Elena Passarello is this year’s nonfiction author for the In Print Festival of First Books, which will be held on March 19 and 20 this year. Her debut collection of personal essays, Let Me Clear My Throat, was published last year by Sarabande Books. Below, Passarello discusses her book, inspirations, and writing experiences among other topics in an interview conducted by Veronica Sipe. Also, be sure to check out an interview with In Print Festival’s fiction author Eugene Cross, and don’t forget to join us on March 19 and 20 at 7:30 PM in the Student Center Ballroom for the 8th annual In Print Festival of First Books!
Elena Passarello is the author of Let Me Clear My Throat (Sarabande 2012). Her writing on music, performance, pop culture, and the natural world has appeared in Slate, Creative Nonfiction, the Normal School, Ninth Letter, the Iowa Review, and the 2012 music writing anthology Pop When the World Falls Apart. For a decade, Elena worked as an actor and voice-over performer throughout the East Coast and in the Midwest. She is an Assistant Professor at Oregon State University.
The following interview was conducted by Broken Plate 2013 student faculty member Veronica Sipe.
Why do you write? Who do you write for?
For myself, mostly. If I find I’m fascinated for an extended period with a person, an animal, a fact about my own history, or a moment of popular culture, I usually start scribbling in order to figure out why. Or if not to figure it out, then to unpack my fascination—associations and all—in a style and format fit for public consumption. I like the challenge of trying to articulate the specific paths my brain takes when it encounters an experience. Sure, my essays are all attempts to present those paths to all the living things that live outside my brain, but the pleasure (and the challenge) is entirely self-serving.
How did you start writing?
I started a diary when I had, like, a 200-word vocabulary. In it, I just drew pictures for the words I hadn’t learned yet. So it has entries such as “today Mom and I went to the store to buy a [doodle of a veil for “wedding”] [doodle of a box with a bow on it for “present”]. Then, in third grade, I made a class newspaper and handed it out to the other kids at my lunch table (nobody cared). In middle school, I would write pretend Sassy magazine articles and keep them in my bedside table drawer. I wrote reviews for every last one of the seven CD’s in my 8th grade collection. I wrote an advice column in which I both asked and answered the questions. I grew up an only child, so, early on, writing was a fun way to keep myself company.
What writers, screenwriters or playwrights have had the greatest influence on you? What are you reading now?
I suppose I have to say Sassy magazine is an influence after that last question. Maybe Sassy and Lester Bangs and Wayne Kostenbaum. And I’ve always loved sharp magazine writing, like Jane Kramer and Susan Orlean and, of course, Didion and Wolfe and the old guard. I’m glad you mention playwrights in your question, too, because when I was a working actor I spent a significant amount of time helping develop new plays. So, through per
forming in their drafts, I got a front-row seat to watching great contemporary writers like Michelle Lowe, Christopher Durang, Steven Dietz, and Adam Rapp hone dialogue over the course of a workshop rehearsal process. That was key for me, I think, especially for the way my sense of rhythm and comedy developed in my own writing.
And right now, I’m reading Hillary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy. I’m on a big contemporary fiction kick: Jess Walter, Keith Scribner, Al Heathcock, Eugene Cross, Michael Jeffrey Lee, Amelia Gray. I can’t wait to have time to read George Saunders’ new book.
The essays in Let Me Clear My Throat are all about voices, sounds, and performances. What draws you to this subject?
For about a decade, I worked as an actor and voiceover goon in several theaters and studios around the East Coast, so I know more than a little about that world—its jargon and its anxieties and its secrets. I like performers and being around them; they’re always enticing characters to consider. I also like writing about performances because that kind of “live art” cannot be contained or truly documented in the way that a literary expression can. That impasse of writing static prose about a live art form is very energizing to me.
In the snapshots between essays in Let Me Clear My Throat, there are qualities of fiction present. Why do you write nonfiction instead of, say, fiction or poetry?
I’m not sure what you mean by “qualities of fiction”; those are monologues that I formatted out of the word-for-word transcripts of either interviews I conducted or videos I watched. Every word comes from the mouth of the respective subject. In some respects, they are the purest “nonfiction” in the book, as there is no subjective narrative filtering them!
But I write essays because they are alive to me. I like the way they move and change and require a unique inquiry, format, and style each time. I love both the hard facts and the more malleable properties at play in our “real” world. Essays are the way that my brain prefers to participate in that world.
How do you write? How often, where, with what materials, what time of day, etc.?
I write s-l-o-w-l-y. Part of this comes from the fact that I have an extensive research period before I begin mapping out an essay in earnest. I’ll just fall down an internet or library wormhole, sometimes for weeks, until I have a clear picture of why a certain subject is interesting to me. Often, two very different “tracks” of my research will connect somehow, and then I’ll know it’s time to begin drafting. An example of this is the day that, in the middle of researching Howard Dean’s 2004 Iowa caucus scream, I learned that he was the same age as four very famous rock-and-roll screamers (Steven Tyler, Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, and Robert Plant), and that Dean’s scream hits the same high note as Plant’s last wails in the Led Zeppelin song “Communication Breakdown.” Something about that connection between the politician and the rockers clicked for me, and I knew I was ready to begin. Of course, there were pages and pages of research that I never used once I found this little connection, but them’s the breaks of my self-inflicted writing process.
Throughout Let Me Clear My Throat there are beautiful, evocative descriptions of certain sounds, such as the high C and the Wilhelm Scream. This is obviously something you excel at. How do you construct these descriptions?
It’s a doomed enterprise, really, describing sounds in print. You’re always working against that gap between what can be printed and what can be audible. But I wonder if all writers pick some specific doom to prod at over the course of their major writing projects. They build into the experience some obstacle of the form that they must try to overcome. For me, the attempt at doing so—at making a loud book—really energized the process.
It’s obviously hard for a book to be noisy (unless you throw it at a piano or something). But I liked the challenge of finding words to describe unusual and engaging sounds to the best of said words’ abilities. Whether it works or not, it still adds to the conversation between writer and reader. It is exciting to think that a reader might encounter a phrase describing a unique sound and then either A) put the book down and search for a clip of the sound, in order to confirm that description OR B) get a satisfying enough idea of the sound in her head and just keep reading. Both are thrilling prospects to me as a writer.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Oh wow. I suppose I can only say that if I can keep at this, they can. I mean geez; look at me: I’m a spazzy theatre geek who normally can’t sit still in a chair long enough to send an email, let alone write an essay…OR A WHOLE BOOK, but I found a way to make writing and revising prose a personal necessity. So squelch that voice telling you that committing to an extensive project cannot be done.
For this book, what kept me in the chair (and in the library, and in my notebooks) was my pure fascination with the things I’d chosen to write about. While I always struggle with confidence issues as a writer, I remain confident in the awesomeness of my subjects. When I doubted myself as a novice essayist or whatever, I ignored those doubts and focused on how cool, how worthy Marlon Brando was, or Enrico Caruso was, or the sonic architecture of Carnegie Hall was. That kept me at it more than anything.
Oh, and one more piece of advice: read books. Read books all the time. Read both old books and new books. Take notes in the margins. Stop reading this interview and go read a ding dang book.
– Interview conducted by Veronica Sipe