Sarah Vowell is a contributing editor to the public radio program This American Life, which is heard nationally on 300 stations. She is the author of Radio On and Take the Cannoli and most recently The Partly Cloudy Patriot. Vowell has also been a contributor to numerous venues that include Time, Esquire, The Los Angeles Times, McSweeney’s, The Village Voice, Salon.com, Artforum and Spin. She has taught at Sarah Lawrence College and the Art Institute of Chicago and currently lives in New York City.
Robert Birnbaum: Being a self-proclaimed history buff, do you spend your time in Boston rooting through its resplendent American history?
Sarah Vowell: This is the problem. This is my sixth time here. Every time I am working, so I am always trying to angle in The Freedom Trail, though it never works out. I forced the Boston Globe reporter…I was like, “We have an hour and I would really like to see John Winthrop’s grave.” I’ve always meant to take a proper vacation and see the Emerson and Thoreau and Concord stuff and really do it right. I look forward to actually doing it right.
RB: Is there such a thing as the Freedom Trail?
SV: Yeah. It’s an actual red line.
RB: I don’t know that it is.
SV: It is.
RB: You’re sure?
SV: I thought. It’s pretty much painted on the sidewalk and you can follow it all the way.
RB: Is the Freedom Trail anything other than a marketing tool? It’s not like the Underground Railroad.
SV: It serves no purpose [other] than its own, which is to march tourists cattle-like from one holding pen to another. I don’t think there is anything significant about it.
RB: Doing it right for you would be to visit the State House and Concord and Walden Pond?
SV: Lexington, Old North Church. There is some sort of invention tour where you can go around to different sites of invention. One part of it is a reenactment of Cotton Mather inoculating his kid. One thing I like about the founders and the Puritans is that all of the really big guys—you know, your Ben Franklins and Jeffersons and Cotton Mathers of the world—they were these Renaissance men, interested in all kinds of things. A little-known chapter in the Cotton Mather biography is that he was an early proponent of inoculation. He inoculated his son for small pox, which was seen as somehow heretical, and people were demonstrating outside his window. Even though he was an old-fashioned Puritan, he was very forward thinking medically.
RB: Wasn’t the late 18th century a time when people could claim that they had read every book in print? Isn’t that the claim made for Jefferson?
SV: It’s possible. Jefferson was a real book buyer.
RB: And reader. I must say that I find you unusual because I have a sense that history is a real weakness in education in the US and your interest seems to buck the trend. How did your curiosity in the past come about?
SV: Well, I guess like many things, history starts at home. My father is a good old-fashioned history buff and my grandfather was, too. So when my sister and I were children, we were constantly being dragged around to Civil War battlegrounds. And mainly western history sites, things having to do with Buffalo Bill or, “Okay kids, pile in the car, we’re going to see Sequoia’s cabin.” So there are lots of photos of my sister and me perched on top of cannons and things like that.
RB: Is your sister a history buff?
SV: She can go either way. She’ll go. She goes with me to tons of places.
RB: Do you read books about history?
RB: Does your sister?
SV: No. But she really likes American Indian History, so she does read about that. So anyway, my dad wouldn’t just take us to these places or my grandfather wouldn’t just talk about them. They always talked about it in a pretty self-absorbed way in that our family had been part of history in a small way. We were Cherokee and lived in Oklahoma. So there was a lot of chitchat about that and the Trail of Tears and that’s why we are here. We would go to Tsa-la-gi, to the Cherokee cultural center, and watch the Trail of Tears reenactment or go watch the Will Rogers show. So they always showed us such things, not just because we should know about it or because it was interesting, but it was just because we were part of that. We would go to Pea Ridge battlefield in Arkansas and that’s where our great-great grandfather fought in the Cherokee Mountain Volunteers in the Confederate Army. I was a kid there in the ’70s, and the Depression was only essentially a generation before and that was a huge moment in Oklahoma history. So people talked about that all the time. They would talk about Pretty Boy Floyd and how he showed up for dinner one night and didn’t tell them who he was and when my grandmother was cleaning away the plates there was $20 under the dinner plate. Stuff like that. Or WWII, my mother’s brother fought in WWII. And so we weren’t supposed to talk about that around him, and on 4th of July he would get really jumpy when the fireworks went off because he would have flashbacks to the Philippines. History was kind of always in the air and it wasn’t abstract or alien.
RB: Do you agree that Americans don’t seem to care about history?
