A friend of ours recently revealed that he decided to become a social studies teacher because of Sarah Vowell. And anyone who has read Assassination Vacation or The Wordy Shipmates will have no trouble understanding that sentiment. Vowell has a talent for reintroducing you to the kid you were when you did four separate book reports on Johnny Tremain, while also reminding you of what's so amusing about the current world we inhabit. Bring up Sarah Vowell to someone not as familiar with her and the conversation will always come back to that voice of hers, heard in years past on This American Life or in The Incredibles.
Tonight you can hear that voice for yourself at Barnes & Noble Union Square, where Sarah will be reading from The Wordy Shipmates, her exploration of all the juicy stuff that went down up in Massachusetts once the first Thanksgiving leftovers were composted. She was kind enough to talk to us once again about why comedians are more fun to hang out with than writers, how her books tend to fall in with a younger crowd, and the prayers she was reminded of when Farrah Fawcett died. — Billy Parker
This was one of the more unusual set of circumstances leading to an interview. Did you hear how this came about? That you were interviewing (Nick) Hornby?
Yeah, your publicist noticed that we uncovered that he had written about Bozeman in his new novel because of you being from there. Well he gets the mountain ranges right if that's what you're getting at. I was at this reading the other night and he read that part. He rattles off the names of the mountain ranges and there's a really nice view of them from the shower in my parent's house. So for some reason I was distracted thinking about my parent's house. Real nice view if you need to take a shower in my parent's house.
Good to know. What's it like going out with a book for the second time around, now doing the paperback tour for Wordy Shipmates? Are you insinuating that it's not as fresh? I would say that there's a little less anxiety. Especially with the book being centered around the Massachusetts Bay Colony, I was a little worried about people wanting to read it. Also, the book came out a week after the big crash, so it was more or less the worst time to be trying to sell anything, much less a book about Puritans. So that was a little nerve-wracking and I was a little nervous whether people would respond to it and they did.
What's the youngest reader that you're aware that you've had? Sometimes I get the college students who watch The Daily Show. But most of my readers, or the ones that come to the readings, are middle-aged lesbians who would come with their fathers. I'm multi-generational in that way because I think I can write about subjects in a way that Republican fathers can enjoy that their middle-aged gay children also like. After being in The Incredibles, there was an uptick in wide-eyed nine-year-old girls. And I still think sometimes parents bring children to the readings cause they cop them into coming so that they can come see the voice of a superhero. I don't know if the readings are particularly pleasant for children.
My friend and I went to see The Informant the other night at Union Square. And this mother brought these two kids—both of them were well under eleven. I would say they were seven and ten. At one point, the little girl said, "This isn't a real movie!" They ended up leaving when the little girl said, "This is SO boring!" really loudly. That's when the mother got up to leave. And when the little girl got up to leave, she actually came down the aisle riding a scooter. So it was sort of the greatest mid-movie exit of a little girl on a scooter who for some reason was not enjoying a comedy about price-fixing. So I imagine that there's a little bit of that with some of what I write about not being so kid-friendly.
Sometimes when I get interested in a topic, I'll order a bunch of books online willy-nilly in a feverish ten minutes. Like when I was like "I wonder if I'll write about presidential assassinations. What about President McKinley?" So I order a bunch of books in a rush and when they come, half of them turn out to be children's books. Because the things I write about in American history are apparently only subjects that children are interested in. It always worries me when half the books written about the topics I'm pursuing are written for the elementary school library. Apparently at some point you're just supposed to grow up and stop caring about this stuff.
Was Roger Williams a slight man? It seems like he was. There might be one portrait of him, but I really don't know. Just reading about how he was such a big talker, such a fiery antagonist, but then an advocate for nonviolence, it reminded me of a Colin Quinn bit about how of course guys like Gandhi are pacifists when they all turn out to be 120 punds soaking wet. I guess that's probably to my knowledge the first Colin Quinn reference in talking about the founder of Rhode Island. I don't know that he was a little guy. I really don't know. He talked a lot. He sounds like a short person, but I have no idea if he actually was. I'm really terrible about that. I really don't care. I'm bad about giving physical descriptions of people. I should work on that. I don't know why I don't care about that. I should work on it. Eh, you notice what you notice. (laughs) Yeah.
