Curious Romps Through Reality

Essayist and assistant English professor Elena Passarello finds inspiration in her home office, where cats, she says, help her stay focused on writing. (Photo: Hannah O'Leary)
Essayist and assistant English professor Elena Passarello finds inspiration in her home office, where cats, she says, help her stay focused on writing. (Photo: Hannah O’Leary)

When Elena Passarello was growing up in Atlanta, she began to write as a way to have “company.” Brought up in a house where she was the only child, she made magazines and newspapers for her imaginary friends to read, she says, smiling at the memory of her earliest literary steps.

She found her first flesh-and-blood audience at the neighborhood school-bus stop. She wrote and hand copied a newsletter for the families who lined up each weekday. Although the kids “thought it was lame,” the moms loved it.

As a young teen who spent countless hours listening to cassette tapes of The Cure and Elvis Costello, Passarello moved on to music reviews. She’d imagine these early critiques in Sassy, a now defunct magazine aimed at teenage female fans of alternative and indie rock.

Now an award-winning assistant professor in the School of Writing, Literature and Film at Oregon State University, Passarello credits her interest in her craft to the influence of her mother, an eighth-grade English teacher and the matriarch of a family she describes as “bookish, library people.” Literature was woven into casual gatherings and conversations at the dinner table.

Passarello’s first collection of essays, Let Me Clear My Throat, was published in 2012 and won the Independent Publishing Book Awards gold medal for nonfiction (aka the “IPPY” Award). A finalist for the Oregon Book Award, she received the prestigious Whiting Award for Nonfiction in 2015, which includes a $50,000 prize and honors emerging writers for their accomplishments and promise.

Passarello-TBHer current work in progress — Animals Strike Curious Poses — is due in early 2017 and features a lion as well as a spider, a rhino and a sheep. It helps that Passarello is a cat person. She currently lives with three felines, including a three-legged “old lady with lots of opinions” named Charlene.

Art of the Essay

Passarello discussed her work in her Moreland Hall office on a day when the Indian Summer heat necessitated open windows, carrying a backdrop of chatter from passersby below. A bookshelf filled with nonfiction has become a lending library for students who visit during office hours. Most of the books are returned to her, but if they’re not, Passarello assumes they were needed elsewhere, which, she notes, “is often the case with great nonfiction.” Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Anne Carson’s Plainwater and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis are among the books she’s had to replace more than once.

Although the topics Passarello explores in her two books are vastly different — voice and animals — they are linked by cultural impact. “I’m looking for that moment in history where something goes viral and sticks,” she says. “My current project explores moments when an animal has become the zeitgeist.”

Among her famous subjects are Dolly, the first mammal to be successfully cloned from an adult cell, and Arabella, the spider that became a cultural phenomenon in 1973 as a space-traveling arachnid on Skylab 3. Although Passarello is well into research for this 20-essay collection, she is still finalizing her topics. It would be difficult, she says, not to include Cecil, the poached African lion who was shot last year by an American big-game hunter.

“A lot of the scientific reports coming back from Skylab were too much for general audiences to immediately absorb, but people could relate to that spider. Cecil has had such an international impact, and I think something about the fact that we named him can be explored as a reason for that impact,” she adds. “Animals are often a connecting point between a current event and a human response.”

It’s that need to investigate the curious corners of culture that seems to drive Passarello in her choice of subjects. In Let Me Clear My Throat, she takes readers on a trip through the voice as cultural icon. Her essays offer seminal moments — Marlon Brando’s “Stella!” scream in A Streetcar Named Desire, a Judy Garland concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall. One navigates Tips on Popular Singing by Frank Sinatra, a 1941 publication by the crooner and his coach John Quinlan.

Passarello maps extensive research on flip-chart paper, which includes sticky notes, drawings and other information that is key to her writing process. (Photo: Hannah O'Leary)
Passarello maps extensive research on flip-chart paper, which includes sticky notes, drawings and other information that is key to her writing process. (Photo: Hannah O’Leary)

“With both projects, I realized that the books were about something other than what I thought they were about when I started,” Passarello says, as though her discoveries are their own rewards. “I began by simply picking a fixed aspect of human culture and obsessing over it for a few years. Each one also is a window into a topic I feel connected to: now, animals, and with my first book, performance.”

Although she majored in writing and literature at the University of Pittsburgh, Passarello became absorbed in theater classes and, after graduating, worked as an actor for several years in Equity theaters and as voiceover talent. Later, she decided to return to graduate school and received her master’s of fine arts from the University of Iowa’s top-rated writing program.

It was during her years in the Hawkeye state that she developed her mastery of nonfiction, ironically in part, by taking a fiction-writing workshop. “Moving the chess pieces in a fictive world is not where my engine is,” Passarello says. “For me, the way my imagination works, I need boundaries. I find the cage of reality and research to be more creative; the real world ignites my creativity.”

She draws inspiration from the work of Michel de Montaigne, one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance and the father of the modern essay. Montaigne was known for popularizing the form as a literary genre,
melding anecdotes and autobiography with intellectual insight.

20151217_ElenaPassarello_HO-6192Pat Madden, an English professor at Brigham Young University, teaches creative nonfiction and became a fan of Passarello’s after reading her essay, “Of Singing,” in the Iowa Review. The piece also was listed as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2008. “It struck me as a piece that was of the Montaignean tradition,” he says. “It wasn’t purely narrative, and it wasn’t just recounting an experience. It was thinking. Her work is intellectually rigorous and requires work on the part of the reader to make and follow the connections. But it also rewards the reader because she’s done so much work herself in researching. It’s kind of a joyous romp through curiosity.”

Flip Charts and Sticky Notes

Research plays a key role in Passarello’s process, which begins with an idea that becomes a journey displayed on huge pieces of flip-chart paper on the wall above her desk. To stoke her thinking as she writes, each essay gets its own page of treatment, chock-full of handwritten notes with arrows from one point to the next, as well as assorted colored sticky notes scattered around the page.

“I spend a lot of time chewing on topics,” Passarello says. “It’s a very ruminative process. It starts with researching a topic for months. You go down so many false avenues and sort of get lost. You have to be very patient and trust that something — a connection, a format, a question — will jump out at you and teach you how to make the essay work.”

The work proceeds from a draft through three to four edits before it’s submitted to an editor for several more rounds of revisions. “There’s a lot of picking at the scabs for a very long time,” Passarello says of the laborious and sometimes painful step-by-step process.

So what’s next for Passarello in addition to her teaching? She’s leaning toward a diversion from essay collections. The idea of a “chapter book” on comedy — nonfiction, of course — intrigues her. As she speaks, her mind is already in enthusiastic motion, eyebrows arching, smile forming. “How do you learn to be funny?” Passarello asks. “You know? For hundreds of years, there have been schools for clowns, and now there are circus clown colleges and improv comedy workshops. I’d like to see if comedy really can be taught by trying — and probably failing — to learn how to be funny myself.”

Advice for Aspiring Writers
Passarello says that she has never met an impressive writer who doesn’t read more than she writes. Here are some of her tips for those who want to pursue the craft:

  • Read. Read. Read. And not just for story. Take notes in the margins, dissect sentences and paragraphs, make maps of structure.
  • Examine obsessions. The old adage is “write what you know,” but Passarello thinks it’s better to “write what you can’t stop thinking about.”
  • Gather friends. Few people write in a vacuum. Fellow writers are needed to vent, help edit and inspire. Form a writing group or go to local readings and festivals.
  • Don’t think about publication. Writers must “make the art” before the world can read it.
  • Get a cat. Having a cat curl up on a warm lap is a great way to focus, forcing writers to stay in their chairs and keep working.