From the back patio of my very small Tucson,
Arizona apartment, I sit, jacketless, on the first day of March. Four hours and
two minutes north, in Flagstaff, writer Nicole Walker is composing in her
living room where the “light is almost as good but not quite”. It might be
windy there. Come May, she’ll return to her deck to write in the warmth,
searching for the vultures that she says return on exactly the first day it
becomes warm enough to take her practice outside, ducking the ravens that
If we’re talking about mental space, Nicole says
that it too gets windy—Facebook and committee meetings. “But if I just sit down and write,
I can get the ravens to dive-bomb and the vultures to gyre. Although I started
writing in gray, gray Portland, Flagstaff sun clears my head.”
is perhaps Nicole’s control of such birds that produce, in her forthcoming
book, Quench Your Thirst With Salt, a collection that sings. “The first essay I ever
wrote was “Fish,” a poem-ype lyric essay. I only realized it was an essay when
I sent it to Brevity when they published it. Then, I wrote “Superfluidity”
about my dad dying and water disappearing in the desert and I thought—fish,
water, death—I could write about those things forever,” she says.
Nicole too gets bored when she’s writing, and in these places turns to research
as a bridge across the water or deserts that haunts her work. “I get stuck. I
get thinking that talking about the self is too selfish. It’s at the bottom of
a moment of narrative that I move to research. By researching section by
narrative section, I feel like I’m building a serendipitous structure. The
narrative guides the research, the research, once I reach the end of the line,
takes me back to narrative. They conspire to make sense of one another. Like
the volta in poetry, I turn from one to the other in the white space. My
thought is that the connections being woven take me and the reader to new and
is no shortage of surprising places in Nicole’s work—the essays in Quench Your Thirst With Salthappen
across a variety of structures, often utilizing white space and found text.
They happen across a number of subjects and landscapes and moments in time. “In
the white space, I can turn from writing about a boy to writing about the mechanics
of the combustion engine,” Nicole says. She attributes much of her style in
prose to her training in poetry—the idea, as she says, that the reader ought to
have time to digest and absorb the material, that emphasis can be added to the
ends of sections, that meaning can be underscored.
constructing the collection, Nicole says that she asked her mother to edit the
manuscript. Her sisters also read it. “I think the hard part about being
written about is that you feel like you have no volition—that you’re trapped by
the page. I tried to let people read and argue and reconsider, so that the
characterization I did of them was more textured and real and fair. I hope.”
successful—even the most difficult essays seem honest and generous, wiling to
explore material outside oneself in the exploration of a story that is both
personal and cultural. “I veered away from writing about my dad, wrote about
boys, wrote about my mom and sisters. In the end, it wasn’t the chronology or
the family stories that drove the organization but rather the research. When I
asked, what else is happening to water in Salt Lake? Where does it come from,
where does it go? How much mercury is in the Great Salt Lake anyway? As drought
descended on the valley and people still watered their lawns and my dad was
still dead, it made me consider what kind of life I would be subjecting any
children I considered having. I reconsidered. And then I had kids anyway.”
“having kids anyway”, Nicole unearthed a series of fears and questions that led
to the longest (and in some ways, most complex) essay in the collection, “Where
the Wild Things Are”, a piece in which she’s thinking about pregnancy, motherhood, childhood, predator,
prey, fear. She says, of the difficulty she faced in writing the essay, “No one wants to talk about child molesters. It’s gross.
No one wants to read it. When I’m editing for a magazine or reading essays my
students write, I dread the stories about any kind of abuse. The ick factor.
The confession. The idea that suffering matters on its own.In that essay, I had to try to say
something about the way we hold legitimate and illegitimate fears for our
children. How it’s hard to determine what is a natural reaction to those fears.
Hell, the hard part is trying to figure out what is natural and unnatural at
all. How do we treat our neighbor the child molester? How do we have children
and let them play in the front yard across the street? Because you do. Because
acting natural and pretending everything is normal is the way the unnatural and
abnormal becomes ordinary and normal on its own. I think about other kinds of
fear. The fear ranches have of wolves. The fear of the wilderness even though
the wild has become mostly manicured. It’s natural for the wolves to attack the
ranchers’ cows. Is it unnatural for the rancher to respond with bullets? Is it
unnatural for the rancher to be there at all? Maybe not all actions are natural
but perhaps all reactions are?So
building a fence to say, no wolves here is an unnatural endeavor but, once that
fence is built, anything that crosses that fence is trespassing and the
rancher’s reaction is a normal one. To reduce the metaphor:In letting my daughter play outside in
the front yard, maybe I’m attempting to undo the fence-building in the first
place.” She sights a lack of distance as the reason the essay was difficult to
write—her daughter was born only six months before.
the essays seem concerned with what it means to be female as much as they do
with ideas about place, Nicole is not trying to make a metaphor that the female
body is like the land, “fucked up and fucked over”, she says, though she
acknowledges that the snarky quips she includes can sometimes read that way.
Instead, she’s most interested in thinking about how much reshaping humans do—“to the land, to their bodies, to each other’s bodies, and
then how they shape and reshape their ideas of self. I think of the body in
various settings and think, is this who I am now? Am I this woman on the
shoreline of an ancient in-land sea? I’m a woman swimming in a man-made
mountain lake? I’m standing on an unfinished road, on top of a dead snake, wondering,
is this who I am now?”
says, “if the point of writing a book of nonfiction is to look at the self at
different angles, then the angles of light produced by different combination of
dirt and clouds and sun and grass and the herons make me see the self, and the
place, differently. Maybe if I look at me and the place at enough angles,
eventually, I’ll understand them both.”
