Although she probably hates hearing it, and would probably disagree anyway, we can’t help but think of Sarah Vowell, pictured, as the straight, female version of David Sedaris. Both are essayist who gained fame on NPR’s This American Life and are as recognized for their distinctive voices as for their prose style. But while Sedaris a an out-and-out humorist, drawing from his own life, Vowell has an historian’s curiosity, turning out non-fiction stories tied to themes that strike her fancy. And while she often finds humor, the subject matter often isn’t.
“I just write about what I’m interested in and that story dictates the tone,” she says over the phone in that nasal rasp that’s so endearing. “My book about the Massachusetts Bay Colony is probably one of your breezier books about Puritans. The assassination book was pretty jovial — not because murder is funny, but because it was about the historic sites [of these assassinations]. You can’t be too dignified when you are talking about tourism. But even Take the Cannoli had an 8000-word essay on the Cherokee removal and genocide. I never shy away from information.”
She’s packed a lot of information into her latest, Unfamiliar Fishes, where she delves into the strangely foreign culture of our most remote state.
“Hawaii really had a lot to offer as a story,” Vowell explains. “It was such an appealing look at cause and effect — how this small boatload of New England missionaries arrive in 1820 and overthrow monarchy” 80 years later. Indeed, the point during the Spanish-American War where Hawaii becomes officially a U.S. territory “was the moment we became a world power, an empire.” She’ll talk about the book Monday at the First Presbyterian Church, as part of Dallas Museum of Art/KERA speakers series.
Still, when she meets peoples with great connections to the past, Vowell has a real awakening about her interests. “Someone once asked me, ‘Why are you so obsessed with American history? It has only lasted 400 years,’” she says.
Sarah Vowell in Conversation with Krys Boyd, First Presbyterian Church or Dallas, 408 Park Ave. March 20 at 7:30 p.m. $15–$37. 214-922-1818. DallasMuseumofArt.org.