Passages North interviews Elena Passarello
Associate Nonfiction Editor Chanomi Maxwell-Parish chats up Elena Passarello, author of Let Me Clear My Throat (Sarabande), a collection of essays on unforgettable moments in the history of the human voice, and judge of our 2013 Thomas J. Hrushka Memorial Nonfiction Prize. Passarello, who has worked as an actor and a voice-over artist, is currently a creative writing professor at Oregon State University.
Chanomi: In a few reviews I read, your writing was described as energetic. You refer a few times in the book to the energy of performance. How has performance informed your writing?
Elena: I feel that energy is all you have in performance. When I worked full time as an actor, I always saw it as this wonderful opportunity to explore caged energy. Think about all the “controls” present in a traditional piece of theatre--by show time, the actor is told what to say, where to stand, how to move so that the lights hit her, and what to wear. This is not to say that there is no agency involved in scripted performance; only that, amidst such a tight bunch of controls, the only variable an actor has at her disposal is her energy, her spirit, the amount of live presence and fervor she can pour into that Apollonian cage. It is so fun to find moments of surprise while still working from within the iron bars of theatre’s parameters.
Writing is the opposite for me. There are no real controls, nobody telling you how to dress or what to say. The expression is nothing but variables, put up against the constant reality of the page. I think the essays I wrote for this voice book create controls for themselves, either with form or with the task of each essay. I try to tell the story of ventriloquism from within the formal constraints of a personality quiz, for example, or I tell the story of the rise of punk through the much smaller narrative of the way crows infiltrate my backyard every winter. In building these tighter worlds from which I am expected to “perform” as a writer, I then try to find opportunities to surprise.
Chanomi: You spent a decade where you worked primarily as a performer. How long had the ideas from the book been kicking around in your head before you decided to put them into writing? How did the transition from performance to writing take place?
Elena: I wrote the first essay that appears in the book (“The Wilhelm Scream”) in 2006. Around that time, I realized that a fair percentage of the essays I’d been writing used the voice as some kind of entry point. In a profile, I’d lead in with a deep analysis of a character’s voice. I’d write a CD review that linked the musician’s voice to a centuries-old singing style, or I’d incorporate the facts of laryngeal sound into a research essay on a political speech. I realized, about the time of the first “Wilhelm” drafts, that voice was a filter through which I could see many things.
I think this obviously comes from nearly a decade of working theater and voice-over jobs, both of which required a lot of scrutinizing not just my own voice, but the voices of my fellow actors and of “regular folks.” But you know what? I could probably take it back even further. I’ve always been interested in the ways a person’s sound connected to her sense of self. I think this is because my voice is my most distinguishing corporeal trait. I am of average height, weight, and even brassiere size for an American woman. I have brown hair and brown eyes. But I do have a pretty loud, and very deep, voice. People have offered both positive and negative comments about it for over twenty years. And it might be that the attention it has received stoked my fascination with voices in general.
Chanomi: Natalie Goldberg talks about writing things out longhand, because she feels that the pen is extending out from her body and from her heart, that writing becomes a more physical act than it does with typing. In a couple of your essays, you discuss the body taking over during a performance. Do you find that happens when you’re writing, as well? You’ve studied and studied a subject, maybe similarly to how you’ve memorized your lines, and then the time comes to put it out into the world – is there any sort of disconnect/leaving your body type of feeling as you write? In the way that each performance has a different result, are you surprised by what you write down? And where do you feel your writing is coming from on a physical level (head, heart, hand, etc.)? (As I was writing this question, this Zach Galifianakis bit popped into my head.)
Elena: Galifianakis is right—all of my writing comes from my nose. I shove pencils up into my nostrils and wait for the kiss of the muse, and then I use my nose to scribble the words. Kidding. I really can’t say that anything takes over when I write. I just sit and think and try. It has never been a transformative act for me, only a difficult one. I just put my nose (!) down to the ground and sniff around for answers. It’s nerve-wracking and high-stakes, but only to me. It’s really very quiet. Yet another thing that separates my writing self from my performative self.
Chanomi: It is clear in these essays that these are topics you’ve thought a lot about, that you’re passionate about the subject of voice. Do you have favorite topics to read about (where the writing can be boring and you don’t care), or does the author’s passion for the subject determine whether or not you’re interested? What is the most surprising thing you’ve ever found yourself reading?
Elena: I love reading essays on contemporary and popular culture that, instead of taking a magazine bent, skew closer to the literary. There’s something about reading the buzzwords of our epoch— heavy metal lyrics, advertising slogans, film references—wrapped in the prose style and tone of a lyric essay or a Montaignean treatise, or whatever. Maggie Nelson does this in Bluets. John Sullivan’s best essays do it. So do the best installments of the 33 1/3 series. Geoff Dyer’s Zona is a how-to of doing it. I could go on: Claudia Rankine, Margo Jefferson, Ander Monson, and, of course, David Foster Wallace.
