Sarah Vowell on Assassination Vacation

Sarah VowellSarah Vowell is the author of The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Take the Cannoli, Radio On, and recently, Assassination Vacation. She was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and raised in Montana. She received an MA from the Art Institute in Chicago. Sarah Vowell is best known for her bits on National Public Radio’s This American Life. She has
been contributing editor for the program since 1996 and has been
a participant of This American Life’s well-regarded
live shows around the country. No doubt the New York Times
commendation praising her "funny querulous voice and shrewd
comic delivery" explains how she came to be the voice of Violet
Parr, teenage superhero in Pixar’s The Incredibles.
Vowell also wrote and was featured in Vowellet: An Essay by
Sarah Vowell
, included on the DVD version of The Incredibles,
in which she reflects on the differences between being superhero
Violet and being an author of history books on the subject of assassinated
presidents—and what this means to her nephew Owen. Sarah Vowell
is a former columnist for Time, Salon.com, and
San Francisco Weekly, and she has contributed to numerous
newspapers and magazines, including Esquire, GQ,
Los Angeles Times, The Village Voice, Spin,
The New York Times Book Review, and McSweeney's.
She has recently been substituting for Maureen Dowd on the New
York Times
Op-Ed page. Sara Vowell lives in Manhattan and reportedly
cannot swim, is afraid of heights, and does not drive a car.

Assassination Vacation is an account of Sarah Vowell’s
singular brand of road trip, revisiting the historical record of
the assassinations of Republican presidents Abraham Lincoln, James
Garfield, and William McKinley and visiting key places in her thought-provoking
unpacking of the significance of those killings. Her trademark historical
tourism manages to include mummies, show tunes, a nineteenth-century
biblical sex cult, mean-spirited totem poles, and more. This is
my second
chat with Sarah Vowell
and my first with the voice of a superhero.
Vowell, as she claims below, “is not for everyone.”
Maybe. Maybe not. Read on and see for yourself.

Robert Birnbaum: I'm wondering what your editors
thought when you proposed Assassination Vacation. Was it
obvious to them? Was what you were going to do clear to you?

Sarah Vowell: Was it obvious? What do you mean?

RB: Did you have a clear picture of what you were going to do?

SV: Actually, it kept narrowing down. I was going to write another
collection with the focus being on death as entertainment. This
was just the first story I started working on, and then I quickly
realized it was a whole book. Originally it was going to be about
all the American political assassinations. And then I narrowed it
down to presidents, and then I realized I didn't really want to
write about Kennedy. And also partly because fairly early on when
I found that Robert Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln's son, was there
for all three of the first three assassinations—and he had
attended the dedication for the Lincoln Memorial—I wanted
to write about that a little bit. He [RTL] narrowed it down and
gave a natural thread to the story. But in terms of me and my crap—I
guess is your question—my team is behind me.

RB: [laughs]

SV: Yeah.

RB: Based on your books selling, on your commercial viability?

SV: Based on the fact that they are proud to publish them, I would
like to think.

RB: Sure, of course, but there—

SV: —this is my third book with them. They are behind me.

RB: You said you didn't want to write about Kennedy? I thought
there might be a sequel, since there are more assassinations in
the twentieth century.

SV: Everyone knows more about those.

RB: People know about the Puerto Rican separatist's attempt on
Harry Truman?

SV: If you want to do attempts, that broadens it. It's more Kennedy
and his brother and Martin Luther King. I like the distance of talking
about the long dead. There are some very serious parts of the book,
and some mournful ones, but there is some joking around, and you
can do a little less of that when someone's daughter and brother
are mourning them. Or wife and children, in the case of [Martin
Luther] King. I'm just not very interested in John F. Kennedy. Also,
my books are purely optional. They are not books that need to be
written.

RB: They may or may not—I agree with you somewhat. But there
is such a thing as historical amnesia. However, amnesia suggests
you knew something in the first place.

SV: Uh-huh.

RB: Whereas the problem, perhaps, is that people don't bother to
learn much of American history the first place.

SV: Well, who can blame them. It's presented in school in such
a boring humdrum fashion. When I was in school we might have spent
maybe half an hour on Reconstruction, and all of sudden WWI is breaking
out.

RB: [laughs]

SV: So this whole period between 1865 and 1901: there is a little
room for learnin'.

RB: Hard to argue with that.

