Mountains & Minds Magazine:

Vowell's constant

April 30, 2010 -- by Carol Schmidt

Photo courtesy of Riverhead BooksPhoto courtesy of Riverhead Books
Urbane, witty and sophisticated, Sarah Vowell is often considered the consummate New Yorker. However, the author (her most recent book, The Wordy Shipmates, is now out in paperback), social commentator, long-time staple of public radio's This American Life, voice of Violet in The Incredibles, and popular guest on late-night talk shows, grew up in Bozeman and graduated from Montana State University in 1993 with a degree in modern languages and literature.

Vowell took a minute from her work on her sixth book to answer a few questions from Mountains and Minds and talk about KGLT, the Pickle Barrel, and her formative years in Bozeman.


M&M: You've said that Bozeman is your hometown, although you were born in Oklahoma. Has that changed, and if not, what about the town still draws you?
Sarah Vowell: First and last would be my family. My parents, sister and nephew still live there. And I graduated from Bozeman Senior High School and MSU, so those are some formative years. I think Bozeman being a college town shaped who I am. It's a pretty open-minded place and the Western surroundings keep its bohemianism in check. For example, at MSU, I took a lot of art history courses, but always with fellows wearing cowboy hats, some of them having serious problems with the paintings of Kandinsky. That said, I've lived equal amounts of my life in Oklahoma, Montana and New York City, with a few chunks of time elsewhere, most notably Chicago and San Francisco. I think that restlessness informs my obsession with the country in general because I'm not of one particular place.

M&M: You've written, "Is there anything better than figuring out what you're supposed to do with your life and getting paid to do it?" Did you set out to be the social commentator and writer that you are today, or was there some luck in how your career evolved?
SV: I would say bad luck more than anything. As a teenager I was consumed by music and I had hoped to make a living writing and playing music. But, I just didn't have enough talent. I was washed up by the time I was 20. So I quit that and ended up falling into studying art history, which is when I started writing--researching term papers and taking essay exams. And then I had hoped to get into UC Berkeley's doctoral program for art history. But I didn't, so I ended up at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which is how I met Ira Glass, who was just starting his radio show, This American Life. So, I started working for him, and my writing became more and more narrative. Then, I made one documentary in which my sister and I drove the Trail of Tears and sort of instantly fell in love with writing about American history, which has ended up being my calling. So, all the bad luck ended up being good luck.


M&M: You began working in radio at KGLT, MSU's campus station, while you were still in high school. What is your best memory of the station, and do you believe it helped launch your career?
SV: In terms of my career, such as it is, I would say writing for the Exponent, MSU's student newspaper, had a more direct impact on my early writing career, simply because I used those clips to get into magazines and the magazine clips to get into the weekly newspapers I used to write for, etc. But KGLT was probably the most crucial experience of my time at college. I got my first radio show there when I was 18. Just having that kind of opportunity to make people listen to me at such a young age inspired a great deal of confidence. That, and the people who worked there, who were so free-wheeling and funny and scholarly. It gave me a real appreciation for communal endeavors. I keep trying to replicate that as an adult. Even though writing is a pretty lonesome pursuit, I keep seeking out group projects and I've been lucky to be part of some good ones, especially "This American Life" and "McSweeney's." People mostly hated my (KGLT) radio show, though, because I tended to play pretty screechy music. So I do treasure the memory of a guy working at the cafeteria downstairs in the SUB bringing me a Popsicle because he liked what I was playing--for once.

The only way to become a better writer is to write and write and write some more. Nothing trumps experience.

M&M: You have written that you are a hick kid from nowhere. You aren't now, obviously. But do you think that you still bring that small town, outsider sensibility to your writing?
SV: Yes and no. I'm probably a product of reading and watching movies more than anything. Allen Ginsberg or Woody Allen had a bigger impact on the person I became than, say, my childhood next-door neighbors. It's why I'm so at home in Manhattan--even though I was born to holy-roller Okies, there's a big part of my smart-alecky sensibility that is pure New York Jew.

M&M: You have excelled in several different media. Do you have any observations about where media is going, especially books and radio? Do you think there will be more or fewer opportunities for fresh viewpoints in the future?
SV: Radio seems alive and kicking, if only because of Americans' addiction to automobiles. I don't really work much in radio anymore, though. I mostly just write books and the occasional newspaper op-ed. I'm terrified for newspapers. The nonprofit nature of the Internet has really dinged daily papers. I remember I was writing op-eds for The New York Times back when the paper was charging on-line readers who wanted to read opinion columns. This acquaintance complained to me that she couldn't read my columns (without ponying up) and that, "Information demands to be free!" I was like, "That isn't information! That's writing! I got up at four o'clock in the morning to come up with that stuff!" As for books, I'm a little concerned. I'm on the Authors Guild Council and we are actively engaged in legal battles for copyright protection. However, I'm more worried about independent booksellers than authors. The new electronic readers, which are very handy, are wounding the few independent booksellers in this country that haven't been killed off by the chains. That will be a great loss, I think. My books certainly sell the best in independent bookstores and it's because those booksellers actively push them. I tour a lot and I know those folks and I worry about how they're going to make ends meet, and my making ends meet partly depends on them making ends meet, so insert stomachache here.


M&M: Where will we see Sarah Vowell next?
SV: I'm writing a book about the Americanization of Hawaii from 1820, when the first New England missionaries arrived, to 1893, when the aforementioned missionaries' children and grandchildren overthrew the Hawaiian monarch, paving the way for the islands' annexation by the United States in 1898. As my last book was about the Puritans of Massachusetts, I've been on quite the churchy New Englander kick the last few years. Despite their many flaws, I have a soft spot for their love of learning and knowledge. The other day I was researching the first translation of the Bible into the Hawaiian language by my missionaries and they translated, not from English, but from the original Greek and Hebrew into Hawaiian and I just love that about them, their pesky devotion to scholarship.


M&M: Do you plan to write a book that touches on the West? Perhaps one about George Custer, a topic that happens to be in Montana that we know interests you?
SV: Little Bighorn Battlefield is my favorite battlefield, but I can't see devoting years of my life to Custer. People seem to care about Custer and I tend to write about topics I have to talk people into being interested in--the aforementioned Massachusetts Bay colonists, President Garfield.


M&M: You are the president of the board of 826NYC, a nonprofit tutoring and writing center for Brooklyn students. Do you have any advice to young writers about how to make it in a very competitive and evolving profession?
SV: We publish a lot of student writing at 826NYC. Part of our mission is to demystify not just writing, but publishing. We have seven-year-olds who have published stories. They know that's something they could do with their lives because they've already done it.
The only way to become a better writer is to write and write and write some more. Nothing trumps experience. When I started, the Internet sort of existed but was far from the overwhelming force it is now. I'm guessing since anyone can start a blog--and I seem to be the only person in America who hasn't--it's way easier for young writers to rack up tons of experience just sitting in their studio apartments. Conversely, I would imagine it's way harder to make a living as few places on the Web pay. I really learned to write writing for free weekly newspapers in the Midwest and West Coast. Those papers all still exist, sort of, but no one really reads them anymore. I was very fortunate to eke out a living writing for papers read by seemingly everyone I knew. There's just so much more media now and the audiences are so splintered, I would imagine it's harder to get that experience now.

M&M: You also worked at the Pickle Barrel while going to school. Do you have any great Pickle Barrel stories to share?
SV: Working at the Pickle Barrel is how I paid my way through MSU. I owe those people as much as the Pell Grant program for my education. And I'm not just talking about paying for classes. I really grew up there. I was socially awkward when I started working there at 18. I still am on the inside, but working in such close quarters with such, let's say lively coworkers, I really learned how to talk to people and stick up for myself and hold my own. There was this one hilarious woman I worked with who was such a Shakespearean-level shrew--and I mean that as a compliment--I feel like just standing next to her for four years sharpened my tongue considerably. (Hi, Pam!) I was a pretty quiet egghead and the joshing chitchat in between slapping provolone on ham informs how I joke around. I was always good at public speaking but completely incapable of conversing in small groups before I worked there. There is nothing like sharing about six square feet with five other people chopping cheese steaks and throwing lettuce around that hones what a musician friend of mine refers to as "people chops."


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