Sitting under a white canopy, Michael Sterns preps to read his children's book, Kokopelli & The Butterfly, to a bunch of tikes on hay bales at the Hillsborough County Storytelling Festival. Wearing a psychedelic shirt and sporting a bleached, raggedy hairdo, he looks more like the announcer at a surf contest than the author of a children's book.
He introduces himself to the kids and says how after five and a half years of labor, he self-published Kokopelli. He tells them how if they stick to their guns, they can realize their dreams.
The kids react stone-faced, like they're watching TV.
He turns the pages in his book, holds it overhead like a camera in a crowd, swivels it back and forth so the listeners can see. One girl sitting in the front row clutches a long, unrecognizable balloon animal. It stretches a few feet from Sterns' face, but he isn't distracted. He is too busy trying to sell his book to people who seem to be saying, "Wow me, or I'll torch this hay bale and go watch the guy with the puppets."
Sterns used to be an advertising sales rep at the Weekly Planet, a profession not known for monkish values.
But Sterns isn't about money and selfishness anymore, according to him.
At the Storytelling Festival, Sterns pulls out all the storytelling tricks: snoring into the mic, standing up, booming when he recites the Indian chief's lines. He also addresses the kids directly: "I don't know if you guys can handle this next part. It's a little romantic. Can you handle it?"
Like they have a choice.
Sterns began writing his yarn about an Indian who saves a butterfly from a mean, distrustful Indian chief. Kokopelli is not a Sterns invention, however. His protagonist is based on a Hopi Indian legend of a flute player who symbolizes fertility. Sterns learned about Kokopelli during a 17-day camping trip in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. He felt he'd found a soulmate.
"I found out about the little Kokopelli dude; I bought a key chain in Santa Fe. I kind of related to the happy-go-lucky flute player; I play harmonica; he had long hair; I had long hair at the time; he's always dancing; I love dancing; he's always traveling. I just really related to this little guy."
Thus inspired, Sterns began to write a first draft. He was getting compliments from friends and family on the story, even before he found his two artists.
Sterns colors the way he met his line artist as sort of hippie-dippy serendipity, with a touch of The-Universe-Intended-This-To-Happen. He was at a flag football game in Orlando, watching a friend play in a city league. He was a little hungover and had thrown on his Sloppy Joe's T-shirt, with its obligatory image of Ernest Hemingway.
"A writer," Sterns says, "my only writer T-shirt, and I'd only worn that shirt twice."
A girl also wearing a Sloppy Joe's shirt approached Sterns. She mistakenly thought he was the missing member of her team.
"I said, "Well, if you notice, mine says Key West, yours says Orlando. This is just a coincidence.'"
Just a coincidence? It wouldn't be long before he thought it was something far more divine.
She was devastated, he says. No full roster for the first game meant the city would ax the team. Sterns was happy to help out, he told her, "but I'm wearing Birkenstocks."
The team's coach happened to have one extra pair of cleats in his bag, size 10 1/2.
"Which is what I wear. To the half," Sterns says, adding, in a whisper, "We beat the doodie out of the opposition."
After the game, when everyone should be going out for obligatory beers, Sterns overheard the coach saying to the girl who'd recruited Sterns that he was late for Disney. Sterns, naturally curious, says he asked the coach what he did at Disney.
"He says, "I'm a cartoonist. I worked on Roger Rabbit. And I was, like, "Whoa.'"
Sterns thought the chance meeting was "pretty trippy," he says. "The shirt, the shoes, the whole thing, the way it went down ... I took it as a sign. And I've never been what you call a religious person."
He and the artist, Joseph V. Cioffi, entered an agreement in which Sterns would pay him $1,500, with a 15 percent royalty once Kokopelli, now in its second printing, reached the break-even point. Later he met Tampa artist Gayle Deal, who agreed to do the color — for only $500 and 5 percent of the gross. She colored the butterfly: yellow, green, blue, violet, red.
"She did the one ... in three hours, like Michelangelo, man. I was in her apartment watching this thing come to life, before my very eyes," Sterns reminisces.
In Sterns' first draft, Kokopelli reflected the frustrations and doodie Sterns felt percolating inside him.
"I won't lie to you; there was a time in my life where I was focused on myself because I didn't think anybody else was."
But his feelings and values began to change; in effect, he was like the caterpillar in larval stage. He would rewrite the main character to be "like the ideal guy ... that I would want to live up to," he says. "This story has helped me to heal and become kinder and look for kinder ways out."
The new, ideal Michael Sterns began to emerge. Sterns describes this better self.
"Someone who talks things out, being proactive instead of reactive, someone who cares about the Earth and the people and the animals instead of just focusing on himself."
Contact Features Writer David Jasper at 813-248-8888, ext. 111, or jasper@weekly planet.com.