Elena Passarello’s essay collection Let Me Clear My Throat covers topics ranging from the Wilhelm scream to the role of blackbirds in music to spaceships attempting alien contact. It recently won the 2015 Whiting Award for nonfiction. Here, we asked her a few questions about the influence of her theater background and her eclectic approach to writing.
SmilePolitely: Voice and live performance are obviously very important to your writing. How does this approach affect your preparation for a reading?
Passarello: I rehearse a lot. When I was an actor, someone told me to practice an hour for every minute of stage time— so a ninety minute play would require at least ninety hours of home practice. I probably do the same amount of time with the essays I read. I think it’s respectful to prepare and never just read flat from the page. A few of my essays are about performers, and it’s been fun shaping the readings of those so that I can give a little flavor of that performer live. For my essay on Judy Garland, for example, I worked up a (not great) Judy impression and I sing a few bars when I read it. Folks are always a little jarred when I burst into song, which I love.
SP: Now that I’ve asked the measured interviewer question, I can ask if you’re going to read any of your essays on screaming.
Passarello: It’s funny; none of the essays on screaming— I’ve got one on the infamous Wilhelm Scream, one on Howard Dean’s “BYAH!” yell, and one on a “Stella!” screaming contest I won in 2011— are screamy. They’re kind of measured pieces. The Judy Garland one I just mentioned is much louder. On a weird note, many folks have asked me to do the “Stella” scream that from that contest in the post-reading Q&A. Like several dozen times. And I’m always like, “why would you want me to do that to your poor ears?” The truth is, I’m scared that I’ll do the scream and then the crowd would be like, “Meh.”
There’s a very interdisciplinary quality to your writing. The background in performance and the mechanics of the human voice is clear. But history plays an important role as well. Do you feel drawn to topics that require a broad-ranging approach?
Passarello: I do. I’m not a very adventurous person. I don’t leave the house a lot and my idea of a vacation is sitting still on the beach. But I feel much more daring as a writer. I like to be kind of wild and accumulative and check out crazy, unrelated books from the library. Then I like to use that wide scope to force very disparate things together in one essay. Like for the Howard Dean yell essay, I didn’t just want to write about that one sound he made; I first wanted to look at him against all the other candidates that ever yelled into microphones, and then all other rock screamers born the same year as him (there are quite a few). The final goal of the essay became getting Howard Dean and Robert Plant on the same page, screaming together in a kind of sick loop. Something about that ridiculous task feels very energizing to me. Not unlike belting a show tune in the middle of a reading, or screaming “STELLA” in a quiet bookstore, I suppose.
Check out Elena Passarello’s reading at 8pm Saturday 9/26 at Mike n Molly’s, as part of the Pygmalion LitFest.