Voices Carry: An Interview with Elena Passarello


At Work

Elena Passarello is a writer with a confident voice. Her first book is centered around that voice: in Let Me Clear My Throat, Passarello draws from her writing and acting background, and the result is a quirky blend of reportage and some personal narrative. In a recent e-mail interview, we discussed everything from the recent presidential campaign to a Stella screaming contest.

How did you choose your theme for your first book? Did you set out from the beginning to write an entire essay collection devoted to the human voice?

I had a few essays on voices before I began working on the essays that appear in this collection. I didn’t know that they were on voices at the time, however—I was just writing profiles, critical pieces, lyric stuff that all ended up using voice either as an entrance point or as an organizing principle. The first essay that I wrote for the collection was the one on the Wilhelm Scream. I first drafted it not as an essay on the voice, but as a simple unpacking of this very juicy and mysterious piece of pop culture. A few drafts in, however, I saw that I was, once again, threading ideas about the voice throughout it. The essay became about the fact that a human body had made this sound, and in doing so, that body embossed itself into every movie which used the clip. The essay became an exploration of the purposes a human scream serves—both in pre-civilized human life and contemporary culture. Around the time I finished the essay, I started thinking I could do a whole book about the sounds of the human throat.

Speaking of your essay on the Wilhelm Scream—a sound effect used in hundreds of movies—how did you first hear about it?

I was just Googling around for the correct spelling of Ennio Morricone’s name for a now-defunct project. I landed on an IMDb page for a movie Morricone had scored, and in the roll of facts on the film was “Wilhelm Scream at 88:02!” So it really just began with me seeing that phrase, “Wilhelm Scream.” It’s catchy, right? Then I sought a sound clip of the scream, which is very shocking at first listen, because it’s so fake, ridiculous, and not at all scary. From there, I was pretty intrigued. And when I heard it had been used in hundreds of movies, and not just horror flicks like THEM! or bloody Westerns like The Wild Bunch, but in musicals (A Star is Born) and rom-coms (Under the Tuscan Sun) and children’s flicks (Toy Story), I became obsessed.

Throughout Let Me Clear My Throat, you intersperse your essays with interviews, ranging from an Elvis impersonator to a politician who has to give many public speeches to a person whose vocal cords were surgically removed, just to name a few. What drew you to these very different personalities?

One of the major rules I made for myself was that I not be the only voice that the reader “hears.” I wanted to make a noisy book, but if I was describing all the noise—castrato high Cs and ventriloquist patter and war cries and punk-rock caws—all those sounds would still just be filtered through my “voice” on the page. So I figured the best way to counter that would be to let in other voices that speak for extended lengths without interruption. I made a list of folks who did things with their voices that I never could, like phone psychics and impressionists and auctioneers, and I started hunting them. For most of them, we’d do an hour or longer interview and then I’d take the transcript of what they said and shape it into a compact “monologue” of three hundred to five hundred words. It was one of my favorite challenges of the book. A few voices I was hunting slipped through the cracks, however. I never did find an adult film actress to interview, and it would have been awesome to hear her talk about how she used her voice in a, er, professional capacity.

In 2011 you became the first woman to win the Stella and Stanley Shouting Contest. I watched the YouTube video and was really impressed. In your essay “Harpy” you talk about how it felt to scream the way you did—“It’s a sad discovery, I suppose, this lonely and untapped sonic pocket with a trap release, but I do not know what is sadder about it: that it lies there, useless, sometimes for an entire quiet life, or that something allows me to trick myself into finding it. Or that it exists in us at all.” Do you think everyone has such an “untapped sonic pocket?”

I hear that scream and I picture those “false vocal cords” at the top of all of our larynges, and yeah, it makes me think we all have this rarely-used place inside of us. This emergency glass place is left over from the days in which screams transmitted the frequent reality of mortal peril. And since all different kinds of peril existed in our more animalistic past, there were lots of different places in the body to pitch the sounds of a unique predicament. We just don’t have the occasions to use these places anymore, now that we’re warm and safe and bipedal. In fact, there is a whole arm of performance studies, made famous by Roy Hart, in which performers undergo a kind of psychic unlocking to be able to “sing” multiple octaves and, in doing so, retain some of those lost vocal pockets. Hart’s mentor developed this method after hearing gassed soldiers moan in the trenches in World War I. When he heard the horrible sound of these everyday humans getting back in touch the reality of open-air pain, he understood how rarely modern humans were accessing the sounds of which they were biologically capable. This is a terrible but fascinating physical truth.

