Talking to Elena Passarello is like talking to a human Wikipedia, but one that sings and leaps to show its excitement for the subject at hand. Before attending the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, she worked in theater, and her masterful grasp of her own voice, and her infectious sense of wonder for the world around her, comes through not just in conversation but on the page in all her work. Passarello is an assistant professor of creative nonfiction at Oregon State University, which is where I first came to admire her and her passion for her seemingly disparate interests.
The Whiting Award–winner’s new book, Animals Strike Curious Poses (Sarabande Books), is a gorgeous and peculiar collection of essays about famous animals and the ways we interact with them. I spoke with Passarello about the magic of research, the gendering of personal writing, and how to continue making weird creative work when the world is crashing around us.
JESS KIBLER: I wanted to start by talking about how you decide what to write about, because you write about so many different things. When you start, do you start thinking of a big project? Like with this book, every piece is about an animal, and in the last book, everything was about voices. What’s the genesis?
ELENA PASSARELLO: I haven’t written a piece that wasn’t on assignment or for a collection in almost a decade, because when I was in grad school and was trying a lot of different essays, I kind of realized that they all were about two things: the voice and animals. So I’ve been sort of riding those two trails since I graduated in 2008.
But I think this kind of approach helps me build a tent and then sit under the tent and then think about what essays can belong in the tent. And I make the tent have certain rules. Like, this is “an animal book,” but it’s an animal book where the essays have to be about animals that were given a name. And I can’t repeat species, so I can’t have two dogs or two cats. So I sort of shrink the world and use the rules to sustain me. That’s one of the reasons there are so few invertebrates in the book. I don’t get to fairly represent the entire kingdom because there are so few fish that get names, for example. Same with insects. Anything that doesn’t live very long (or isn’t furry) often doesn’t get named.
I don’t know how I start, because it’s been so long since I actually started a major project, but the smaller starting points within that larger motivation usually come from limitations.
JK: Those are limitations you set on yourself, right? They’re not handed down from an editor?
EP: Yeah. Fiction writers—or maybe I’m generalizing—seem to like the idea of a blank page. My partner, David, is a playwright, and he loves the idea that in the middle of a play, a cat detective can just walk across the stage during a dinner party. He’s like, “What could happen? Anything could happen. A cat detective could walk out.” I think his interest in that high level of possibility comes from the fact that, in theater, there are so many limitations. To do a play, you’re saddled with barriers: a certain amount of time, a certain amount of lights, a small space. So he loves the idea of the impossible showing up. For me, where there’s no limits to what you can make with language, I have to shore up the variables and put a lot of controls in so that I don’t get analysis paralysis from thinking of everything an essay could become.
JK: You use a lot of research in your work, and you’ve talked about it as a way to heighten creativity and craft instead of limiting it. One of my favorite things you do with it, especially in this book, is use it for context. I don’t remember which animal it was, but you describe one animal being discovered and found extinct in the time Roger Moore played James Bond. So why do all that research, and why are you drawn to research-heavy nonfiction?
EP: There are a lot of people who use research without later articulating about what it’s doing. I don’t think I’m breaking any ground when I celebrate what research can do. I think I’m just naming shit that happens naturally. If the major components of a great essay are form, scene, commentary, and some kind of research, then form, scene, and commentary always get all this creative applause. Like, “Experimenting with form can take the essay anywhere!” and “Be creative! Remember the most vivid scene you can and look for killer details!” and “Get artistic with your commentary! Dance around with a scarf!” But then research is just this stack of books on your desk that you turn to if you need to figure something out.
There are so many different ways we can look at research as an equally creative mode, and that Roger Moore example is creative work on the sentence level. The original sentence was, you know, “The gastric brooding frog was both discovered and declared extinct in 12 years.” Twelve years is an abstract term, because nobody really knows what a year is, and 12 years’ time when you’re writing an essay about about centuries worth of extinctions cheapens the value of the sentence even more. So if I can find something ridiculous to represent that time, then the language makes sense; it does that work. That’s an example of using research in a creative way—it makes you a better writer on the sentence level.
It’s such a humbling experience to engage in an act of research. I also love the way that it allows me to sort of geek out and feel like I’m sharing new information, so there’s that selfish motivation. And I think it helps me express things without being personal, which is very important to me, because I rarely flex that personal muscle successfully. It’s not that I discount other people who do, but my engine doesn’t work in that way. I have all the same feelings and emotions as a personal essayist, and I do want to talk about life the way that people who write personally seem to want to talk about life, but my engine just isn’t in that kind of persona creation. In research, however, I think I can do similar work.
JK: Yeah, I wanted to talk about personal work. A lot of the nonfiction that is popular now is personal and written by women. I think it’s hard to find space for writing that isn’t that, especially for young, newbie writers who are getting started, who are kind of expected to go on XOJane and tell all the terrible things that happened to them. How do you feel about that: that the personal has become a feminine genre, and that you don’t deal in that hardly at all?