SV: No. It’s not like I’m an expert or anything. I stumbled into it by doing stories for This American Life on the radio. After I did that first documentary on the Trail of Tears—where my sister and I drove the Trail of Tears—I got mail like I had never gotten mail before from all these families that didn’t know the story. Letters saying, “I sat down with my kids and we talked about American Indian genocide at the kitchen table.” Or letters that just said, “I didn’t know anything about this, this is really interesting. I really enjoyed learning about this.” It seemed like people have this thirst for pure knowledge. Part of that does come from the abysmal state of history education in the post-war era. It was more social studies, not history. It was more, “how do we all get along?” instead of what happened, when and where? I think people feel that they missed out. People do not know as much about American history as they would like. When they are drawn to it the thing they come up against is a lot of really dull writing. One thing that I do that expert scholar types do not, is joke around or talk about what it’s like to go there now. [I] think about some idea relating to it and I write it in nice easy essay form where I pick the really interesting bits and talk about that instead of some entire dreary messy chronology. I have a mission when I do historical stories, since I’m not an expert. I would like to be entertaining about it. Also I think of myself as the proxy for the audience. I’m not some know-it-all that spits out all the things I know. I go there and I learn and the listener can learn as I’m learning, learn with me. It feels more neighborly.
RB: Maybe we are saying the same thing. My sense is that what you point out as the terrible state of history education—it is because of the emphasis on dates and monarch’s succession and being made to memorize the dates of landmark legislation, and not the juicy stories about people’s lives. But let’s get back to you. You’re very well traveled for such a young person. You grew up in Oklahoma and as you say in your book, A Partly Cloudy Patriot, your parents wanted to get away from your relatives so they moved to Montana. And then to you went to San Francisco?
SV: No, in between I moved to Portland. That was my lost year of being a coffee girl and going to the movies everyday. Then I moved back to Bozeman and finished college and then I moved to Washington, DC and was an intern at the Smithsonian. And then I went to San Francisco, and then I went to graduate school in Chicago. Then I went back to San Francisco to write a column for 5 minutes and that didn’t work out, then I went back to Chicago, and now I’m in New York. I don’t know if I’m adventurous or can’t sit still. Maybe those two things are the same. I think it has fueled my interest in the idea of America because I don’t think of any one place as my home. If I had to pin it down I would say Bozeman is my hometown. I’ve lived in so many places, I think of the whole country as my home. I never really wrote about this, but maybe I’m so fixated on Lincoln because that was—if I can read into it—his idea of the country too. He moved around so much—he was born in Kentucky, lived in Indiana and went to Illinois and then Washington. If you live in a lot of different places in the country you tend to think of the country as your home more than people who stay in one place who are more locally or regionally oriented. I guess.
RB: I recall futurist books by people such as Alvin Toffler that predicted that high mobility that would become prevalent in America would lead to a modularity of lifestyle that would make the point of view you described a commonplace. I do think people move around a lot, but I don’t think they have the enlightened view that you hold. People always end up being from somewhere and proclaiming that somewhere as the best.
SV: My parents still live in Bozeman, and I go back there all the time and I still have friends there, people I have known for 20 years. It’s a part of me but it’s not all of me. In some ways it makes me at home everywhere and nowhere. There is no one place that the food of the place is my food. There are California things about the way I eat and Oklahoma things about the way I eat. You may walk around with where you grew up as the peripheral vision. In some way, maybe Montana is that for me. I went to school in Holland for a little bit. I remember always pretending there were mountains, because it was just gray everyday. I thought it would make me feel more at home and maybe I do still feel that way—I’m digressing so much I don’t even remember what the question was. But, um, I just met someone today and she was about my age and she was from LA and lived in San Francisco and Seattle before coming to Boston. I don’t know anyone my age that lives where they grew up and that’s the only place they’ve lived. And then there is broadcasting. The regionalists are mad at broadcasting because it means regional speech dies out, we all hear the same thing, and we all see the same thing and thus talk the same way. But I find that incredibly unifying.
RB: No more John Henry Faulks and Studs Terkels?
SV: Studs is a national figure.
RB: But his speech is very Chicago.
SV: Well, everything I said, the opposite is true also.
RB: [Laughs] The only thing I can remember taking exception to in your book was your statement that “Americans love contradictions.”
SV: [laughs] The question I always get asked is some version of a kind of insulting one, from some coastal type, which is (I’m paraphrasing here), “We thought people from the middle of the country were stupid. You’re not that stupid. How do you explain yourself?” A lot of my stories take place in the middle of the country, and I have certain regional things about me that are very formative. Like being a Pentecostal as a kid …
RB: Is showing regional qualities a stigma?
