Sarah Vowell on Writing with Clarity (and Shenanigans)

Sarah Vowell
I’m Alan Alda, and this is Clear and Vivid, conversations about connecting and communicating.
Sarah: One really simple trick to work on this as writers is, I read everything aloud that I write. And if I’m reading something aloud and I’m bored with something I’ve just written, obviously the reader will be too, and so then I start cutting that stuff.
That’s Sarah Vowell – and it’s pretty hard to find her boring, whether she’s writing history from a strange angle, like writing about a vacation she took, visiting the sites of famous assassinations – or observing our lives through the prism of wit on NPR’s “This American Life” – or providing the voice for an animated film, like “The Incredibles.” She’s one of a kind.

Alan: 00:00:00 Sarah, I’m so glad to be talking to you because we talk mostly about relating and communicating on this podcast, and you do a lot of communicating. You write, you speak, you act. And you write in different media, for different media. I’m really curious. Do you have a theory of communication that guides you, some kind of way you have thinking about how you communicate that you kind of apply to various kinds of communication?
Sarah: 00:00:35 No, can I go home. No. I mean, I am a non-fiction writer. And mostly I write about American history. So, generally the way I talk about something is demanded by the subject matter. So, that’s why a lot of the times my tone is all over the place, depending on what I’m talking about.
If a woman’s husband was just murdered, my tone can be kind of morose and sometimes I … I don’t know, sometimes things strike me as funny. But generally, it’s just always the subject matter to me that dictates how I talk about something. I will say though, I studied to be an art historian, which means in graduate school I had to read a lot of really terrible writing. And the other thing I would say that I always try for is clarity. That’s really important to me, so.
Alan: 00:01:44 Well, that’s really right up our alley ’cause we’re called clear and vivid so-
Sarah: 00:01:48 Oh, good.
Alan: 00:01:49 Clarity-
Sarah: 00:01:50 Yeah, I was pandering. I was pandering.
Alan: 00:01:56 Pander away, that’s fine. So, but you do seem to … I get the impression you have more of a theory of communicating than comes to mind consciously because you … On the one hand, you seem to be interested in staying interested yourself in what you’re writing about. But, I also get the impression that it matters to you what the other person who’s reading it or listening to it is going through. Is that right?
Sarah: 00:02:26 That’s good. So, I’ve fooled you. I mean, mostly I’m my own audience and I’m really hard on myself. So, I always feel like if I’m semi-happy with something, then that’s probably good. I don’t know. I will say, I do have a kind of structure in my story-telling and generally my policy is start weird, end sad. And-
Alan: 00:02:55 Wait, wait. Explain that. That’s … That sounds amazing, what do you mean?
Sarah: 00:02:59 I always start weird. I never want a topic sentence to be my first sentence usually. I want to sort of grab the reader and say … So the reader thinks, “Boy, I don’t know where she’s going with this.” And that way, to keep them on the hook a little bit.
And then I don’t really like happy endings. I always think an ending should be plaintive and thoughtful and a little bit sad. So, when I wrote a book about presidential assassinations, it was about historic sites having to do with presidential assassinations. So I traveled around to sites having to do with Lincoln and Garfield and McKinley and the book ends with me walking past Union Square in New York City and walking by the Gandhi statue and I think the last line of the book is, “They shot him, too.” So, I don’t know if that’s a good ending, but that’s how that story ended.
Alan: 00:04:04 Well, it kinda opens your eyes to the idea that … It opens my eyes to the idea that no matter how hard we try, we haven’t come up with a sure-fire formula yet to deal with our own kind of violent humanity.
Sarah: 00:04:18 Well, and also, even more disturbing is that the people who have the best, most loving ideas tend to be executed or assassinated or discouraged.
Alan: 00:04:36 So, do you think that in your writing, you tackle that? Or do you just leave us feeling disappointed about it?
Sarah: 00:04:49 No, I mean, I think that was definitely one of the themes. I mean, one of the things that made me interested about writing about the Lincoln assassination is Lincoln’s second inaugural address, which is my favorite American political speech. And it’s … You know, the one at the end of the Civil War, and he’s talking about how the country must come together and we should bind up the nation’s wounds and it’s the one with the phrase, “With malice toward none.” And it’s kind of this call to come back together. And to take care of the widows and the orphans.
And Booth was … was there at the capitol listening to the speech. He’s in Alexander Gardener’s photograph of Lincoln reading that speech. And the idea that someone could be there listening to this speech that’s about repairing our national community and a few weeks later shoot the person who gave that speech, I wanted to dig into that. ‘Cause it didn’t make sense to me.
Alan: 00:05:57 It’s a powerful picture you painted, with him standing … It’s like it’s like a scene from a movie. Or what’s his name, Peter, in the War and Peace where somebody who could do harm to the leader of a big nation with just one shot, takes that opportunity. Something so overturning of everything that we would expect from … Or hope for, anyway. Can’t expect it, but you can hope for.
Sarah: 00:06:32 And yet, it is very American. I mean, one of the other things I write about in that book is Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Assassins. Which, you know, one of the big numbers in that musical is, Everybody’s Got the Right to be Happy. And it’s all sung by assassins and would-be assassins. And one of the eerie premises of that musical is that, the way I read into it is that, this idea of the pursuit of happiness, it can be a dangerous one. Because different people have different ideas about what happiness is. It’s the promise of American that this idea of the pursuit of happiness, that everyone … But the dark side of that is everyone has a different idea of what happiness is, and those ideas often clash.

Alan: 00:07:24 When you track down the stories of the people who did assassinate that batch of presidents, did you find a common thread among them, or was it different? Was it ideological? Were some people just trying to get important by knocking off a big guy? Or what … Did you see any common thread?
Sarah: 00:07:45 Yeah, I mean one common ground I found was between the presidents and the assassins. Because they were all so self-absorbed. The presidents are people who actually thought they should be president. Which is insane. And then the assassins thought they should thwart the … They had the right to thwart the will of the electorate and kill the president. So, there was this kind of ego-mania that both the assassinated and the assassins had.