SV: For me too. I'm not a historian and not trained as an American
historian. One reason I do it [write these books] is that I like
learning this stuff. And I learn a lot.

RB: I'm inclined to refer to an observation Nicholas Lehmann made
about the trouble with the way American history is taught is that
there is too much of it—meaning there is a lot of detail and
not a lot of stories: the Smoot-Hawley tariff may not be the compelling
concern of that period.

SV: It's not really true in terms of like, if you are doing American
history versus, uh, Mesopotamia or something. It's a pretty short
little period we have going here. But I know what you mean. It's
like a series of laws being passed, wars being fought with definite
outcomes, heroes and villains. This happened and of course it happened
and there is no like, "What if something else had happened?"
There is no drama or real blood.

RB: No sense of the people in the flesh. The people that you are
writing about, even that nutjob who shot Garfield—

SV: Yeah, he was a real interesting person. I don't know how it
is in other countries. Part of that has to do with—is peculiar
to—America, in that we have this notion of ourselves as inherently
good, and our history is supposed to be a look back at our history
of goodness. If you are just trying to talk about the presidents
as heroic figures and American wars as good wars, then there is
no real reason to get into the president's foibles or questionable
wars. If the point of it is to inspire old-fashioned patriotism,
then you wouldn't want to make the people seem like people. You
want to make them seem like statutes. You want to tell people about
life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness; you don't want to tell
them about Jefferson raping his slaves.

I like the distance of talking about the long dead. There are some very serious
parts of the book and some mournful ones, but there is some
joking around, and you can do a little less of that when someone's
daughter and brother are mourning them.

RB: Right.

SV: Which, whatever you think of him raping his
slaves—it's not boring. Frankly, there is just a lot of good
dirt.

RB: And/or good stories—the kind we find in novels. In fact,
you mention Thomas Mallon's wonderful novel Henry and Clara

SV: I love that book.

RB: A terrific novel based on two real people and the harrowing
drama that ensues from their presence in Abraham Lincoln's box at
the Ford theater the night he is shot. There is no shortage of patriotism
in Europe, I'm sure; yet I don't know how much that influences their
historiography.

SV: I don't know. In France, there is an argument for their culture.
You have to deal with the whole stupid monarchy thing for most of
their history. And their revolution, which eventually ended okay.
There are a lot of things to be embarrassed about there.

RB: That's just the way human history goes.

SV: I guess you could say this about Canada, sort of. But we are
the only . . . Our country is based on an idea, not a race. We are
actively involved in promoting our idea of ourselves in the world,
and Canada isn't doing that [laughs].

RB: You are not suggesting that—

SV: When I went to school, I was taught [that] America never lost
a war. And I started school like five minutes after Saigon fell.

RB: [laughs] James Garfield is most known for being unknown. And
Lincoln is the perennial martyr of the nineteenth century.

SV: Yeah, even that. It's one of those inevitabilities. It's worth
remembering how loathed he was by pretty much half the country.
His assassination, as much as the Emancipation Proclamation, is
what seals his reputation and engenders this reverence. And also
the specific circumstances of the assassination: Booth shooting
him on Easter weekend, shooting him on Good Friday, and Lincoln
dying Saturday morning; and then Sunday morning every sermon in
the country is all about this Christlike martyr. And he's now unquestionably
universally revered in this country, and he was just so hated when
he was alive.

RB: You pointed out he had to sneak into Washington DC for his
first inauguration—through Baltimore [laughs].

SV: Yeah, because there was an assassination plot against him from
the get-go. His desk drawer was full of death threats during his
presidency; and he was shot at, at least once. I really am amazed
he [was able] to serve an entire first term.

RB: Much of the Lincoln assassination is lore, is well-trod terrain.
But you also spent time on the co-conspirators and this odd place
Dry Tortuoga, which I had thought was further south in the Caribbean.

SV: No, it's seventy miles from Key West. It feels further when
you get there. I don't know further from what. It just feels like
you are on the edge of the world down there.

RB: It seems the fulcrum of this book, if there is such a thing,
is the assassination of James Garfield, who for me, as in the case
of Grant, was an unknown entity. I had accepted the conventional
wisdom that Grant was a drunk and a loser. Except that he wasn't—

SV: Well, he was a drunk and a loser and a great general and great
guy and a great writer and a terrible president. That's the thing.
Why do we need a historical figure, a person, to be one thing? Like
Lincoln said, "He's a drunk. I wish the others were drinking
what he's drinking."

