammy nomination that it has tripled the print run of the $7.95 paperback from 10,000 to 30,000 and is prepared to shift "much of our marketing budget" to Spiders should it win. The house has also devised a "bookstore-friendly" audio version -- that is, a smaller-sized edition adapted directly from the book-and will aim media pitches at heavy hitters such as David Letterman.
Other books, such as Christopher Reeve's Still Me (Random House Audio), have also been nominated for the spoken-word award.. But only Spiders has taken the unusual trail from audio to book. August House picked up rights to it because the house thought a book market existed -- or could be created -- for these myths. The press is aiming the book at a younger market and suggests that it be shelved in the humor, rather than the folklore, section. To woo booksellers, it will attempt to tour the authors as much as possible (they do enormous amounts of touring on their own) and is even planning a beehive wig contest at this year's BEA (they reassure booksellers that the winner will not be required to wear it).
Spiders in the Hairdo features 52 punch line -- oriented vignettes, including the aforementioned canine casualty, as well as the tale of a couple who visited a Halloween party and made animated love without removing their costumes. The story ends with the couple back home and the wife playfully asking the husband how he enjoyed the evening: "I guess it was all right," he replied. "My brother arrived without a costume, so I let him wear mine. I didn't have much fun, but he told me he had a great time."
Despite the stories' quirky appeal, their structure and brevity proved tricky to adapt. According to August House publisher Liz Parkhurst, "The challenge is that these legends are very conversational and there aren't necessarily dramatic arcs. They had to turn them into self-contained stories."
Holt and Mooney sport accomplished résumés, having collaborated on a Civil War play, Banjo Reb and the Blue Ghost, co-edited the anthology Ready-to-Tell Tales and coauthored The Storyteller's Guide (both from August House). Polymath Holt also plays 10 instruments, cohosts American Public Radio's Riverwalk: Classic Jazz from the Landing and has garnered a Grammy nomination for his music. Mooney is an Emmy-nominated actor on ABC's All My Children and has starred in numerous plays and films.