As for the assassins themselves, there was certain amount of mental illness to varying degrees. But, like for Booth, it was ideological. I mean, a few days after Lincoln delivered the second inaugural, he gave a speech calling for limited suffrage of certain black voters. Like intelligent black voters. And military veterans I think. And, to Booth, that meant black suffrage. And that was the moment he decided … There was a plan to kidnap Lincoln, but when Lincoln said a certain number of black men, I guess, should have the right to vote, that was the moment Booth decided to murder Lincoln.
Alan: 00:09:03 When you range through the history of, say, that or Lafayette, who you’ve also written about. I can hear that you range over a great deal of detail, and yet you’re looking for clarity and sometimes too much detail too soon is the opposition to clarity. How do you know what to leave out?
Sarah: 00:09:27 Oh, yeah.
Alan: 00:09:28 How do you decide?
Sarah: 00:09:29 Well, let’s see. I have two things to say about that. Detail is definitely my bread and butter. I mean, one reason I write about historic sites and historic artifacts, I think more than anything, is because usually a thing or a place can kind of bring something really into focus. Like when President Garfield was assassinated, he did not die right away. And he kind of languished in bed for a few weeks and just wasted away.
And if you go to his farm in Ohio, you can see his death mask. And so, he was a very big guy. Kind of portly. And his death mask is very gaunt. So, in that mask, you can see what his wife and his family went through watching him die, and it was … Must have been horrific. So, that thing brings him back to life. And that’s always my goal. To bring these dead people back to life.
Alan: 00:10:26 Right, there’s nothing like detail to put you in the place.
Sarah: 00:10:31 But, there can be too much-
Alan: 00:10:32 But if you have too many details-
Sarah: 00:10:34 Yeah, that’s the … I think that’s why a lot of people don’t like to read a lot of history books because a lot of more traditional history books than mine, sometimes I think the historian feels like, “Well, I went through all this pain to learn all this stuff, and you, the reader, need to share my pain.” And that is not-
Alan: 00:10:53 If I suffer, you have to too.
Sarah: 00:10:55 Yeah. I mean, one really simple trick to work on this as writers is, I read everything aloud that I write. And if I’m reading something aloud and I’m bored with something I’ve just written, obviously the reader will be too, and so then I start cutting that stuff. So, for me-
Alan: 00:11:13 So you actually do what I was talking about earlier, which I advocate and practice. You have your way of doing it. Which is to keep the reader in mind. You become the reader, and if you get bored with it, then it goes, right?
Sarah: 00:11:29 Yeah.
Alan: 00:11:29 You re-write it or what?
Sarah: 00:11:29 I have a twin-
Alan: 00:11:31 How do you handle it when you get bored with it?
Sarah: 00:11:33 Oh, then I just … I mean, at this point, I’ve been doing it long enough, I’m not married to anything I write. And I just start cutting. Another thing I do is I call my twin sister, who has a limited interest in some of this stuff. And … Like when I was writing about the Battle of Brandywine, which is actually a difficult battle to describe because a lot’s going on all over the place in this one river valley in Pennsylvania.
So, sometimes I just call my twin sister, and I ask, “Are you interested in this guy’s make of cannon, or this guy’s make of musket?” And just by asking the question, obviously, she says no. So, sometimes I run things by her. Like, “That’s not interesting to you, is it?” And she’ll say no.
Alan: 00:12:24 For me, that raises an interesting question of detail that gets you somewhere. I’m interested to know what you feel about this. Sometimes I think there are details that aren’t directly related to the big story, but they help get you to the big story. And sometimes, they don’t.
For instance, if … So many books or paragraphs start with, “It was a cold February day, when so-and-so walked into the Federal building.” If that doesn’t matter that it was a cold February day to the story, I’d rather not hear about it. But if, later, the coldness and the early month that it is really is material to something that happens later in the story, then I’m grateful for it’s having been included. Is that the kind of a detail that you would leave out? Or are you okay with that kind of detail?
Sarah: 00:13:22 I mean, I have a thing for weather. But, I would say, I think … Well, I started out as a writer. I did a lot of different kinds of writing. And one of the things I did, I was a reporter. And I was a radio reporter. And when I would go report a story back to my sister, again, whatever … If I’m calling my sister from a hotel room, whatever I told my sister about what happened during that day’s reporting, that usually ended up in the story.
So, I don’t know how that would apply to other people, but the things you find yourself telling the people you care about, those generally are worth putting in. Or, sometimes as a radio reporter I would work with a producer. And if we were interviewing someone, and the person said something incredible, my producer and I would look at each other like, “Oh yeah, that’s going in.” You know. So, sometimes I think it’s just a matter of … I like writing, but I really love is editing. And so, just rewriting and rewriting, which also means just cutting things down.
Alan: 00:14:36 I love editing, too. I love letting go of something that I thought was really interesting the first time I put it down.
Sarah: 00:14:36 Yeah.
Alan: 00:14:45 And I love that motion where, if it’s on paper, where I talk a pencil and just cross off the whole page.
Sarah: 00:14:51 Oh, yeah. I love that, too.
Alan: 00:14:53 I remember collaborating with somebody once, and the look on his face of horror when he saw me take the pencil to the page. Well, I’ll never forget that. But, it gives you a sense of power and freedom at the same time.
Sarah: 00:15:07 Yeah.
Alan: 00:15:07 To be able to say, “That was good, but not for this.”
Sarah: 00:15:11 I mean, it depends on the format, too. Because I write op-eds for the New York Times, and I find a lot of times I’ll write something, and there’ll be a good joke. But, I only have a limited amount of space. And maybe the Secretary of State is going to read this thing. And so I’ll cut out a joke that’s good writing to get in an idea, in case the Secretary of the Interior is reading it.
Alan: 00:15:41 The luckiest thing you can do is find yourself writing an idea that’s also a good joke.
