Being on the phone with best-selling author and radio goddess Sarah Vowell is an experience akin to talking to that girl who sometimes sits by you in section and always seems to be so particularly fascinating that you just wish you had a good excuse to start talking to her. You know… there’s something about the books she’s always toting around or the comments she only sometimes makes in class that just seems, well, enthralling. And then, all of a sudden, you are talking to her, and you hear the sound of your own voice banging around inside your head, not sounding nearly as punchy or witty as you planned. But wait! She happens to be sweet and gracious on top of all those other things you already assumed about your hopeful-maybe-someday friend, and you realize she’s actually laughing… at things coming out of your mouth! “Unbelievable,” you think.
In Artsweek’s case, speaking with Sarah Vowell is so magical you think there’s a minute chance she could be crafted from a pile of fairy dust and four-leafed clovers. Which makes the possibility of her ever actually “hanging” with you sort of a strange thought, like getting a brewski with a unicorn or something. Her rise from college DJ to award-winning arts reviewer, to adored radio personality on NPR’s “This American Life,” to acclaimed author, leads one to the resolute conclusion that there’s nothing particularly boring or usual about this lady. Oh, don’t forget she’s, like, totally in with David Sedaris, Ira Glass and the rest of the you-wish-you-were-this-snappy-and-hilarious radio crew that occasionally blows through UCSB. Her two books, Take the Cannoli: Stories From the New World and The Partly Cloudy Patriot, muse on everything from growing up with a gun-fancying father; a love of historical sites, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and Ted Nugent; a deep appreciation for Abraham Lincoln; and even the more recent political climate in which Bob Dole sadly represents “a simpler more innocent time in America when you could lose the presidential election and, like, not actually become president.” Vowell comes to stand in for all of us who opt against plastering tiny flags on our cars but still hope to brandish some tiny form of patriotism for a nation able to offer such a vast wealth of wonderment, be it the WB network, the Trail of Tears or even the all-important “Godfather” trilogy.
Artsweek: So, what we can expect for the show on Sunday?
Sarah Vowell: Well, I umm… I stand there and read, so at least they won’t get motion-sick, and then I do that for about an hour, and then I take questions sometimes for about half an hour from the audience, and usually I read one or two pieces from my last book, The Partly Cloudy Patriot. There’s usually some things kind of vaguely political or historical and then I read some newer things that I’ve been working on.
Can you talk a little bit about the whole Abraham Lincoln fixation? Where did it come from? I’ve also heard that you and Conan O’Brien, whom Artsweek loves, share a mutual love of Old Abe. Is that true?
Ooohh! Conan O’Brien is a ridiculous Abraham Lincoln fan. He was the voice of Abraham Lincoln in my audio book. But we always talk about Lincoln. You know he’s the exact height of Lincoln. I don’t know where the Lincoln thing comes from exactly. I think it’s kind of mysterious to me. I think part of it comes from, I don’t know, I mean I always liked him. He [was] a good president, ya know? But I read the speeches maybe about 10 years ago and it really comes from his writing more than anything, because he was a great writer. I really love his second inaugural speech. It’s my favorite piece of writing. The thing I like about his writing, especially his speeches, is that it does stuff. He’s not just, “Oh, pretty sentence.” His pretty sentences freed slaves and, you know, set up a hopeful plan for reconstruction. His second inaugural [address] is my favorite because it’s so many things. It’s really sarcastic [in] the beginning when he says… um… there’s a line in there… you know he’s talking about slavery and the coming civil war – he’s looking back on his first inaugural [address] and how they were trying to avoid war and there’s just this line about slavery and “it may seem strange” – wait, hold on, let me get it right…
You have it on hand?
I do, actually. Where is that? Oh! (reading) “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in ringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces. But let us judge not that we be not judged.” I mean, that is so sarcastic to me. Like, “I don’t know who these idiots are who think they can ask God to make another man sweat for their food, but who am I to judge.” That’s a speech like at the end where he’s trying to say with the war is going to end and we’re going to have to live together with malice toward none. It’s just so many things and just so true. And he’s sort of a funny, depressive person.
