“On Arts”: Public Purpose Program – Sarah Vowell and Daniel Handler In Conversation

The third City Arts & Lectures event for the “On Arts” series was an on stage conversation between writer and social commentator Sarah Vowell and San Francisco author Daniel Handler at the Nourse Theater in San Francisco on October 26, 2015.

KQED Public Radio 88.5FM will broadcast a recording of this event on Sunday, November 8th at 1:00 p.m.

Sometimes irreverent, sometimes sly and witty—and often downright funny, the conversation between Vowell and Handler nevertheless remained focused on the process of writing as well as the content of Vowell’s new book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. Their open-for-anything conversation also spilled over into the Question and Answer session with members of the audience asking questions that were just as cheeky and energetic, like whether the movie, Incredibles 2 was going to happen or not (Vowell was the voice of shy teenager Violet in the original movie). Vowell’s response was to claim that there could be work getting done on the hypothetical script if it weren’t for the unfortunate fact that the writer seemed to be attending an event at the Nourse Theater.

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Sarah Vowell. Photo by, Pawel Dwulit

Sarah Vowell has written seven books on history. She also regularly contributes articles to the The New York Times, Esquire, The Los Angeles Times and SF Weekly. In addition, Vowell has hosted a multitude of radio programs for This American Life and was the history correspondent on cable television’s Daily Show. Plus, with her notably high-pitched voice, she brought life to the shy teenage character, Violet Parr in the computer-animated movie, The Incredibles. Vowell also serves on the advising board for 826NYC – and helped to raise the necessary funds to get it up and running.


Daniel Handler. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Daniel Handler. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Daniel Handler is the author of The Basic Eight, Watch Your Mouth, Adverbs, Why We Broke Up and his most recent book, We Are Pirates.  However, Handler is perhaps best known by his pen name, Lemony Snicket and for writing the series of 13 children’s books, A Series of Unfortunate Events. Handler is a San Francisco native, grew up in the West Portal neighborhood and attended Lowell High School. Over the years Handler has helped to support 826 Valencia in numerous ways, including previously being on the City Arts & Lectures stage with author Michael Chabon, and hosting benefits and fundraisers.


“[On working at 826NYC] I mean it was hard, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do and I’ve written a book about Puritan theology.”- Sarah Vowell

Amelia Levin-Sheffield: If you guys want to take a seat…that’s great.

Daniel Handler: I like that the newspapers called the Hyphen. Cause its Lick “hyphen” Wilmerding.

Sarah Vowell: Cause it’s what?

DH: There’s a hyphen in the name of the school, Lick-Wilmerding

SV: Lo que?

DH: Lick-Wilmerding, and every joke you’ve heard has already been made

AL-S: Sarah, this question is for you… A significant amount of your work  has a public service component, in particular your long standing affiliation with 826 Valencia and 826 NYC, would you say that your interest in social activism and commentary is something that comes natural to you or is it something you consciously cultivate and why?

SV: I mean, I don’t know. I think my work with 826 is sort of like the rest of my work which I’m just doing that day’s work. I’m just always trying to get done what needs to get done right now and whether that’s a section on….um…. [to Daniel] This bodes well for you.

DH: No, you’re doing great, a pregnant pause is what everyone likes. A section on…

SV: You know I mean I need to get through this section on the battle of Brandywine today I don’t think about the larger issues so much, I just think about I need to get this battle started and I need to get these guys retreated to Chester so with 826NYC we would have periodic board meetings where we talk about larger issues but mostly because it was a start up and I was involved at the startup stage and I had zero experience. Like everyone else, we were always trying to keep the lights on. Sometimes I thought about what we were doing in the larger I am doing good sense but mostly I was just thinking if we don’t make x amount of money this month, I’m going to have to lay off one of the educators with a masters degree in education from Harvard. So it was always like all hands on deck, all the time and because I was mostly involved in fundraising and not the actual content of the programming, I never had time to think about anything bigger or deeper. At one point I did have to lay off one of the staff and I had to do it because I hadn’t raised enough money that month. One of my benefits had not made enough money and I had to tell this guy you need to find another job for the summer. I never really thought about it in any kind of grand terms.