SV: It’s not a stigma. It’s more a curiosity.
RB: It is a stigma. I’ve lived in Boston for 30 years. I came here from Chicago. People here, when they even recognize a population west of Philadelphia, think those people are stupid.
SV: I have a lot fun with that image. One of the stories in the book was about the craze for New German Cinema in my hometown of Bozeman, Montana. It’s so odd. When people think of Montana they don’t think that this little town could be this hotbed of [Werner] Herzog. But it was.
RB: You write for speech, for broadcast. How much different is that than writing for publication?
SV: It comes more intuitively to me, writing for speech. I started working in radio when I was 18 and did news as a college student. There’s just something about my natural way of writing that is pretty colloquial and spoken. As I am writing I perform it, I speak as I’m typing and I reread everything aloud. Not just to make better sense but so it’ll make better rhythm. I definitely think musically, that way. In some ways, when I am just writing for print, it’s more challenging just because…I don’t think in, as you can tell, complete sentences. I don’t think in very smooth subject-to-verb, object-to-period. Everything I say is choppy and if I wrote down every sentence the way I think it, every sentence would have a dash or a colon or semicolon. I am not a simple direct speaker. I have a lot of parentheticals and everything is either choppy or long-winded. It’s natural because people talk that way, and so I write the way I think more easily, and a radio listener or someone sitting in an audience at one of my readings can’t tell I just began six out of ten sentences with the word ‘and’. As a reader, you pick up on that all the time. I am constantly writing something and then, if it’s for print, rewriting a lot just to make it less marked. If something is riddled with parentheses and dashes and colons, it’s incredibly distracting for a reader. So, yeah, on the flip side of that is that I find in writing more 3rd person things, the historical stories, I much prefer it for print because of all the information you can convey. If you have a lot of names and dates, places it gets murky and complicated if a reader forgets something. If a listener doesn’t pick up a fact in the beginning they have lost it. You either have to keep reiterating the boring information or lose the audience. Also, print is so much better for abstract thought. When you are doing something in real time as an entertainer my impulse is to keep it short, keep it light, keep it moving. Readers are more patient.
RB: Well, the thing about reading is that the reader chooses the pace. Radio means you are going on someone else’s trip.
SV: Yes. I work for a radio show that uses writers, and sometimes we have to gingerly propose that maybe an actor read their work. Not all writers are good readers of their work. That thing I was saying about how in real time people get bored. This is just a simple, technical thing. I find that by reading something out loud it’s a good way of keeping track of what’s good. If am reading something out loud, I find myself looking forward to reading the parts that I really like. If I’m in the middle of something that’s too long and dull and pointless and I can’t wait, that’s a good sign that it needs reworking and editing. I trained as a musician growing up, and I think a lot about sound. So I read aloud to make sure things sound right to me. I’m not saying this is the way people should write; it’s the way I do.
RB: I don’t know about your first book, but the last two have been collections of radio pieces. Do you have any ambition to write a book?
SV: Even the first book was a diary. Yeah, that’s my…I haven’t done that yet. The magnum opus. So, of course, I have that ambition. I don’t have the idea for it yet. That is a very attractive idea for me.
RB: How long do you think doing radio will continue to be interesting to you?
SV: I’m not interested in doing radio per se. I am interested in working for ThIs American Life as long as there is such a show. It’s not because of the medium but because of the process of that show. I really like the editing of that show. It’s rare—as a person, when you can find a group of people and they’re your gang. If that show went off the air tomorrow, would I be scrambling for another radio show to write for? No, I would not.
RB: So your connection to radio is very specific?
SV: Yeah, I’m a very unprofessional person. All I care about is working with people I like and respect. Which is very limiting [laughs]. If you only want to work with the people you like and respect…
RB: How did that become a mark of being unprofessional?
SV: I don’t know. There are lots of opportunities you are presented with to work with people you don’t get or don’t get you. The money’s good or the audience is big, but I don’t really care about things like that as much as liking the people I work with.
RB: Do you have some side projects that you are working on?
SV: My whole life is a side project.
RB: Are you working on a movie?
RB: Do you find it odd that you ended up in New York City, which maybe anathema to every place where you were before?
SV: That’s not true, actually. It’s not for a few reasons? It’s an incredibly national place. It’s what I thought Washington, DC would be like when I moved there. It is national in that every person who ever wanted to go to law school in the country lives there. Not quite the national environment I was looking for. Everyone I know in New York City is not from New York City. It’s basically the nation’s capitol in the sense that everyone is from somewhere else. The media is very national. It’s not like the NY Times is like your local paper. It is but it isn’t…Also, I’m a pretty low key, happy-go-lucky person. And if you are a person like me and you live south of 42nd street, it’s pretty much like living in a college town. You walk everywhere, see your same friends, go to movies and it’s pretty relaxed. Maybe I’m not doing it right?