How is he depressive?
Oh. Well, you know he literally did suffer from depression. I have this book of his poems that he wrote when he was younger and they’re kind of Lincoln’s teen angst poems. He really has kind of a goth quality. But he was really funny, too. I guess a lot of funny people are sort of like that. Kinda manic-depressive.
Actually, that was one of the next questions… in terms of self-deprecation and that type of humor…
(interjecting) Oh! I thought you were going to ask what kind of medication am I on? (laughs) No, I like the idea of the “nerd voice.” Really well-balanced self-deprecation. It is a fine line sometimes but I think it may be partly generational, [like] in [my book where I’m] talking about Gore. Gore just knew so much and that’s a big reason why I think he would’ve made such a good president. He was just interested in so many things, and to be president you really have to be. Well, you really don’t have to be interested in the world, but you should be, and part of the reason he didn’t do as well as he should’ve is that the press corps kind of turned on him because they just thought he was such a know-it-all and they just couldn’t stand him. I was trying to figure out a way you could [be so knowledgeable] and it seems like most people under the age of, say, 45 who grew up knowing stuff have a kind of knowingness about other people’s willingness to hear about what’s on their mind. Like, when I was growing up, I just hid all the stuff I knew about and was thinking about. I just didn’t tell anyone because I knew none of the other kids at school wanted to listen to me talk about whatever electronic music I was interested in. And that’s not right either because it was interesting! And that’s why I love the character of Willow on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” because she was just so forthcoming about how she knew things. She could know things in public and then make a joke about it in public so that she could tell people who were about to roll their eyes at how much she knew about computer science or something, and then she could let them know she was in on the joke. I think it’s a much more interesting, fun way to let people know that you know things.
Though your book has been out now for a while (since September 2002), it seems with all the recent political distrust going on, now might be a better time than ever to be out sharing it with an audience.
I guess it’s because the country swings one way or the other, but I don’t. I’m always right in the middle. I can always see there’s so many things to love about this country and also just every downtrodden, grisly thing we’ve ever done. I can see them both and I think when [the book] came out it was right after 9/11 and people really clued into all the hopeful stuff. You know, all the “God bless America” stuff, and now that I guess people like me are kind of despairing again, they clue into the more pessimistic.
Do you think of yourself as a particularly political person?
I mean, there’s someone that I’m supporting and that I’m going to vote for. I’ll put it that way.
How would one go about pursuing a career like yours?
Well, it was kind of a big accident. I started writing as
a critic until when I got out of college and I started writing little art magazines. Then I moved quickly into weekly newspapers, and I still think that’s really where I became a writer was weekly papers writing about music and books. It was a really good way just to learn how to write because they’re every week and they have so much space to fill. I really got to figure out who I was as a writer and how I would say things. Then I just started writing [my first book] and it was a diary of just listening to the radio. I mean, my whole career was such an accident. I never meant to write for the radio and it was on the radio show that I started writing more narrative stories. Also, writing about history [is something] I never would have thought I would’ve done earlier because I just wanted to write about the arts and the only thing was that all along the way I just wrote and wrote and wrote and just tried to get as much experience as possible.
It was surprising to hear you talk about how your radio pieces are so trimmed and edited, compared to their original drafts.
Well, some of that is purely practical. The show’s an hour long and everything has to fit. It’s a nice ad for myself because it is the most distilled, crisp, wham-bam, slot-filled version of myself so that a lot of people have come to my writing from the radio. It’s just really good PR. I also like being part of something and “This American Life” has just been personally very gratifying for me. It’s been nice to be part of a group and a project that I believe in.
Do you feel a lot of that cult enthusiasm for “This American Life,” considering how, as you note, radio doesn’t receive much space in the columns of critics, especially when compared to film and music?