Hamilton is a graduate of the MFA program in creative nonfiction at the
University of Arizona where she also served as Co Editor-In-Chief of the Sonora
Review. Now, she lives, writes, and works in Boise, Idaho.
In “Quiet Days in Malibu,” the last essay in Joan Didion’s The White Album collection, Didion meditates on her family’s move to Malibu: the name evokes visions of “the easy life,” the kind of clear and hopeful vistas Chevrolet hoped to conjure when they named a car after it in 1964. Coming just after her tumultuous years in Los Angeles during the sixties, the little town north up the PCH promises a redoubt, refuge from everything that man’s ruined and failed. But over the seven or so years she lives there, Didion learns, we all learn, that there’s no such thing as an easy life. In the present moment, whatever it is, your memories and your lifestyle are always under siege. But at least in Malibu, you’ve got the hills for defenses.
My brother drove a 1976 Chevy Malibu, body colored gold, and most days, we traveled with the windows up, the ashtray filling with the camel lights he smoked, the car transforming into a smoke filled bullet. The music was loud and louder. Once, my brother drove for two miles on a country road oblivious to the policeman, sirens flailing away, in mid-speed pursuit. When my brother noticed the policeman, he pulled over, but he didn’t act ashamed or embarrassed, didn’t apologize for not pulling over sooner or the cloud of smoke exhaled by the car like a fog when he rolled down the window; the policeman could fine him, or write a ticket. But the state didn’t have the power to make a good day bad, to change the power we felt in the music into powerlessness.
In Alex Cox’s movie Repo Man, Emilio Estevez plays a younger punker named Otto who runs out of friends when his bestie Duke gets out of prison and steals Otto’s girlfriend. Otto wanders dark LA streets, a sad sack singing Black Flag songs to himself till Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) tricks him into repo-ing a car and inducts Otto into life of the repo man. The A-plot, if a movie as loose as this one has plots, is to hunt down a 1964 Chevy Malibu. The car, we learn, might hold the remains of some aliens crisped in Los Alamos years before, though when we see a photo of the aliens in the trunk, they look a lot like breakfast sausages. Repo Man was one of the favorites in the Dube household growing up, especially among the boys in the family. It might’ve been the first VCR tape we owned, and we watched it so many times the picture started to degrade, dust and fizz creeping in at the edges of the screen, a wobbly line that shook from left to right.
“You like music?... Then that case, you’re gonna love this,” Lite (Sy Richardson) says to Otto when he pops a tape of nondescript lite R & B into the dashboard tape player of a car they’ve just repo’d. My brother’s car didn’t have a working tape deck, but we didn’t care. He had a silvered plastic boom box that took a dozen D batteries, and he drove with it on the seat beside him. He had the soundtrack to Repo Man on cassette, and that’s where I first heard a lot of the famous punk bands: the Circle Jerks, Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized” and others that stay with me now, like The Plugz version of “Secret Agent Man,” rerecorded in Spanish as “Hombre Secreto” which maybe made sense in the LA setting of the movie but which sounded gloriously otherworldly in Central Mass.
The parking lot at the high school my brother drove me to every morning of his senior year, the same year I was a freshman, featured a raised blacktop lip around the perimeter and dipped down into a crater that filled each morning with maybe one hundred cars, my brother’s gold ‘76 Malibu one of them. And because this was in Central Massachusetts, three dozen times that winter, the spaces between the cars, the lanes into and out of the lot, the concrete dividers and small strips of grass filled up with snow. When the Malibu’s bald tires couldn’t get traction enough to pull us out of the swimming pool of a parking lot, I was the one who had to get out and push, shoulder against the trunk, tires spinning and throwing dirty snow against me, and then, when the car inched forward, scrambling to catch my balance before pushing again.
One snowy day after escaping the parking lot, my brother took us on a detour, to the pristine, unplowed parking lot of our church. I was sure the car would get stuck and I’d be the one to push us free, sure that my brother didn’t care what he did to me because I was the younger brother, lower in nature than the slave. My brother drove full force into the four inches of wet snow in the lot, then turned the wheel sharp to the left and flooded the engine with gas. The car didn’t stall; it spun out with a satisfying slide like the slow motion replay of a high speed chase on Starsky and Hutch. My brother cut the wheel in the other direction, sending the car’s lazy backside fishtailing in the other direction. By this point, we were close to the center of the lot, and my brother turned donuts with abandon, spoiling that perfect white field with his corrupting influence. I cranked my window down and whooped along with him.
The Chevy Malibu my brother drove, model year 1976, was labeled as gold but the actual body color was less luxurious, whether because it was a decade from the assembly line when he got it or because it was never what was promised, I never knew really. Instead, it was dust colored, a kind of faded gold, a tan with highlights that sparkled in the sun in a way that taunted you for a sucker.
A month ago, I told my brother about writing this essay and I asked him if he had any pictures of that car; he told me he didn’t have any pictures from the time before he met Beth, his wife. I asked my mother the same, and she told me she didn’t have many pictures from that time, a year when she and my brother yelled at each other daily. It was a deal they made, no pictures to show for it.
