The Beach Boys. Belinda Carlisle. Depeche Mode. The incidental music before Elna Baker’s one-woman show at the First Person Arts Festival last week seems random, but there’s a theme.
“I just put ‘God,’ ‘heaven’ and ‘Jesus’ into iTunes,” says Kevin Townley, who with Baker co-hosted the festival’s Grand Slam storytelling competition. It’s a reference to his friend’s unique shtick—many of her extremely funny stories involve her Mormon faith.
Baker steered clear of stories she thought people might have heard, like the one on This American Life about working in a baby-doll department the Christmas they sold out of caucasian babies, or the one about making out with a movie star old enough to be her grandfather (she doesn’t say who, but he’s half of her “all-time favorite screen kiss”).
Anyhow, most of that’s covered in her frequently hilarious memoir, The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, with many more tales of growing up Mormon and overweight, then going to NYU, dropping 80 pounds and trying to date when alcohol, coffee and sex before marriage are off the table.
PW sat down to chat with the two emcees about the Talent Show, how it’s sometimes hard to stop narrating, and Elna’s all-time favorite screen kiss.
PW: Elna, in interviews you tend to get asked some very personal questions that would never be asked of a nonmemoirist. “So, how’s your faith?” “How’s your diet?” “Made it past second base yet?” Is that strange?
Elna Baker: Yeah. I think that sometimes I’ll answer questions very candidly, then afterwards be like “ bleurgh! ” (shudders) I think I’ve gotten more cautious—like, “Hey, you don’t have to share everything with the world.” Some things are yours.
KT (to Elna): So, how’s your faith?
Elna, for most of your life you had no doubt that God was literally watching over you. Do you think that predisposed you to see your life as a narrative?
EB: It is a strange position, because it’s you that you’ve written; it’s true stories that have happened to you, but you’re also looking at it from a distance, like God must look down—if you believe in God—at what He’s created.
It can be startling; there are things about yourself that you discover that sometimes you don’t want to discover.
If you spend too much time in the role of your own narrator, you start having trouble snapping out of it?
EB: You get a voice in your head that’s narrating what you’re feeling. I had to say “You know what, I’m going to have to take a break from writing for a little while, because the well is empty.” The more you write about what you’re experiencing, the less present you are, so you can’t draw from it later on.
KT: When you start looking at your life as if mining it for materials, you cease to live it. Like, I know I maybe am more willing to put myself into strange situations, because I know it’ll make a great story.
EB: You get kind of tired of yourself. I’ve taken on little projects—we host this show.
The Talent Show, right? Tell me more.
EB: I didn’t feel like there was a lot of variety in variety shows. It would be all comedy, or maybe the variety would be a comedian singing a comedy song.
KT: We’ve had magicians, storytellers, comedians, musicians, interviews, how-to demonstrations, some dancing—whatever.
EB: We lose money most of the shows, but for us it’s about—our last show had Eugene Mirman, John Hodgman, Ira Glass, Dave Hill, all for five dollars.
The Barrymore Awards aren’t ballyhoo