RB: Well, the thing is, I hadn't known anything about Garfield,
but I found his devotion to reading attractive—he would skip
out on just about anything to go and read.

SV: Thank heavens. I was interested in writing about him, but I
didn't know—I started that chapter without a real "in"
and nothing to really grasp on to. And then reading his diaries,
which I don't exactly recommend—there are four volumes and
there is a lot of filler. I just got the feeling [that] all he wants
to do is read—like a total sickness. And when I came across
that commencement address he gives as a presidential candidate and
he says to the graduates [that] even if you get the job you want,
the family you want, it's really going to cut into your free time.
Meaning, you are not going to get to read, basically. And I came
to see him as a kind of junkie. I think all readers are sort of
like that. We all have jobs and responsibilities and loved ones,
but if I imagine a perfect day—the phone of the hook, blinds
drawn—

RB: —You don't read in the sun?

SV: [laughs] Read in the sun? I can do that, but I'm an indoor
reader. The sun gets in your eyes, is the problem.

RB: [laughs] One of the great American inventions is the baseball
cap.

SV: Okay, that's a good point. I cede that point.

RB: I was going to say, before we launch into talking about history,
is that if I was teaching history in public schools, I would use
your books as texts. With a few others [like Zinn’s People’s
History
and William Appleman Williams, the Tragedy of Empire].
This is the kind of history that people can read and grasp; at least,
it's an entry point or stepping stone to the more serious or deeper
history.

SV: Just as I have no real interest in rah-rah flag waving—I
am a patriotic person in my own way—I also have very little
interest in my own authority. I am confident enough in myself and
what I say. I don't need to overly pump myself up. And a lot of
times when I have learned about something, I'll say how I learned
it: where I was, or I saw that in an archive, or I read that in
this book, or I learned it from this guy. I am pretty open about
my learning process, and it's like, "Hey, you can come along."
I hope it's kind of welcoming. And also because I didn't start out
as a writer writing about history; I sort of got this history bug
the last few years, [but] that doesn't mean that I stopped being
the person I was. It doesn't mean that I don't know who Snoop Dog
is. I'm still myself and I still watch TV and listen to pop music
and talk to my sister on the phone. I am still a person. Sometimes
when I'm reading the real upstanding history books, I wonder, "How
do you learn that?" The guy was at an archive, because he thanks
the librarian—but how'd he get there? Did your wife come too?
Who'd you hang out with and what was it like?

RB: You want to know more about the process?

SV: Yeah.

RB: Have you read Howard
Zinn
's A People's History of the United States of America?

sarah vowellSV:
Yeah.

RB: More than once?

SV: No. Do you need to read it more than once?

RB: I believe he has updated it.

SV: I see what you mean.

RB: There was a thirtieth anniversary edition and then an edition
update after September 11.

SV: I like people who have their own little corner staked out,
and he's one of those guys. I still like writing about General Grant
and Lincoln and all the big guys. I like to write about us little
people sometimes, too. I think that [one of] the first books I read
was the Bible when I was a kid, and there weren't that many books
around. And the books that were available were children's biographies.
I don't know if kids read them anymore—like biographies of
the Revolutionary War heroes and presidents and Indian chiefs and
wild west types: Sitting Bull and Annie Oakley and Paul Revere.
I still have an attraction for those boldfaced names.

RB: Kids must still read them—I have biographies of Miles
Davis and Malcolm X for my son.

SV: That's true. Now that you mention it, when I first started
on this and I panicked one day—especially with Garfield .
. . like I have to really beef up on this especially—like,
I went instantly online and ordered bunches of books willy-nilly.
To get started, just to have them there as—

RB: —Security blankets?

SV: Or something. Just have them there making me feel guilty. And
I just pushed, "Buy, Buy, Buy," and most of them showed
up and they were children's books. And I realized that a lot of
the stuff that I am interested in you're only supposed to be learning
about it if you are nine or something.

RB: [laughs]

SV: If you want to know more about Seward's purchase of Alaska,
odds are it's going to be a kid's book that tells you about it.