RB: Well, you aren’t suffering. You are not paying any dues.
SV: Oh no. I would hate to move there, poor and questioning how it all was going to turn out…
RB: Trying to get your 1st book published…you moved there with a job.
SV: Yeah. It’s pretty much the life I would live if I moved back to Montana.
RB: Do you have to travel much for This American Life?
SV: Not so much for the radio show. I am on the lecture circuit. The lecture circuit is very counter-intuitive in that the bigger deal you become and the better you are at it, the smaller the places you will go. If you are anybody, you can go speak in LA, but they have to really want you to be invited to LaGrande, Oregon.
RB: Where is that, in eastern Oregon?
SV: Yes, near Idaho.
RB: I’m very interested in how Americans see their own country. Other than easterners who see it in some form of that Saul Steinberg drawing of the USA where Manhattan takes up most of the map.
SV: California is like that, too.
RB: I don’t think Americans get how really large and what great differences there are. And—how hard it is to put one’s hands around the concept of the country.
SV: I have this map in my hallway, I call it the Gertrude Stein map.
RB: Because there is no there, there?
SV: Well, what is that thing where there are more places where nobody is than there are places where somebody is? It’s a map of just the towns and counties and for a town to make it to the map it has to have 2500 people. There are vast stretches of the West, where county after county has no town in it. Maybe this is a total clichÈ but there was a New Yorker article about an Egyptian terrorist and he was a critic and very literary. He had a fellowship, he was at Colorado State in the ’60s and was in love with America and he came here and saw how stupid we are. And he went back to Egypt and became this incredible Muslim extremist. A sort of similar thing happened to me when I studied abroad and went to Holland. I was one of those Reagan-era kids of the left-wing variety where I thought the US government was going to get us all blown up. And how much money was being spent on nuclear weapons boggled my mind. I always wanted to go live in Western Europe, like Sweden or the Netherlands where things seemed so together, my ideal of what a progressive democratic socialist country would be like. So I found myself in the Netherlands. It was everything I always thought it would be except it was kind of dull there. That’s the thing about those societies where they are so on the ball that they never make news because nothing ever happens because everyone is fairly okay. It was really dull. Then the LA riots happened in ’92. I was sitting there with my Dutch friends watching the news in Dutch, which I always did to try to learn Dutch.
SV: I didn’t understand anything. There’s this picture and it said Los Angeles and there was something on fire. I thought, “Oh another Los Angeles fire.” My friends were kind of freaking out. And I said, “We have fires all the time. They can handle it.” They went, “No, no riot.” And they told me what happened. Then my friend said, “Of course, you’re not going back there.” I said, “Where?” And she said, “America.” I said, “First of all I’m from Montana. And, yeah that’s a drawback but that’s my home.” I remember riding my bike home trying to figure out what was going on, through the Dutch fog. I was heartbroken by the whole thing. I listened to The Beach Boys all night, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” the other LA, the Beach Boys LA. I knew I just wanted to go home. I had never been so homesick. Even though it was this horrible thing, I felt part of it. It made sense to me that it didn’t make sense.
RB: You just reminded me of the Carol Reed Film, The Third Man. With Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton.
SV: Uh huh, Vienna.
RB: There’s this great scene on top of a Ferris wheel where the Welles’ character says something to the effect that 500 years of peace and tranquility in Switzerland produced the cuckoo clock while in 30 years or so of internecine treachery in Italy under Borgia rule, it produced the Renaissance.
SV: I love this country unconditionally. I think that means not blindly. It’s like if you are a mother—even Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother still loved her kid. There’s a way where you can love something without having to love everything.
RB: It would appear that is a major motif of your book. Which I take great exception to. My image of patriotism is associated with people who take off their shirts in sub-zero weather at sports events, paint themselves in team colors and stomp around proclaiming, “We’re number 1!” I don’t also associate the feeling of love with a political geographical abstraction.
SV: Really, you don’t? (laughs)
RB: I like regional and local character and appreciate them and I understand that kind of chauvinism.
