Elena Passarello is a writer and actor, and the author of Let Me Clear My Throat, a collection of essays on the human voice in popular culture. She is originally from Charleston, South Carolina. She studied nonfiction at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Iowa. Her essays have been published in Oxford American, Normal School, Creative Nonfiction, Gulf Coast, Slate, Iowa Review, and are forthcoming in the anthologies After Montaigne and Cat is Art Spelled Wrong. She has acted in various regional theaters in the East and Midwest. She originated the roles in the premieres of Christo pher Durang’s Mrs. Bob Cratchit‘s Wild Christmas Binge and David Turkel‘s Wild Signs and Holler. In 2011, she was named the winner of the annual Stella Screaming Contest in New Orleans. She was the first woman to win this competition. Passarello teaches nonfiction at Oregon State University.
INSCAPE: Your book, Let Me Clear My Throat, is obviously focused on the human voice, I am curious, what was the genesis for this idea? What made you think, “I want to write a series of essays focusing on the voice, shouts, and screams.”
ELENA PASSARELLO: I knew that the voice would be a good topic for a whole book for two reasons. One, I think it was a topic I knew a lot about, or that I knew enough that I could get started in a broad way. I knew I could because of my work as an actor and for personal reasons, too I am from the South and used to have a southern accent; I don’t anymore. I have a particularly low-pitched voice for a woman, so I have always been conscious of my voice. And as an actor, I had to be professionally conscious about my voice. By the time I came to the place where I wanted to write a book, I knew that the voice was a baseline that I could keep accessing.
The other thing that I knew was how much mystery surrounds the human voice. We don‘t less about it than we think we do. Even peo ple that are heavily trained vocally have moments of crisis where their voice seizes up on them. Compared to other physical systems, we don’t have effective maps, training, or surgery for the voice. And there are new things that we are learning every year about the voice. Therefore, I was really excited to unpack some of the mysteries.
INSCAPE: Where do you draw inspiration for your writing?
ELENA PASSARELLO: I am inspired by ekphrasis. And I am really inspired by other people making things that the world pays attention to. Although some people do not believe that pop culture is art, I absolutely do. Sometimes they make something beautiful, like a concert at Carnegie Hall, and sometimes they make something that you could only call art in quotation marks, like the “Wilhelm Scream.” When that making of art causes any sort of larger public reaction, I’m very inspired by figuring out how to explain the reaction. For example, my new project is all about animals that we as a culture have paid attention to, and the essays in the project unpack what that attention means.
I am also very inspired by mysteries, like the essay in Let Me Clear My Throat about the “Rebel Yell”-no one really knows what it sounded like. Or the “Wilhelm Scream”-no one really knows who made that recorded movie scream. No one living knows what the “Castrati” sound like. Things like this that cannot be explained are really exciting to me.
INSCAPE: The book features various phonetically spelled–out screams, yells, and hollers. While reading the book, I could not help but sound many of these out. What was the process of sounding these out and writing them out?
ELENA PASSARELLO: Rendering something on the page presents a lot of obstacles, since the senses or the passage of time cannot be immediately evoked; they must be evoked through language. Some of those obstacles we hate and we avoid. We try not to engage them and push them off to the side. But I think every writer has one obstacle that they really love to engage with. For me, it’s sound. I love trying to evoke sound on the page.
Sound is so hard to write about that there’s a famous a saying: “Writing about jazz is like dancing about architecture.” But, despite the obstacle, I think trying to bridge that gap between the still page with just typeface on it and actual sound, and trying to get the sound to perform in front of the reader, is one of my favorite things to try. But in order to do that, I had to do a lot of silly sniff. When I was writing, I had a mirror close by so if I needed to watch my body making the sound, I could. I also had a pitch pipe read the right pitches were. Sometimes I even had a keyboard. I did a lot of recording, capturing, and performing trying to find different ways to bridge that obstacle of sound making. Spelling was just one way I tried to face the obstacle.