RB: Or the interesting twist of the last generation is that it's
become the stuff of novels—Gore Vidal wrote those novels,
spanning the nineteenth century, or as in Thomas Mallon's Henry
and Clara
. Or Brian
Hall
wrote a fine novel about Lewis and Clark. History has become
the—

SV: It makes sense because it's just so dramatic and there are
such good stories. I know there are people who are against the fictionalization,
but I am not one of those people. I was on some panel at the Sydney
[Australia] Writers Festival a couple years ago about historical
novels. I don't know why I was on it. But I remember there was this
proper historian and then it was all historical novelists. I remember
her waving her finger at people saying, "We must avoid easy
entertainments." I didn't say this at the time because she
was elderly, and I am afraid of—and I am very respectful of—the
elderly, [but] it made me so mad because I was thinking, "Entertainment
is hard." If you can entertain someone . . . It's really hard,
first of all. And why shouldn't we entertain? And if they are really
great stories, why shouldn't they be told? There are good historical
novels and bad historical novels. But there are things that you
can learn to get an idea about—

RB: When I talked to Edward
P. Jones
, a woman historian from Texas was bothered by the fact
that he announced that he did very little (if any) research. He
intended to look at the books on a list he had made up, but he never
did. And that woman was saying that his story had to be based on
facts and researched. I thought, "Why? It's a novel."
There are perhaps odd expectations of what the truth is supposed
to be.

SV: Right. That's why Thomas Mallon is so good. He does put in
the shoe leather and really tries to get it right as much as possible.

RB: Have you read Band Box?

SV: I haven't read that yet. It's the magazine one, right?

RB: Very funny.

SV: Uh, what was I going to say? On the other . . . We don't have
to talk about this anymore.

RB: We don't?

SV: Not necessarily.

RB: Can we say that writing on Lincoln and the various offshoots
was relatively easy, but Garfield was hard?

SV: Yeah. Pretty much every time Lincoln used a hanky there is
a plaque for it. But Garfield, because he was assassinated—he
was only president a few weeks. So he didn't really get to do that
much. That's one reason. And there were problems and dramas. And
it was a relatively undramatic period. Which is another reason we
don't learn much about it.

RB: The 1880s were undramatic?

SV: Well, compared to the 1860s. Or the 1930s.

RB: Indian wars? Robber Barons?

SV: Yeah. There are Indian wars and robber barons. I'm not saying
I don't find drama; it's just fairly forgotten. And then with him
[Garfield], like when I do my Garfield tour of Washington, I call
it an "unwalking" tour because just walking around, things
I looked up—where things happened—you wouldn't know
from standing there. Just like where Lincoln was assassinated: the
Ford Theater is a whole national memorial/historical site. A living
theater as a memorial.

RB: It's not the same theater? Didn't the original fall down or
something like that?

SV: It's the same location and the exterior is the same. It is
recreated. But even for McKinley there is a plaque on the site where
he was assassinated in a Buffalo [NY] neighborhood. But for Garfield
there is just no plaque. We have plaques for so many things. My
favorite plaque in New York is the "Peter Styuvesant's pear
tree was here" plaque. That's nice. I love that plaque. It
was, "He bought a tree, planted it and then it died."

RB: The tree lived a couple of hundred years.

SV: Yeah, it did. But the train station where Garfield was assassinated
was torn down and now it's the National Gallery of Art. They could
put a plaque up.

RB: Wasn't there a dollhouse built out of railroad ties in Longbranch,
New Jersey?

SV: That was a private citizen who did that. That was nice.

RB: Was Garfield the president you were researching when you found
the website FindaGrave.com?

SV: Garfield's in that. They all are in it. I've known about it
for a long time; [from] whenever it first came about. People would
send me that. It's just one of those things I get sent because of
my predilections. It's really handy.

RB: Is it more than gravesites?

SV: It's where remains are located. So that's not always a grave.
Like with Lincoln they have Springfield, where his tomb is, and
then they also list the National Museum of Health and Medicine,
where pieces of his skull are. His brain got buried.

RB: I don't want to quibble with you, but you confused me in the
beginning section on McKinley. Also, I take exception to your interpretation
of the drawing that North America is going to stomp on Cuba. That
doesn't look like a stomp to me. I guess that's a matter of interpretation.
But the other thing is that you went from looking for Hayes's grave
to looking for Mark Hanna's grave?

If the point of it is to inspire old-fashioned patriotism,
then you wouldn't want to make the people seem like people.
You want to make them seem like statutes.

SV: They are both buried in that cemetery.

RB: [finding and returning to the illustration in question] Is
that "stomping" to you?