Sarah: 00:15:50 Yeah, if you can think of a good idea that can be expressed in a good joke, that is the best way to express something. And usually the quickest. I remember the … Remember that 2000 presidential election, and that was a whole thing where the Supreme Court decided who the president was and the guy who won the popular vote didn’t become the president and it was just a big crisis in the country.
And I went to George W. Bush’s inauguration in January of 2001. And I said I went there to protest, but really I just stood there on the mall, crying. And there was this moment when the ceremony was over, and I was looking at the people who were on the dais. And one of the people up there was Bob Dole. And I said, “Oh, I have a soft spot for Bob Dole now, because he symbolizes a simpler, more innocent time in America when you could lose the presidential election and not actually become the president.” So, that was a very quick way to sum up all of the rancor.
Alan: 00:17:08 The other good joke that came out at that time was from Jay Leno, who made me laugh when he said, “You know, we should really all give great respect to the Supreme Court because, after all, they’re the ones who decide the president is.”
Sarah: 00:17:21 That’s right. I mean, some of those jokes hurt but, they tell the story.
Alan: 00:17:28 What about the difference between telling a story that people are going to read and telling one that people are going to listen to? There’s supposed to be a big difference between the two. Do you see the difference?
Sarah: 00:17:43 Yes.
Alan: 00:17:43 Do you write differently?
Sarah: 00:17:44 Yes, for sure.
Alan: 00:17:45 How would you describe that?
Sarah: 00:17:47 It’s one reason I stopped writing for radio, because basically a radio listener … And I am one myself, but they’re kinda like a dog.
Alan: 00:18:00 I’ve heard you say that, what do you mean? In what way are we like dogs when we listen to the radio?’
Sarah: 00:18:05 They’re just like, “Oh, the dryer went off.” Or, “Oh no, the car in front of me just … The brake lights went on, I gotta pay attention to this.” So they’re constantly like a dog chasing a squirrel or something. And so you have to keep things … You have to keep the momentum going, you have to keep to the basics, you have to go fast. You can’t luxuriate in a bunch of abstract details or ideas. It’s much more narrative, I think.
And, I think that’s one reason people like it. But, for me, maybe coming from an academic background, I like the details. And I like tangents. When I worked on This American Life, which is a very traditionally narrative show, Ira Glass and I who, he was the host of the show, but also, my editor. We would have these negotiations for what I call shenanigans. Where it was just some weird, cool thing I wanted in the story that didn’t help move the story forward. It was just something I wanted to say.
And he was always trying to minimize my shenanigans and he would be like, “You just had a shenanigan 20 seconds ago, we can’t have two shenanigans in a row. We gotta …” Also, I mean, you’re bound by the clock in radio. Whereas, in a book, I get to decide how long it is. So, I definitely like all the little tangents.
Like, when I was working on the Lafayette book, it was not so much … It was a little bit of the story, but when I went to the Brandywine Valley and where the Battle of Brandywine was, there was a reenactment happening, and I stumbled into the Quaker meetinghouse, which was part of the battle spilled out onto their grounds. And because there was a big reenactment happening, the Quakers from that meetinghouse were all sitting there, just waiting for unsuspecting history buffs to happen by.
And so they could pounce on them and talk to them about the evils of war. And lecture them, and talk about … And they still have a problem with this battle and the battlefield next to their meetinghouse. And they just pounced on me and condemned the fact that Americans see history as the history of war. And I mean, I didn’t … I could very well have not included that in the book, but I actually thought they had some good points. And I thought they were interesting, and the fact that this battle still had meaning to them more than 200 years later was fascinating to me.
And part of what I write about isn’t just history, but how history is remembered. So, of course, I have a big tangent with those Quakers. And I think a traditional historian probably would not have included that.
Alan: 00:21:11 Well, what interests me about it is it seems to represent a kind of George Clinton-esque kind of approach to writing, which is finding out about what you’re writing about by including your own reaction to finding it out. Or to seeing how it’s done.
Sarah: 00:21:29 Yes. I mean-
Alan: 00:21:30 Are you conscious of that? Is that something you do consciously?
Sarah: 00:21:35 I mean, I guess I’m aware of it now. It was just kind of the way I … I wasn’t in the beginning. It was just how I thought it should be done. I didn’t know how to be objective. I mean, it hurts me sometimes, I think. The problem with it is, if you don’t like me, you don’t like my stories.
Alan: 00:22:00 But you’re the one learning the story, and you can either tell the story totally objectively without your own presence in the story. But, doesn’t it become a more human story? It seems to me it becomes a slightly more human story if you see how it affected you.
Sarah: 00:22:17 Yeah. I mean, it’s also … It’s more and more fun for me to … I just like learning stuff on the job. And I think the reader learns along with me. And sometimes that can be pretty humbling. Like I love the moment in the Brett Kavanaugh hearings when Mazie Hirono, the Hawaiian senator, she just takes him to task because he once wrote a brief or something talking about how the Hawaiians came from Polynesia to Hawaii.
And she’s like, “Hawaii is Polynesia.” And she just gave him a lesson on Hawaiian geography. And that reminded me of when I worked on a book about the history of America and Hawaii. That’s what it was like for me every day. Native Hawaiians just telling me like it is, and me putting forth some theory, and they would just say, “No.”
And then one guy I was talking to, he was pretty old. He’s dead now, in fact, and both his grandmother’s worked for the last Hawaiian queen. And we sat down to have lunch, and I asked him a question about the overthrow of that queen in 1893. And he answered by telling the story of Hawaii from the beginning of time. Like, creation. And seven hours later, he got to the Revolution of 1893. And for like two hours, I was like, “What is doing?” And later on, the more I learned, I learned he was telling me about … The history of Hawaii goes back to the beginning of time. And the Hawaiian monarchy is part of that story.
And he was telling me the Hawaiian creation story. And how, when … His point, I think, was that when the queen was overthrown, it severed that history that goes back to pre-history. And that’s a completely different way of looking at the world than I do. And it was consequently incredibly useful and educational. And they’re an American state, but there are people there who are part of this country that’s so much older than ours.