In addition to being a writer, you’re also a trained actress. I’ve always been fascinated by the connection between acting and writing, and I can’t help but wonder—what is the correlation between the voice of an actor and the voice of a writer?

For the decade I worked steadily as an actor, I was very tuned in to my voice and the voices of the “characters” around me, and I did use that scrutiny every day for this book project. In general, however, an acting project and a writing project require wildly different things from me. Here’s an example. I turned in the final draft of this book last November—after a good six months of doing little more than write—and I almost immediately flew to Pittsburgh to do a six-week rehearsal and run of a show. The differences between the two types of work—days spent sitting still, working only alone and only from the neck up to solve the problems of storytelling, versus a forty-hour rehearsal week of on-your-feet, physical problem solving within a challenging ensemble—gave me the bends. I was overthinking everything, especially my vocal choices. I think the difference comes down to consciousness. A writer is very in touch with her linguistic faculties, and an essayist in particular must have her sense of analysis and criticism at her fingertips. But I’ve found there is little place for analysis in stage performance. A good actor has a profound ability to “go to his dumb place,” the place where he does not justify his decisions or hunt the literary merit in the words he’s been scripted. He just bluntly and freely reacts to the pressures hitting him at each moment. In theater (and especially in my old bread-and-butter, physical comedy), you solve problems with your body in the finite space of the stage. That, in my experience, is the exact opposite of writing, where you solve problems within the infinite space of your imagination.

In one of your essays, you analyze how Howard Dean’s scream pretty much ruined his campaign. What would you say about the voices behind the recent presidential election?

I’d say that both nominees sounded very different from the voices they brought to their 2008 candidacies. Romney was very obviously coached to add a sort of Reagan-esque smile into the sounds he makes. I hear it as a warm little curl from within his vowels. It was a very engaging addition to his vocal profile. And I think Obama’s first term really affected his vocal seamlessness. His speech on the campaign trail was at times so halting, so careful, that it bordered on a kind of stammer. In his frequent hesitations between phrases, you could hear the ornery press conferences and line-by-line media scrutiny of the past four years weighing on him, almost as if he was playing a phrase in his head to test it before he let it out. I spent the convention and the debates so hungry for the smoother, more confident Obama oratory. There were so few pauses back in ’08. It was just these long and clear runs of very musical speech. And then suddenly, when he gave that victory speech on election night, the old Barack vox was back, and he’s been much more fluid in the clips I’ve seen since. But I can’t talk about the 2012 race without shouting out to Herman Cain. Nothing can touch that wry Georgia baritone, not Perry’s “Oops” or Gingrich’s weird first syllable stressing of “NOMinee” or even Obama’s pretty impressive rendition of the first lines of “Let’s Stay Together” at the Apollo. I swear I will never forget the way Cain poured out, “Ah buh-leeve these worrrds came fruhm [dramatic pause] thuh Po-keeemon Moo-vie” at his concession speech. God freaking bless America.

Do you plan to write another themed essay collection?

I do. I like this mode of attacking a subject from lots of different angles, not just in terms of the content, but the forms and styles of “essaying” as well. I think the next one will have a lot fewer words in it, though. And it would be a real relief if the next one had no voices in it. Maybe I’ll do a collection on silent auctions, or golf tournaments. Something very hushed. Mimes, maybe.

Which author do you think has the best reading voice?

Ooh, that’s hard. I’ll stick to living writers, and I’ll reluctantly name only two. Brigit Pegeen Kelly, in her thin alto, is absolutely incomparable in how she conjures text inside a public space. I never hear her without having to catch my breath. And, in a completely different capacity, I have to mention Ben Percy, who, unlike Kelly, was gifted with a very impressive voice. He could read me the phone book in that basso profundo. And he reads with such verve! The closest a writer reading at the podium ever gets to a pro wrestler monologuing in the ring.

