Only after speaking with Elena Passarello for an hour do I remember that in an earlier incarnation she was an actor. Perhaps that’s why she’s so at ease being interviewed. She seems to possess none of the stilted seriousness that so many writers like to put on when talking about their work. Tellingly, her show business past is given all the attention of a footnote in her first essay collection Let Me Clear My Throat—a scientifically girded exploration into the oddities and impacts of the human voice—and it is entirely absent from her second book Animals Strike Curious Poses, historical profiles of celebrated (and sometimes notorious) animals that have shaped how humans see ourselves.
In conversation, Passarello seems at all times driven by curiosity: what moves the world forward and what makes her own mind tick. “I have very little knowledge of myself as a writer in a lot of ways,” she says frankly one moment, and then boldly the next, “I’m trying to put my money where my mouth is and think of the [essay] collection as a kind of art form.” In both instances she is credible.
I ask her why she took on something as vast as the human voice on her very first outing. “In grad school, I didn’t know exactly what I was there to write,” she answers, “And so I took a lot of exploratory classes, and halfway through I had a teacher who was a Jungian scholar, and the way that she taught was to ask us to write on her prompts and then she would send us these page-long analyses. She gave me a couple of things that I thought were really helpful. She said, you are a writer of performance, especially failed performance, and you seem to approach nearly every subject that you come across from a vocal perspective, even if it’s not a voice thing, so I would like you to try to filter the prompts through that lens. And so, I just did what she said. And when it was over, I started using that as an opportunity to develop my thesis as a collection of essays on the human voice.”
In her second book, Passarello departed from the straightforward think-pieces that populated her first collection. Instead, in Animals, every creature’s tale is told with a distinct style, structure, and voice. She explains the move toward this eclecticism in terms of music:
“We think a collection is one mind, one voice, tackling all these different subjects, but if you extend it to an album concept, there are albums where it sounds like the same six instruments have been used for every song, like a Strokes album. But then there’s an album like Nilsson Schmilsson, which has ‘Lime in the Coconut’ and then that one song ‘Jump Into the Fire’ where he didn’t change the key at all, and then ‘Can’t Live’, the weepy Celine Dion ballad. Which is great. I mean, he wanted that.”
The animals she chooses to profile have achieved great celebrity in the human world, though many fall out of favor and are often dispatched with by their human masters. In an essay stylized with Elizabethan language, we meet Sackerson the bear, champion of a brutal blood sport popularized in 16th century London, wherein bears are pitted against other animals in a ring. In another essay titled “Jumbo II,” Passarello effectively pieces together a running narrative about the awful fate of circus elephants, the competitive race to bring electricity to the Western world, and the assassination of President McKinley, using only historical newspaper clippings.
“I think one thing I learned I really like to do with the first book was to make a collection that, when everything is taken together, there’s an argument, or an essay happening. That’s the difference between an album where every track is doing its own thing and an album like Sgt. Pepper, where there’s a concept. I started really believing in that as an art form, and I thought, for the second book, maybe subconsciously, maybe not, I wanted to try to push that further. I wanted to have something that felt like you could read all of the things separately, but you were also getting this sort of portrait of a consciousness.”
It sounds like an incredibly tall order, but Passarello’s drive to fully unveil her subjects—as well as who she is as a writer—seems to know few bounds. The final essay of Let Me Clear My Throat takes the form of a questionnaire completed by a ventriloquist’s dummy who has decided to emancipate himself from his human master and seeks the counsel of a “voice discovery service.” The conceit is clever, and the piece itself laugh-out-loud funny. In many ways, it acts as the perfect prelude to the quirkiness of Animals. But it is also a hard U-turn from the structurally traditional essays that precede it, a choice for which the author took a certain amount of flak from both critics and editors.
“But I think I like the resistance,” she says, “I like the fact that even in the face of resistance, something inside of me still wants to hold on to it. I’m a people pleaser. I listen really hard to feedback, and I think about the reader a lot. But when I feel that resistance, I know that I’m getting close to a kind of expression that means something to me…and that friction, I grew to learn from the first book that friction is the closest thing I can get to understanding something unique that I can offer.”
Her use of “people pleaser” is striking. It feels inadequate to describe an author so otherwise clear on her intent:
“I think with an essay collection there can be a mission, and it can be a valid mission, even if the collected essays on the inside swing a lot of different ways. There are essays [in Animals Strike Curious Poses] that are pretty ‘magazine-ish,’ and then there are essays that I think are completely impenetrable, but I want that. I want a bookshelf that includes that.”
So what’s next for a writer who knows no topic too vast? Passarello has decided to take on the King. “2020 is the year that Elvis will officially have been dead longer than he was alive,” she tells me with her trademark enthusiasm, “and I’ve been looking at the ways that Elvis is still alive in 2020.”
I ask if race won’t play an outsized part in any modern examination of Elvis. “Yeah. I think that’s one of the things that is slowing me down,” she admits, “I’ve never really had to think deeply about racism in print. I’ve certainly had to do it in my life, but it’s a lot harder to do it in print…I don’t believe that Elvis invented rock n’ roll, but I also don’t believe he stole everything. I don’t believe that Elvis is a bigot, but I do believe that he was the product of a really racist system.”
If Elvis is a singularly American problem, few authors are as well suited to dissect him as Passarello. In Animals, she took on the limitless brutality humankind exerts on the animal kingdom, all the while withholding first-person judgment. She seemed solely interested in our need to subjugate the natural world and where it would ultimately lead us. The effect made for an even-keeled examination of who we are through the lens of what we have done to our fellow creatures, a reflection as murky, uncomfortable, and as full of contradictions as the history of race relations in the United States. Moreover, Elvis is perfect fodder for Passarello’s twin obsessions of the performance and the voice, yet another daunting and unwieldy opportunity to satisfy her curiosity.