Alan: 00:24:28 As you tell this story, You remind me of the book you did about the Trail of Tears. And your own heritage includes ancestry that’s Cherokee, right?
Sarah: 00:24:43 Yes.
Alan: 00:24:43 Am I right about that? So, how could you possibly tell that story of following the Trail of Tears without including your own reaction to the places you went to and the things you learned? Things you may not have known before. Although, I get the impression you knew way more before than most of us ever know.
Sarah: 00:25:04 Well, I knew a little … I knew quite a bit about that because that’s my family history, and also, when I was a kid my first theater experiences was going to the Cherokee capital in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. And they had one of those … Remember in the ’70’s, there were all those outdoor amphitheater dramas. And there was one of the Trail of Tears that I saw, maybe, I don’t know, six or seven times as a kid.
So, I had seen that my whole childhood. I probably knew because of that drama, I knew that I hated Andrew Jackson before I ever heard of George Washington. So, there’s that. But I think it must be … That was actually the first real story I ever wrote that was about American history. And I think because my family had a part in that story, it just did not occur to me to tell that story in the third person. And, it’s also just how I see the history of the country. I don’t see it as divorced from me and my family. I have Confederate soldiers in my family and … Oh, Depression people and Pretty Boy Floyd showed up one time. And stuff like that. So I always saw history as something that happened to people like me and my relatives. Not as something separate that happened to James Madison.
Sarah got me interested in the flaws some of our historical figures have. Even the heroes. I ask her about that right after we come back from this short break.

This is C+V, and now back to my conversation with Sarah Vowell

Alan: 00:26:38 And you don’t mind or do you even, in fact, look for, behavior that’s not always laudable among the great historical figures you write about? I mean, they make mistakes like regular humans.
Sarah: 00:26:54 Yeah, I mean, that’s when they come alive is when you can identify with them. Like working on that Lafayette book, most of the Revolutionary War, George Washington is about to get fired. He’s engaged in a lot of on-the-job training as a general and he’s messing up a lot and a lot of his so-called friends want to dump him throughout the war. And I could totally identify with that. I’ve been a journalist for a quarter of a century-
Alan: 00:27:28 Why, were you almost dumped from one of your jobs?
Sarah: 00:27:30 Well, yeah. I’ve been fired so many times. I mean, just the idea that the indispensable man was always about to get fired. That was the first time I ever kind of had a beat on him, I think, as a person. And some of the flaws are just so much … They’re as interesting as the bright spots, I think. It’s why Jefferson’s the most interesting.
Alan: 00:27:58 Jefferson’s interesting because of his flaws? Are you saying that?
Sarah: 00:28:01 Yeah. Because his flaws are directly in conflict with all of his best qualities.
Alan: 00:28:09 I have a friend who wrote a book about Washington called, Washington … George Washington’s Expense Account. Marvin Kitman wrote that book. And he actually took Washington’s expense account and printed it with explanations of what these expenses were. Mostly it was expensive wine and good food. And he was lauded for taking on the job for no salary. But he did say, “I would like an expense account.” And the wine piled up. So it’s like a curious, funny example. But, without that, the full picture of Washington doesn’t get painted.
Sarah: 00:28:54 I know, but then there’s the flip side is also a potential problem which is, I think lately I’ve noticed, because I speak at a lot of colleges, a lot of younger students are more than happy to discuss our founders’ many terrible flaws, especially regarding slavery. And they’re less and less willing to talk up the highlights, you know.
I had a student at MIT last fall, and I was talking about Washington’s commitment to the Bill of Rights, and specifically to religious freedom. And even more specifically about his letter to the Newport Jews and about how the First Amendment means, he said, “We’re done with tolerance.” That means, one group is humoring another. Things are equal now. And this is a big moment in the history of civil rights, in the world. And a student started weeping and made a scene and she said, it was just too painful for her to hear someone saying something nice about a slave owner.
And first of all, that really ruined the evening. Then secondly, it was like, this is America. You’ve gotta be able to deal with this stuff and you need to hold more than one idea in your head. And you know, I don’t know what to tell her. But, it’s haunting me, that night.

Alan: 00:30:28 Do you think it’s part of the age old response of young people to want to fix everything right away and do a revolution and turn everything upside down and everything’ll be better. And perfect, then.
Sarah: 00:30:42 That’s probably part of it. I think some of it is, I don’t know about you, but as I get older, I have more regrets about my own personal behavior. I can’t throw any stone … I mean, I’ve never owned a slave, but I could’ve been nicer to my mom a few times. Or-
Alan: 00:31:00 Or, a waiter.
Sarah: 00:31:03 Right.
Alan: 00:31:03 I mean, we all have people who play certain parts in our lives. I look at it that way, that this guy is playing the part of a waiter today. And I’m grateful for it. I also want him to play the part.
Sarah: 00:31:18 Uh-huh (affirmative).
Alan: 00:31:19 [crosstalk 00:31:19] become my best friend.
Sarah: 00:31:21 Now, this is maybe a tangent, but … So, sometimes when I’m watching-
Alan: 00:31:25 Oh, is this gonna be … Is this a shenanigan?
Sarah: 00:31:28 This is a shenanigan. So I’m asking you as an actor. I used to watch a lot of late-night talk shows, especially like David Letterman. And you know how David Letterman would make people nervous. And a lot of actors would be on, and they’d be like, “Oh, I’m so nervous.” And I always thought sitting at home, “You’re an actor. Why don’t you just act confident?” Is that possible?
Alan: 00:31:51 No, I get it. My friend Anne Bancroft would play tennis often with just that in mind. And she’d say, “I did okay today, ’cause I acted like I was a good tennis player.” And it actually can have an affect on you.
Sarah: 00:32:06 Yeah. So, spread that around amongst your fellows.
Alan: 00:32:12 So, I can see why these shenanigans are a problem, because I was following what you were saying and I had something I wanted to ask you about, and now I can’t remember it at all.
Sarah: 00:32:12 Yeah.
