Yes, Sarah Vowell has been this way before.
The author, historian, journalist and occasional actress, who appears at the Joan C. Edwards Performing Arts Center in Huntington on Saturday, visited Harper’s Ferry over 15 years ago when she was researching her book “Assassination Vacation.”
“I went to see where John Brown died,” she said.
More recently, the author — whose latest book was 2015’s “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States” — was in Greenbrier County for the Lewisburg Literary Festival in August.
“I stayed at the Greenbrier hotel, which I’d always wanted to do,” Vowell said, adding, “But what I really wanted was to tour that Cold War bunker. That really interested me.”
The Montana native had a good visit. One of the high points was listening to author Tobias Wolff recite “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” next to the local United Airline counter.
“It was everything you could have wanted from him,” Vowell said.
In Huntington, Vowell will be talking about “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.” The book explores Lafayette’s life, including his time as a teenage military officer during the Revolutionary War, where he served under General George Washington.
Vowell said she was drawn to Lafayette because few figures in American history were so universally beloved. He was a hero at the conclusion of the war and when the French aristocrat returned to American in 1824, he spent 13 months being celebrated throughout the country.
It was a kind of victory tour for him and his visit drew crowds in the tens of thousands. He was a celebrity. People commemorated his visit. Towns and counties were named after him, which is often how he’s remembered today — as a place.
Vowell said that when she told one of her Montana neighbors she was working on a book about Lafayette, the neighbor remarked that she must be spending a lot of time in New Orleans.
“I thought she was referring to Thomas Jefferson offering to make Lafayette governor of the Louisiana territory after he bought the land from France.” She added, “That seemed to be a little in the weeds, but then I realized she meant the place.”
Vowell explained that she was talking about the Revolutionary War hero, but her neighbor just kept telling her how much she loved zydeco music.
Along with the book on Lafayette, the author has written several books exploring facets of American history, including “Unfamiliar Fishes,” which involves the colonization of Hawaii, “Assassination Vacation,” about the presidential assassins and “The Wordy Shipmates,” which looked at the 17th century Puritans of New England.
Her books are often tours through American history, though she’s less an official guide than a snarky, but well-informed traveling companion.
Vowell may or may not have more to talk about Saturday night than the Marquis de Lafayette.
She has a familiar voice. Most recently, she provided the voice for the teenage Violet in Disney’s “The Incredibles,” but longtime fans of National Public Radio might recognize her from “This American Life.”
From 1996 to 2008, Vowell contributed segments to the show, which she said had some influence on her writing.
“It influenced my editing,” she said. “The show was very heavily, heavily, heavily edited. Sometimes, for the radio show, I’d do fifty-some drafts of a script.”
Writing for radio also gave her some practice at being more direct. Radio stories need to have a little more action and fight to hold the attention of the listener because most of the time, the listener is also busy doing something else — like driving a car or washing dishes.
Radio stories also have to accomplish what they need to accomplish within a few minutes or a broadcast hour.
“The clock does weigh on me,” she said. “I think how I write makes me fear dead air and want to keep things more to the point.”
Vowell said when she’s editing her writing, she’ll read what she’s written out loud to see if it sounds right to her.
“If I’m reading a section and can’t wait until that section is over, that’s when I know I need to rewrite that section,” she said.
But she doesn’t write books like she writes stories for radio.
“I do love a good tangent,” Vowell said.
She likes commentary, comparison and sidelong paths involving secondary characters.
The audio book versions of her books have become full productions featuring well known actors and comedians including Patton Oswald, Conan O’Brien and Nick Offerman reading the words of historical figures like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.
This is a nod to Vowell’s music and radio background.
She acknowledged that a lot of work went into the audio books, but she said she still preferred the written word on the page.
Vowell said in a book the reader wasn’t bogged down by the sound of her voice, her accent or her gender.
“I love print,” she said. “It requires a little more imagination.”