Sometimes,  like when we had our 10th anniversary show and there was a kid there who started with us when he was 5 and then at that point he was 15. He had decided at some point that he wanted to become a filmmaker and he already was a filmmaker because of our film program. Like I took a beat there and talked about what it was like to watch this kid grow up and what a privilege that was but mostly I was just drowning the whole time. I mean it was hard and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do and I’ve written a book about Puritan theology. I was overwhelmed all the time, I cried myself to sleep so many times because we were always lagging behind, I was so focused on keeping the lights on I never thought too much about the grand stuff unless I was using that as rhetoric to try to bilk someone for money. I wasn’t the person working directly with the kids. Those people were very idealistic and pie in the sky and they could talk about what they were doing in really rosy terms but what I was doing was kind of like being a quarter-master. I was just like, We have got to get this amount of money or we have got to shut down. We were constantly on the edge of the abyss but it was worth it.

AL-S: In addition to writing books for children and young adults, you also contribute to organizations that provide youth services such as 826 Valencia, what first inspired your interest in youth and causes and what keeps you going?

DH: I think young people are interesting, I guess is the short answer. And in terms of 826, again I think the answer is very specific. I had just moved back to San Francisco and I had just met Dave Eggers and he said come on down and see what we’re doing at 826 Valencia, we need all the help we can get. My wife and I went down there and we both realized that it was exciting and interesting and also that they needed all the help they could get. So we tried to help as much as we could. I think it’s exciting to be around young people and to see what they’re doing. It’s just fun- it’s a fun thing to do. If I’m at a party I usually end up talking to the nine year olds.

SV: I don’t know about for you but for me, back at the beginning my school system had an excellent music program and I did music as a kid. That made my life. Besides the fact that it made me more disciplined and I knew what a G sharp scale was, it was a place for me to go. There was no time for despair, there were rehearsal. A lot of schools have cut their art programs. For instance, one of the projects that we did in Brooklyn was we did a literary magazine at a journalism high school that had no school paper and no journalism classes. The literary magazine the students at the journalism high school did for those years that we sent volunteers to do that, that was the only journalism they got to do at the journalism high school. So that really did spur me on: I was lucky enough to grow up in a school system with pretty good arts programming and I knew how much that had meant to me as a person and had given me so much confidence. It had made me such a hard worker. Also, it was the only time I had any one-on-one time with an adult because my parents had jobs and I had siblings. That’s one thing that I always believed in about what we were doing at 826. So many of our students were emigrants and they came from large families and sometimes the times that they spent with their tutors was the only one on one time they had with an adult, ever. There are things that happen when a kid can spend time with an adult one on one, especially one who is kind of vaguely disinterested, like a teacher has skin in the game whether that kid succeeds, parents certainly do and that’s all great but just to have some random volunteer with a masters degree in biology who is listening to this kid and what’s going on, that kind of stuff always kept me going.

AL-S: Thank you so much!

SV: I think maybe I turned that around to be slightly more uplifting…

Postscript: I am writing this series of articles, “On Arts” for the Lick-Wilmerding Hyphen as my 11th grade Public Purpose Project. In many ways, these articles are a continuation of my 10th grade PPP, which was to volunteer at the non-profit organization 826 Valencia as a creative writing tutor for students in the third, fourth and fifth grades at the Buena Vista Horace Mann Middle School in the Mission District. (See the article about my experience with 826 Valencia here.) My intention is to assist with fundraising for 826 Valencia by writing about the City Arts & Lectures “On Arts” benefit series as well as explore how organizations and individuals in different vocations engage in public purpose work throughout their lives. I think it is important for Lick-Wilmerding students to see how the public purpose work we are doing as part of our educational process can continue, no matter what career and path we choose as adults.

Posted in "On Arts" Public Purpose Program, Hyphen | 1 Comment »

About Amelia Levin-Sheffield

Amelia is a junior at Lick-Wilmerding High School and writes for the student newspaper, The Paper Tiger. She also manages the Style section and is one of three co-managing editors of the on-line LWHS community news source, Hyphen. Amelia is a voracious reader and started writing in second grade after getting a flash of inspiration from a gnome sighting in the hollow of a tree in her backyard.

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