Alan: 00:32:20 So now I have to come in from left field. But what reminds me is, somebody told me that they heard that you said that you like radio because you like the musical interludes.
Sarah: 00:32:20 Oh, yeah.
Alan: 00:32:20 What does that mean?
Sarah: 00:32:33 Oh, one thing I like-
Alan: 00:32:36 ‘Cause you know, we’ll play one now, if you wanna get started on it.
Sarah: 00:32:41 One thing … I mean, I spend most of my life as a writer writing transitions from one paragraph to the next. I’m kind of obsessed with that.
Alan: 00:32:50 So, you don’t have to go to that trouble with a musical interlude?
Sarah: 00:32:53 No, you just bring up the trumpets. And then move onto the next phase.
Alan: 00:32:59 I find that the transition is … It’s a work of art in itself. It’s a hard thing to do, to get from one place to another. And I find, it’s really important when you’re writing and you don’t have the musical transition to help you bridge one thought, to really go into left field with the next thought. And you’ve gotta do it with a transition. Don’t you think you have to carry the reader forward?
Sarah: 00:33:28 Oh, for sure. And definitely on the-
Alan: 00:33:28 Into that new idea? That’s the hardest thing to do sometimes.
Sarah: 00:33:32 Definitely on the printed. On the printed pages it’s pretty obvious.
Alan: 00:33:36 You could put those dots down the separate the paragraphs, but they don’t really do it.
Sarah: 00:33:44 Yeah. I know.
Alan: 00:33:46 So, what’s the difference for you? When you write something that you know you’re going to speak and people are gonna hear it, they’re gonna be processing it differently. Leaving out the part that they are distract-able like dogs are. But the way they process what you say, it’s one thing at a time. They don’t get a chance to go back and look at the beginning of the paragraph or the sentence. You’ve got to make it clear to them right now, moment by moment. How do you … Is that one of the major differences between reading for the eye and reading for the ear?
Sarah: 00:34:21 Yeah, for sure. If you looked at the copies for my books that I take on book tour, they’re completely marked up. Or they’ll be pieces of tape just closing off whole sections of the book, and I’ll just cut out all the extraneous stuff. I’ll just keep on point.
And also, I mean one thing I love about print is with names, proper names, if a reader’s confused, she can just page back and see, oh yeah, that was Lieutenant What’s-His-Name, but in a reading I will often write in extra reminders of who someone is or something like that. Or yeah, things are way more action packed. Or funnier.
Alan: 00:35:17 Okay, I’m gonna ask you something that is gonna come in a little bit from left field.
Sarah: 00:35:17 Great.
Alan: 00:35:19 So I’m gonna do a musical interlude [crosstalk 00:35:22]-
Sarah: 00:35:22 I hope Anne Bancroft is playing tennis in this one.
Alan: 00:35:28 Here’s what I have to ask you. What role does empathy play in your writing? Do you feel you have empathy for the historical figures you write about, regardless of what they might have done wrong? Or even if you … For instance, the people who assassinated the presidents. Were you able to empathize your way into an understanding of what drove them so you could write about them more deeply?
Sarah: 00:35:55 I think empathy is absolutely key. And this is kind of, I think, an actor’s question. Because you guys, when you play villains, you can’t think of that villain as a villain. Right? Usually.
Alan: 00:36:07 Right, absolutely. Never.
Sarah: 00:36:09 So. Definitely this becomes more and more important to me as I get older. I mean, one thing. I find empathy is way more educational. Because one of the reasons to read history is to figure out, why did that happen? So like when I was writing about the history of Americans taking over Hawaii. There were these missionaries who went to Hawaii and it was their children and grandchildren who overthrew the Hawaiian queen and turned Hawaii over to the United States. And in Hawaii, especially amongst native Hawaiians, those people are vilified.
And rightfully so. By the end of 19th century, they owned almost all the land. And the natives owned almost nothing. And so, it’s pretty contentious there still. But, when I was doing my research, I found this letter from the missionary headquarters in Boston to the missionaries in Hawaii who had been there for a generation. And they had raised their families there, their children knew no other place. And the headquarters in Boston sends the missionaries this letter saying, “We’re cutting you off.” After decades of their support, they’re just saying we’re not sending you any more money.
So these people are just marooned there and they have to make a living. And so, they live in this place with 365 day growing season, so they start buying and acquiring more and more land and they start the sugar plantations that completely transformed Hawaii. And that is the sticking point in Hawaiian history. And a source of great hatred. And I understand that. But I also understand, they knew no other home. They needed to feed their children. What are they gonna do?
And so, the source of this thing, that is an ongoing painful realization, is basic human nature. They were there, they needed to make a living, it’s easy to grow stuff. And that’s maybe not the most exciting example, but it kind of explains that history in a way that, it’s not like this evil, premeditated series of events. It’s just people dealing with the circumstances at hand and trying their best to feed their children. And so, it’s not as good of a story as dastardly white people. But, it’s more true. And understandable, it think.
Alan: 00:38:48 If that infuses your writing, I’m wondering if you suspect that empathic look at the people you write about is in some way beneficial to the reader. Because they don’t just hear about what happened as a list of bad things. But they get a human perspective about what was behind those bad things.
Sarah: 00:39:14 Right. Right.
Alan: 00:39:14 So, it’s more than just telling us, this happened in 1812. It’s, these were the humans who interacted in this way for understandable reasons that gave us that event.
Sarah: 00:39:28 Absolutely. I mean, and the other … And the flip side is, people who are just … The great heroes of history like Lafayette is a good example. I mean, he was a teenager when he came to volunteer with George Washington’s army and he abandoned his pregnant teenage wife in France. I mean, I’m not cool with that. You know? I’m not on board with that.
Alan: 00:39:51 What he … He did it for the glory or what?
Sarah: 00:39:55 For glory. Yeah. Which, that doesn’t sound good, especially nowadays. But on the other hand, on the other-other hand, his quest for glory was very practical for the Americans because all he wanted to do was fight. And much of Washington’s army was constantly deserting like crazy. And here was this French kid who just, because he wants glory, he’s always in there. He’s always fighting. He leaves his hospital bed out of … After being wounded and wraps his leg in a blanket to run back to the front because he wants glory. But, the practical effect of that is, Washington has a general he can count on. Nothing is ever one thing to me.