SV: It's poised to stomp—not actually stomping. John Hay,
McKinley's Secretary of State, and Mark Hanna, and McKinley's best
friend slash/Karl Rove are buried in the same cemetery. Hays married
a wealthy Cleveland girl and Hanna was a wealthy Clevelander, so
they were part of the same millionaire's row or circle. And all
those people were buried in the same really nice cemetery.

RB: I always think of John Hay as being played by John Huston as
in the film The Wind and the Lion.

SV: I think of John Hay as being a little more effeminate than
that.

RB: He may be, but I seem to recall that Huston played him in The
Wind and the Lion

SV: —That's the Theodore Roosevelt—

RB: —Teddy coins the slogan [Mohammed], "Mrs. Pedecaris
alive or el-Raisuli dead!"

SV: Huston is a little hardboiled for Hay. For what he did, [Hay]
is sort of a dreamer poet. He's like this young kid, and Lincoln
hires him as his secretary, and then he joins the diplomatic corps—that's
what it was called back then. Eventually [he] becomes Ambassador
to Great Britain. He is really the reason why . . . he is the first
one to reconcile us with Great Britain, to really get cracking on
forging this very historic friendship. We were at war at one point,
and that kind of carried through for a while. And Hay was an Anglophile.
He wrote a novel and he was a kind of—not effeminate—but
definitely a very cultured mucky muck.

RB: There is a lot of information about him—he was very prominent.

SV: Guys like him are one reason I wanted also to just focus on
Lincoln to McKinley because it's thirty-six years and they are all
three Republicans and the same guys show up the whole time.

RB: Kind of like our time [laughs].

SV: Yeah, isn't it. They do hang on.

RB: Speaking of guys showing up—where did you find that immensely
informative speech by John Ashcroft, which you quoted?

SV: I got that from Fairness and Accuracy in Media, the watchdog
group, through Nexus.

RB: The speech was a bit scary.

SV: It was Ashcroft praising this Southern partisan magazine for
its advocacy of Confederate heritage. Yeah.

RB: You go on to point out that Maryland state song is still an
unrepentant—

SV: It's still a call to assassinate Lincoln. It didn't become
a state song until the '30s, "Maryland,
My Maryland."
That's an incredibly horrifying state song.

RB: Percival
Everett
wrote a brilliant story about the song "Dixie"
in his collection Damned
If I Do
.

RB: If I remember correctly from a half hour ago, the impetus for
this book was just to assemble pieces that you are always doing
and it became this other subject, and then you narrowed it down
to three assassinations—am I recapping it correctly?

SV: I think so.

RB: Where do you go from here, after writing this book?

SV: I really don't know. I don't know yet. This actually took a
lot out of me. I think the book, I hope, is sort of breezy, but
it was hard sometimes. Sometimes I would get very close—like
the president's wives especially, and what they went through. And
Mrs. Garfield and Mrs. McKinley and even Mrs. Lincoln, whom I am
not the hugest fan of—

RB: Who is? She seems to be universally despised if not sympathized
with.

SV: That's a good question. Yeah, I have a lot of sympathy for
her. I don't think anyone gets over thedeath of a child, and she
had to get over the death of three children and watch her husband
be shot in front of her. So I think it's insane to think that would
not make a person crazy. So anyway [laughs], it takes me awhile
to think of ideas now. I have this fantasy about writing a really
upbeat book about cheerful people doing very likable things. But
I don't seem to get those ideas very often. I am capable of joy
[laughs].

RB: May be if you spent more time out in daylight—perhaps
in the sunshine. Put some sunscreen on and a baseball cap

SV: You don't think I'll burst into flames?

RB: I don't know—is that a fear of yours? I won't caution
you anymore about the lack of contact with daylight.

SV: I don't know if anyone should be encouraging writers to spend
more time outside.

RB: Okay.

SV: I mean, it's a pretty indoorsy job.

RB: Well, the advent of portability in technology. Besides, we
always had the portable technology with pens and pads and notebooks.

SV: Who are the outdoors writers? That's a good question.

RB: Gary Snyder.

SV: That makes sense [laughs].

RB: Barry Lopez. William Faulkner probably wrote in his backyard.

SV: I always like that thing that someone told Norman McLean, "You
write books with trees in them." Yeah. I wish I could be one
of those people. I wish I wasn't interested in that stuff.

RB: You don't need to be one of those people. You did preface this
notion of writing an upbeat book as a fantasy.

SV: I do spend a lot of time outdoors working on these books, going
to these places. As in taking walks—

RB: —sailing.