One of the heroes of Didion’s “Quiet Days in Malibu” is a lifeguard with the fishy name Dick Haddock. Haddock’s been a lifeguard for 26 years, but in Didion’s narrative, what happens in the water is more play than work. What Didion fears, and she’s got good reason to fear it, is fire. Fire stalks those scrubby and barren hills, and Didion perches heroic doomed Haddock on a tower watching the fire advance, while Didion watches soot fall into the water, turning it cloudy. Swim all you want, you won’t wash off the ash.
Another of Didion’s favorites in “Quiet Days in Malibu” is Amadeo Vazquez, who breeds orchids, mostly for Arthur Freed, who made his money in the movies. Didion admires Vazquez for the recondite quiet of his work, breeding orchids slowly, wasting money at it, holed up in the hills, patient.
Being punk rock put you in a weird spot. At least for me, it meant I tried to communicate by my dress and manner that I wasn’t like most of the hypocritical assholes and lazy non-combatants I knew. “Ordinary fucking people,” Harry Dean Stanton’s Bud calls them in Repo Man, and I didn’t want to be mistaken for one of them. But the people I did admire, the working stiffs at the clothing warehouse, the old black woman on the bus, they thought I was too far out to interact with at all.
“So the salesman says to the farmer, why’s that pig got a wooden leg?”
I watched Repo Man so many times when I was in high school, I knew every line. I memorized it, even though I couldn’t remember the right words to Wordsworth’s lonely, cloudlike wander or Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. At my factory job, folding big and tall jeans into boxes and putting those boxes away, I found a coworker who knew the movie as well, and we’d spend the afternoon shift going through the movie, line by line. I was sure I’d know that movie forever.
So it’s with some regret, some hesitation, that I have to admit I’ve forgotten most of the movie’s dialogue. I watched the movie again to write this essay, and surprised myself with scenes I’d forgotten existed (Otto in the grocery store; anything to do with the United Fruitcake Outlet, including Leila and her friend with the metal hand; Otto handed a beating by four strapping brothers who play in a family band), scenes I recited from memory a second after the characters on the screen said the words.
There’s a car chase in Repo Man whose Mad Max-style balletics evoke Didion’s poetic ruins. Bud and Otto are freestyling in the sluicework viaducts that shadow and capture runoff from LA’s ever-present overpasses. It’s all paved over, there’s no one else around, and you almost feel like the world has ended, until the Rodrigues brothers, driving some amazing drop top roadster race alongside them. Both drivers risk death, driving up the steep sides of the viaducts and splashing through rain run-off, and it’s all shot in a dusty desert light. It’s just the kind of thing Didion imagined would be left after we all burn: concrete, and cars, and water that’s not irrigating anything, that’s just turned rotten.
At the end of her essay, she tells us that she and the family went back to Malibu for a visit, some months after selling their house. This is always a mistake, a strategy doomed in essay or fiction, fantasy or real life: orchid breeder Vazquez’s orchid farm is burned up; a friend of Didion’s daughter drowned. Nothing lasts, except concrete, and once you’ve gone, you’d better not look back. If it doesn’t turn you to salt, it’ll turn you soft.
A car as old as that ‘76 Malibu, maintained and driven the way my brother did (irregularly and like hell, respectively) was bound to have problems. More than once we waited in a parking lot for my dad to come and jump the dead battery, which seemed incapable of keeping a charge. I learned to change a tire on that car; I don’t think my brother ever changed the oil, even though we’d both learned how to from our dad, just a shade less helpless under the hood than either of us. But the most memorable incident involving maintenance was, in the end, the most easily solved.
The road from the high school to home ran along a highway that connected suburb to city. The highway went over a bridge with a water view sufficiently dramatic that several restaurants opened there based on the beauty of the view alone. One spring afternoon, my brother’s car died in traffic on the wrong side of that bridge. As other cars honked and threw on blinkers to pass around us, I did what I’d been trained to do: I got out and pushed. I leaned hard into the muddled gold of that trunk and my shadow showed I was there but without even detail to make out anything else: how I felt about it, smiling or resigned, angry and fed-up, puffed up to be strong enough to push a car across a bridge, smiling to be in the middle of another adventure. I leaned into it and pushed. Pushed till we made it to the other side, where my brother steered the car to the shoulder of the road. Then, pocketing the keys with an elegant nonchalance, he ambled out of sight to the nearest gas station, where they’d charge him five bucks as a deposit for a plastic can and a gallon of gas. He left me behind with the car long enough that I got tired of standing beside it and took a seat. Till he got back, he left me there, sitting on the trunk of that car, silhouetted against the sun and just the right color to almost become lost in it.
(photo of Frank [in mask and sexypants] and Passarello by Christina Olson)
On Monday, poet and essayist Matt Frank published an Answerless Interview with Elena Passarello. Here are a few answers--though not necessarily answers to the questions published earlier in the week. These are queries
Matt sent via telepathy; or via extinct carrier
pigeons; or via whispers out the window of his house in the Upper Peninsula,
that traveled 2086 miles to my Oregon window. In place of his voice, I imagine a Dead Moon guitar whammy at each
Matthew Gavin Frank: *
Elena Passarello: I always wanted to snag a porn star. A lady porn
star. I wanted her to appear in the book, talking very honestly about the noises of pleasure she makes
for the camera and what she thinks about when she makes them. I have this hunch
that she’s a real technician about it. But I don’t know what would've happened; the interviewees’
responses always surprised me. What it comes down to is I wasn’t really bold
enough to find any porn stars. I never called anybody. Really, who do you call?