Alan: 00:40:45 It’s also interesting to me, when I think about Lafayette’s reaction … The reaction of Lafayette on the part of the American people. It wasn’t just that Washington had somebody he could count on. The American people really were inspired by Lafayette. They were all wearing hats, those three cornered hats like what he wore, right? That he was … His picture was on pill boxes and little trivial things.
Sarah: 00:41:12 Yeah. When-
Alan: 00:41:14 And the same thing was true in France with the guy who had recommended Lafayette to Washington, who was Benjamin Franklin.
Sarah: 00:41:22 Yeah.
Alan: 00:41:24 He was all over the place, on pill boxes and candy boxes. A picture of him calling lighting out of the sky. They were transformed by that. And here you had these two stars of pill boxes helping win the war.
Sarah: 00:41:39 Yeah, I mean, there’s something to be said for tarnishing a hero. But there’s also something to be said for just the necessity and the practical benefits of a hero. Ben Franklin was this incredibly accomplished, fancy scientist. But he knew what his job was and he wore his stupid fur hat all around France, and all the ladies of Paris loved his stupid hat so much they started doing their hair like that. ‘Cause he knew it was his job to be the official rustic. He was like the most talented scientist alive probably, and he was just playing the bumpkin, and it worked. And sometimes you need a symbol.
Alan: 00:42:29 But I don’t think there’s a value in tearing down great people by telling about the mistakes they made, the human errors they committed. I think it’s a way into understanding them as people. As fellow people. How am I going to emulate the guy who never told a lie, and even when he chopped down the cherry tree, a totally fabulous story.
Sarah: 00:42:53 Oh, yeah.
Alan: 00:42:54 Fabulous story that has no basis in reality. But, one of the problems with that is it doesn’t give me a doorway into his life that I can emulate. How can I be the great George Washington? I can be more like the George Washington who accomplishes something in spite of human flaws.
Sarah: 00:43:14 Oh, yeah. I mean-
Alan: 00:43:15 All together with them.
Sarah: 00:43:17 It’s why I really love his letter to the synagogue, the Touro synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. Because it’s basically some people from … I had, in a previous book, written about the founding of Rhode Island, which is a great story because it became this catch-all for people from all over the world to practice religions they couldn’t elsewhere, including Jews which is how that synagogue got built.
And Rhode Island was the last state to ratify the Constitution. Or ratify the Bill of Rights. Because they already had so many, and they were worried about their rights being infringed upon. And this synagogue, some of the congregants wrote Washington a letter basically saying is this Bill of Rights good for the Jews? And Washington’s letter is just … This is something we can all emulate. He’s saying, yeah. I mean, we are equal now. Everyone can sit under his own vine and fig tree. No longer will we talk of toleration. We are equal. And everyone can find inspiration in that.
There are all kinds of ways, especially nowadays, to emulate that idea. And it’s one reason, I really hate that word tolerance. And it’s because of George Washington. Because tolerance means one group is above everybody else, letting them be themselves. And that part of Washington, that’s something everyone can grab onto.
Alan: 00:45:00 And what about the other side of … The young at your talk who was crying because you were showing admiration for somebody who had owned slaves. How do you work in that failing? Do you deal with the fact that it’s a historical fact that people did that then? What do you … How do you-
Sarah: 00:45:25 I mean, I’m still working on that. It’s kind of a fool’s errand. I mean, how do I … I don’t know. I’m still working on it. It’s about human frailty and flaws and there’s the … I actually do believe in progress. But, it’s way easier to just say, “He’s a slave owner, I’m writing him off.” That is very simple. Trying to speak to his greater legacy while never letting him off the hook for his worst, that’s a real can of worms. I mean, that’s where I live. But, I don’t know. Has anyone figured that out yet?
Alan: 00:46:11 Not that I know of. We’re at a moment now where the rage against depraved behavior against women is now finally surfacing, and thank God that it is. But we’re in a moment where everyone is facing, to a great extent, what you’re talking about. How much do you allow for the way things were at one time? And when you talk about somebody having been okay in other respects, but not okay in that respect.
Sarah: 00:46:51 Yeah, it’s a real … It’s real tricky. I mean, that same week when the student cried … When I made the student cry at MIT. This was at MIT, by the way. Who knew they could cry? There was an AC-
Alan: 00:47:08 They have a machine that does it for them.
Sarah: 00:47:09 Yeah. There was an ACLU attorney who was at the College of William and Mary, which is Thomas Jefferson’s alma mater. And I believe she was there to advise the students on their civil rights regarding protest. But, some students of the school basically drowned out her event and it had to get canceled and they were yelling things like, “ACLU, you’d represent Hitler, too.” And … Which, I mean, this isn’t gonna sound good, but I mean, I would hope so. I believe in freedom of speech. You either believe in freedom of speech or you don’t. They were also yelling, “The revolution does not uphold the Constitution.” Which, I find terrifying.
Alan: 00:48:01 Wow, what did they mean by that?
Sarah: 00:48:02 They meant … I think they had a problem with freedom of speech when that speech is hate speech. Which, is another tricky area, but my feeling is, Unless a culture’s most repugnant nit-wits are allowed to say what they think, no one is free. And I think that’s not exactly a universal value in this country anymore, especially among young people. People care more about whether someone’s feelings get hurt. And I understand that.
But, this is all … None of this is a great story. But, it’s all really tricky right now. It makes public speaking really tricky, I think. It’s one reason I really love print. You can really just marshal your arguments and decide what you want to say and just polish them up. You know?
Alan: 00:49:05 Yeah. But it reminds … The period we’re going through reminds me of certain phases of what I think are most revolutions, what most revolutions go through at some phase. Or some kind of a Wild West period. Where you have to toe the mark, you have to … You’re always looking over your shoulder to make sure that nobody’s more revolutionary than you.
