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Pop culture maven makes history hip

Pop culture maven makes history hip — Sarah Vowell’s new book explores the ”Melrose”-esque drama of historical assassinations

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By day she was a mild-mannered history buff researching the 1880 Republican convention. By night, a masked superhero, or at least the helium-pitched voice of one, recording a track for a spin-off videogame. And Sarah Vowell — friend of public radio, Pixar, and Late Night With Conan O’Brien — knows which project makes for better dinner conversation. As the sulky teenage voice of Violet in The Incredibles, the 35-year-old writer got to experience the buzzy fun of working on a surefire hit. ”My family just couldn’t wait for the movie to come out,” she remembers. ”’Oh, you’re going to be a superhero! What are your powers?! Did you meet Samuel L. Jackson yet?”’ Meanwhile, she was plugging away on her fourth book, Assassination Vacation, a winking rumination on the murders of Abraham Lincoin, James Garfield, and William McKinley. ”I know it doesn’t sound sexy,” she admits. ”When I would bring up the Garfield assassination, there weren’t that many follow-up questions.”

Sitting on a bench in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park under the watchful gaze of a statue of America’s 21st president, Chester Arthur, Vowell talks passionately about Peter Gallagher’s eyebrows on The O.C., the gut-twisting music on Lost, and the sweet perfection of Alias‘ first season. But she insists that the past offers as many pleasures as contemporary pop culture. ”History is full of all these people who were just so singular and bizarre and messed-up and evil and majestic,” she says, tiny hands fingering her blue rubber Jimmy Carter key chain. ”You can see how a person who was obsessed with Melrose Place or Behind the Music would write about the Garfield assassination. It’s all about power and how these people who are supposed to be on each other’s side end up undercutting and betraying one another.”

Nervous that her material was too dry, she tested portions of the book at NYC comedy showcases. And people laughed. ”Sarah has this capacity to synthesize these large topics like history, injustice, and assassination that in other, less talented hands would be really eggheady,” says friend and essayist David Rakoff. ”There’s no sense in reading Sarah’s writing that you’re getting a portion of vegetables. It reads like dessert.” (Listen for Rakoff, along with O’Brien, Jon Stewart, Catherine Keener, Dave Eggers, and Stephen King as Lincoln no less, on the Assassination Vacation audiobook.)

It’s no surprise that death obsession can wear a person down. ”I hope the book seems breezy to the reader,” says Vowell, ”but dealing with murder all the time kind of gets to you. So whenever I would have these empathetic moments with the presidents’ pain or the loss suffered by their families, I would drop what I was doing and go put on that old Johnny Thunders song ‘You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.”’

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