The front desk of Vivid Pictures? Maybe that’s exactly who you call. I did
find a few interviews with well-known starlets, but they all seemed so fake.
They didn’t want to spoil the illusion that all their sounds were totally
EP: That’s an easy one. Betty
Carter on The Cosby Show. It was that episode when Vanessa started that singing
group—the Lipsticks—with her friends and then Cliff and Claire made them go
take voice lessons. I’ll never forget what it was like to first hear Carter
open her mouth and sing.
been a lot of that thing where people bring up interesting voice anecdotes because
they know I wrote a voice book. I like it because I’m still pretty fascinated
by all the extreme things a voice can do—the book didn’t wear that out of me. I
bet you’ll probably get a lot of squid emails from strangers once your big
squid essay (Garg! Can’t wait! Is it 2014 yet?) comes out.But
sometimes a person will pass along a story, and it will kill me that I didn’t hear about it when I was making the book.
Like ASMR—people who get a physical charge from soothing, Bob Ross-style
voices. I’d love to have included an essay on that. Or a few months ago, a
student stuck his head in my office and mentioned that Merry Clayton is rumored
to have given herself a miscarriage while recording the vocal track for “GimmeShelter.”Oh, for a time machine.
yes, I’ve been thinking about him a lot since Wednesday. I read about him a bit
when I was making the book. The Sopranos production
team miked him so as to showcase his nose-breathing. I love how he chuffs like
a tiger. And he had a dialect coach for the show, which I was sort of astounded
by, since Park Ridge, New Jersey can’t be that far from Essex
County. There was something that he wanted to do perfectly. But that tight,
almost comical timbre he gets, his throat way up. There’s so
much Cagney in it. And he’s got that loose mouth and tongue. It’s lovely. He
had a lot of scary variations of that classic Tony speech in the 80 hours of
his performance, too. I’m surprisingly sad about losing him, losing the
opportunity to see what his voice could do next.
EP: There was this draft of the manuscript in which Judy
Garland narrated between the essays. There were these interstitial monologues of “Judy” saying
things like “Hello, lovers. Allow me to take you on a tour of my laryngeal
cavity.” It was just awful. Nobody can speak for Judy Garland. Have you ever
heard the drunken tapes that she made for her (never written) autobiography?
Oftentimes it seemed that Judy wasn’t even speaking as herself.
EP: When I was 25, I wrote this
essay that I thought was going to be hilarious, about this John Denver-looking
hippie guy who used to pitch a tent in the recess yard of my elementary school
and teach the kids about loving nature or whatever. I thought it would be some
kind of wry Thurberian profile of this weirdo. I read it at a nonfiction
festival in Pittsburgh and folks hardly laughed, and then my boyfriend was
like, “that’s hands down the saddest thing you’ve ever written.” That still
happens. A lot. I’ll get started on something that I think is going to just bop
along and be zippy and adorable, and it will end up more of a gut-puncher. That
essay about winning the screaming contest is pert sad, and what could be sad
about winning a screaming contest? And I thought the Galapagos tortoise was going
to be full of yuks, and it turned out as the weird saga of this poor,
trod-upon, Thomas Hardy-type lady. Why do you think that is? Why do so many of all my jokes turn into sob stories? Does it
happen to you?
EP: Yeah, no, I get that. Totally.
EP: What is The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire? Now
I’ll take “Potent Potables” for $1,000, Alex.
grad thesis I just read had a story that spelled an owl hoot who cooks for you? Who cooks for you now?
It made me think of the Rebel Yell. That creation of speech is such a telling detail, I think. Can’t you imagine
growing up, thinking that something in the trees was asking that? I used to
think that my inkjet printer, as it slung itself back and forth, was saying Help meee! Help meee! Help meee! You
should ask your [massage therapist] wife how she would spell the sound of a lower
trapezius popping when she sticks her glorious elbow in the sweet spot.
EP: Starting an essay is like
starting a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle the first day of a blizzard, if you didn’t
have a box with the finished puzzle picture on it and were just fumbling
through all the pieces, trying to make find match-ups. There is a kind of
companionship in a task of that size; there’s also a comfort in the idea that
the image exists somewhere in the finite pieces of language, form, research,
mojo. I write the essays one at a time, and I spend a month or thirteen just
drowning in the subject. I check all the books out of the library and scoot
around the internet and make little cocoons of pictures and clips all around my
workspace and I make playlists and listen obsessively. I rarely know where I’m
going when I begin. It's alarmingly inefficient. I’ll just search and search until I get a corner section
to this puzzle.
I find such terrific companionship
in uncovering these key facts (or factoids) that fit the yet-to-be-determined
purpose of the work. This happened when I learned that Howard Dean was born the
same year as four very famous rock screamers (Osbourne, Cooper, Tyler, and
Plant) and that Dean’s scream hit the same note as the one Plant hits at the very end of “Communication Breakdown.” (I figured it out with a pitch pipe and a keyboard). I was all bogged down in researching meme
theory and three decades of Iowa caucuses, but when I found out that thing about
the singers and the notes, I felt I’d found this pivotal hinge in whatever the
hell I was doing.