As for surprises, I have this weird friend who often mails me books as jokes. Once he mockingly sent me Rick Springfield’s autobiography, which I began skimming so I could text him a crap line or two, AND I ENDED UP READING THE WHOLE THING. And I am not crazy for autobiography. Springfield has a really lovely relationship with his dog in the middle of the book. And another time, after I was lamenting all the “baking pies with Grandma” narratives that my Freshman Comp students were writing, the same friend sent me Mildred Armstrong Kalish’s Little Heathens, which is essentially baking with Grandma on overdrive (with special stops to discuss things like gardening and child-rearing, neither of which I give a fig about). It was the best book I read that year, and I think about her pert, no-nonsense sentences all the time when I’m trying to rein in my own runaway stagecoach sentences. I really should my buddy a thank-you note for sending me those books, because I love nothing more when a writer or a story forces me to enjoy myself outside the boundaries of my own stupid prejudices.
Chanomi: I found your writing to be dense with information, but presented in a fun way, with suspense, a narrative arc (I’m thinking of “Harpy” and “Communication Breakdown” in particular). Do your own tastes tend more toward information-dense writing or more toward story-based writing? (I’m all about story, personally, and you successfully tricked me into learning.)
Elena: Well, the best writing does both. Kinda copout answer, I know, but it’s true. And not just in the case of an essay. I loved Benioff’s City of Thieves because it pumped thousands of incredible details surrounding the Siege of Leningrad into a movie-good narrative: an unlikely pair on a cross-country adventure to find eggs for a wedding cake. The same lovely marriage of research and narrative hook comes in Hillary Mantel’s Cromwell novels, or in plays like Gross Indecencies: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and Frost/Nixon. The same might even be said in a page-turner like this year’s Gone Girl, because I can’t imagine Gillian Flynn creating a character like the novel’s lead without extensive psychological research into the unique components of psychopathy. This novel about a “textbook case” must have involved a few textbooks.
Without the attention to information, stories do tend to sink a bit for me. I might inhale a great narrative novel or memoir, but without the reaching out into the factual world (and I must stress that this can happen in myriad capacities), I end up not being able to tell you much about what I’ve read when I’ve finished it.
Chanomi: Can you tell us about some of your absolute favorite pieces you’ve read (professional, student, or otherwise), and what it was about them that grabbed you? What sort of techniques did they use and why did they work?
Elena: I love writers who are not afraid to traffic in humor. A professor once told me that it is difficult to spend too much time unpacking a humorous writer’s craft because the immediate returns of the “jokes” counter the deeper scrutiny that we associate with the literary. Bullshit. There are thousands of different ways in which a literary writer can be funny, can find the surprise music of humor in the components of his prose. I love the way Auden uses cranky puns and made-up words in his verse. I love the tricky, very feminine wryness of Sondheim’s lyrics to “Send in the Clowns.” John J. Sullivan’s gallows humor in his essay about his brother’s brain injuries is crazy weird and good. Sei Shonagon is hilarious. And Woody Allen is never better than when he smooshes nine different modes of humor—vaudeville, literary references, self-mocking, and clowning--into one scripted scene. This is one thing that a decade of rehearsing stage comedies will teach you: comedy is a delicious, difficult, and, when done artfully, a very telling equation. It is my favorite kind of math.
One of the most well-written books that I read this year (I finished it and immediately flipped back to page 1 and began again) is T. Fleischmann’s Syzygy: Beauty. The book is a prismatic essay on art and love and pain and identity, and it was not written to win the Twain prize or anything. But Fleischmann has a killer ear, and that results in some amazing comic rhythms and even one-liners. Fleischmann is not afraid to shape the prose so that it yields these jarring moments of levity as we slough through some pretty heavy shit. It would be so much easier, tonally, to throw these moments out, but that’s not the way a human brain works. What a gift to read essays that try to score the weird jokes into their accounts of human life, because that’s the way that life is.
Chanomi: I read an interview with you in the Sarabande Books newsletter where you talked about the difficulty of writing about your favorite voices, because you found yourself trying to think of new ways to say “didn’t they sound awesome?” That reminded me of the rule about the necessity of conflict in a story to keep it moving – there’s a lot of conflict in these pieces – screams, failed political campaigns, the homogenization of Pittsburgh and the world. Can you tell us about some of your favorite voices and topics that didn’t make it into the book because there wasn’t enough conflict? What are some of your favorite tension-free stories?
Elena: A partial list of voices that I loved too personally, too unconditionally, or perhaps too “without tension” to include in the book: Jeff Buckley. Roberta Flack. Judy Dench. Billy Graham. Sam Cooke. Serge Gainsbourg. Paul Winchell. The Louvin Brothers. Little Jimmy Scott. My grandfather. Annie Ross. Mel Blanc. Jimmy Carter. Fred Rogers. Elvis Costello. Vic Chesnutt. Vic Chesnutt. Vic Chesnutt.
I’ve been wracking my brain to think of any story that is “tension-free,” and I can’t. Even Seinfeld and My Dinner with Andre, which are purportedly about nothing, hold tension and conflict. All storytelling has to, in some way, involve some kind of force pushing against another, even if it’s the tension between form and language, or something self-referential. The two things I can think of are both from pop music:
- SisQo’s 1999 lyrics to “The Thong Song.” Not the video, which is all about the tension between ladies’ butts and SisQo’s love of doing one-handed cartwheels on the beach. But the lyrics? No tension, no conflict. He’s just “lettin’ all the ladies know” his passion for the thong!
- The 1979 video of “My Sharona” by the Knack. Not the song, mind you; that’s high tension (to the point where it’s “running down the length of [his] thigh, Sharona”). But the video itself is just white light, amps, and skinny ties facing forward.
More about Elena Passarello and Let Me Clear My Throat here.