EP: There’s a lot of weird gender identifications with writing about the personal. I have a memoirist friend who wrote a very interesting memoir about a traumatic event, and he identifies as male, and he told me one day over beer, like, “Nobody ever called my memoir ‘brave’.” So if a man writes a memoir about a traumatic event, it’s called “chilling,” or “gripping,” or “thrilling.” If a woman writes about the exact same event, it’s “brave,” “strong,” these sort of adjectives. Even when people write personally, we gender it.
I think the personal is really important and evocative to our genre, but I only pull it out when I absolutely have to. For my first book, Let Me Clear My Throat, I realized the reason I was obsessed with Marlon Brando’s “Stella” scream was because it was a gendered sound, and then I found out there was this contest that a woman had never won in which all these men stood in the balcony and made this gendered sound, and I was like, Fuck! I have to go to New Orleans!
JK: And just win the thing!
EP: Well, I thought I was going to go and lose, and then it would be about losing, about this discrepancy. Then I won, and I was like, I don’t know how I’m going to finish this essay. Sometimes you end up in very unexpected places writing essays, and you have to find a different path in order to complete them.
Marlon Brando does his best Elena Passarello impression
It’s the same experience as when I was trying to write this essay in the new book about a baited bear in Elizabethan England. It was awful to write because it’s a terrible story. All the research revealed terrible details about this tortured animal, and I was like, I can’t glorify this torture, but I can’t just sadly write about this bear because the essay’s gonna be dead before it starts. I had to ask myself, how can I distance the gore and the reality of this bear’s life and still talk about it in the essay? Then I was like, Oh, language can distance it, so why not the language of the era? And it was the same feeling as when I knew I had to enter the screaming contest. Like, Fuck! I have to write this in iambic pentameter. So the personal is something I access in that same “Fuck!” way, right? It just dawns on me that it’s crucial to the piece. It’s a solution.
The reason that I have the one personal essay in the new book is because it felt disingenuous to be talking about people and animals and not let the reader know what a messed up relationship with animals I have. It felt like it would help the book, but it also felt really necessary, because I don’t have the environmental enlightenment that a lot of animal writers have earned. I eat meat, I don’t know where a lot of my food comes from, I grew up in the suburbs, I’ve never birthed a calf. I don’t go and live with gorillas. I come from a position that I think is more similar to some of the more abusive perspectives from history than contemporary, enlightened perspectives. So it felt necessary to do that. I was like, Fuck, I have to write about myself.
This might be too pithy, teacher-y of an adage—in that this is either completely true or totally false—but I think even the heavily researched, third-person essays that I write and that don’t have anything to do with me are exactly about me. Like, this is a book of personal essays. But who knows. That’s either totally true or not.
JK: I was actually going to ask you if you consider your work to be personal anyway. Even just the way your voice presents itself on the page you could say is like in a personal essay.
EP: Absolutely. We sometimes argue that the essay is first and foremost—above fact, above recounted experience—the working of an individual mind. One of the things that would separate a series of Wikipedia facts about the first spider in space, a news report, and a literary essay about the first spider in space is that the essayist channels the idiosyncrasies of how she processes this information and then makes decisions on the page. So, yeah. In that respect, absolutely it’s personal. But I don’t know what a personal essayist would say about that. Are you allowed to hide behind research the entire time and still call your essays personal?
I want to make clear that there’s a great sacrifice when somebody tries in their essay to recount events in their life. I don’t traffic in or understand that sacrifice entirely, so sometimes I think who am I to just be like, “Oh, it’s the same.”
JK: I wanted to talk about “Jumbo II.” It’s really fascinating to watch the two tracks in that essay, the emergence of electricity and the electric chair and elephants being present in the United States.
EP: That was our Gilded Age, the American Enlightenment, and we were just, like, frying everything in sight. Jesus Christ! No wonder we’re so messed up.
JK: I didn’t realize that it was that early on in the adoption of electricity that we started using the electric chair, which is wild. We didn’t even really know how to use electricity, and we were using it to kill people. [Laughs.]
EP: This is another thing with your research question that connects to “Jumbo II.” The other thing about research. It’s magical! I don’t think that memory is magical. Well, “Magical thinking,” I guess. And form may be a little magical. But research is the most magical thing. When you find three histories that converge in this kismet, it’s like, Holy shit! Has this been just waiting for me? If you can develop a nose for research you can harness that magic.
This is terrible to say, I know, because the research for “Jumbo II” is all about death and dismemberment—but all that violence toward humans and animals was happening at the same time, and in the same place, like streams converging. And it all converges at a world’s fair! The fair where they tried to execute Jumbo II, and the first electrocuted person in America, and the murder of a president and the subsequent electrocution of that murderer: All of that happened in Buffalo around the same time. To top it off, the Edison and Westinghouse “Current Wars” were all about Buffalo, too! Hydroelectric power, Tesla and Niagara Falls. So, everything that I wanted to talk about in terms of the brutality of the age, the wild experimentation of it, and the fact that we executed hundreds of elephants in the first 200 years of our nation—all that converges in the same fair. Thank you, magical (but horrible) world!
