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Interview: Sarah Vowell

By Marcus Gilmer in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 21, 2008 7:00PM

2008_10_20_vowell.jpgWriter and This American Life contributor has been one of our favorites for a very long time. Mixing wit, history, and memoir into a smorgasbord of awesome, Vowell's writing has a thoughtful, if sometimes cynical, perspective that always keeps us laughing. Over the course of her previous books, she's examined the Love Canal, talked about firing a cannon with her father, toured Civil War battlefields, and took a road trip to visit the sites of presidential assassinations. Now she's back with The Wordy Shipmates, an exploration of John Winthrop and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Exploring their lives through original documents, speeches, and diaries, Vowell pieces together their existence and explores how the colony and its policies ultimately shaped our nation, all the while mixing in her trademark mix of humor and even pop-culture references.

Sarah will be stopping by the Harold Washington Library on Thursday evening to read from and sign copies of her new book. But before she comes to town, she took a break from her busy touring schedule, which has included appearances of Letterman and The Daily Show, to talk Puritans, politics, and Chicago architecture with us.

Thursday, October 23, 6 p.m., Harold Washington Library, Cindy Pritzker Auditorium, 400 S. State Street, Free - Call 312-747-4300 for information

Chicagoist: Your writing seems to have stylistically shifted over the course of your last three books. The Partly Cloudy Patriot was a collection of essays; Assassination Vacation was a mix of travel memoir and history, split into chapters; The Wordy Shipmates is primarily a history narrative (though there are some memoir-esque asides included through-out) that’s one long, continuous piece, almost a 250-page essay. And all three are so well-written. Has this progression been on purpose or has it been dictated by the subject material? Were you aiming to move away from essay collections and towards more singular works?

Sarah Vowell: I will always write essays, but I did want to take a break from compiling essay collections. Mainly because I find the book-length form to reflect how I think. I’m enjoying spreading out and following tangents.

C: You mention in the book that you were inspired to write it because you were inspired by Winthrop following 9/11. Had the idea of writing this book come up even before that? As you’ve been working on the book, how has the political climate (i.e., “Mission Accomplished”) affected your perspective since then, as in the book you point to parallels between the Puritans’ perspective of their place in the world and our current foreign affairs behavior.

SV: I had written an essay in 2000 that was partly about historical tourism in Salem, a town whose economy is based partly on attracting vacationers to enjoy undignified recollections of how twenty innocent people were executed there in 1692. The fact that the Massachusetts Bay Colony is known more for the witchcraft hysteria that happened several decades after Winthrop’s death seemed a little tragic to me. It was a much more learned, logical place. So I had been looking for a way to write about the Winthrop era. I started thinking about him more after 9/11 but really got cracking on the book after Ronald Reagan’s funeral in 2004, which happened right after the Abu Ghraib photos came out. When Sandra Day O’Connor read from Winthrop’s sermon at the funeral, when she got to the part where Winthrop warned, “The eyes of all people are upon us,” it seemed like the more foreboding part of Winthrop’s city on a hill speech was a prophecy fulfilled.

C: Some people might think the idea of a book about the Puritans kind of dry, yet the book is anything but. Was that something you worried about at all during the writing of the book or did you completely trust that readers would be willing to explore the topic with you anyway?

SV: I sort of think about readers in that I try and make sometimes tricky historical narratives coherent but I don’t really consider readers when choosing my subject matter. All I care about is if something interests me. I feel like a reader always responds to a writer’s enthusiasm. Like, I love those Lee Child thrillers even though I'm not particularly interested in washed-up former military policemen per se.

C: One of the reasons the book is so lively is your engaging tone and the inclusion of your own perspective to supplement the material. Did this come about as organically as it feels, or did you occasionally feel you needed to inject something to keep the reader engaged?

SV: I’m a writer, not a historian. I’m not sure how to answer this other than to say that the book reflects how I think/write. So it’s very organic. I don’t really second guess myself as I’m writing. Nor do I second guess the reader. I feel like if I’m interested in the Magna Carta and can communicate said interest, the reader will follow along.

C: What was it like to read through all of these speeches and diaries and to, in essence, relive that time through their writing?

SV: To be honest, it was difficult sometimes. Part of the reason I wanted to write the book was to stick up for the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a relatively learned and intellectual culture. A lot of them were Cambridge-trained theologians, including Roger Williams. I believe I mention that I do not envy the scholar who edited his letters. A single, two or three page letter will sometimes have more than thirty footnotes to untangle his many allusions to the Bible or contemporary Biblical scholarship or ancient thinkers. My book is obviously much more breezy and intentionally so. Hopefully I shielded the reader from the more headache-y writings from the Puritan syllabus.

2008_10_20_wordy.jpgC: You discuss the way that pop-culture has taken the original Puritan/Pilgrim stories and twisted it to kind of fit a pro-settler worldview. At the same time, you tend to defend the Puritans against some of the presumptions we’ve made about them based on more-recent comments (“Puritan Work Ethic”) and misconceptions. Is the book part of an attempt on your part to kind of set the record straight, to sort through the misconceptions to find the complex reality of these people that we too often try to fit into a nice, neat package to teach to school children?

SV: My aim was much simpler. I believe that in terms of colonial New England, the Plymouth settlement of 1620 and the Salem witch trials of 1692 get all the airplay and the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony is more or less ignored. But I do believe that the Bay Colony’s idea of themselves as God’s new chosen people and Winthrop’s hope that New England would be “as a city upon a hill” is much more influential in terms of their influence on the idea of America—on American exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny, on the way we think of ourselves, as Lincoln said, as “the last, best hope of earth.” This mindset gets us into various pickles over our history, including the various messes we’ve made abroad the last few years.

C: You discuss the way Reagan co-opted Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” phrase. Sarah Palin recently quoted Reagan’s version of the “city upon a hill” quote in the VP debate:

But even more important is that worldview that I share with John McCain. That worldview that says that America is a nation of exceptionalism. And we are to be that shining city on a hill, as President Reagan so beautifully said, that we are a beacon of hope and that we are unapologetic here. We are not perfect as a nation. But together, we represent a perfect ideal, and that is democracy and tolerance and freedom and equal rights. Those things that we stand for that can be put to good use as a force for good in this world.
Did that drive you crazy or have you grown completely immune to the incorrect co-opting of that phrase? And was there something about this particular instance (who said it and the context) that provoked a certain response in you?

SV: To be honest, as an author with a book to sell that is partly about the origin of the image of the image of the city on a hill, I was delighted when Palin mentioned it—for, oh, one second. That she used the word “unapologetic” afterward I found horrifying. That is precisely the hubris Winthrop warned against. I find the idea of being “unapologetic” as a policy to be both silly and, frankly, unchristian. I feel apologetic about Abu Ghraib, about Guantanamo. That’s partly why I wrote the book. The eyes of all people are upon us. And some of them are trying to blow us up.

C: You’re a very politically-oriented person, as anyone who has ever read any of your books knows, yet thoughtful and eloquent on the topics (unlike, say, Ann Coulter). Do you have any thoughts on the historic (and outer space crazy) current election cycle and the campaigns? As a history nerd (as I am), how do you think you will look back on this election a few years down the line?

SV: The thing I love about Senator Obama is that he is, deep down, a doer of homework. I love hearing about how his mother made him get up at 4:30 in the morning to study. I think Colin Powell alluded to this when he talked about deciding to endorse Obama—that McCain hadn’t done his foreign policy homework and Obama had. All I want is a chief executive who had done/will do the reading! The messes we’re in now at home and abroad are going to require a detail-oriented thinker. I think that every election though.

C: You lived in Chicago for a time, studied at the Art Institute, and even wrote an excellent essay about the city and the nation as a whole (“Michigan and Wacker”). What were some of your favorite aspects/spots of the city? Are there any particular things you do or places you go when you visit?

SV: I am very gung-ho on the history of Chicago architecture. It was a great joy to attend the School of the Art Institute as a graduate student, to get out of the El every morning next to Louis Sullivan’s Carson Pirie Scott building. I can never get enough of the buildings of Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. And I loved being able to go to the Art Institute every day—how sort of grandmotherly it is, in a good way. It was always so endearing to watch the school children tramping through there like they owned the place. And I do miss the music as well. I’ve never been able to find a live band in New York as consistently thrilling and funny and fun as the Waco Brothers.

C: What’s next for you, book-wise?
Maybe the history of Hawaii. But I start books and then ditch them so who knows?

Photo of Sarah Vowell taken by Bennett Miller