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Violet Love: Sarah Vowell's career spread from music to radio to books to voicing Violet in 'The Incredibles.'

Misfit Lit

Author Sarah Vowell views the world through the prism of history instead of the romanticized musical mixtape

By Todd Inoue

AS CONTRIBUTING editor for PRI's This American Life, most famous for her chronicle about coming to terms with her gunsmith father, Sarah Vowell has attuned listeners to her witty, acerbic world. With a nasally voice that resembles a moderator for a vegan support group or a depressed junior high marching band misfit wearing a Smiths shirt, Vowell tells the kind of stories overheard outside of clubs or inside greasy diner booths, full of curmudgeonly humor, geek-friendly minutiae and occasional spontaneous combustion. Her voice is famous from NPR and as the sulking animated character Violet in The Incredibles.

"Once a woman spilled a drink on me in an elevator," Vowell says, calling from her New York base. "She was dancing and holding a mango margarita and she dumped it on me and tried to dab me with napkins. I said, 'Don't touch me!' and she recognized my voice from This American Life."

Mentored by Greil Marcus, who she met and interviewed during a visit to her Montana State University campus, the public first got a taste of Vowell via music journalism. She contributed to weekly papers and art magazines and won an award for her SF Weekly column. But soon, her personal narratives—some music-based, some not—would find a larger audience via GQ, Salon, Time, Spin and McSweeney's.

She pinpoints the transition from music columnist to narrator. She was in the Haight, where she came upon a man selling records. She bought a record of a World War II recording that Edward R. Murrow and his cronies put together. One story—about a seemingly humdrum coffee break with the pilots of the Enola Gay—fascinated her.

"They got in the plane and took off to bomb Hiroshima," she says. "I remember that image of the coffee and coffee cups and how the coffee was in their bodies and they got on the plane. By the time the coffee is digested, all these other bodies would be incinerated."

Her editors felt it was too much of a stretch to go in the music section ("I remember that was the most interesting thing that happened to me that week, and it was a record," Vowell says in her defense) and both sides agreed: the music beat just wasn't her thing.

"One reason I couldn't sustain myself as a music critic was just that I was never one of those record collector people who cared about every little thing about a band, who can't wait to see what record comes out every week," Vowell says. "For me, it was always more obsessive. I could listen to the same Jonathan Richman song over and over again. I came at it as a fan, but not a 'follow the beat' kind of fan. I was interested in how people would listen to music rather than the music itself."

She hightailed it to Chicago to start working on a new public-radio program called This American Life. Hosted by Ira Glass, the show is now considered the pinnacle of recorded storytelling and has a listening audience of 1.7 million people. Her bee-in-bonnet bon mots on her family, history and pop culture are well known to NPR listeners.

"I just had a hunch about that show," she says. "I thought, 'If I was in Chicago, I'd be able to work on that show more,' which turned out to be true. I became an editor the second I got back to Chicago. I started doing a lot of radio stories and that changed the writing I was capable of."

Vowell's participation in This American Life has decreased as book writing keeps her busy. Her first book was a diary of listening to the radio, Radio On. Next was a collection of essays, Take the Cannoli: Stories From the New World. Since then, she's bloomed into a history and current events buff and released two books, The Partly Cloudy Patriot and Assassination Vacation—the former a collection of short essays on American history and pop culture (including the prescient "Tom Cruise Makes Me Nervous"), the latter a humorous travelog of grisly Presidential assassination sites (Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley). Vowell has become required reading in some high school and college writing and history classes—a recognition she takes lightly.

"The basic reaction from students is relief that they're made to read something that isn't totally dull, uppity or dreary," Vowell says. "They think my writing is vaguely entertaining, which I guess a lot of their homework isn't. As Ira says, when people say This American Life is the 'coolest show on public radio' is like being called the 'coolest Osmond.' It doesn't mean that much when you're the most entertaining homework."

In research for Assassination Vacation, poring over boring history books had discreet charm, she says. She read the diaries of James A. Garfield. There are four volumes, and literally, there are days and days where it says: "Read. Slept. Played croquet." "Read. Visited. Played croquet." Then she came upon an entry that appealed to the book nerd inside her.

"It's really, really boring and he's a really, really boring guy," she says. "But he'd lighten up a little bit when he'd talk about a book he was reading. Or he'd talk about sitting in a committee meeting in Congress, but he'd gotten the new shipment of the 29-volume complete works of Goethe. He's so antsy to get home to them. On the day he talks about rearranging his library, this real staid, unemotional and unexciteable person gets lightheaded and giddy. That was the first time I had hooks on him or could identify with him. It was like an obsession, an addiction."

Vowell, too, had obsessions. She grew up during the '80s in Bozeman, Mont., a town she describes as "music mad." She wanted to become a composer but ended up with a master's in art history from Montana State and worked the decks at the college radio station. "I don't think it would have occurred to any kind of weird kid growing up in that town listening to that station or going to that college that music wasn't the center of the universe," she says. "It was such a great time for music. Being in college radio in the '80s, R.E.M. just happened, Elvis Costello was going strong. The biggest, most famous Seattle band was the Young Fresh Fellows. Our town was halfway between Seattle and Minneapolis on I-90, and so we got tons of shows just by virtue of being the gas-money stop on I-90."

But as the years go by, history and current events has replaced music in Vowell's expanding crate of interests. Now, where she used to put a record on, she tunes in to the news. "They tried to blow up my town and now the apocalypse happened and 30,000 people died in the last few days," she says. "There's so much death to keep track of, I've moved from music to news." But don't expect boring blowhard; Vowell makes the political personal, and with tragedies large and small, it's unlikely she'll run out of material soon.

Sarah Vowell appears at the Fox Theatre in Redwood City on Oct. 28. Tickets are $20-$45, and the show begins at 8pm. For more information, visit www.foxdream.com.

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From the October 19-25, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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