Sarah Vowell is mad at me. I've just told her that despite being called "cranky," "querulous" and, by her own admission, "partly cloudy" (from the title of her last book, The Partly Cloudy Patriot), she seems incredibly sweet and nice.
Vowell pauses. Throughout our interview, she's talked happily about Montana (where she did much of her growing-up), and bubbled-over discussing her role in the upcoming Pixar movie The Incredibles. But now that I've suggested that she might not be as cantankerous as her reputation indicates, she gets serious. "Well you've asked me about Montana and writing and Pixar," she says, trying unsuccessfully to sound disappointed. "There are just topics where I can be just as gloomy as can be. I do write about things that irk me, too. I don't know..."
Then, after thinking for a moment, she gives me an example. "One of my favorite things I wrote was a review of a Slayer record for Spin. And it was during a time when I was questioning if I really should have that job; asking myself 'Do I really want to spend my day weighing in on Slayer?' And I remember listening to it, and thinking that it was really kind of lame, and harshing on it for a couple of paragraphs. But then at the end I said that the drums were miked really well."
Quickly realizing that this doesn't help her argument, she tries to sound tough. The perky, slightly squeaky voice that listeners to the public radio program This American Life have learned to love switches to a darker, scratchier shade of sweet. "I do have a mean streak," Vowell says, almost as though she's relishing the idea of being mean more than actually trying to be mean. "And I don't particularly apologize for it."
Despite her inability to convince me, Vowell did earn her reputation for crankiness honestly. Her first book, Radio On: A Listener's Diary, recounted a year spent listening to American radio. As Booklist noted, "Vowell doesn't find much to like." Her approach has persisted through several other volumes, most recently The Partly-Cloudy Patriot, where she laments the state of American politics.
But Vowell has softened somewhat over time, too. "Now I can channel my rage into something. Before, I would just get mad. Even though hardly any of my sentences had an exclamation point, they just felt that way. But now I think it's more intelligent to channel that rage into jokes."
Having a little rage simmering beneath the polished surface of Vowell's humor has worked. After one reading where she preceded writer David Sedaris by leaving the crowd laughing riotously, he said "She must be stopped." Once Vowell has started mixing cynicism with her comedy, she's difficult to halt.
Sharpening her tongue as we continue talking, Vowell describes a recent visit to New Orleans as "beautiful, but also an allergic nightmare of springtime proportions. And her thoughts on American politics are tempered by a love of the culture. "We feel like the rest of the world hates us because we've become this unilateral self-absorbed force in the world," Vowell explains. "But even the people who think they hate us, they still love what's best about us. They still buy our records and go to our movies. There are tons of schlock of course. Anyone who has eyes has had eyes that hurt from looking at the crap that we churn out in ungodly proportions. But when we're good at what we do -- our best movies and our best music and our literature -- I think it's the best in the world. It can be really expansive and humorous and true and fun. Even though sometimes I think we fail at our plan at being the ambassador of," and here Vowell's mean streak kicks in, as she stifles a gag, "liberty to the world, we at least succeed in conveying the pleasures of frivolity."
Perhaps it's because Vowell can't help but look on the bright side of any issue, that she talks about her favorite part of American culture -- writing -- right before she turns cynical again. "As a writer, it's really encouraging to discover that people really care about writing. It almost gives me an inflated sense of how much people are reading, because I really only meet people who do. But those people," she pauses, "never seem to run for office."