Sarah Vowell is a New York Times best-selling author and cultural troublemaker we have a great deal of respect for. Ms. Vowell is also board president for 826NYC — a non-profit in Brooklyn supporting the writing lives of kids. We’re hosting a party on October 24 at Ace Hotel New York with 826NYC that celebrates superhero outfits designed and created by Opening Ceremony, Jack Spade, Christian Joy and others. Get tickets here.
We asked Sarah more about 826, and about herself.
You’ve been called a “social observer,” an author, essayist and commentator. You’ve also written six books and innumerable essays, and have done voice-over for the animated film, The Incredibles. If you had to find someone to do your job for you, what’s a short list of requirements you would post on Craigslist for potential candidates?
Writing about history for people who do not care about history, i.e., Americans, requires the patience to sift through the occasionally action-packed yet mostly tedious paper trail of the long dead. And I do mean paper trail — there’s a lot of paging through moldy old books and newspapers and sitting in archives reading crumbling letters written in a cursive so frilly and outmoded and impenetrable you find yourself momentarily charmed by demonic imperialists who have the courtesy to buy a new-fangled gadget called a typewriter. Also, what is Craigslist?
What do you love about 826NYC, and how do you feel about being the board president?
I love our space: the tongue-in-cheek professionalism of our storefront, the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co., and the homey tutoring center itself, reached through a secret door in the bookcase of the superhero store. It started out as this empty room without a floor and now the walls are covered with student artwork and movie posters from our students’ films. Walk in there on any given day and the place is alive with the most lovable and curious gaggle of students being looked after (and listened to) by the hardest working, most caring and good-natured staff and volunteers.
Are you going to wear superhero gear to the fashion show at Ace Hotel?
I’ll be dressed as my altar ego, a rumpled and grim middle-aged writer.
It’s a predictable question, but — if you could have one superpower for real, what would you pick?
I would love to have the power of time travel. Not to live in the past as I am a woman and the descendant of peasants and dispossessed Indians but it would sure make fact-checking my books a lot easier.
At 81, Ursula K. Le Guin has published over 80 pieces of literature including books, poetry, essays and one translation from classical Chinese. She is most noted for her groundbreaking work in science fiction and has been awarded the Hugo and Nebula Awards multiple times, and the Locus Award 18 times — more than any other writer in the universe. Her presence in a room could bend steel — she reads, walks and talks with a sly exuberance that seems to set an electric hum in the air.
We’re honored to have had a chance to speak with Ursula in anticipation of her appearance at Wordstock in Portland this weekend. We promised her a couple of thin little questions, and even the much more complex ones we posited to her were a fraction of what we would like to know about her mind. Find her gracious answers below, and see her speak this Sunday.
You’ve been working and living in Portland since 1958. How have you seen the local literary culture and community change over the years? Do you think Wordstock has shifted the literary culture here at all, or that it serves the community in some special way?
Hey, I thought you said this interview would be short and simple. The literary history of Portland since 1958 is short and simple? The literary scene here was never simple. Maybe the biggest change in it is that women count for more than they used to. Due partly to a major societal shift, but also, specifically, to people like Judith Barrington and Ruth Gundle and many, many other activists working to get women writers out of the margins and into the middle of the page.
During the first few years after Brian Booth energized us to get Oregon Literary Arts going, the literary community, writers and readers, came together at the Oregon Book Awards for real celebrations. They were great. But it’s hard to keep that much pizzazz going. The current Literary Arts does a terrific job of outreach to all of Oregon.
The old book fair at ArtQuake in the Park Blocks was a hoot. Talk about keeping Portland weird! Wordstock is ever so much more respectable and outward-looking and success-oriented, bringing best selling authors from the East Coast and all. That’s probably a fair reflection of what people want.
Tell me about how your “source” — internal, creative or otherwordly — for writing finds its expression in such varied iterations as children’s books, poetry, essays and stories. Do you work on one project at a time or many at once, and do they feed each other in any way?
I can’t tell you anything much about my internal, creative, or otherworldly sources, or how they work. I just sit around and wait for them to tell me what I’m supposed to be writing next, and then I write it, if I can. Good work if you can get it.
I’m sure you’ve answered more questions about being gender and writing than you can stand — but, here’s one more. You have been publishing books for over forty years. Tell me about your experience of gender — personally and professionally, as well as how creating science fiction expresses, changes or anticipates social evolution around gender.
I made out better in some ways than most women writers of my generation, because I wasn’t competing for the big time awards and glittering prizes (still reserved for male writers at a fairly standard rate of from ten to one to four to one.) My work got shunted off into the slums of genre, where I won lots of awards, and made friends, too. The poor are always more generous than the rich.
Now that genre seems to be eating mainstream, and men seem to be less afraid of being eaten by women, things could get even better. If only they can figure out how to make writing e-books pay writers, before stupid Amazon and the stupid pirates destroy the system, and all the writers starve, and THEN what’ll you read? Huh? Aspirin labels?
Imaginative fiction is a great place for people who feel society could use a few changes. Science fiction is particularly good at showing what a different society would actually be like to live in, whether it’s the macho utopias of space opera, or the mean streets of cyberpunk, or the stuff writers like me come up with, like re-inventing gender, or giving Portland a subway out to Reed.