Buffallo NY, caput mundi of the “magical (but horrible) world”
JK: Switching gears a little, I want to end by talking about being a writer now, in this very grim catastrophic world, especially being a writer of things that aren’t necessarily political. I’m asking because I’m curious, too; I don’t know what to do.
EP: I don’t know. I expect that I’m going to get asked this question a lot. In one way, that’s totally cool. But in another way, it sucks to think about. I think it will get asked because writers like myself use the same medium—words—as the reporters who are actually helping us get closer to understanding this political situation, each other, what we can do. We’re using what journalists use, versus what a sculptor or a dancer uses. I bet few patrons are going to be like, “Hey dancers, why aren’t you dancing about the election?” (Though I would totally watch that dance). Artists in other mediums, if they are inclined, might just keep on doing what they do to make art, and the value of that will be very easily understood and explained by those of us who believe in things like the NEA.
And I don’t even think people are asking this of visual artists, even though this whole world is visual. Everything that’s happening to us is about visual reporting—like the fact that there are cell phones is the reason that we understand issues between police and discrimination toward Black people in America. Many citizens know that more deeply now because of image.
But I don’t think visual artists are being asked this, or at least feel this personal obligation. Like, “Hey Sally Mann, stop taking pictures of corpses in the woods.” It’s hard, because we can’t escape the fact that we are unfortunately using the tools that the people who are going to help us think about the political world use. I fully acknowledge that. But I feel like a dancer, or a sculptor, or a chef. I’m not going to make anti-Trump pudding. I’m going to be like the chef who keeps making creme brulee or whatever (I don’t know what chefs make). And then I will go and be active and understand where my money goes and comes from, and where I buy books, and how my books are being funded, and who has access to my books and other people’s books. This can help encourage writers who are getting this message across, and that’s how I can help the shitshow we’re living in. That work is a part of my life as a writer. But when I go back into my workshop, I’m still just going to do the equivalent of making creme brulee. It’s all I can do. It’s a personal limitation.
That said, I’m not comfortable justifying my work by saying that we who don’t make immediately political art are still putting beautiful things into the world. That our writing understands empathy, and is trying to slow down thought, and therein lies its value. That argument is fine—people are arguing this and I’m happy that they are—but I’m just not going to make that for my own work. This is a terrible answer; I’m right back where I started: I don’t know.
JK: I don’t know either.
EP: It is important, though, that people see—not just through me—but see female writers and non-cismale writers writing whatever the fuck they want. It’s not fair if you’re a woman or a non-cismale to feel obligated to only write about your status as an “other,” or to only write from the perspective of your status of an “other” in this era when we feel so compromised. I guess my essays could sort of sneak in under that justification. Oh god, I don’t know. I’m useless for explaining this. [Laughs.]
JK: [Laughs.] I mean, I’m of the camp that, if it’s interrogating our place in the world, interrogating how we live—anything that’s doing that seems important. We do what we can and what we’re capable of, right? And it’s still valuable even in this context.
EP: I don’t think you initially make things because of what they are capable of doing to other people. I don’t believe that Ta-Nehisi Coates began Between the World and Me because it was going to help certain readers see the American dream as built on the bodies of people whose bodies were always at risk. I don’t think that message reaching a bunch of people was part of his initial impulse.
JK: I think he’s even said as much. He’s been quoted saying he didn’t go into it to be the one talking at white people, telling white people how to be better. He wasn’t writing to white people.
EP: And he’s said he doesn’t want his book to be popular just because white people read it. His book should stand alone as part of a conversation with someone other than that audience. But even beyond his example, that’s not why any literary writer starts working. Maybe you start when your kid’s upstairs crying because he hasn’t yet let go of a hope or an understanding that you know he’ll have to get rid of if he’s going to survive and keep his sanity. Maybe that’s where you start: a personal relationship. And I, too, start from a place that’s that personal and internal.
JK: It’s not like, “How is this essay going to change the whole world right now?”
EP: When I start, there’s no world; it’s just work. It’s ridiculous for me to think at that early stage that other people will ever care about what I do [laughs]. I guess people maybe think about it in theater, because they have to sell tickets. But in general, it damages my process.
JK: I’ve had a horrible time getting work done since the inauguration. It must be hard to promote a book right now.
EP: What the fuck do you do? It’s a fucking miserable time, but I still have to make stuff. And I know this “have to” is a terribly escapist need that in itself is totally privileged. The fact that I can go into a room and just think about skunks for two hours a day [laughs], I’m very, very, very lucky. And so I take it very, very, very seriously.
Elena Passarello is an actor, a writer, and recipient of a 2015 Whiting Award. Her essay collection Let Me Clear My Throat (Sarabande Books) won the gold medal for nonfiction at the 2013 Independent Publisher Awards and was a finalist for the 2014 Oregon Book Award. 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. Passarello lives in Corvallis, Oregon and teaches at Oregon State University.
Jess Kibler is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. By day, she is a copywriter for a veterinary marketing agency and a copy editor, and by night, she writes essays about feminism, sexuality, and pop culture.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.