Next Thursday at the Fort Lewis Community Concert Hall, New York Times bestselling author, “This American Life” editor and commentator and frequent “Daily Show” guest Sarah Vowell will be making her Durango debut. She has written essays, columns and six nonfiction books about American history and culture, providing personal and amusing details about everything from U.S. presidents to the Puritans, Native Americans and Tom Cruise. Her most recent book is titled “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.” We spoke with Vowell about her cranky Republican readers, how voting has changed in our country and how (comparatively) good we Americans have it.
Q: What will you be doing in Durango?
A: I read and chit-chat. I’ll probably be reading something from my latest book about Lafayette. And then I take questions for quite a long time. It doesn’t sound exciting. [Laughs] That’s kind of my favorite part, talking with the audience; I can interact with locals and think on my feet and improvise. It’s also informative for me, because based on what questions people ask, I find out more about where I am. In some places, like New Orleans, they just want to talk about New Orleans. They don’t care who you are or where you’re from. They want to talk about how much they love their town.
Q: Do you research a city beforehand and try to cater to what they might be interested in?
A: A little bit. I never decide what I’m going to read until the day of. Sometimes something happens in the news and I feel like something I’ve written pertains to that. Sometimes the local context. I’ve been to Durango, but gosh, I was a little kid. My family went to Mesa Verde. I don’t have a ton to say about it, other than it’s just one of those memorable places that probably helped make me interested in history and architecture.
Q: You did an interview on Conan where you said you “write about stuff that Republican dads are interested in, in a way that their lesbian daughters might be interested in reading.” What did you mean by that?
A: I write history books, but I don’t write the kind of history books that Republican dads get for Christmas. Those are about one subject, they’re four inches tall, they stay on topic, very serious. Not that my books aren’t serious; they’re very serious, except when they’re not. My books kind of swerve back and forth between comedy and tragedy. They are informal, personal at times. My last book was on Lafayette, the teenage French aristocrat who volunteered in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. The one before that was about New England missionaries in the Hawaiian Islands, and how their descendants took over those islands and handed them over to the United States. The one before that was about the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Generally speaking, people who are already interested in my subjects are cranky old guys.
I’m very interested in my subject matter, but I don’t like how segregated the population is in terms of political affiliation or race or gender. So I like bringing people together; my favorite thing when I’m signing books is it’s usually some old guy in a Feed Store cap next to his kid wearing a “Keep Austin Weird” T-shirt, and they come together. Usually the old crank says, ‘I like your books but I hate everything you stand for.’ This is, to me, the greatest compliment that can be given to an author in this Republic. I have an old Republican crank for a dad, and grew up in a family where things were fairly divided. My mom talks about one time when there was a knock on the door and this woman said, ‘I just hurt my foot because I tripped walking by your house.’ There was my father’s Ronald Reagan poster in the downstairs window – it was an election year – and then there was the Mondale poster in the upstairs window that my sister and I had put there. She said, ‘I just want to know what’s going on in here.’ And my mom said, ‘Well, my daughters have differing opinions than their father, and it’s America, and that’s OK.’ So I feel like I grew up in a family with disagreements, but we all lived together and could go out for tacos ... even though the discord in this country, especially in this election, has gotten ugly and dispiriting and soul-crushing, in general I think that’s the beauty of this country, the fact that it’s basically our right to get on each other’s nerves.
Q: You’ve stated your mantra as “It could be worse.” Are general conditions much better now than in previous points of American history?
A: The Civil War is kind of the nadir. That’s when we were actually shooting at one another. So things are better than that. But I was just talking about this with my mom this morning; I’m 46 years old, and when I was a little kid, except for a few weirdos, most people didn’t even discuss who they voted for. That was considered private. There was something sacrosanct about the anonymity of the voting booth. People weren’t as open about it, and in some ways that was good. I miss that, in a way.
I’ve traveled to a lot of other countries, I think more than 40, and in some of them, things are pretty grim, especially for women. I’ve been to places where you have to speak quietly in front of some sort of military guard so you don’t get your tour guide thrown in prison. Or places where me being a woman traveling alone is looked upon as this freak-of-nature, aberration, because things are so traditional for the women. I love Thailand, but you can’t say anything about the king ... people get thrown in jail there for making disparaging remarks about the king on Facebook. So, it could definitely be worse. There are places all over this globe of ours where things are way worse.
Q: That’s a nice positive note to end on.
A: My motto is, while I reserve the right to be a drag, I like to think I’m not a total drag.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold is a staff writer at DGO Magazine.