EP: Well, for starters, why hasn’t somebody written an
imaginative essay about that concert The Cramps gave at a mental hospital? I’ll
race you for it. Ready? Go.
EP: Two things I’ve read recently
sort of answer that question. This is a quote from a scholarly article about
bestiaries—these ancient encyclopedias of the known animal kingdom: “Saint
Augustine himself stated that it was of no consequence whether these animals
existed; what mattered was what they signified.” And this is from a footnote to
John Valliant’s book on vengeful cats in farthest Russia, The Tiger (which you should totally read the next time you want to
give yourself heart palpitations): “Arseniev’s account of his adventures with
Dersu Uzala reflects a tendency among many Russian writers to use facts not as
inflexible units of information, but as malleable elements that may be
arranged, elaborated on, or added to….[T]he notions of ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ have
been so aggressively stifled in Russia since Czarist times that its effects
have impacted the collective psyche of the country.”
EP: I guess they mean that facts don’t have just one
purpose. They don’t exist simply to be verifiable, or to unilaterally inform us.
They certainly aren’t always true. I see them as a medium that I work in, like
paint or marble or textiles, and that work naturally varies. And it varies even
greater from practitioner to practitioner--not everybody who works with the
same medium creates the same product. So people who spout out these
fist-banging, commandment-style definitions for all of Nonfictiondom-- “WRITING
THAT USES FACTS IS EXACTLY THIS!”-- are essentially saying the equivalent of “OIL
PAINTINGS ARE EXACTLY THIS!” which I find kind of baffling.
EP: Off the top of my head? Well, sometimes, facts are just opportunities
for hipper vocabulary. Like a few questions ago, I looked up Park Ridge because
I wanted a more exciting noun than “hometown.” They can also support a
syntactical style-- a couple dozen factoids, listed one after the other, can
extend a moment into the air and make it levitate for a while. Or if a sentence
needs five extra beats, I dig in for a deeper fact related to that sentence
(that’s why I had to figure out the name of that butt-pinching monkey). There
are times in which I use facts—cold ones, like my height or the frequency of a
note, or the amount of tiles on the Capitol floor—to distance an essay from its
more nebulous emotions. I could go on.
EP: It’s so hard to pick a favorite. Sharapova’s is classic.
She really was a vanguard for the sport, with her alley-oop whoop. But Serena’s got her own screamy rocket noise
going. Did you see the French Open final? When Sharipova and Serena would
get a good volley going, shit would get funky! They sounded like the two-screamloop DJ EZ Rock made for “It Takes Two.” I was Roger Rabbiting around my living
room. Rafa Nadal has that big boy exhale—he can totally hang with some of the
most impressive ladies. And I’m keeping my eyes on a few other women players: Victoria Azarenka, Svetlana
Kuznetsova. They make solid voxes in Belarus.
EP: Well, you, for starters. You’re a great reader, Matt— so
much music and vigor! I’m reminded of the happiest guy in the pub leading the
room in a bawdy shanty. It’s a real collective energy that you make in the
room. Charles Baxter, on the other hand, is a much stiller and more wry reader,
and he brings the house down, too. He’s great at building to a laugh line. I
just watched James Arthur boldly and sweetly recite a dozen poems from memory
at the bookstore here in Corvallis, and he was mesmerizing.What y’all three have in common are how very generous and
considerate you are at the podium. So many of the public readings I see are not
considerate. They are quiet, or under-rehearsed, or they don’t pay attention to time, or they shut out
the audience. So many seem to have neglected to consider the very real parameters
of public presentation. If you’ve agreed to go up there and share your work in
front of a group, then you should do some work to create your pages for them—think about time, volume, vocal liveliness. It’s good manners, and it’s not rocket surgery.
EP: You already know the answer to that. I told you at that GWAR
show. Or was it that Halloween party in ’08 that nobody came to in costume but
you? Or that time you showed up with a paper bag full of popcorn that had
POPCORN written on the outside in Sharpie? Or maybe it was the party in 2010,
where nobody was dressed up but me. I went as Rosie the Riveter? Anyway, we’ve
been over this. Next question.
EP: I was 22. I was in the middle of that summer where you just wander around and volunteer for medical studies and do Shakespeare in a Pet Cemetery. I'd just graduated from college and I'd already forgotten everything. So I was loitering down on Forbes Avenue, and this big white Ford F-150
drove by. I saw the passenger window roll down, and it was him! He stuck his
head out, and said, Good writer. Almost like good doggie. Not yelling across
the street or anything, just this pert, mezzoforte declaration. I didn’t even know
if he was talking to me, so I didn’t
really wave back, I just sort of lifted my wrists at him. I made jazz hands at
him. I remember thinking, “Oh no. This is going to make me set some kind of life
Come to think of it, I believe I was actually wearing a sweat suit.
