Sarah Vowell is in town tonight for The Denver Post Pen & Podium lecture series at Newman Center for the Performing Arts, following the success of her book The Wordy Shipmates. We caught up with her for a quick interview just after she'd put the finishing touches on her next book, Unfamiliar Fishes, to talk about being a smart-alecky libertine and working better with dead people.
Westword: Since the Denver Post Charities and their Pen & Podium series support non-profit literacy programs, I want to ask you about your involvement in 826 NYC and the scope of what it's become: What have you learned about working with young writers that you wish every teacher, parent and policy-maker could understand? Sarah Vowell: I doubt there's anything teachers or parents could learn from me. Mostly, I work in the fundraising side, trying to help find the money to keep the doors open. As an organization, we're devoted to providing one-on-one attention for students through drop-in tutoring. I'm sure the students' teachers would love to spend that kind of time with their charges, but that simply isn't feasible in overstuffed classrooms.
Sometimes I do feel like some of what we do would be provided by the taxpayers in a sane society. We send volunteer teachers and editors into one New York City high school that bills itself as a secondary school for journalism, but it doesn't have a school newspaper! I guess there isn't money for that, so the literary magazine our staff and volunteers help publish there is the only publication those journalism students work on.
A lot of what we do is geared toward finishing -- providing a place where students who wouldn't otherwise finish their homework finish it every day, publishing student writing in professional quality publications, showcasing student films in a real theater. Follow-through can be educational in and of itself.
Westword: One of the things I really admire about your work, whether you're on This American Life or writing in your own books, is your ability to pull out really interesting story details and find the humor in them. As you're interviewing someone, or interviewing them in absentia through your research, what are you looking for? What makes you pounce and say, "A-ha! this could lead to something good"? Sarah Vowell: Generally, I'm better at ferreting out those details in the papers of dead people or spotting them in museums than from real live interview subjects. I'm better with the dead than the living. Anything that makes the subject or her concerns come alive is usually very small and specific. I was underwhelmed by seeing Abraham Lincoln's actual house, but seeing one of the plumbing pipes from his house on display in a nearby museum was way more illuminating about how much people care about that man. They put his plumbing in a glass case!
Westword: Do you feel like a bit of a time traveler, getting to hop around to all these different times and places researching books like The Wordy Shipmates and your forthcoming book, Unfamiliar Fishes? Sarah Vowell: I think I do so much actual traveling, whether I'm researching or bopping around doing readings, I don't really think of it like that. Because of my work I live in a kind of dream world. I'm always kind of "away," even when I'm in town.
Westword: Your next book takes us to Hawaii in the last bit of the 19th century. What attracted you to this place and point in time, and who was the most interesting character you turned up there? Sarah Vowell: When I first went there it was just to see Pearl Harbor. But while I was there I got sucked into the specifics of the place itself, how it was this monarchy that Americans sort of wrenched into statehood. I started wanting to write about it, because I've become so fascinated with the year 1898, when America became a world power in, like, a summer. That was when we annexed Hawaii and, as part of the Spanish-American War, invaded Cuba and the Philippines, acquiring Puerto Rico and Guam in the process. We became this militaristic empire practically overnight. But I write about the years leading up to that summer, when the New England missionaries arrived in 1820, up until the missionaries' children overthrowing the monarchy and handing Hawaii over to the U.S. decades later.
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The most tragic figure I write about is this young princess, Nahi'ena'ena, who was caught between the two worlds, between the old Hawaiian traditions and the new world of Christianity brought by New England missionaries. She was pulled apart and it killed her. One of her contemporaries was a writer named David Malo, who had the same teacher as the princess. The missionaries taught him to read, and he started writing almost immediately. And because he was already well-schooled in the oral traditions, he was able to record a lot of details about pre-Western Hawaiian culture that would have been otherwise lost.
Westword: This all sounds like a grand excuse to go spend a lot of time in Hawaii. How much time did you actually spend there? Did you find anything surprising when you were there in person that you wouldn't have come across through other research for the book? Sarah Vowell: I probably made about ten trips over the last three years. I kind of moved to Honolulu part-time for a while there, just to do research in the various archives. I'm not a particularly beachy person. Probably the most dispiriting thing about the project was the look in other people's eyes when I told them that's where I was going, because they just think of Hawaii as a place to lollygag in the sun, but I was heading off to sit in climate-controlled archives and take notes while wearing a cardigan sweater. People think Hawaii and they think, "Oh, snorkeling," not reading old missionary letters for weeks on end. Just talking to Hawaiians was probably the most educational thing I did. I've never been more aware of my own biases.
There are people there who still mourn the passing of the old monarchy. That was hard to fathom at first. As Americans we are brought up to accept the superiority of republican democracy almost without questioning it. It was difficult for me to try and have any kind of empathy for aristocracy, for the idea that social hierarchy and rank have any kind of inherent value. They still love their last queen, celebrate her birthday, drape her statue with leis. It can be a traditional, reverent place. And I am a smart-alecky libertine.
Westword: Is your next book already in the works? What's the next setting on your time machine? Sarah Vowell: No idea.