Visiting Writers: An Interview with Elena Passarello
Elena Passarello is an actor, writer, and recipient of a 2015 Whiting Award. Her first collection Let Me Clear My Throat (Sarabande, 2012), won the gold medal for nonfiction at the 2013 Independent Publisher Awards and was a finalist for the 2014 Oregon Book Award. Her second collection, Animals Strike Curious Poses, was a 2017 New York Times Notable Book and won the 2018 Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction.
Her essays on performance, pop culture, and the natural world have been published in Oxford American, Slate, Creative Nonfiction, and The Iowa Review, among other publications, as well as in the 2015 anthologies Cat is Art Spelled Wrong and After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essay. Elena was kind enough to answer a few questions ahead of her visit on Wednesday!
I really love the way you talk about both reveling in research and writing essays that de-center the nonfiction persona, or the “I.” I think your essays are as infused with your personality as any essay that centers personal experience. What advice do you have for essayists who are similarly interested the kind of research-rich essay you’re known for?
Thank you! I very much believe that an essay doesn’t have to mention a personal experience, or even craft a narrative persona, in order to be *personal*. An example from my own experience is an essay I wrote about the Wolf of Gubbio that very much feels to me like a love letter to my partner, even though neither he nor I are ever mentioned in the piece.
A writer’s curation of material is an insight into the aesthetic, the world, and the overall mind of that writer. Maybe one way to keep that personality alive in your research-based work is to never lose track of your own fascination when you work. Outside of the story, the facts, the growing understanding of the topic, is your own personal stake in the material. It might help to stay on nodding terms with that fascination——and to indulge it—as your project progresses.
Your essays transform to complement your subject matter. You write researched nonfiction essays that play with form and voice in inventive, sometimes unexpected ways. How do you go about matching the form and tone of a piece to the research? Do you write a different drafts? Are there any forms that you have tried and dismissed as too “out there,” but wish you’d kept? Do you have to negotiate some of your more visual/experimental forms with editors?
I’d say that the primary objective of my past two books was letting the results of the research guide the sound and shape of the pieces. I trust that the material has a form that makes sense and that I have to unearth it because nonfiction is magic. But man, is that a cumbersome way to make essays. Rather than drafting, I sort of slowly take notes all over my office on lots of different notebooks and large pieces of paper until the taking of the notes starts to look like something to me. Either that or until I write a line that sounds like something to me. Usually by the time I start officially drafting, I have a general sense of either the structural or the sonic world the essay wants me to make. Rarely am I sure of any end point, though sometimes I lie to myself and pretend that I do.
When I abandon a formal choice, it’s either because it’s gone limp or because I won’t be able to make it work before a deadline. Once, I tried to make this essay on ventriloquism in the form of a vaudevillian skit, but with all the consonants that the ventriloquists lips to move taken out and replaced with “still mouth” consonants. Sort of an Oulipo type project. I spent a couple months on it and the results were just a load of gibberish. So I ended up writing a Myers-Briggs style personality quiz and sending it to a famous ventriloquist’s dummy so the dummy could take it. But I feel like if I had (a lot) more time, I could have made that skit idea work. It was this really freeing way to think about family relationships and I badly wanted to keep exploring that.
And in terms of editors, there can be pushback, which I welcome. I think that’s what led me to axe the skit format, if I remember (thank you, wise editor!) Also: I was once told that this lit mag editor was so miffed by the form I took with an essay he’d accepted about Charles Darwin’s apocryphal tortoise (I wrote it in the style of one of those Lorrie Moore second-person dating stories) that he made the magazine create a new category for the magazine (“Hybrids”) that still exists today.
You’ve referred to the value of constraints in limiting your writing topics, specifically celebrity fauna in Animals Strike Curious Poses and voice-related topics in Let Me Clear My Throat. Because your work does so many fresh things with form, I also wonder if you also play with formal constraints in the early stages of the writing process. Are there any formal constraints that you challenge yourself with– at the line or paragraph level– when you’re trying to find your way into an essay?
Not so much in the beginning, because for me there is very little writing in the beginning; it’s mostly note-taking and journaling. But the restraints can be there when I sit down to write in earnest. I’d say this happens maybe 20% of the time. Like when I was researching Koko the sign language gorilla and I found a scientific paper with her entire lexicon—all her words and phrase pairings—listed on it. I knew that the essay could only come from that lexicon.
What inspires you when you’re working on a piece? Do you read other nonfiction work? Poetry? Fiction? Is there anything you can always count on to refresh you when you’re having trouble getting back to the page?
It changes from project to project, but it’s usually music. Sometimes film or a dance performance. I find consulting work in a medium other than writing really energizing. And if it’s a more minor trouble, like I’m just having a rocky writing day, I put on a Beyoncé video.
What do you wish you’d known as a beginning writer?
I wish someone told me that there is no ticking clock; you’ll get more writing done if you don’t tell yourself that it (the essay, the book, the online post, the career) needs to be done NOW.
Oh, and I really wish someone forced me to take better care of my body and not spend the first decade of my writing career pretzeled in front of an ergonomic disaster desk for 10-12 hour stretches. Now I’m 40 years old and I have the spine of an extra from the movie COCOON.
You’ve mentioned that voice and celebrity fauna were the topics you’ve been writing about since your MFA. Are you working on a new book? If yes, does it have an anchoring theme?
I’m trying to write a thing that’s kinda Plimptonesque, in which I try to learn a professional trade I have no business attempting, and then I fail horribly, and recount that failure in a few hundred pages.
Please join us for a reading, conversation, and book signing this Wednesday, March 27, at 8:00 p.m., in the Abrahmson Family Founders Room (School of International Service). This event is open to the public.
Photos: Author website.
Yohanca Delgado is the Editor-in-Chief at Café MFA and a third-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.