Writer, actress, and historian Sarah Vowell visited campus Tuesday as the featured speaker of the annual Gerhold Lecture Series.
In college, Vowell was a newscaster and radio station DJ before going to graduate school to study to teach art history, which she soon discovered was not for her.
This realization led to her working for newspapers and radio, writing multiple history books, and starring as the voice of Violet Parr in Disney’s The Incredibles.
A large part of Vowell’s career consists of writing nonfiction history books, which is something different from the experience that she had while working as a reporter.
“A lot of history is, you know, spending a lot of time with the dead people,” she said in a Q&A session at the university Tuesday afternoon. “There was just something about when I had to start researching dead people, I just took to that … some of it was I’m kind of antisocial, some of it was … I was just really good about figuring out what was worth knowing about them.”
Her recent writing isn’t limited to history books, however. Vowell writes a column for The New York Times, in which she focuses on history and politics.
And although she seems to be everywhere, Vowell keeps her distance from any unnecessary online comments.
“I just ignore [pushback],” she said. “I don’t have social media. I kind of stopped reading the reviews, not because of the bad reviews but because of the good reviews.”
Vowell said that she “doesn’t care to know” what people have to say about her.
“I’m always happiest when I’m learning something,” she said. “So, I can’t really get concerned about other people.”
When offered the role of the voice of Violet Parr in The Incredibles after her voice was heard on public radio, Vowell almost rejected it because she wasn’t sure that she could do it.
“Once you’ve been doing your job for awhile and you’re pretty comfortable with it … it’s pretty hard to try a totally different thing,” she said.
Working as a voice actress is a different beast from just talking as yourself on the radio.
“Working in public radio, it’s frowned upon if, you know, you just scream at the top of your lungs for awhile, but you have to do [that] when you’re a cartoon,” she said. “Like, cartoons, you have to be bigger, and my tendency is to be sort of lowkey.”
And though she may be lowkey, Vowell’s satirical humor is a character trait that shines through, but the comedy is something that she feels isn’t always necessary — the style of writing depends on the nature of the piece, balancing the academia and the humor.
For example, when writing about something like Valley Forge, she tends to write in a more serious tone because it’s something that she’s angry about.
“… Especially like writing for The New York Times, there will be jokes but I’ll cut them out because that’s very valuable real estate, and the secretary of state will read it, so [if there’s something I need him to know], I’m gonna cut that joke out.”
Like every creative person, in her plenty of years freelance writing, Vowell has experienced a loss of motivation.
Aside from being motivated by deadline, she has a ritual of cracking open Moby Dick.
“I could never write like that, but I love those words in that book, like the words are just so mysterious and just depends on what section you’re at … it reminds me how much I love words,” Vowell said.
Vowell’s most recently published book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, can be found here on Amazon.