Tall Poppy Interview - Sarah Vowell, Writer, Humourist, Cartoon Character Voice
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Tall Poppy Interview – Sarah Vowell, Writer, Humourist, Cartoon Character Voice

vowell.jpgAuthor Sarah Vowell is a contributing editor to Ira Glass’s wildly popular This American Life, and more recently known as the voice of angsty teen Violet in The Incredibles. Her latest book, Assassination Vacation, chronicles her visits to the gravesites and monuments honoring Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. It’s a great read, and an even greater audiobook (featuring the voices of Jon Stewart, Brad Bird and Stephen King). Vowell spoke with Torontoist on the Boise, Idaho leg of her book tour about the Greatest Canadian, and whether – Louis Riel, Wolf and Montcalm notwithstanding- our country’s decided lack of assassination commercialism leaves her cold.

TO: What was the greatest Lincoln moment for you?
SV: It’s like I mention in the book, at that museum, the National Park Service has this whole area surrounding Lincoln’s Springfield home that has all these other museums surrounding it. Before I had been there, I had been to Lincoln’s tomb, and it had sort of left me kind of cold. And I went to Lincoln’s house, and I also didn’t have much feeling for it. But then, in that museum on the same site as his house, they had Lincoln’s drain pipe displayed – like, his plumbing. That was just a kind of holy-moley moment, where I realized there are these other rich guys who have these marble tombs, and impressive to anyone – it’s like as long as you can pay for it, you, too, can have an impressive marble tomb. But when they put your plumbing in a museum…that more than any other object – more than the Lincoln memorial even – just spoke to me about how that man was revered.
O: You’ve already dissected Canadian vs. American humour; do you perceive Canadians as having a fascination with anything that might resemble the American preoccupation with memorializing its history of political violence?
SV: You sort of have to have political violence to memorialize it. I mean, let’s say you were a culture that didn’t just resolve most of its differences sitting in nice rooms, agreeing to disagree, then you might have one. We just have more of that stuff than you.
TO: So does Canadian history bore you to tears?
SV: Yeah – it’s truly dull, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I mean, it’s a bad thing from a storytelling point of view, but from a living-in-Canada point of view I’m sure it’s aces to live somewhere where people aren’t shooting each other constantly. You know, like in the last book I wrote, I talked about the founding of the Mounties. That was just so amazing to me that you would, before your west was settled, you thought, oh, we should send a police force out there to make sure there’s law and order and rules before people get there to settle, so that everything will be all tidy when they get there. I would say I know way more about Canadian history than most Americans, but I still know hardly anything at all.
TO: No large wager in a Final Jeopardy question?
SV: I know who your first prime minister is, and I know you’ve only had your own flag for about 10 minutes, but…
TO: Who, living in the pantheon of celebrity (political or otherwise) right now will be the Next Big Thing in memorializing, 50 or 100 years from now?
SV: I think now it’s pretty much that Nelson Mandela’s the only game in town. Because he has already achieved this mythic status, and his death will only highlight that more.
TO: The book has a Toronto connection – to anarchist Emma Goldman, who died here in 1940. Did you do a lot of research into Emma Goldman, and do you see her influence on McKinley’s assassin being that direct?
SV: She has no direct connection in terms of co-conspiring to kill McKinley, but her rhetoric inspired the McKinley assassin. He says, her words set me on fire, when he heard her speak I think it was in Cleveland. She was talking about the gall or yolk of government, and how it’s just crushing the people. So the McKinley assassin hears that and thinks he should do something about the galling of the government. So she inspired him, and she was under suspicion after he was arrested for helping him. But I don’t write about history in any sort of proportion, and I spent a lot of time on her for the mere fact that I find her so interesting. My books historically are skewed that way, because I skew them toward, I hope, what’s interesting. So she did inspire him, but I spend a lot of time on her simply because I am fascinated by her and she’s so quotable. She’s the kind of person I love writing about, because she’s so often wrong. But she is not boring. I actually have a lot of problems with her, and people like her. She half-heartedly says she’s against violence, but whenever somebody does something violent in the name of a good cause, she always defended them and rhapsodized about them. Even the McKinley assassin, too, she remembered him fondly. I find that very dangerous, to glorify violence that way. But again, not boring. Goldman’s autobiography – and again, I disagree with her – she is so naive in so many ways (which is great, too), but her autobiography is one of the great autobiographies. She is just such a singular individual.
TO: Are you planning to visit the site on Spadina Avenue in Chinatown where her body lied in state (it’s now a restaurant called Bright Pearl)?
SV: Oh yeah, I’d do that – if my ‘keepers’ allow me to even eat lunch!
TO: Are there any other potentially macabre sites in Toronto you would be visiting?
SV: Not that I know of. But that’s not saying much.
TO: In the book’s acknowledgements, you single out artist Marcel Dzama as your favourite Canadian. After Dzama, who is The Greatest Canadian?
SV: Neil Young. He’s pretty good. I mean, the problem is that I know music. Um, I guess I like Trudeau okay. But I would still pick Neil Young.
Sarah Vowell reads at The Drake Hotel tonight at 6:30. Free.