EP: This is a sort of icky
admission, and I’m only telling because of how sweetly you asked me. But in the
middle of a few research-heavy essay projects, I’ve realized that I’m just
writing about myself. I’ll be drowning in all this context or information about
Judy Garland, or Harriet the tortoise, or Brando, and something will make me
realize that the whole topic that got my writing motor running was just a ruse I
played in order to think about me in some other capacity, or to write more
eventful autobiography. I told you this was icky.The easy impulse upon realizing
this is to begin injecting the “I” into the piece, to find stories from my life
that mirror that of the researched subject, and then make a braided essay that
volleys between the “I” and the “they.” That’s what happened in the essays about
Brando and Myron Cope.
But I really tried to avoid that impulse in most of the
essays, and to keep working as a kind of embarrassingly biased biographer. I
talk to myself about myself as I draft, but I keep writing in the third person.
Like my essay on the cuckoo bird is really about what it feels like to sound
like and express yourself like a parent that you never lived with. I figured
that out, early on, and still kept essaying through the lens of this wonky
Nature Channel report. It adds a tension in the essaying that interests me.
EP: Ah, yes. I’ve heard that you like to ask people this. It’s
as good a note to end on as any, I guess. So. If I have to cut it off myself,
and then cook it and eat it, I’d set the price in the mid-to-high six figures.
If I could be anesthetized and then get somebody—Like Adria or Achtatz, or maybe
you?—to cook it, I’d do it for eighty or ninety grand.
Elena Passarello is the author of Let Me Clear My Throat,
a collection of essays on famous human voices (Sarabande Books 2012). She teaches in the MFA program at Oregon State University and in
the low-residency MFA program at Murray State University. She is
a-Twitter as @elenavox.
larynx-ripping congratulations to the stunning Elena
Passarello whose killer book, Let Me Clear My Throat (Sarabande), recently
took the gold in the Essay/Creative Nonfiction category of the 2013 Independent
Publisher Book Awards. Here is my
interview with her holographic version, wherein each asterisk is meant to
represent some sputtering static in all of its ethereal hiss and endearing
One of my favorite things about your essays is that they
struggle. They grapple toward
connection, toward some nebulous demand for answers. I’m not sure if this demand comes from inside
the essays themselves, or in the suppositions of an audience. Can you speak to such demands and how you
view the essay’s obligations to them?
Your work, while brilliantly written, remains endlessly
curious. These essays never presume
certainty—in spite of the ultra-confident voice—never assume the posture of
“teaching us something,” which, of course, they do by default, via the very
specific and odd ways in which you grapple.
Can you talk a bit about the importance of grappling vs. the assumption
of certainty in the essay?
These essays seem to try to situate some of our weirder
cultural inheritances into a series of larger contexts. Do you think that your work wants to make
these inheritances more easily digestible, or would you rather (entertainingly)
complicate said inheritances?
One time, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to open a reading
series named Cherry Bomb, you and I dueted on Seger’s Night Moves and The White Stripes’ The Big 3 Killed My Baby—you on autoharp in an evening gown sitting
on a downturned milk crate, and me on vocals, in my sexy pants and Peruvian
luchador mask. Afterwards, a few people
clapped. Did you enjoy that as much as I
In an interview with Harper’s, you state that the short
pieces you include between your essays—the briefly glimpsed voices of auctioneers,
zealots, singers, psychics, Elvis impersonators, et. al.—are meant to be palate
cleansers, a break from your own voice.
Is there more to it than this?
These did not seem randomly chosen or randomly ordered (not that there’s
anything random about grapefruit sorbet).
I’m guessing that you interviewed many other folks who did not make the
cut. Who were they, and why did you
choose to leave them out, when compared to the voices of those you chose to
In “How to Spell the Rebel Yell,” you aim for an odd
connection: the sound of the famed yell itself to its (im)possible spelling—our
need to spell a sound in order to encapsulate and domesticate, and possess, and
digest it. And then you go further, trying
to connect the sound of the Rebel Yell to its own wonderful name—Rebel Yell—and
to its appearance in film and pop music, to its redefinition by David Bowie and
James Dean and Billy Idol and that “bottom shelf gutter bourbon.” You’ve said that, in writing, you sometimes
allow for the digressions the mind takes while writing—and I love those
moments!—but, in a piece like “How to Spell...” your focus is intense and
lapidary, and you never really stray from your source inspiration—the Yell
itself. Can you speak to both the
difficulties, and the exhilaration, of staying so singularly focused in this
essay, especially for someone who loves to honor the mind’s digressions?
In “Communication Breakdown,” you mention that the pitch of
Howard Dean’s infamous BYAH! (at
least the BY portion of it) is a flat
F in the 5th octave—the same note that Robert Plant hits at a very
specific point in the song ‘Communication Breakdown.’ The book is filled with odd, wonderful,
secret-seeming facts like this. How did
you uncover such facts? Did you trust
your ear? Did these require further
In a related question, in “JUDY! JUDY! JUDY!” you affect a
wonderfully precise voyeuristic tone. As
she takes the stage at Carnegie Hall, you mention that she’s “Tiny in flats,
despite five inches of coif...” With the
“five inches” you establish yourself as quite an authority. How do you choose when to affect precision
like this, and when to affect uncertainty (which you do throughout as
well). What’s the essential balance of
each in order to cater to your ideal audience—one who wants you to know this much, and to grapple this much?
A Least Flycatcher just flew under my feet and flapped its
wings and said che-bek, che-bek,
whit-whit-whit, che-bek, che-bek, whit-whit-whit. Is it okay that I’m a little scared?