Sarah: 00:49:33 Right. I mean, I will say this. I mean, when you were talking about the whole point of what you’re doing is communication. Which I assume is about establishing community in part. I’m also a big fan of difference. That is the beauty of this country. And I think we beat ourselves up too much about our differences. Instead of celebrating them.
I’ve been to a lot of countries where if I have a question for my tour guide, I have to whisper it, because they could get in trouble if I say it front of the army officer standing guard next to us, you know? And the absolute freedom we have in this country to disagree with one another is not anything I take for granted.
And I mean, when I wrote about Lafayette, I ended that book not so much writing about him, but about Lafayette Square in Washington D.C. across from the White House, which is where a lot of protests are. Just every day protests. And not just … Because it’s across from the White House, it’s where Americans yell at the president. And George H. W. Bush was always complaining about the drums, the drums interrupting his dinner from the protesters across the street.
But it’s also where people who can’t protest in their countries go to protest their leaders who are visiting Washington D.C. That’s where the Tibetans protest the Chinese president. And one day it’ll be the Tea Party, and the next day it’ll be the Tibetans. And everyone has a right. All they need is a permit from the National Park Service. And there was a famous incident in the ’80’s when they KKK staged a protest there. And they got a permit.
And there were just a handful of idiots who show up. And then hundreds and hundred of counter-protesters. That’s how this country works. The idiots get to hold up their stupid signs, and everyone else swarms them with their signs. And these differences, I’m proud of.
Alan: 00:52:00 And you’re talking about the importance of not just disagreeing, but listening to one another. Because if everybody has a chance to talk, that means everybody is kind of required to listen a little bit.
Sarah: 00:52:14 A little bit.
Alan: 00:52:14 Am I wrong about that? Yeah.
Sarah: 00:52:16 I don’t wanna-
Alan: 00:52:17 And I don’t mean that we’re supposed to agree with Nazi’s at all.
Sarah: 00:52:20 No.
Alan: 00:52:20 I’m not saying that. Or the Ku Klux Klan.
Sarah: 00:52:22 I mean, for instance, we recently had a senate race in my state, Montana. And I like my senator. And the guy who was running against him I think doesn’t believe in government. And when he was in the state senate, this guy voted against making insurance companies cover treatments for children with Down Syndrome. This guy voted against helping gold star families get home loans. Like all this pretty basic stuff that most people would agree on.
And I’m really … I wrote an op-ed about him and just kind of took him to task because he’s an elected official. So, I would draw a line between elected officials and the rest of us. Like I don’t agree with my father about a lot of stuff, but my dad isn’t trying to represent this state in the Senate. To me, there’s a little bit of difference there.
Alan: 00:53:30 Yeah, if they want to make laws or contribute-
Sarah: 00:53:32 Right.
Alan: 00:53:33 Not necessarily even people in office. But, people supporting people in office. Want to make laws that exclude people who ought to be included because they’re fellow Americans.
Sarah: 00:53:45 Yeah, all bets are off. I mean, I think-
Alan: 00:53:47 Then, yeah. Then you don’t have to agree for a second, you can work spiritedly against that.
Sarah: 00:53:53 Yeah. That said, I mean I think we all have this collection of moments where … Of strange bed-fellows moments we love. Like in the recent campaign, I think there were a couple of state candidates somewhere in New England and I can’t remember which was which, but either the Republican played a guitar and the Democrat played a cello or vice versa, and they ended their first debate by playing a duet. I mean, I teared up at that story. Who doesn’t love a story like that, you know?
Alan: 00:54:24 Oh, yeah. That’s great.
Sarah: 00:54:27 I mean, even with the founders. All they did was bicker. And in my book, one of my favorite moments was when … I mean, that’s another thing to remind ourselves. We’re founded by a bunch of guys who could not get along with one another and the first five minutes of the Continental Congress, the first one, someone wanted to open with a prayer, and the second thing that happened was someone saying, “I can’t pray with these people.”
There were Quakers there and Congregationalists and I’m an Episcopalian and Sam Adams stands up and says, “You know, I’ll pray with anyone.” And kind of gets everyone back on track. Or, there was a moment where they wanted to have a fast day. Like fast before their God. And Jefferson was like, “That’s a little too religious.” And John Adams stands up and starts excoriating Jefferson and right around the time he’s starting to think, “Did I go too far on my friend Jefferson?” Jefferson comes and sits right beside Adams. Like those are the moments where … They’re just a little bit of relief.
Alan: 00:55:43 I like in this story where they won’t pray together.
Sarah: 00:55:46 Yeah.
Alan: 00:55:48 You’ve pointed out that you can’t get less diverse than this group of Protestant white men. But they found a way, they were too diverse even yet.
Sarah: 00:56:00 Yeah. A couple of dozen white, Anglo-Saxon male Protestants are too diverse to pray together. Yeah. Those were the people who founded our country. So, of course we’re like this.

Alan: 00:56:12 Well, I think you’re sort of established a theory of communication that you operate under, even though you didn’t start out thinking you did. You care about what the reader or the listener is going through, you read it out loud, you become the listener or reader. You empathize with the people you’re writing about and you seem to hope that that’ll have an effect on the reader so that they can enter into the experience with some empathy, too. And bunch of other things you said that seem to be your guiding principles.
But you seem to have a more improvisatory experience of them, you don’t work under … As far as I can tell, you don’t work under a rubric. If it’s boring to you, you take it out.
Sarah: 00:57:00 Oh, that’s why the transition is my friend. Because, if you look at my books, just one thing leads to another. But because of the transition, things do lead to one another. But if you pull back, you know.
Alan: 00:57:15 A necklace I just a box of pearls that’ll roll off the table if … Except they’ve got this connective tissue of the thread linking them. Which is really the transition, the thing that holds things in place one to another. It’s the most important part of a necklace.
Sarah: 00:57:32 I like that.
