"Greedy weirdos and good-hearted men"

Writer and radio personality Sarah Vowell tells Death Cab for Cutie's Christopher Walla about the ghosts haunting her new book, "Assassination Vacation," and why life is brighter since her turn in "The Incredibles"

Published April 26, 2005 5:35PM (EDT)

Editor's note: At the height of Kerry fever last October, I interviewed Death Cab for Cutie guitarist and producer Christopher Walla about playing on the Vote for Change tour. In the course of our conversation about politics and rock music, he expressed intense admiration for "This American Life" contributor (and former Salon columnist) Sarah Vowell, whose collection of personal essays, "The Partly Cloudy Patriot," had moved him to read, of all things, the Declaration of Independence. "I can't think of a book I've bought for more people," he told me. "I just keep giving my copy away, and I keep asking for it back."

I called Walla recently to see if he would be interested in talking about Vowell's latest, "Assassination Vacation," and he agreed. Taking a quick break from his production responsibilities on Death Cab's new record, Walla connected with Vowell by phone -- he in Seattle, and she in Chicago -- on a stop on the publicity tour for her new book. Part travelogue, part memoir, part history lesson, "Assassination Vacation" is a fascinating retelling of the assassinations of presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley -- of the lives those men lived, of the circumstances surrounding their deaths, of the monuments, statues and preserved residences we have to remember them by. As Vowell tours the country, inspecting even the tiniest commemorative plaques and scrutinizing even the flimsiest scraps of criminal evidence, she reminds readers of our rich American history and of the caretakers, docents and volunteers working tirelessly to keep that history alive today.

Vowell's journey is nothing less than a pilgrimage; as she notes in her introduction, her mission is to venerate relics of those presidential pasts. Below, Walla talks with her about that mission, her obsession with death, "The O.C." and why an essay is like a Manhattan apartment.

-- Hillary Frey

P.S. To hear a sample of Sarah Vowell reading from "Assassination Vacation," click here.

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Congratulations on your book. I have to ask, are you in Illinois having something to do with the anniversary of Lincoln's death?

No, just a coincidence. I'm here for the book tour.

You've written about Lincoln and talked about Lincoln a lot. But how did the whole infatuation start? Was it fifth-grade history class?

I've always liked him. He's sort of likable. But I honestly don't know. I'm not very good at talking about why I do things.

When I first started this project, there were a lot of things that I didn't know. So one day in a rush I just ordered a whole bunch of books like, click-buy, click-buy, click-buy, and they showed up and half of them, unbeknownst to me, were children's books. And I think it said something to me about the subject of American history that half the books on it seem to be for children, because all the subjects I was interested in -- like Seward brokering the purchase of Alaska -- this seemed to imply to me that if you're over the age of 9 you're not supposed to care about this stuff anymore.

I was wondering when I got the book if it was going to work, because this is the first thing you've done that's like a big, single concentrated piece. It's not a collection of essays. Was that different for you?

Yeah, I had wanted to do that for a long time, just as a technical exercise as much as anything. There's so much pressure on an essay to be so distilled and boiled down and perfect.

An essay is like a Manhattan apartment. Every piece of furniture needs to have at least two functions and everything has to fit in a certain amount of space and there's no messing around, there's no room for the snow-globe collection. It's just so compact and efficient. And I wanted to spread out a little more; I wanted more space. It's also how my brain works -- I'm a "one thing leads to another" sort of writer. And this project was very conducive to that, because I just kept stumbling onto stuff that would lead me down all these side roads and back roads.

This book actually started out as an essay. But I very quickly figured out that there was too much. I was finding so much that it wasn't going to fit into a little tiny box.

Were you planning to write about just one president?

When I first started, my idea was way shorter. It was going to be about all the political assassinations, including the '60s ones, but I realized that I had an aversion to writing about those. JFK -- so much has been written about that -- and then Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, it's just so sad ... Especially Martin Luther King, I have so much reverence for. I couldn't figure out a way to write about him without being a cliché.