Let Me Clear My Throat covers a wide range of topics involving voice—ranging from how musicians sound like crows to “Tips on Popular Singing” by Frank Sinatra. But you also talk about some personal experiences, like when you won the screaming competition. What’s more difficult—writing a straightforward personal essay or blending the personal with reportage?

I love reading personal essays, but it is never my first instinct to locate my own essays in a personal place. I haven’t written a “straightforward personal essay,” one that develops solely inside a personal event or situation, since I was an undergrad. I know doing so is a very widely held desire on the part of nonfiction readers, and a valid desire at that. But I’ve also had too many workshoppers, editors, etcetera offer the comment “Where is the YOU in this essay, Elena? Where is the YOU in this story of Charles Darwin, or in this essay on boys who were castrated so they could sing high notes in the churches of eighteenth-century Europe?” That attitude yields limited readings, and it has been known to make me a more than a little cranky. But I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that sometimes it does make sense to include a personal component—like my own story of the Stella contest within an essay about the differences between men and women’s different societally acceptable vocal expressions. But even then, I feel reluctant to barge into the inquiry and start throwing my “I” around. It just isn’t the way I tend to push ideas forward. So far, I’ve preferred to develop ideas in the world of the “we.” One of the amazing things about essaying is that there is room for both kinds of developments, sometimes even from within the same collection, and I think we all can be pleased about that. Why do essays matter? Do you think they are more relevant in our ADD culture? I’m not sure how our ADD culture either benefits from or resists the essay. I suppose there is a mode of essaying that requires extreme time and patience on the part of the reader, so that a writer can follow many pages of irregular structures that mirror her mind and/or her experiences. ADD culture might have to calm itself in order to absorb the extended wanderings of Montaigne’s “On Some Verses of Virgil,” for example. But, no matter when we are, essays matter! They matter because they follow the mental processes of either an individual or a perceived cultural group. For that reason, I think readers are always going to be hungry to see both present and past mindsets displayed in essay form. We need look no further than the many contemporary essayists (Monson, Wallace, Bechdel, etcetera) who conduct vivid, high-stakes inquiries from within ADD culture mindsets for evidence of this. I keep accidentally typing “ASS culture” every time I mean to type “ADD culture.” Maybe that is a more fitting answer to your question.

You have a lot of sources listed in the back of the book. Can you share some of your favorite nerdiest facts you came across during your research?

I like the fact that the highest note Howard Dean hits in his famous “BYAH!” scream is the same high note Robert Plant sings in the outro of “Communication Breakdown.” And I love that the sound engineers of Breaking Bad, in what has to be a Wilhelm Scream homage, seem to have buried a “BYAH!” into the big scene from season one (when Walt throws that explosive “meth” at Tuco). I marvel at the fact that, since castrating boys was considered a sin, castrati in Italian church choirs were given medical alibis, like horse-kicks or swan bites or wild pig attacks. It’s amazing to me that Judy Garland, before going onstage for her famous live shows, would scream “Fuck ’em! Fuck ’em! Fuck ’em!” into the stage curtain. It’s also amazing that, though NASA and all four Beatles were into it, “Here Comes the Sun” does not appear on the Golden Record that was shot into space thirty years ago because the suits couldn’t figure out what the royalties would be for outer space airplay. And it’s hard to believe that a whole bunch of rich D. C. socialites were picnicking on a hill while the carnage of the Battle of Bull Run raged underneath them. But the most amazing fact to me is, I suppose, that the voice itself does not really exist—it is not a designated body part at all, aside from those two miniscule cords behind our epiglottis. Every other part of the complicated vocal mechanism is a ridiculous bit of evolutionary thievery. We literally stole our voice from other body parts—the organs that help us breathe, eat, and support our skulls. It’s a fact—we only speak because we had to, and we literally re-wired ourselves to meet that burning need for self-expression.