Alan: 00:57:33 And it’s the most important part-
Sarah: 00:57:35 Now, what-
Alan: 00:57:36 I just made this up. I’m gonna say this again some place.
Sarah: 00:57:41 Yeah. You should. So, yeah. Now what was Anne Bancroft really like?
Alan: 00:57:48 Here comes a shenanigan. She was a close friend and I remembered when I spoke at her funeral how sweet and kind she was with my children when they were small, and had her palm filled with sea shells and was showing them to them and going over the differences in the sea shells with them. She entered into total connection with them.
One of her great abilities as an actress was to relate to the other actor. And she related to my children, our children the same way. And that’s really what this series of conversations is about, and you played right into it so nicely. Which is that you can take the sense of relating and not only relate to your reader, but help your reader related to people things that they might not otherwise relate to by the way you enter into it with a certain sensitivity and understanding that you’re talking about real people and not monuments.
Sarah: 00:58:59 And you played into my hands by talking about your clearly missed, departed friend. You have ended sad.
Alan: 00:59:08 Oh, I did, didn’t I? Yeah, that’s good. Okay, before we really end. We do something on this podcast that I hope you’ll be willing to take part in. We have seven quick questions that invite seven quick answers. And they’re sort of vaguely related to communicating.
Sarah: 00:59:08 Okay.
Alan: 00:59:25 You game for them?
Sarah: 00:59:26 Sure.
Alan: 00:59:27 Okay. Here’s the first one. What do you wish you really understood?
Sarah: 00:59:38 I wish I understood evil.
Alan: 00:59:49 I wish everybody could see the intense concentration on your face as you were thinking of what you really wish you understood. That was interesting.
Sarah: 00:59:58 I also want to know what happened to the lost colony of Roanoke.
Alan: 01:00:03 You wish you understood that, too?
Sarah: 01:00:05 Yeah.
Alan: 01:00:05 Yeah, you only get a chance at one, I’m sorry.
Sarah: 01:00:07 Okay. I’m greedy.
Alan: 01:00:10 Number two. What do you wish other people understood about you?
Sarah: 01:00:17 I mean well.
Alan: 01:00:21 What’s the strangest question anyone has ever asked you?
Sarah: 01:00:27 Hm. I remember one time I was talking to some students in Germany, in Wiemar, this was right after the wall came down. And I was talking about my Cherokee background. And one of the students said, “Why are you talking about this? All the American Indians died.” And I just said, “No, they didn’t.” And they said, “Yes, they did.” And it was an impasse.
Alan: 01:01:03 Wow. Gotta pass out your book.
Sarah: 01:01:06 Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Alan: 01:01:08 Okay, number four. How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Sarah: 01:01:14 Oh. If you’re at a party and you … My friend Ben taught me this. If you’re at a party and you have a drink in your hand, drink it all down and if there are just ice cubes left, you say, “I need to go dump this out.”
Alan: 01:01:29 Okay. Okay, is there anyone for whom you just cannot feel empathy?
Sarah: 01:01:43 I don’t think so. I mean, I would like to think not. I mean, even our president who, he’s kind of a counter-productive figure. I find, as someone who, I’ve been working at home … I’ve been a freelancer for over a quarter of a century. I sometimes have a lot of empathy with him because he ran his own company, he was basically working at home all those years, and he’s forced into the White House where he has to deal with a whole employment structure and laws and rules and answering to the Congress and the electorate. And sometimes I, just as someone who hasn’t worked in a real office for so long, sometimes I have empathy for his lack of experience at working for a few hundred million people.
Alan: 01:02:49 Okay, number six. How do you like to deliver bad news, in person, on the phone, or by carrier pigeon?
Sarah: 01:02:57 I think in person is best. But really, the … This doesn’t apply to bad news, but I’m always telling my sister this. When you have sort of bad news, you start with, “Everyone’s okay.” And then you say what you’re gonna say. Because if you’re too alarmed right at the beginning-
Alan: 01:03:21 Except, everyone’s okay, except for Uncle Bill, who’s …
Sarah: 01:03:25 Yeah, yeah.
Alan: 01:03:25 How do you handle that?
Sarah: 01:03:27 Yeah. Hm. How do you? I think you just come out with it? No pussy-footing around. And I don’t like … When someone dies, I like it when someone uses the word died. You know?
Alan: 01:03:42 And not passed on.
Sarah: 01:03:43 Yes. Like, “He died.”
Alan: 01:03:46 Yeah, I feel the same way.
Sarah: 01:03:47 I think just euphemisms do not help things.
Alan: 01:03:52 They make them a little worse, I think. Okay, the last question. What, if anything, would make you end a friendship?
Sarah: 01:04:04 I mean, I have ended some friendships. And it’s usually an ongoing lack of kindness and honor.
Alan: 01:04:19 Well, I had a good time talking with you, Sarah. Thank you for … Thank you so much. And you went through a snowstorm to get to the studio to talk with me today.
Sarah: 01:04:27 That’s right. I was delighted to talk to you.
Alan: 01:04:31 I’m so grateful. That’s great. Thanks so much.
Sarah: 01:04:32 Thank you.
This has been Clear + Vivid, at least I hope so.

My thanks the sponsors of this episode. All the income from the ads you hear go to the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Just by listening to this podcast, you’re contributing to the better communication of science. So, thank you.

Sarah Vowell is the New York Times’ bestselling author of seven nonfiction books on American history and culture. Her most recent book is entitled Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.

Many of you may recognize Sarah as the voice of Violet in the Pixar animated series “The Incredibles” and as a contributor for the public radio show This American Life from 1996-2008, where she produced numerous commentaries and documentaries and toured the country in many of the program’s shows. She was one of the original contributors to McSweeney’s, participating in many of that quarterly’s readings and shows. In addition to her books, Sarah is a contributing op-ed writer for the New York Times.

This episode was produced by Graham Chedd with help from our associate producer, Sarah Chase. Our sound engineer is Dan Dzula, our Tech Guru is Allison Coston, our publicist is Sarah Hill.

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Thanks for listening. Bye bye!