And those wounds are still so fresh. They haven't been dead that long and their families are still alive and are actively mourning. So, sometimes I get into trouble with my innate tact ... I'm kind of nice. And I don't like to pry. It's one of the reasons I've cut down on being a regular reporter -- because I'm not a very good interviewer. I don't pry. I don't want to. And I just don't want to hurt anybody.

So then I decided just to focus on the presidents, and it seemed like there was just so much distance between the McKinley assassination, or the Garfield assassination or the Lincoln assassination [and the present] that there was more wiggle room to be honest or irreverent sometimes.

But the other deciding factor was Robert Todd Lincoln. Pretty early on I figured out that he had been there at his father's deathbed, that he had been there at the train station with Garfield, and he was in Buffalo getting off the train when McKinley was shot. And I wanted to write about the Lincoln memorial, and he attended the dedication of that in 1922. So once I knew he was there at the three assassinations and at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial, it was like I had this nice little frame to hang the book on.

The book is a travelogue and a history book and a bit of a memoir. The more I got into it, I found myself wanting to go back and do little bits of history homework.


I pulled out this "American History in Ballad and Song" Folkways box from the 1960s and there's this whole section on the Civil War and I started looking through that. I really like that your book did that to me. These are sort of obscure things in 2005 to write about and be so impassioned about. But you make all these people in the book characters.

Thanks. You know, one question I keep getting asked is, "Why? Why did you do this?" And that question has just been torturing me.

But it seems so natural to you.

Right! Like, why wouldn't I? The assassinations were so interesting and unique. There were all these greedy weirdos and good-hearted men and interesting circumstances and all these figures in the background doing their own thing. And then the inherent drama of a murder. One day someone's alive and the next they're dead. It's not even murder -- it's just death.

The reason death is so fascinating to us, besides the fact that we're all going to die one day, is just that it's so preposterous and unbelievable. It seems so supernatural, like black magic. It's so fascinating to me. I can't really think of a reason not to be interested in it, can you?

Everybody deals with death in different ways. My way is to think about it all the time and, with this, I was trying to bring these people back to life a little bit. And some people deal with it by not dealing with it, and those are the people who say to me, "When I heard what your book is about, I said, 'Yuck!' And then I read it and I liked it." They just think the topic is so morbid.

Did you get any flak from the people in the big office about the title, about using the A-word?

It is a kind of "Jackass" sort of title, but my people are onboard with me.

But... I was on a Wisconsin public radio call-in show, and an elderly woman called up to chastise me, saying how she remembers the Kennedy assassination like it was yesterday and she was offended by my happy-go-lucky attitude. When I'm talking to someone it's just my natural tendency to keep it light and upbeat and try to not be a drag. When I go on a radio show I don't spend the whole 15 minutes going through my thing about the Spanish-American War.

So I hadn't said any of the sad stuff. And she was so upset with me that I was just joking around. So I loved that call. I was like, "So, you want sadness, you want mourning, you want tragedy? I got plenty of that stuff." And I regaled her for like 15 minutes with the mournful silence of the Abraham Lincoln autopsy, and the sewing bag of Mrs. Ida McKinley, who mourned her husband's death every day of her life after her husband was assassinated. She crocheted her life into thousands of pairs of bedroom slippers while sitting in a rocking chair, affixing her husband's photo to the side of her crochet bag so she could see his face every time she reached for a new ball of yarn.

So you took her to task.

I don't know. I thought it was an excellent question and a good point. I like defending myself. I like being backed into a corner.

I can't imagine that you get backed into a corner that much, though.

Well, that's true. But maybe that's why I enjoyed it. Actually, it's a pretty fractured little country we live in, and the only people who come to see me are the people who would naturally come to see me. It's rare I have any kind of interaction with people who disagree with me, or dislike me, or diss me, so I enjoy it.

I think it's kind of sad that the country is so ensconced in its own little universes and there's no interaction, mainly because of the fractured nature of broadcasting and media. There are so many channels and so many niches. It's perfectly natural that birds of a feather flock together. But one thing I miss about the good old days with local papers, and watching Walter Cronkite and going to bed with Johnny Carson, you had that nationalizing influence of broadcasting where the whole country had these shared experiences and people could talk about them and debate them.

