By Wes Cruse
Hi, friends! It’s the start of a fresh semester here on the Bluff, and do you know what that means? That’s right, there’s a new slew of accomplished writers lined up to come to campus and share their work and wisdom with us literature-lovers. First up is Elena Passarello who will be with us on Wednesday, January 30th at 7:30pm in the bookstore.
As an essayist and actor, Passarello has garnered the attention of well-regarded literary minds all over the country; in 2015 she received the Whiting Award, an honor recognizing her as a talented emerging writer. Her most recent essay collection, Animals Strike Curious Poses, won the 2018 Oregon Book Award in Creative Nonfiction and made the best books of 2017 lists in The New York Times, Guardian, and Publisher’s Weekly. She’s also been published in The New York Times, Paris Review, and The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2018. She currently lives in Corvallis, OR, where she teaches creative writing at Oregon State University.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Passarello, and I think you’ll find (like I did) her responses to my questions insightfully sharp and tantalizing.
Tell us more about your award-winning work, Animals Strike Curious Poses. What’s it about? Tell me a bit about how it came to be.
I like to make collections of essays that speak to one another as a cohesive book. Rather than fifteen discrete essays or essays that can only be loosely grouped by a common theme, I work to make the collection as a whole an essay in itself. So that’s the first thing I set out to do. Initially, I thought the essays would all cover famous animals–beasts that, at some point in history, were named and celebrated by humans, like Durer’s Rhino or Koko the sign language gorilla. I imagined a kind of interactive bestiary modeled after the books of beasts found in Medieval Europe. Those books discussed animals with this wonderful mix of fact and conjecture–a mix that I think a lot of nonfiction over the centuries has employed. As I worked through the collection, however, I realized that the essays didn’t depict the animals so much as the humans that named them and the cultures that surrounded their fame. So this book of animal essays is really a book about the human imagination. And the larger essay is the sort of portrait of human consciousness that it paints.
When did you decide that you wanted to make a career out of writing and teaching? What inspired this decision?
My undergraduate and graduate degrees are both in creative writing, but for about six years in between, I worked as an actor and voiceover artist. Working in theater is really fun, but you don’t have a ton of agency if you want to make a living. I left acting to go to grad school in search of a creative pursuit that’s more forgiving (sorry writers, actors have you beat in terms of tough rackets). I see a lot of overlap between designing a performance and hammering out an essay: both involve research, finding a voice, and tailoring a performance to communicate to a willing audience. And teaching for me checks a lot of other theater boxes. Plus, you get to eat a lot more carbs as a writer and teacher than you do as a working actress.
As sort of a part B to question 2: Which authors inspire you as a writer? Who’s been formative in your life as a writer? And for fun, what’s a guilty pleasure read of yours?
I love Anne Carson, Caryl Churchill, Sei Shonagon, Hilton Als, Eliot Weinberger. I read a lot of blogs about skincare when I should be writing or answering emails, which makes me feel guilty, but I do take pleasure in them.
How do you see your acting roles informing your essayistic self or vice versa?
I feel that energy is all you have in performance. I always saw acting as this wonderful opportunity to explore caged energy. Think about all the “controls” present in a traditional piece of theatre–by show time, the actor is told what to say, where to stand, how to move so that the lights hit her, and what to wear. This is not to say that there is no agency involved in scripted performance; only that, amidst such a tight bunch of controls, the only variable an actor has at her disposal is her energy, her spirit, the amount of live presence and fervor she can pour into that Apollonian cage. It is so fun to find moments of surprise while still working from within the iron bars of theatre’s parameters. Essaying is the opposite for me. There are no real controls, nobody telling you how to dress or what to say. The expression is nothing but variables, put up against the constant reality of the page. In building these tighter worlds from which I am expected to “perform” as a writer, I then try to find opportunities to surprise.
Who’s your favorite actor?
As for favorite actors, I love Nicholas Cage. He is completely uninterested in “realism” as a part of his best performances, and I think contemporary essays should consider pursuing a similar goal. No performance is “real” and no essay is “true.” I’ve modeled more than one of my own pieces after Nic Cage performances.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors or those interested in doing an MFA?
Get to know the programs beyond their ranking or the accomplishments of their faculty. Figure out how you’d like to work with a mentor or a cohort, and then make your application decisions based on programs/faculty that offer specific things, rather than on the notable authors on staff. It really doesn’t matter if a mentor is fancy or famous; it matters if they are good teachers whose style of working can help you further develop your own process.
Outside of reading and writing, what are your hobbies and interests?
Every couple years or so, I get down on myself because other than writing, I have no hobbies or interests (this is exacerbated by the fact that I primarily write about things that interest me, so I’m always pursuing my interests when I work). Then I decide to take up a hobby, like the musical saw or container gardening, but it never lasts. So I basically hang with my cats, take long walks, watch TV and Beyonce videos, and write. Oh, and I eat a lot, too. Can eating count as a hobby/ interest? I find myself interested in eating pretty much daily.
Have you faced challenges being a woman in fields (both writing and teaching at a university) that are predominantly populated by men? If so, how did you respond to those and what did those experiences teach you about yourself?
One weird thing I’ve noticed is that people discuss nonfiction writing in gendered ways. More than once my writing–which is kind of shouty and bombastic–has been described as “masculine” or as running counter to this more feminine understanding of the lyric/experimental essay as quiet or unassuming. I can’t count how many reviews, editors, etc. have asked me to be “more personal” in my work, and sometimes I suspect that’s a gendered expectation of what women essayists do. It happens outside my own experience, too. When a woman writes a memoir, it’s “confessional” or “emotional”; when a man does, it’s “gripping” or “searing.” I think that’s bunk, but I’m frankly paying more attention to the gender binary as it shows up in my writing, reading, teaching right now. Looking at how we can run workshops or write about the world in ways that don’t evoke a strict either-or, model seems both important and very challenging.
P.S. I’m sure she knows it, but the title of her newest essay collection, Animals Strike Curious Poses, is a line from Prince’s hit “When Doves Cry.” My personal recommendation is that you pick up Passarello’s book and enjoy it while grooving along to this classic 80s anthem. Trust me, it’ll be worth it.
Photo courtesy of Wendy Madar