Sarah Vowell's wry comic voice–at once cranky and idealistic, scathing and warm–and inimitable delivery have made her a fixture on National Public Radio's This American Life, where she serves as a contributing editor. As an essayist and critic, Vowell has written for periodicals from Time to McSweeney's to Spin. She appears regularly on the lecture circuit, and she's written three well-received books. Radio On: A Listener's Diary documented a year of listening to the radio, an experience Vowell compared to "serving a prison sentence." The 2000 essay collection Take The Cannoli: Stories From The New World, which derived its title from Vowell's love for The Godfather, included "Ixnay On The My Way," an essay urging television producers to forego "My Way" as the inevitable soundtrack to reports of Frank Sinatra's death. Vowell's new The Partly Cloudy Patriot is another essay collection, this time focusing on the many contradictions and paradoxes of American history. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Vowell about why radio sucks, why criticism is important, and the major irony of her professional career.
The Onion: How did the area where you grew up affect your writing and your perception of the world?
Sarah Vowell: Well, I certainly perceive my New York City rent as being wildly inflated. For one thing, I lived in Oklahoma until I was 11. And my family went to a Pentecostal church, and it's a very musical church—not just in the singing, but in the preaching, and also, you know, Bible study out the ear. I don't know if the Old Testament is reflected in what I write, but it's a very musical style of writing. It's very poetic. And part of it, too, comes from working in radio, but I try to write like I talk. When I'm writing, I speak everything and perform it out loud as I go, and I'll change everything based on rhythm. As far as point of view, something that had an enormous impact on me was the antichrist. We spent a lot of time talking about that when I was a kid, how you were always supposed to be on antichrist patrol—like, be on the lookout for the antichrist. And if you were looking for him, he wouldn't be an ugly, evil troll; he would be kind and popular and funny and charming and super good-looking and everybody's best friend. Between that and The Addams Family, which was on TV every day after school… Between those two things, because they were both so prevalent in my childhood, that dark side of shiny happiness sort of made me want to look underneath things. When I was 11, I moved to Montana. And everyone here kind of thinks that if you grew up in Montana, it was one big Bonanza episode, but it was a college town, Bozeman, where I grew up. I remember watching, I think it might have been Letterman, when the movie stars started moving to Montana. One of the movie stars was talking to Letterman, and she said—I'm quoting her here—"People are real where I live." I remember being inflamed by that, because I can be just as fake and shallow as anyone else, and just because I come from somewhere between a couple of coastlines doesn't mean that I'm necessarily the salt of the earth. It was really a wonderful place to grow up. I was just there last week, and it's one of the most beautiful places on the planet. There's this valley surrounded by three mountain ranges and this lovely little town. But because it was a college town, there was a lot of intrigue. You know, it was also a great place geographically, because it was halfway between Minneapolis and Seattle on I-90, so we were the gas-money stop for so many bands when I was growing up. There was this very charming '80s bohemia aspect of it, where there are people listening to the Young Fresh Fellows, and everyone had a radio show, and it was a community in the best sense of the word. I feel like that was one of the most influential experiences of my life, living in that town.
O: You've done a lot of live readings. How does that affect the way you write? Does it make you more self-conscious?
SV: It doesn't really make me self-conscious. It does make me careful about other people's time. If you're just writing something for print, you can be as long-winded and abstract as you want, because if you write something too long-winded and abstract, the reader can just go back or put it down. But if you have a captive audience sitting there listening to you and you're facing them, they're the best editors in the world. If there's silence, you can feel that silence—it's deafening. You can feel them wriggling in their seats and wanting to go home and wondering what they're having for dinner. So I think it's made my writing a lot more pointed, and made me funnier. There's obviously nothing in the world better than getting that laughter back. Before I started doing so many readings, if I thought a sentence was pretty, or if it made a point I wanted to make, that was enough for me. But maybe now I'd go over it three or 10 or 12 more times, seeing if it could be funnier. I guess, all in all, it probably made me… I don't know if this is good, always, but it made me want to be more entertaining. I just kind of happened into all of this. Like, I wanted to be an art historian. I studied art history, and I always thought I'd just write about things that I was very interested in that nobody else would read. I bet a lot of art-history books and papers would be a lot more interesting if other people had to sit and listen to them.
O: Radio seems to possess a sense of intimacy that other media don't. Why do you think that is?
SV: All the clichés about it are true. It really is like a voice whispering in your ear, so it really is more intimate. I guess some people come to see a radio writer read because they want to get a look at them. Based on what they tell me, I don't seem to look like they thought I did, because I'm kind of odd-looking. I'm not the sort of person one imagines anyway. I love TV, but it's just human nature to be distracted by the visuals. It's like if I were on Conan, and we spent an afternoon discussing how to make a story work on TV, the viewer might just be looking at what kind of shoes I'm wearing. You don't really have that problem in radio. I guess the problem you have is people sitting in their living room and looking at it and thinking about the load of laundry they have to do. But I do think it's more sympathetic, because the public-radio audience is not so tremendously diverse. It's not as diverse in race and class as other media, and a lot of the listeners tend to sort of look like me. From a production standpoint—Ira Glass, my boss on This American Life, talks about this a lot—it's probably the best medium to tell the story of a gang kid, because you're just listening to this kid talk, and her story. Whereas if you were watching it on TV, you might just see her piercings or her braided hair or her baggy jeans. You wouldn't identify with her, because she looks so different from you. But on the radio, if it's just a kid telling a story about how she's being treated by her mom or something, you'd think, "I have a mom." And you'd feel more of a kinship with that person. I get a little bit of that, too.