SV: I know what you mean. There are those people—I always picture them with shirts on. I have been doing a lot of interviews on Pacifica radio stations and I feel like G. Gordon Liddy on those shows. I’m a Democrat and I dislike the Republican Party but I don’t demonize all Republicans. My father is a Republican and he’s an okay guy. I don’t think you are necessarily evil if you are. Those people have a disdain for any show of national unity. They seem as blind as the love-it-or-leave-it types. The truth is in between…I like things murky. I don’t know if this is seeing the glass half empty or half full, but I see everything has a cost. My life is full of all kinds of freedom and I have set it up that way. I know that has a cost. I like to live alone. I don’t want children. So I live alone and don’t have children. But I know that there is that tiny little voice that knows that I have given up that part of life. So that has a cost. I do feel incredibly reverent about the big old-fashioned things like the idea of liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And all of the great inventiveness of this country. But I know it came at this huge cost. How many of the original inhabitants were murdered or enslaved? How many people were left behind and squeezed out and downtrodden by the Darwinian process that built the bridges and laid down the railroad and all that. My parents didn’t go to college. My grandmother was dirt poor, picking cotton to feed her children. I have lived the kind of nice middle-class urban lifestyle that I have because of a lot of their sacrifices. I celebrate that and I appreciate them. I come from all these people that had it hard. All those Cherokee that were kicked off their land or Swedish immigrants that plowed their fields. And eventually here I am. Thanks to some good parents and the Federal Student loan program I can do what I want to do. I certainly don’t take that for granted. I may not be the embodiment of the American Dream but I’m living my little American Dream. A lot of that has to do with this time and place in this country.
RB: Why do we still use this half-empty/half-full glass metaphor? The glass is both. We don’t have to make a choice that is a false choice. Anyway, all good reasons to appreciate your life. My experience with historical education precedes yours and was heavily mythological as formed by the Cold War and its McCarthyist spin-offs. I’ve spent my life since then paying attention to the revisions necessitated by public school historical fairytales I was indoctrinated with. The Founding Fathers were gods, and this a great country and everyone here is blessed and we, by the grace of a Christian god, were ordained to be the policeman of the world. Perhaps my reaction is pathological after years of perceiving patriotism as knee jerk and robotic. And by the way, the Attorney General, Ashcroft, is truly demonic and frightening.
SV: Those kind of people drive me insane because they wrap themselves in the flag. This sentiment of censorship and surveillance is to me, the definition of anti-American. It’s one reason I am so obsessed with Lincoln. He was obsessed with the Declaration of Independence and believed it. Who more than him, from his vantage point, could see it wasn’t coming true for a goodly portion of the population. When he talks about a new birth of Freedom, he is trying to make those ideals come true. What you are talking about—that stupid nostalgic education—the thing that needed to happen is for whatever the tide of multiculturalism and feminism to wash over it. Just because Jefferson owned slaves doesn’t mean that the Declaration of Independence isn’t one of the most beautiful things humanity has come up with. Even if he wasn’t making it come true in his life, it’s up to all of us to try to make them come true—even if we can’t succeed it’s a really good goal to shoot for.
RB: Well, one of the contradictions of American life is that it seems to force people to work so hard that they have little time for political activity.
SV: Yeah, I know that’s true. Citizenship—and there is no sexy way to say this—is a duty. With all the drudgery that entails. I’ve had 20 minutes free today. I knew that I was going to have 20 minutes so I set the alarm so that I had time to read the paper. I know what a little civics freak I am and how a hard it is for me to keep track of all this so I can imagine what it’s like for people with actual responsibilities.
RB: You did quote Al Gore on the South African elections where there was a turnout of 98%.
SV: I don’t have a lot of expertise in history, but what I can offer is to keep bringing things up. In weird contexts, too. John Grisham, who I think is a masterful storyteller in some ways, drives me crazy that always the young idealistic lawyer who comes up against the system, at the end of his books, there is always someone who is vowing never to register to vote so they don’t get called for jury duty. Such is their disgust with the state of the legal system. This is a person who lives in Mississippi where people have DIED for the right to vote. Stuff like that is constantly worth reminding ourselves about. It goes back to my feeling that I am standing on the shoulders of my ancestors and their sacrifices. I feel like that about all kinds of things. Voting included. People have DIED FOR THAT RIGHT. I don’t know how we got off on this tangent.
RB: Do you have a plan for your life?
SV: No, my life has been completely and totally unplanned. All the good stuff especially, was unplanned. I would like to write the big book, capitol B. I kind of like how things are right now. So I prefer to maintain. I don’t have any kind of dream, like the house on the lake or whatever prize. Maybe I should get a goal? The thing I am always shooting for is free time.
RB: I’m going to give you some right now. Thanks.
Copyright 2002 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing