Sarah Vowell on Kansas state history, election-year politics and her latest, Unfamiliar Fishes; reading Wednesday in Lawrence



A hero to literature-history-public-radio nerds, Sarah Vowell is the author of six New York Times best-selling books about American history and culture; a contributor to This American Life, the New York Times, and Salon; a McSweeney’s editor; Pixar voice actor (Violet in The Incredibles); and a really freaking funny person. Her most recent work, Unfamiliar Fishes, follows the bawdy sailors and missionaries-made-sugar-barons whose influence led Hawaii to become the 50th U.S. state.

Vowell will be at the Kansas Union in Woodruff Auditorium (1301 Jayhawk Blvd, Lawrence) this Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. to discuss her new book. The Pitch recently caught up with Vowell by phone ahead of her visit to talk election-year politics and Kansas and Missouri history.

The Pitch: I was wondering if through the research you’ve done for your books if you might be able to provide some historical perspective on this election. Do you think that this is a particularly nasty election cycle or does it just feel that way right now?

Sarah Vowell: Is this one nasty?

I guess it just seems that way to me because there is a group of people that seems not to care whether something is true or not.

Oh, you mean about one of the campaigns not being bogged down by fact-checkers? That seems a little loony to me, but I don’t know if it’s a particularly nasty one. Maybe it’s just me and being in New York City, it’s a bit of a dream world. But we have two fairly, what’s the word I want to use to lump them in... it doesn’t seem like these are two of the most excitable people who have run for office, does it? It doesn’t strike me as particularly nasty. Remember when the last guy who was President and the guy before him, people had such virulent opinions about them. I mean, I know there are people who don’t like this President and that’s certainly their right, but it seems like the two previous Presidents were much more loathed, in my opinion. People who hated Bill Clinton hated Bill Clinton, and people who George Bush hated him. I know there are people who really, really, really want the current President not to be President, but ... like I said, I do live in New York City. I think I know a Republican. I haven’t seen him in a while. He was fun at parties particularly during the previous administration, because he was the only Republican that anyone knew. It was fun to talk to him because you could have some of those conversations like you imagine people have in other parts of the country where people are not all alike.

I have an Obama sticker on my car, and last week when I was driving to work someone pulled up next to me on the highway and gave me a big 'Two thumbs down' from the other car, and I couldn’t figure out what that was about until I got to work. It had to be the sticker.

That, still, in terms of geopolitics, is pretty mild [laughs]. Two thumbs down! You’re in Kansas, right? There have been times in your state’s history where things have been much more contentious.

Yeah, a bit bloodier, especially in Lawrence. I remember reading in Assassination Vacation you saying something to the effect that President Garfield was elected because of all of the candidates, he was sort of the nice one.

He was the most calm, down-the-middle guy who was nominated. [The Republican convention] was a big tussle, and he spoke and he was just so calming. Everyone said, 'Okay, we can go with him.’ Which I guess if you’re writing about someone, that’s kind of a red flag... in terms of someone you need to spend two or three years with, the guy everyone could agree on because he was the calmest. There was some difficulty for me in latching on to him as a character.

One thing that I enjoy about your work is that beyond doing the research, you travel to experience the places that you are interested in, and that travel experience often makes it into your writing. For example, back to Assassination Vacation, you went to [Lincoln assassination co-conspirator] Dr. Mudd’s house in Maryland and it was so hard for you and your friend to find it with a car and a map that it became clearer to you that [John Wilkes] Booth must have known where he was going.

That was sort of in the early days of MapQuest, so things may have changed a bit since then. There are just things about a story that um, I don’t know if they became more clear... but that one did. That place was very hard to find and that was a sort of clue. I didn’t think [Mudd and John Wilkes Booth] really were in cahoots, and that place was just so out of the way that he had to know where he was going.

In all of my stories, place is important. In my most recent book about Hawaii, all the more so, because the Hawaiians are just so obsessed with the land and their relationship to it. They had such a profound relationship to the land, moreso than anyone I’d ever written about, and the fact that they lose control of their own land... the more I learned, the more heartbreaking that story became just because of the way that place has changed and not always for the better. To me, moving around different places, like being in Honolulu for so long, just to look up at the mountains ... There were all of these civil wars in Hawaii before the white people showed up, and after. There are mountains off in the distance looming over Honolulu that are so beautiful, and they are usually shrouded in mist, and they look so exotic and volcanic. But to know the story of this battle that took place there — some of the local soldiers got shoved up into these mountains and literally fell to their deaths, hundreds of them. It just makes looking up at the mountains out of a car window for a second so much more interesting.

You were talking about that Assassination book — I live around the corner from where Garfield’s assassin would hang out, where the Republican party headquarters used to be. He would just kind of hang out there every day. In that park there’s a statue of Chester Arthur, who replaced Garfield because he was the Vice President. There’s another statue in that park of this guy who was Chester Arthur’s best friend, and he was sort of the boss of New York. He was the most powerful man in the state of New York. His name was Roscoe Conkling, and he was so powerful, when they put up that statue they just put his name on it. On Chester Arthur’s statue it actually says that he was President, but this other guy, Conkling, he was so powerful that they don’t even say anything about him, just his name, because of course he’s the most famous person for miles around. Now no one remembers him at all. I’ve seen dogs pee on his statue. Sometimes I have to cut through that park just as a shortcut, and the whole thing just comes alive for me with all of these people, and stories. It just makes every — the more you know about a place, it makes the place that much more alive. There’s what you can see, and then there’s what you can’t see.

I think I mention in one of the books that there’s this plaque on the side of a building to mark the place where Peter Stuyvesant’s pear tree used to be. Peter Stuyvesant was the governor of New Netherlands, and I guess he planted this pear tree that was a famous tree for 200 years. I guess sometime around the Civil War there was a carriage accident that knocked it down, but this tree was such a big deal tree, that they put a plaque where the tree used to be. It just makes turning that corner — 'Oh, Peter Stuyvesant’s pear tree. People used to just love that pear tree’ — it just makes walking around town running errands so much more dramatic.

I grew up in Oklahoma and Montana, and there’s history in those places, but it’s frequently fairly grim. Or just going to Lawrence - that’s a pretty historic place. I guess the only thing I know about it is about pro-slavery guerrillas from Missouri coming to town and burning it down trying to kill every man because Lawrence was sort of the capital of abolitionism west of the Mississippi. That’s the only thing I know about that town. I assume more has happened there if they are asking me to come there to speak.

There’s a big university, but still, Quantrill’s raid is probably the biggest thing that’s ever happened there.

I have a great-something, a great-great grandfather who was one of Quantrill’s guys as a teenager. My great-great grandfather was a really bad guy. I think that’s where he got his start as a bad guy, as a teenager riding along with Quantrill’s guys, and then he went on to Texas. We don’t know tons about him because he abandoned my great grandfather. My great grandfather was a shepherd because he was like, 7, and he had to make a living, and his father had abandoned him. It was during the range wars, and some cowboys came and killed his sheep and were deciding whether or not to kill him. They asked him his name, and he said his name was Vowell, and they recognized the name as my great-great grandfather’s who had ridden with Quantrill. I guess he was known as some sort of big, bad dude. They didn’t kill him and they said 'Just um, mention that if your daddy ever shows up, that we let you live.’ I guess he was some sort of feared individual.

All that Kansas and Missouri stuff in the 1850s is so interesting to me, John Brown, sort of the pre Civil War. It’s just way more brutal, grubby, and local, and personal, you know?

A lot of those resentments are still alive, somehow, even though they’re so old. A lot of it plays out in kind of silly stuff like sports rivalries.

Oh, really?

You don’t have to scratch too far under the silliness of that to have great grandparents who were involved in that stuff. The Jayhawkers weren’t clean, either.

Oh yeah. It’s funny — I think I alluded to that when you asked about whether things were really ugly right now. Having so much historical context, it makes me downplay not just electoral politics of today, it makes me downplay more or less all problems. Compare any normal day-to-day problem of your average, upper middle-class American, and all of the problems just seem so piddly by comparison. I think having all of these really gory, brutal massacres and wars in the back of my mind makes me think that now things are relatively more civilized.

That said, I do find, like all grown-ups, that the partisanship has gotten pretty childish. I realize more and more that maybe I owe Bob Dole an apology. I was a pretty lefty kid and I just grew up thinking he was just kind of, well, I don’t know the devil, but definitely a bad guy. Now I realize he was just this outstanding legislator who could cross the aisle and get stuff done, and he could be friends with Democrats, and he could make deals with President Clinton. He could suck it up. I realize now that things are so debased and partisan and people from different parties aren’t allowed to talk with each other unless they’re screaming. Those old stalwarts like Bob Dole, I just didn’t know how low things could sink.

With our current governor, it does make someone from Kansas miss Bob Dole.

I bet. My father is a Republican, and I grew up in a house full of weaponry and rode in the family car plastered with NRA stickers. My parents never forced anything on my sister and me. We were just kind of allowed to think whatever we wanted. We were still a family that more or less got along. You could walk by my house during the Reagan era, and if it was election time my dad would have a Reagan poster in the downstairs window, and my sister and I would have a Dukakis poster in the upstairs window. I guess you would think 'Oh, something’s going on in their house,’ because it was obvious that the ground floor was Republican and the second floor was Democrat, but we thought that was kind of funny. Still, my father calls me on election day and says, 'Did you cancel out my vote?’ and I say yes every single time. I guess it’s not ideal, but it’s a workable system.

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