I don‘t think that I was one hundred percent successful. I think that is a part of the major writerly obstacles; you can’t ever over come them to one hundred percent success.
INSCAPE: Have you always wanted to publish a book? For example, when you were a little girl, did you always think one day you were going to publish a book. Or during your years of acting, did you think that one day you would contribute to the world of essays?
ELENA PASSARELLO: I think so. When I was a kid, I was totally excited to write a book. But, you know, when you’re a kid, you’re also excited to go the moon. No task seems impossible. But writing a book was one of the things that I pretended. Like I pretended I won an Oscar, I pretended I had a whole bunch of babies, and I pretended that I worked at Burger King! I was really into working at Burger King, actually.
Then when I got older, it seemed kind of impossible when I realized how hard writing was. So I got into performance. But even when I was acting, I thought it would be really cool to make some thing that lasted. I think theater is really rewarding, but one of the things that is so beautiful about theater is that it evaporates. You can go see the Mona Lisa tomorrow, and I saw the Mona Lisa in 2000. It’s still there. A book published 500 years ago can still exist today, as well. But if you performed in Phantom of the Opera when you were 21, I’m never going to get to see that. Therefore, when I was acting, I felt this need to make something tangible. But it took a long time to be able to actually pretend that I could to it. I had to re-convince myself that I could.
INS CAPE: Why did you choose essays as a medium to express your self?
ELENA PASSARELLO: I was never really drawn to any other form. I don’t make things up very well in the sense of the free form, fictive. I’ve never been interested in creating other universes or people to move throughout those universes. When I think of that, I don’t think of making things. I think of getting lost! It’s a very unmooring concept for me. Also, I think I am too wordy for poetry, even prose poetry.
I like how in essays you can define the parameters of what you’re working on through your relationship to certain facts in the world. I like the rigidity and scaffolding that essays allow me. I like facts; they keep me company. I like researching things and living in that research. I was raised an only child, and I’ve always found history, culture, and facts as companions.
INSCAPE: Do you write every day?
ELENA PASSARELLO: No. Well, I’m on a book deadline now, so right now I do. But I typically don’t write eve1y day. I do see the benefit of writing every day, in that a writing practice is important. This is something that I think is non-fiction specific, though. I think there’s a lot of time spent with nonfiction practice that isn’t literal writing. Many non–fiction writers say that they consider researching as writing. Or going out into the field, or interview. I find that I have these long incubation periods in–between ideas or essays in which I am just reading, taking notes, researching, or sometimes just watching a bunch of movies to try to figure out what I think about a certain thing. I’m thinking like a writer while I work, but I am not sitting down at the computer and thinking about sentences.
INSCAPE: Why do you write?
ELENA PASSARELLO: I write because I value the self that I am on the page. It doesn’t always happen, but when I’ve got a finished piece of writing that exists in the world and that I am confident it is doing what it needs to do, the self that I created it is more rigorous, more cogent, more attuned, and more presentable than what my everyday self is. I am proud of that.
I write because I like to talk to people about the things that fascinate me. I write because it keeps me company. You can grow old with writing. You can change with writing. It is something that you can visit every day. You can use it to deal with the small problems of the day. That seems so sobering. I should say, “I write because it‘s fun!” But it’s not! Editing can be fun, but writing is not fun for me a lot of the time. But it is always there.
It’s funny, because the other constant in my life, performing, is so different from writing. Why I pe1form has nothing to do with any of the things I just listed. When I perform, it’s because I appreciate the spontaneity. I love the idea of never having to overthink anything. It follows a wonderful series of impulses. It‘s instant gratification! There is a beautiful feeling of being alive in your body when you perform. Athletes feel this way too, I’ve heard. You become a super-charged physical-version of yourself. None of that is present in writing, where you’re calculating an intellectual version of your self with which people engage in a not–very-spontaneous way.