SV: That's right.

RB: Braving the ocean.

SV: Getting out of the car to look at Booth's death spot. Traipsing
around the cemetery with my nephew.

RB: Sitting around Gramercy Park with your English friend.

SV: That's right. Pretty cool.

RB: Watching your sister get into a dispute with a woman in a parking
lot in Cleveland—which you included in the book—which
was very sweet.

SV: Well—

RB: She threatened the woman whom she was having the dispute with,
"My sister is writing a book and she's going to put you in
it." And you did.

SV: That's right. No one messes with my sister on my watch.

RB: [laughs]

SV: Without retribution.

RB: You said this took a lot out of you because—

SV: —dealing with murder every day. And Booth—dealing
with his racism. The McKinley assassin's just sad, sad, sad life.
And the deaths of these presidents and the way they were mourned.
Certain objects had so much resonance with me. Seeing Garfield's
death mask. Those are the kinds of things that you can't exactly
always get out of a book. You can only learn from a thing. His actual
death mask and how bony and skeletal it is, because he just wasted
away for weeks before he died. You can see—it's around the
corner from a bunch of photos of the robust and rotund Garfield—and
seeing his death mask you see what his wife watched. She had to
watch him melt away, basically. And then seeing Mrs. McKinley's
sewing bag. After her husband died she just mourned her life away—sitting
in a rocking chair crocheting thousands of bedroom slippers. How
sad is that? It gets sadder because she sews her dead husband's
photo inside her crochet bag, so every time she reaches for new
yarn she sees his face. It just gets [pause] very emotional—making
them people again; you have to know them and even [in] some ways
like them; then I have to mourn with them too, a little bit. I don't
like everything about McKinley or anything about Mark Hanna, his
henchman; but when McKinley, [Hanna's] best friend, is dying, even
money-grubbing power broker Mark Hanna—as anyone who's best
friend is dying—is pleading, "William, William, speak
to me." It's hard not to feel for that.

RB: What was that quote you presented in the Garfield section,
"It's not the bullet that will kill you, it's the hole"?

SV: Yeah. That's Laurie Anderson.

RB: The infection that killed Garfield.

SV: Yeah. It wasn't even removing the bullet. It was on the site,
at the train station; the doctors were poking their grimy fingers
in the wound, which caused a pretty bad infection. And that's what
the assassin says at his trial, "I didn't kill the President.
I just shot him. The doctors, they're the ones who killed him."

RB: If it hadn't been for Garfield, would Guiteau have ended up
getting a post in the diplomatic service?

SV: No, he was crazy. One of the asides you learn about him is
that at his trial a doctor said years earlier the assassin Guiteau
had come after his sister with an ax and they had taken him to a
doctor and the doctor recommended he be institutionalized. But the
family didn't have the money for that. So he just walked the streets.
So if he had been put in a nice safe hospital to live out his days
with doctors and drugs, then Garfield would have lived.

RB: Maybe.

SV: Maybe.

RB: This grouping of stories would make a nice PBS series. Any
talk of that?

SV: Uh-uh. I am going to try to take that as a compliment.

RB: [laughs]

SV: "IT SCREAMS FOR PUBLIC TELEVISION."

RB: Well, to begin with, it's not something we are likely to see
on commercial TV.

SV: No, right.

RB: Are you suggesting that a lot of programming on PBS is effete
or stuffy; uninteresting?

SV: There are certain things on PBS I like. I like American
Experience
and things like that. So, yeah, it would totally
lend itself to that.

RB: I see it in the context of Andrei Codrescu's Road Scholar.

SV: Hmm. One thing I like about writing things: I actually like
describing things, and you don't get to do that when those pictures
are showing people what something looks like without telling people
what to think about it. I really like the control of being a writer.

sarah vowellRB:
Do you entertain any thoughts about writing fiction?

SV: [sharply] No.

RB: Because?

SV: I am not one of those writers—I never wanted to be a
writer. When I was growing up I wasn't one of those people who hid
in their bedroom with a flashlight scribbling out stories. I came
to writing by studying art history and writing essay exams. So I
don't know how to make stories up. I know how to lie. One reason
I like writing nonfiction is [that] it's all about the implausible.
It's all about Lincoln's kid being there for the first three assassinations.
Or Lincoln's son's life being saved by John Wilkes Booth's brother
on the train tracks. All these weird coincidences. And bizarre occurrences.
With nonfiction it's like, "Holy cow, I can't believe this
thing happened!" Whereas fiction seems to me, for it to work,
it actually has to seem kind of plausible. Which I would find incredibly
difficult.

