One thing these labor point assignments all have in common is that they thrust me into unfamiliar spaces. I’ve been to the Michigan Theater a few times before. The most memorable — and most unfortunate — was seeing Juicy J perform my freshman year. It’s odd listening to music about sipping lean and “strippas” when confined to historic wooden seats. Today, the theater’s unfamiliarity is in its sex: the room (my section at least) seems almost entirely female. It isn’t an uncomfortable feeling, just a relatively new one.
Still, familiarities are not too hard to find: once again, I’ve infiltrated the depths of the Ann Arbor literary types. Beanies abound. Someone behind me makes Hash Bash plans with her friends. The lights dim, I settle in, and Violet Parr takes the stage.
Sarah Vowell is many things — an author, a radio host, and, as became apparent immediately, the voice of the daughter from Disney’s The Incredibles. Of all these things, the uniquely breathy and punctuated speech with which she brought Violet Parr to life is the least incredible. A practiced conversationalist, she commands the interview, and with it, the room, forcing the moderator to interject time and time again to keep the discussion on track. Vowell gives the impression that she could talk forever about anything; I would listen.
Through conversations on puritans, American history at large, and Bozeman, Montana, Vowell ekes out bits and pieces of her writing process. She’s an avowed drafter, positing that all the fun of writing takes place once the first draft has been gotten over with. “I love my delete key, sometimes to a fault,” she says. It’s a comforting reminder that innumerable unqualified pieces of writing lie behind her peppy and needling prose. Keep writing, it suggests, bad writing is just scaffolding.
Vowell doesn’t use chapters. It stems from her time as a radio host on This American Life, she says — she’s afraid of dead air. The fluidity of chapter-less prose keeps the conversation moving, and denies dead air any space in which to live. “Chapters enforce this equanimity that’s meaningless to me. Some things are worth dwelling on; others aren’t,” she says.
Much of the discussion revolves around her work with young writers, in a program called 826NYC, and the political columns she writes for the New York Times. Vowell is immaculately tangential — one thought sparks another, and then another, until she’s expressing her disbelief that the Vice President won’t share a bagel alone with the (now former) Secretary of Homeland Security. All the way in the back, I am lulled into comfort by her contradiction: a voice tailor-made for radio with a presence at its best in front of an audience. Taking notes becomes harder as I yearn to sit back and just listen.
At the end of the session, Vowell describes how her love for the past is a function of the ordinary and overlooked. “I never thought of history as something that happens to other people, or important people,” she says. With Vowell and with her subjects — First Lady Ida McKinley, John Wilkes Booth’s girlfriends, and other characters lost behind headlines — the intimate details make history.