Oh, yeah. It’s one reason I like doing these speaking engagements because I get to meet the listeners and it is kind of inspiring and just encouraging to know there’s a fairly small audience but they really, really, really care. I mean, a lot of the stuff we do is hard, especially for the staff members on the show. It’s really, really long hours and it just keeps going, like a monster that continually needs to be fed. It’s nice to know how much it means to people. And it’s also just been sheer dollars and cents. The fact that they’re so committed to the show and that they just so happen to coincide with the book-buying audience really does enable me to do what I do, because if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be able to make a living doing this… so, bless ’em!
How do you go about putting together a radio piece or picking a subject to write about?
Things just kind of evolve. Actually, this book that I’m doing on assassinations – did I mention that? I’ve been working on a book about the Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley assassinations. I was actually just going to do another [essay] collection that was going to be about death as entertainment. It’s called Assassination Vacation and it’s about historical tourism and I thought that would just be a story in my “death as entertainment” collection and I started working on it and it was just too huge, It turned into its own book.
So, as such a pop culture connoisseur, what movies, shows or music have you been particularly drawn to lately?
Lately I’ve been working on this book so I don’t have a lot of time to spend away from the Garfield administration. But I do really like things that are some kind of… (pauses) I just don’t like cookie cutter stuff. Probably in some ways my favorite film directors of the last 10 or 15 years are the Coen brothers, so I love their new movie that just came out. It’s really funny. I’m crazy about that. I can’t wait to see “Kill Bill [Vol. 2].” I love Quentin Tarantino.
Artsweek just saw that yesterday.
Oh yeah? And?
I love… (pauses) violence, in that kind of old, Greek way of catharsis. You know, I’m a very nice girl and I’m very quiet. And, my life is interesting to me but it’s pretty ho-hum in terms of ups and downs. Things are not very dramatic, which is good, and so I just love tons of deaths in art! Well, I always love violent girls. Like, I loved [the TV show] “Alias.” And I was always crazy about “Buffy [the Vampire Slayer].” But maybe in terms of television, the show I’m most excited about is “The OC.”
Supposedly the whole deal with that show is the head writer is really young and into hip indie music?
He’s probably younger than you! Like 22! (pauses) The show is very satisfying.
Do you have a favorite character?
Oh, of course my favorite character is Seth! Wisecracking, sarcastic kid… and Peter Gallagher. I love Peter Gallagher!
Did you ever see the ballet movie “Center Stage”?
Yes! Of course! I have a real soft spot for things about teenagers. It probably comes from the same place from why I like violence. I just like a lot of storm and drums, and teenagers are just so, like, volatile.
You’re guaranteed a makeover too.
People learn, they change, they grow.
So, as a pal of Conan, what’s the trick to getting in with the man if lucky enough to attend a taping?
Sit on the aisle on the right, which is stage left. That’s usually the side he goes up and picks someone to dance with.
It’s rumored that you, like Artsweek, have a long-standing crush on former president Bill Clinton. It’s like a bad ex or something you can’t let go of, right?
I know! That was when I knew I was capable of unconditional love because even though I just should’ve given up on him so many times I just couldn’t. I just think of myself as a normal citizen. I mean, I watch “Meet the Press” on Sunday. I have friends who are, like, really, really obsessed. Like I have this one friend who reads every single story in the newspaper and gauges what each story – whether its in the health section or the business section or the TV listings – he gauges every single morsel of fact and how it will improve the chances of the Democratic Party or not. He just sees everything through Democratic Party glasses. And I don’t. I mean, I’m a member of it and I’m fairly gung-ho. Maybe it’s just that I’m kind of old-fashioned or something. Like, I’m not really any more political than my grandfather was, ’cause I have other interests, luckily. Those poor people who only care about politics. I mean, you would just get your heart broken 19 times a day, right? Luckily, my vision of patriotism has to do with loving the country – things like mountain ranges and the pop songs and stuff. Those kinds of things. Mountain ranges don’t really let you down.