Some of your endings reach for the profound (like “...Rebel
Yell”). Others reach for a quick,
precise humor (like “Communication Breakdown”).
During the writing process, do you often know where these pieces are
going? Or I should ask: at what point in
the writing process do you know where these pieces are going?
You often like to try on other folks’ clothes in your
work—inter-historically, sometimes even inter-specially [Passarello has an
essay, not included in this collection, in which she speaks in the voice of
Harriet, the third oldest tortoise who ever lived, and who did time with both
Charles Darwin and Steve Irwin]. Your
essays lend voices to Confederate soldiers, Whitman, Judy Garland, et. al. In doing this, is there a line you create
beforehand that you vow not to cross, or does that line arise during the
process of writing the essay? To
clarify: how much research is required in order to fortify your speculation
with enough “fact?”
What essential lessons did you learn in the world of theater
that have proven essential to your writing of this book?
In “Harpy,” you shirk the soapbox that often attends the
I-voice in nonfiction by, from the get-go, doing something very interesting:
you provide an incredibly—almost uncomfortably—intimate litany of your
physiological and anatomical attributes, yet you foster an odd distance in
talking writing about your body as an it,
as a separate thing from the I. (Yet at
the same time, you engage your own birth, for Pete’s sake! And pull it off!). Can you talk about your decision to do this,
how you view this choice in retrospect, why this intimate essay is placed where
it is within the context of the collection, and how you view the obligations of
the I-voice in the contemporary essay?
At various intervals, while reading the book, I kept
thinking about inheritance. In “Harpy,”
for instance, you discuss your mother’s loud voice, and how you “loved trying
to yell back at a matching volume.” You
discuss both your and her time in the theater.
And, of course, you open the book with a Montaigne quote. So: a
few sub-questions here:
what degree did you think of inheritance as an implicit theme when writing the
what degree do you think your fascination with the subject of the human voice
what degree is the voice and its abilities an inherited trait? (In a way, you
write of the rock ‘n’ roll scream, for instance, as something we’ve inherited
and interpreted as a mode of expression, a shorthand—a gauge of coolness,
release, exhilaration, sexual frustration...)
What was the nickname you gave to that really good
charcuterie plate at Reserve [a Grand Rapids, MI. restaurant] that included the
country ham for Georgia again?
Motherfucking Hambone, or something?
You have been vocal (he-he) on various online engines about
the nature of the essay—its parameters, freedoms, duties, etc. And, as I mentioned, you open with
Montaigne. To what degree do you see
yourself, in this book, conversing with such inherited tenets of the
essay—lyric or otherwise. And to what
degree do you see yourself breaking from these tenets?
You have this uncanny ability to empathize with your
subjects without forcing it, oftentimes without even inserting the I-voice—from
Howard Dean to the Confederate soldiers, to Enrico Caruso, to the character of
Stanley Kowalski. But you seem to
reserve a special place for Judy Garland.
(In “Judy! Judy! Judy!” you imagine, in italics, her thoughts; you
engage her voice as shaped by countless orgasms...). Is there any truth to
this, or is this only my sense? And, if
there is truth to this, well, then, why?
And if it’s only my sense, well, then why is that?
“Hey Big Spender” is so knowledgeable about music, notes,
voices, tones, the history of recording, and the history of recording the
voices of castrated Italian men, that it seems to assume a knowledge on the
part of the reader. This essay is rife
with jargon and in-jokes, yet, at the same time is able to seduce (like a
hissing C-note) the reader. In what ways
do you decide to trust that the reader will get it? How do you walk this line of spouting niche
knowledge and making such knowledge accessible to the reader without
sacrificing the obsessed, twitchy niche-ness of it all?
“Hey Big Spender.”
OK: Knocko the Monkey. You
imagine a swooning woman speaking of watching Caruso sing, spreading rumors
about how he pinched “a woman’s bottom at the Bronx Zoo monkey house.” I’m interested in your research process. How the hell did you find Knocko? Were you looking for him? Why were you looking for him? Or: what were you looking for when you
stumbled across him, and how did you choose to use him in this essay as part of
some imagined and frantic gossip?
Which brings me to this italicized gossip in “Hey Big
Spender.” Is this entirely made-up? Sourced?
A fusion of both? How did you go
about crafting these segments and why?
How would you respond to detractors who would like to tell us that these
sections aren’t “nonfiction?”
Another “Hey Big Spender” question (Can you tell that I
adored this essay?): The ending is
frankly, and disarmingly, gorgeous. How
did you uncover the seemingly private logistics regarding Caruso’s demise? His final “holler” in the bathtub? The fact that he lived on the 18th
floor? The fluid that leapt from
Caruso’s body that slapped “the doctor like a glove before a duel?”
One time, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, over (I think) neat
Knob Creeks, you and I cracked each other up making jokes about the town of
Pooler, Georgia. What would you say to
those who’d accuse us of being juvenile?
The book engages the voice as both ultra-permanent and
ultra-impermanent. We have “Johnny B.
Goode” etched onto a record and blown off into outer space as a communicative
engine, or zero-gravity posterity. We
have Howard Dean’s BYAH! immortalized
on YouTube, Stella! on celluloid, but
we also have Caruso spitting blood, and birdsong dying with the seasons. How do you see this relationship: are we
trying to shoehorn song—something inherently impermanent—into a context of
permanence as a culture, or is it exactly the opposite?
