Tonight I barreled through a sudden downpour to Town Hall in Seattle. It's only a few blocks from my apartment, but I was dripping wet when I got there. Layers of water droplets stuck to my glasses leaving me with the vision of a myopic bat. I went in, picked up my package at the will call window, wandered down to the bathroom to find some paper towels for a my glasses, my face and my hair.
Once I my head was downgraded from "creating its own precipitation" to "thoroughly moist" I took a look at my package. In the middle of the book was my ticket for the evening. And the book itself? Sarah Vowell's newest sarcastic tale of lesser known history, "The Wordy Shipmates."
You may know from Sarah Vowell from work on NPR's This American Life. She reads her wonderful essays with that trademark voice that has the gravel on someone who has been around the world, and the tone of a 12 year old girl. Or you may know here from her books, like The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Assassination Vacation, or Take the Cannoli (my review is here). Or you may know her from appearances on the Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O'Brian, or the The Daly Show with Jon Stewart. Or you may know here from her role at Violet in The Incredibles.
If you don't know her work, it's worth checking out.
She took the stage dressed in a black top and olive cargo pants (very Seattle appropriate) and got right down to business. The pages of the book reflected off her glasses, blocking her eyes. She looked up from time to time to add context to what she was reading (since we hadn't read the earlier passages) or to provide additional historical content. Then she took questions.
Town Hall set up microphones for people to ask questions. Surprisingly very few people got up to stand in line. I expected dozens of people to crowd the aisles, waiting for their chance to talk to the fascinating Ms. Vowell. But they didn't . There were hundred of people in Town Hall, but just two or three got up. I guess Seattle produces extraordinarily shy crowds.
The first question concerned how the Cherokee owned slaves. Sarah's expression seemed to scream, "Are you kidding me?" and she joked about the tone that set for the questions. As she began speaking, her answer started as a ramble, but gradually coalesced into a discussion about the humanity of the Cherokee, and Sarah made some fascinating points.
That was the pattern her answers took that evening. It was interesting to see that process, where she starts out speaking in a first draft, gradually revises and refines it over the next few moments, and ends up with the finished product.
Some might suggest an author should already be prepared for all the different questions they are likely to get, however, I don't think that's possible. The variety of things people asked Sarah about included slavery, the Forest Service, National Parks, historical markers, historical holidays, the sex habits of the Puritans, FDR's fireside chats (and the nature of fear), and more. Sarah spoke intelligently on all these questions.
But at no point were there long lines to ask questions. I don't think there were ever more than two people on deck. When it looked pretty clear, I stepped up to the mike.
I asked about her writing process. Specifically, I was curious how she balances her different roles as a historian, humorist, journalist, etc, and whether those roles come into conflict while she's working on here material.
Sarah said she doesn't think about those roles. She just thinks of herself as a writer. The content determines the tone of her writing. Sarah said she "tries to be clear, but not generic."
Now, I don't know if she's used that phrase before, or if it came to her while she was speaking. So it's entirely possible Sarah would cringe to see that phrase quoted here and in this post title. Or maybe she wouldn't.
Regardless, that's the writing tip I took out of this event. Strive to always be clear, and never be generic.
After questions, Sarah stayed behind to sign books. Again I was surprised by how few people lined up for her autograph. Given the hundreds of people who bought their ticket to see her, or who bought Sarah's new book to get the free ticket, I expected a lot more of them to stick around for an autograph.
The line moved quickly, and Sarah spoke with each fan. She was friendly and professional. While she signed my copy, we chatted briefly about the deer problem in Helena.
So now I'm at home, dried off, and looking back on the evening. I've got a new book, learned something about writing, and got to meet someone whose work I appreciate, respect, enjoy, and laugh with .
I'd say it was good evening.