RB: So you have written four books and you are still doing the
radio—This American Life—and you have branched
off into voice work.

SV: I did one movie, uh-huh.

RB: You know how it goes, you do one and then people will be knocking
your door down.

SV: We'll see.

RB: Was doing The Incredibles fun?

SV: Yeah, I mean I loved working with the people at Pixar. That's
what it was really about for me, specifically working with them.
And I loved the story of the movie, and I loved my character. The
teenaged girl. I really liked all the mid-life crises stuff. For
what some people thought of as a kid's movie there was some pretty
existential stuff on getting older and trying to have a family when
you have a calling. That experience was pretty much perfect. So
if I ever did something like that again, it would have to be pretty
great for me to want do it.

RB: Apparently you weren't looking for more work—

SV: That's pretty much how I do it.

RB: I remember very clearly from our last talk, your strong statement
that you would only want to work with certain people.

SV: I have been lucky that way. At this point so I really only
want work with people I want to work with. It's not like I fell
in love with being a voice in a cartoon—anymore than I fell
in love with holding a really long microphone in people's faces
to do radio documentaries. It was more like I like working with
Pixar and I liked working on This American Life. It's more
situational to me.

RB: That's pretty unorthodox. People aren't taught to aspire to
that.

SV: This is like my art history background. The thing I liked when
I studied art history . . . I liked studying Dada, De Steiejl, and
Fluxism, and all the groups where it was all these very singular
individuals, and [they do] their own little projects, but occasionally
they would be hanging out in a café or staging events and
evenings. Like the Dadaists in Zurich with their Cabaret Voltaire:
it was always like a place where each of these people were individuals,
various singular individuals, they were still a gang. I like being
a part of a gang. I have been lucky to stumble into a few good ones.
I feel like I'm better as part of a gang. I am kind of—I'm
not for everyone. Some of my concerns and obsessions are a little
narrow sometimes. So I don't need to stand alone all the time.

RB: It's hard to stand alone.

SV: [chuckles] One thing I like about This American Life
is being with all the other people. Like, McSweeney's has
been such a great experience. Everyone working on their own little
things, and on occasion we'll have some big event where it's just
all camaraderie. It's important to me—camaraderie.

RB: Sure. Is it too soon to talk about what's next?

SV: Yeah, more of the same. I really want to just maintain. I guess.
I don't have any big dreams.

RB: Yet.

SV: [laughs] Things have gone much better than I could have ever
hoped.

RB: I was struck by your observation about your nephew. You took
for granted that you would love him, but you were surprised that
you ended up liking him.

SV: I was surprised by how much I like him. Love and like are two
different things. I am not one of those people who likes all children.
I am not mean to children or anything. I see each child as a person,
and I don't like all people. And I go on a case-by-case basis. My
sister and I are twins, so I knew even before he was born that I
had this kind of physical reaction toward him; I knew I was going
to be on his side. But then it takes awhile to actually meet them.
They have a personality more or less right away, but after he started
talking . . . one thing that my nephew and I are very much alike:
we both get these obsessions. And like, he'll just really get into
knights or be really into dragons. Now he is into the Great Wall
of China. He just goes through these phases of subject-matter interests.
I really like that about him, and he is really funny and very quotable.
All of his malapropisms are somehow accurate.

RB: What makes a malapropism accurate?

SV: Calling cemeteries Halloween parks—that's not really
what they are. He was so good for this book, going on trips. One
of his obsessions is Scooby-Doo, and I would take him places that
he knew from Scooby-Doo, [such as] cemeteries; or like going to
the Oneida Mansion House—that was straight out of the Haunted
House in Scooby-Doo. He's just really funny too.

RB: Does that incline you to have children?

SV: Kind of the opposite [both laugh enthusiastically]. I really
like him and really love him, but one of the things I like about
him is [that] he is just on all the time. He's really loud and he's
instantly famous wherever he goes. There is no quiet, no contemplation.

RB: How old?

SV: He's almost five. When he's around he's the whole show. I love
being around him and love him, but I really also love quiet and
solitude.

RB: I see. Well, thanks very much.

SV: You're welcome.

RB: Who knows what the next time will be about.

SV: Yeah.

© 2005 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing

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