Lia Martirosyan: What inspired you to write children’s books?
James Doti: A favorite part of my day is reading to my children and grandchildren; I also enjoy writing. So I thought it would be fun to do a children’s book, and my first one was very successful. It was a simple, heartwarming story that hit a nerve with the public, and inspired me to work on a second one. I’ve loved children’s books my whole life. I remember being moved when I read books like “Charlotte’s Web” and “Make Way for Ducklings”. Later, as I advanced to novels, my love of reading continued to grow. My life would be much less enjoyable and rewarding if I didn’t read, and I think it’s important for our nation’s youth to develop a love of reading, as well.
Martirosyan: How did you conceive of Jimmy Finds His Voice?
Doti: It’s based on a true story about a communicative disorder; I had a terrible speech impediment growing up. I wanted to write this story because I remember being made fun of and bullied as a child. But children may relate to the book because they’re shy or feel too tall or too short or, in some way, feel they don’t fit in. An important question for young people is: How do you face and overcome challenges?
Martirosyan: Overcoming is about persistence.
Doti: That’s what life is all about. Jimmy Finds His Voice is not about how I solved my speaking problem all at once, because I didn’t. But I did face my fears. It happened as a result of being asked to take on a role in my first grade student play, The Elves and the Shoemaker, based on one of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales. My teacher wanted me to play one of the elves. I was amazed that she picked me given my speech problem, and then the kids started screaming: “He’s gonna ruin the play! Everybody’s gonna make fun of him! The play’s gonna be terrible with Doti in it!” But the teacher said, “He’ll be fine. He’ll deal with it.” Can you imagine how I felt having to perform publicly?
Martirosyan: Were you coached on how to pronounce your lines?
Doti: When I first performed one of my lines—“I have an idea”—I kept my hands to my sides. My mother instead suggested that I use my hands, gesturing as I said the words. Though I still mispronounced them, gesturing with my body and hands, and making facial expressions made me a hit because I was the only one of the kids in the play who was animated.
Martirosyan: That’s incredible. There are always ways to communicate, express yourself, and bring out that lovely little personality.
Doti: Exactly. You know, there’s something else I did in the book that I thought was important for little kids, and that is for them to get an idea of what a play is, what it’s like to act in one, and experience the opportunity to be in the public eye and be challenged by it. It’s a terrifying experience until you get used to it. So Jimmy Finds His Voice tells a story within a story: The teacher tells the kids the story about The Elves and the Shoemaker, and then there’s the play. So I wanted the children to see: Hey, here’s the story, but you can also make a play out of it. Each of the characters in the story could be an actor on a stage. Little kids still haven’t had that experience, so I wanted to communicate that, as well. And yet, an adult can enjoy it as much as a child.
Martirosyan: Have you ever thought of producing your book in another format?
Doti: Maybe in the future; I’m now reading screenplays and trying to add to my skills so that I can adapt this story and create something that might be performed by little kids or even performed here at Chapman.
Martirosyan: Tell me more about your speech impediment.
Doti: Sure. I didn’t stutter, but I had difficulty pronouncing words properly and as a result, people didn’t understand me. My family knew what I was saying, but I tended to be silent around others because I was embarrassed. The storyline is the magic moment when I was able to gain confidence and say, “OK, I’ve got this problem, but I can deal with it.” Fortunately, my speech impediment slowly went away, and by the time I was 9 or 10 I could speak properly.
Martirosyan: You come from an Italian family; what language did they speak when you were growing up?
Doti: I was born in Chicago right after World War II, when the Italians were on the wrong side of the war and were discriminated against. My family wanted me and my two older brothers to grow up as Americans, and turned away as much as possible from Italian culture, so my grandparents spoke Italian to each other, but not to us, and yet I could understand a lot.
Martirosyan: Do you think having a speech impediment has made you more compassionate towards others?
Doti: Absolutely. My experience made me want to help others by giving them confidence, and this book is a way of doing that. My mother and teacher would tell me, “This is a minor issue; don’t make a big deal out of it.” But if you’re the person whose being bullied, laughed at or feeling left out because you can’t ask someone for a date, it feels like a major issue. I tried to include that aspect of the experience in the book. I’m a somewhat competitive person, so having a speech problem made me challenge myself in that area. After being in the play and feeling the satisfaction of knowing I could be onstage and do okay, I was encouraged to join the high school debate team and do more public speaking, rather than avoid it. That turned out to be important, given that I’m often called on to speak in my position as president of Chapman. When you work harder at something, you become better. When you’re able to succeed at something difficult, it makes you feel good. (laughs) I believe that I ended up becoming an econometrician- kind of mathematical economics-because of some of the early problems I had understanding mathematics; I was slower than other kids, so I worked harder at that, too.
Martirosyan: It’s up to you to push forward.
Doti: Yes. You know, this makes me think of The Last Lecture, a book written by the late computer science professor, Randy Pausch, when he was dying of pancreatic cancer. His last lecture dealt with his outlook on life, and the fact that we all confront walls, but they are there to be overcome.
Martirosyan: When you fall, what matters is getting up.
Doti: Exactly. Life is filled with challenges; to survive we have to come up with a defense mechanism to get through them.
Martirosyan: And face your fears. Did you act in any more plays after that first one?
Doti: Not exactly, but being on the debate team and becoming more public represented a new role. And now, as president of Chapman, I always dance or sing in our annual American Celebration event. But that all came out of the experience of performing in The Elves and the Shoemaker.
Martirosyan: Have you been invited to join the Screen Actors Guild yet?
Doti: No, but I also don’t have to pay union dues. (laughs)
Martirosyan: Do you have an audiobook of your new project?
Doti: Yes, I think the publisher is already making an audiobook.
Martirosyan: That’s nice. If you need any voice characters, I’m here. (laughter) What drew you to Chapman?
Doti: I was drawn to Chapman because I love teaching. When I started here, I wasn’t president, I was a professor of economics, and I wanted to teach at a school where the classes were smaller and you could get to know the students and have an impact. When you asked if I began to empathize with other people as a result of my experience, I did; I realized that you couldn’t make a significant impact by teaching 300 kids in a lecture hall. You can only do it when you have, like, 10, 20, or 25 students, and get to know them. And that’s part of the intrinsic satisfaction of teaching, and having that one-on-one student-faculty relationship. Chapman had that. When I was getting my doctorate at the University of Chicago, many of my professors were Nobel Laureates who wanted me to teach at a large, research-oriented school. But if I did that, I would have spent most of my time doing research and teaching huge classes, when I really preferred to teach, and particularly smaller classes. So I was one of the few graduates in my class who received a doctorate in economics and went on to a smaller school.
Martirosyan: Did Chapman find you, or did you find it?
Doti: I found Chapman. I was living in Chicago at the time and, as a young boy, we had gone to California on vacation, and we never took vacations. My dad was a shoe salesman, who had four kids and not that much money. But we had friends who moved out here, and we were able to take the train out and stay with them. And I just fell in love with California. So I was looking at a school here.
Martirosyan: How long have you’ve been at Chapman?
Doti: Almost 40 years-21 as president. I’m one of the longer-serving presidents in higher education.
Martirosyan: How do you work up to something like that?
Doti: (laughs) Good question.