A lot of comedians take to you: Jon Stewart, Conan, comedians you work with at 826 NYC. It seems like you always have a comfortable rapport with those guys. Have you always clicked with jokey fellas? Yeah, I do enjoy "the jokers," as I call them. I don't why that is, I guess being smart-alecky myself. Certainly in New York, those people are just walking the streets. When I moved to New York, I used to do shows with them, I'd do readings at the Luna Lounge at this show "Eating It." And it was fun to just ge tto hang out with them. The great thing about the comedians as opposed to writers is that comedians are pretty social because they weren't captains in clubs. I would do that show Tinkle with Todd Barry and David Cross that they would do at Pianos. I just like that whole crowd because they would all just hang out together and their shows would be so communal. They would always be so out and about and writers tend to be more, um, shut-ins.
All of those downtown comics, some of them are so brilliant at what they do. And the great thing about New York is that you can pay five bucks to see someone who's at the top of their craft. So many of them are so good and so smart and so entertaining. I don't know why anyone wouldn't hang out with them.
Wasn't there a Tinkle cruise The booze cruise? Yeah, I was never on that. I get sea sick.
You mention in Shipmates that one of the indignities that comes with becoming historical legend is that there's a Plymouth Rock water slide at a hotel you stayed at up in Mass. Did you, um, slide down that as part of your research? I watched my nephew slide down the Plymouth waterslide at the Pilgrim Cove Pool at the John Carver Inn in Plymouth. But no, I don't go in water. Oh, it's water across the board period. I didn't know if it was just boats. Well boats are a special hell by the fact of being on water in something really shaky and sickening.
I was just at this meeting of New England booksellers where one of the writers who was speaking was the novelist Joshua Harris, who had just had a baby. Someone asked what he hoped for his baby and he said that he hoped that his son would lead a more adventuruous life than he has. Because being a book person, he just spends his life indoors reading and writing. So I said to him aftwerwards that a happy medium if you want the kid to get out there in the world is if he wrote nonfiction. Because I personally am a homebody, agorophobic writer, but because I write nonfiction, I'm always having to leave my house to write about things that literally make me throw up.
So I'm always having to do things that I guess I'm supposed to imagine are good for me. Like I've been researching the history of Hawaii and I went to Father Damien's Leper Colony. There aren't many ways to get there and one of them is down the steepest sea cliff in the world on the back of a mule. And I'm afraid of heights and I don't really do well around animals. It looked scary and I had a huge charlie horse, so it was very painful and terrifying and uncomfortable. I'm glad I did it. But if it wasn't my job, I'd probably skip it.
Did going back and writing this book about the Puritans make you nostalgic for the community one gets through church? I was thinking about that a few months ago when Farrah Fawcett died because I had to go to church three times a week when I was a kid: Sunday mornings, Sunday nights and Wednesday nights. And I remember Wednesday night church, I would spend the whole service literally praying that we could get go home in time to watch Charlie's Angels. So I don't have a ton of nostalgia about church itself, but it was nice being part of a community. But I've been part of a lot of other communities that were a lot more enjoyable.
It made me feel like I was part of this whole contniuum in human history where if you're a working-class kid coming from a place where there's little education, the one gateway to books and learning and scholarhsip and scholarly discussion is through church. And that was certainly true for me. It's sort of like a book club, but there's only one book.
Do you have a favorite library in New York? I love the main library on 42nd Street. It's everything you want a library to be. I've been fortunate to do a few events there and you feel like a real writer when you're reading at that branch of the New York Public Library. But you know what, I really like through working with 826 NYC, we have a satellite branch of our tutoring center at the Williamsburg branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. Yeah, it's such a great space and such a great neighborhood library. To me, being a westerner, there's something so appealing about those sort of classic, East Coast buildings and places.
Do you have any favorite spots around town? One of my favorite places where I always have a good time no matter who I'm with is Keens, a Steak House in 36th Street. In the 19th century, it was a men's smoking club. And then in the early 1900s, Lillly Langtree, the actress, sued to get to go there...for womanhood. They have old pipes that used to belong to its members, people like Will Rogers and Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt has his own room, a Bull Moose room with a big moose head on the wall. They have a Lincoln room and a Lilly Langtree room.
They also have butterscotch sundaes. There's no way you can order a butterscotch sundae and not be happy, I think. Just saying the words, "I'll have a butterscotch sundae" makes you happy and then getting it makes you happy.