As Harper’s Magazine
recently pointed out, many of these essays walk the line between the individual
and the universal, attempting to connect the two, but these essays also seem to
walk another line: between ridicule and reverence, similarly trying to find an
overlap. I’m thinking not only of “Teach
Me Tonight,” which gently skewers Sinatra’s Tips on Popular Singing pamphlet,
but also of “Communication Breakdown” and Dean’s crazed BYAH! These essays seem to
begin with a gentle ridicule of their subjects, underlining their cultural
absurdity, but them seem to grow toward a reverence for said absurdity,
oftentimes revising “absurd” or re-casting the absurd as holy. Can you speak to this?
Was it really that inappropriate for me to wear that sweat
suit to the bar?
In “Please Hold” you engage the ways in which the telephone,
and other machinery, have altered the relationship between voice and body and
truth. In “Double Joy,” you engage the
ways in which region affects the voice and vocal preferences, quirks,
truths. Discuss how your opinion
evolved, as the book took shape, regarding the relationship between voice and
truth. Can “voice” be seen, in this
context, as an allegory for other expressive forms, like, say, the essay?
In “Playing Sick,” you write, “I often see punch lines as
music rather than language.” To what
other elements of expression would you apply this, and how so?
In “Playing Sick,” you write of your obsession with, as an
actor, saying the word Ew exactly
right in a production of An Empty Plate
in the Café du Grand Boeuf. To what
degree do you see fixation as part of your writing process?
In “Playing Sick,” you engage the visual signs we’ve come up
with to warn folks, non-verbally, that a substance may be poisonous—from the
skull-and-crossbones to Mr. Yuk. Since,
in your acknowledgements, you offer “vociferous thanks” to essayist John
D’Agata, I couldn’t help but think of a parallel here between Mr. Yuk, and that
section in D’Agata’s “About a Mountain” wherein this think-tank was put
together to create the perfect sign meant to warn future generations from
wandering too close to the (proposed) dumped nuclear waste at Yucca
Mountain. To what degree do you see
vocalization being turned into inadequate signage in our culture? What are the implications of this?
Did you know that the mall in Pooler is called The Shops at
Godly Station, and includes a Genealogy Boutique? I’ll bet you did.
Besides D’Agata, who are some other writers or non-writers
who have influenced your work?
You studied with both John D’Agata and Lee Gutkind—two
giants in the world of literary nonfiction with two very different ideas
regarding the genre’s parameters. Can
you discuss what you learned from each of these guys, and where along their
continuum you feel your ideas about the genre fit? How do the essays in Let Me Clear My Throat embody your proposed position on said
How did you react to Gutkind’s indictment of D’Agata in the
pages of Creative Nonfiction magazine?
A goofy question: you have such an affinity for Yiddish
words, and words bound to the Catskill Mountain vaudevillian era—schtupping and yutz, et. al. What are the
origins of such an affinity?
The final essay in the book, “A Monstrous Little Voice,” you
employ the form of a questionnaire given by an imagined company that deals in
lending “real” voices to a ventriloquist dummy.
Throughout, the “dummy answers the questions (which were really answered
by actual ventriloquist T. Foley, engaging the “personality” of her actual
dummy). First of all, that’s
awesome. Secondly, given its placement
in the book, while I laughed throughout, and, in spite of, or perhaps because
of, its formal ecstasy, I felt that this was perhaps the saddest essay of them
all. Why did you put this one last?
This is not a question, but a comment. But feel free to answer the comment. Based on the previous essays, when we get to
“A Monstrous Little Voice,” we are give permission it seems to remove ourselves
from our “revolting” selves, to examine ourselves as if we’re our own handlers. We can be the dummies, and we can answer the
questions in the questionnaire differently than Hector. Then, rereading the essay, we can answer them
differently again. This essay can be
read and reread in countless ways, like some crazy Choose Your Own Adventure
story. Um. There’s my comment.
Discuss the collaboration with Foley. Did this worry you? Were you hoping she’d answer the questions in
specific ways? Was this a sort of assignment
you imposed on yourself—Okay, if she
answers the questions this way, then I’ll write this kind of essay. If she answers the questions that way...well, then...?
In the Multiple Choice section of the questionnaire, you
of the following speeches most intrigues you?
Richard Milhaus Nixon’s “Checkers” address
Sally Field’s 1985 Oscar acceptance speech
The list of the possible side effects of Cialis
“Friends Romans, Countrymen”
* Vincent Price’s
rap at the end of “Thriller”
How much of this technique was a fun excuse for you to
wander through, via veiled litany, your own pop cultural obsessions that you
didn’t have the time or room to flesh-out as individual essays?
If not ice cream, then what am I screaming, you screaming,
we all screaming for?
Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of the nonfiction books, Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and the Man Who First Photographed It (forthcoming 2014 from W.W. Norton: Liveright), Pot Farm, and Barolo, the poetry books, The Morrow Plots, Warranty in Zulu, and Sagittarius Agitprop, and the chapbooks, Four Hours to Mpumalanga and Aardvark. He teaches creative writing in the MFA Program at Northern Michigan University, where he is the Nonfiction Editor of Passages North. This winter, he prepared his first batch of whitefish liver ice cream. It paired well with onion bagels.