But I'm off track...

We were talking about the A-word...

Right. Well, the problem isn't really the A-word, it's the word that comes after it, "vacation." I know it's a kind of silly title. It's catchy, but it was also a very good shorthand for what the book is about. I didn't want to write some encyclopedic, third-person book about assassinations. I'm very interested specifically in what you can learn by visiting historic sites as much as the thing you're learning about, about what happened there. I certainly recount the events of each assassination but I'm just as, probably more, interested in how those things are talked about and how they're remembered. Or, in Garfield's case, how they're not remembered. He's just so forgotten. And it just really burns me up that there's no plaque where he was shot. I think there should be a plaque.

My only real memory of Garfield was when I was in the fifth grade I picked up the phone, my parents weren't home, and there was a guy on the line who said I could win a barbecue if I told him when Garfield was assassinated.

Did you know?

I didn't know the date but I knew the year. It was 1881.


I don't know how I knew that, but I won a barbecue. It wasn't ever delivered. I think it was some kind of scam. But Garfield has always held a special place in my heart for that tiny, tiny reason.

Well, he means the possibility of barbecues.

The possibility, but not the actuality, of barbecues.

Well, that's a lot like Garfield's presidency. He only got to be president for a few weeks, so he didn't really get the full barbecue, either.

I can't imagine what a book tour is like. I know what a rock 'n' roll tour is like.

Well, it's a lot of airports and getting up at 4 in the morning and having eight minutes to eat lunch.

One thing is that even though my subject matter is pretty focused on Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley, there are a lot of different emotions in the book -- there's a lot of joking around and there are a lot of sad and mournful parts -- I can size up a lot about who is asking me a question based on what they're asking me about.

There are certain public radio interviewers who are never going to ever ask me about the "O.C." section of the Garfield chapter [where Vowell links the utopian Oneida community, referred to in old letters as "the O.C.," to the Thursday-night teen drama] because they don't know what it is, or if they do, they're not going to admit to it. And then there are Morning Zoo guys who don't really want to get into the Spanish-American War. So it is kind of interesting going on all these different kinds of shows talking to all these different kinds of people.

And this book tour is different. Since I did "The Incredibles" I have these totally adorable 8- or 9-year-old girls coming to get their Violet stuff signed, and I get to talk to them about how their friends and them play and they always want to be Violet. It's so reassuring, especially because when I was known almost entirely for working on public radio, my audience was all from public radio, which meant that they were all kind of old. And it's kind of terrifying when you're, say, 35 and your audience is like 65. And then you wonder who is going to support your projects after your audience is dead.

Can I ask you about "The O.C."?

Can I ask you about "The O.C."? Didn't you guys just guest-star on an episode? You play at the Bait Shop?

We play three songs at the Bait Shop. And apparently Seth misses our show...

But you're his favorite band!

That's the word on the street.

I talked to one woman last night when I read here in Chicago. I read my Oneida community section where I talk about "The O.C.," and she came up to me and said, "Thank you for reading that. I never knew what 'O.C.' stood for!"

So, you guys played. Was Peter Gallagher there?

Peter Gallagher was not there.

Oh, what's the point!

It was fun. I don't have a TV, and I've never seen the show.

Really? It's a really good show!

So what is on deck for you, aside from the book tour.

I don't have anything on deck for after, for two reasons. First, I don't really have a book idea. But mainly because this is my fourth book, I have a much larger idea now of what writing a book involves. And now that I've been through this a few times, I no longer think of writing a book as just sitting in my room writing it. Now I see it as a whole process, and I see the book tour, what it's about, is getting people to read it. And it doesn't exist as a book to me until people read it.

I've also figured out that how to be happy is to limit my time around other people so that when I'm around other people I give myself over to them. When I'm with my friends and people I love I'm with them. Same thing with my readers. That's what this time is about. I've spent like two years in a room by myself and now I'm with the readers and they have me for as long as they want me, or at least until this book tour ends.

By Christopher Walla

Christopher Walla is guitarist and producer for the band Death Cab for Cutie. He lives in Seattle.

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