O: You've compared listening to the radio to a prison sentence. Why is radio so bad? Do you think it's gotten any better since you wrote the book?
SV: No, but I don't see how it could have gotten any worse. This is sort of the reason I wrote the book, and I still hold that this is true: One reason it will never get any better is that it receives more or less no coverage. Like, films, for example—a crap movie comes out, and every crap newspaper in the country except for The New York Times will jump on the bandwagon denouncing it. Let's just go out on a limb and imagine that Aerosmith recorded a hideous record. Spin might point that out. But there's nobody to do that for radio. I think there's maybe one guy who writes a radio column for the Chicago Sun-Times. It's occasionally written about in various arts sections, but there are hardly any daily radio critics on the beat the way other media are covered, so there's really no accountability. I actually think that's one of the major reasons. And it's sad, too, because one thing that criticism does other than calling crapness, or evil, or mediocrity into question is that it celebrates greatness. You can find really great things going on in radio, but nobody celebrates that, either.
O: Do you think critics are ultimately that important? It seems like the public is more likely to be interested in something if it appeals to them, or if their friends like it, than if critics do.
SV: Well, yeah, I do. I mean, how many people choose what movie they're going to based on the four movie reviews in the Friday paper? I would say at least 15 percent of them. I think that's more true at the higher end of things, like literature with a capital "L." I don't mean even critics, but coverage in general. Like with radio, it's not on E! or Entertainment Tonight or television at all. Even on radio, you don't hear about it.
O: Do you think that's one of the reasons people tend to feel so strongly about radio shows they do like?
SV: One thing that has worked to our advantage on This American Life is that radio is just so heinous that if you do an even halfway good job, people will notice more. When people call us the coolest show on public radio, Ira is like, "That's like being called the coolest Osmond." Whether or not the show is a success week to week, you can hear people trying. There's an effort to say something new or hear something new.
O: With a show like This American Life, people seem to feel like it's their show in a sense they probably don't with Austin Powers III.
SV: I think we have something like a million listeners, which for us is huge. But if we were a network sitcom that got that, we'd be canceled after the second week. Everything's on a smaller scale.
O: You're credited as consigliere on This American Life. Other than advise the Corleones, what does a consigliere do on radio?
SV: What I do is, I pick a lot of the songs they play after the story, and I theoretically help find stories and think up themes. I also pick up Ira's dry-cleaning. That's about it, I guess. That's enough, isn't it?
O: In The Partly Cloudy Patriot, you describe yourself as introverted and private, but at the same time, you're writing about the personal details of your life. There seems to be a paradox there.
SV: Yes. I have no fear at all of large crowds. It's more one-on-one. Like, I have no nervousness or fear addressing 2,000 people. But when that's over, and I'm sitting at the book-signing table having to make small talk with people one-on-one, then I can get kind of uncomfortable. The radio feels so abstract. You're basically telling a secret to a microphone. You're telling your private thoughts to a metal stick, so it doesn't really feel like I'm telling people about my father. Last week, I was on vacation with my sister, and my sister has this really gregarious small-talk quality about her with strangers. We were in a coffee shop in Rapids City, South Dakota, and she's telling the coffee-shop person about how I live in New York, and she lives in Montana, and her husband isn't home, and that's her 2-year-old kid, all this really personal stuff about us, when really all I wanted was an iced tea. I was like, "Can you please not broadcast my personal business to the whole coffee shop?" Then, later, I realized how hypocritical that was, because I will tell one million people about our Thanksgiving dinner. On a personal level, I just wanted everything to be polite but generic and anonymous, whereas I have no problem telling mostly personal stories to large crowds of people. I don't know.
O: How does your family feel about their place in your work?
SV: I don't know. I've never asked. They'll say they heard something and it was good, or they'll say, "I read your book and I liked it." I don't really probe too deep. Back to the paradox thing, I think about it constantly. I think one thing about it is just that day to day, in my dealings with people, my mother raised me right, so I try to be polite. I like to keep things light and upbeat and happy. So I probably hide behind my politeness and fear when I'm around other people. Like, if you were a friend of mine, you might read certain stories in my book about crying while singing the National Anthem. I certainly wouldn't have brought that up during lunch. There are certain things having to do with my feelings or sentiment… When I get overly passionate, I can be freer in my writing than I would be in my personal life.
O: Because you write so much about your life, many people probably feel like they know you well, even though they've never met you. Does that ever make you uncomfortable?
SV: Well, in a way, that is the real me, the one in my writing, in that it reflects some of my deepest thoughts and feelings. People who come to the readings who know me from the radio—I can constantly feel myself disappointing them, because the thing about the radio stories is that they're edited down within an inch of their lives. That show is so edited, and some of those radio stories, I've done 20 drafts of, and that's the best possible version of myself. As you can tell, in real life, I totally ramble and go off on these tangents that make no sense, or I have no idea what to say, or it takes me forever to think up something to say. It's just so much sloppier, and rougher around the edges, the me of real life.