Personal monkey: Sedaris publicly read three diary entries about monkeys, for which a unique-minded Pennsylvania woman accused him of being racist.
A Metro Santa Cruz interview
By Wayne Bledsoe
Fans of David Sedaris' books and monologues know a few things about him already.
We know, for instance, that in junior high he was so moved by a struggling actor's school performance that he spoke only in Elizabethan English for weeks, and how, as a grown man, he worked as an elf at Macy's during the Christmas season. We know about how his obsessive-compulsiveness led him as a child to lick doorknobs, light switches and the occasional lawn ornament, and still, as an adult, compels him to touch strangers' heads. We know that a volunteer gig at the local mental hospital as a teenager and visit to a nudist resort after he had become an adult were not quite what the author thought they might be.
Sedaris--who in 1962 moved with his family moved from Endicott, N.Y., to Raleigh, N.C., where he quickly grew disgruntled with elementary school--has made a career out of chronicling his own life. But a recent hour-long phone conversation with Sedaris from his apartment in Paris reveals still more: How he likes listening to Harry Potter books-on-tape when he's home alone, how he doesn't much care for the Internet and how he's getting tired of being introduced with the line: "In 2001, he was named Time magazine's Humorist of the Year."
"That issue came out on Sept. 10, 2001," says Sedaris of his short-lived cover. "Three days later there was a whole new magazine on the stands."
One of the most popular humorists of the 21st century, Sedaris, who will appear at the Santa Cruz Civic on Halloween, has seen his books translated into 24 languages and his sell-out readings gather crowds in the thousands--nothing less than a literary phenomenon.
Audiences who only know Sedaris from his appearances on This American Life or other National Public Radio programs may be in for a surprise. On last year's book tour, he read a then-recent story that began with an elegant-looking couple who took their first-class airline seats and followed with the couple's cross-country extravaganza of foul language and ended with Sedaris and his sister, Amy, browsing through a bestiality photo magazine. When the tour reached Knoxville, Tenn., the story prompted several patrons to head for the exits.
"Somebody wrote me about that story," recalls Sedaris," and said, 'When you got to the part with the animals I was really offended.' I thought, 'What, are you an animal? Are you a person who has sex with animals? I really can't understand how you would be offended.'
METRO SANTA CRUZ: When you first started writing about your family and friends what was the reaction initially?
DAVID SEDARIS: I give people things to read over and I say, "Is there anything here you want me to change or get rid of?" It's interesting, I went yesterday and heard Edmund White read. He was in Paris and he did a reading in a bookstore, and he was talking about a memoir he had written, and he said he found that most people just hate to be written about. But in my experience, I've found it to be just the opposite. I find that people like being written about. That said, it depends on what you're saying about them. If I'm writing a story about, say, my sister, I'm going to make her look good and give her the good lines. If I'm going to say one bad thing about her, I'm going to say 10 things bad about myself.
It's always struck me how you write about your brother. In the story where you talk about his daughter being born, it is simultaneously really crude, what he says, and really, really sweet overall. Are people surprised at the way they come off in your stories?
Well, my brother, in particular, loves to be written about. And that's one of those stories where I find I prefer reading about my brother in the South, because in the South people can recognize that sweetness. In other parts of the country they just think, "Oh, he's a redneck. He's a foul-mouthed redneck." I've heard people say, "Oh, I love reading about your trailer-trash brother." He doesn't live in a trailer. What makes you think that? If I had him in California and had him talking like that, people wouldn't think that. In the South everyone's got a brother or a cousin like Paul. So people can recognize him a bit more clearly and they can see his sweetness beyond the language.
When I read that first story about your brother ('You Can't Kill the Rooster'), it came off to me that you really love your brother and admire him in a lot of ways.
Well, I think when you first start off writing and you get something published for the first time or do a reading out loud you think, "Oh, I can use this as a weapon. If somebody did something bad to me I can write about them and let everyone know what a horrible person he or she is." But it never really works that way. When I hear someone reading a story about what a terrible asshole somebody is I think, "Maybe they're leaving something out." It tends to raise more doubt than convince me. If someone's writing about a Nazi that came and took their children away, then, yeah, I'll think that person is pretty bad. But if it's some screed about their ex-boyfriend, you can see them being drunk with that power: "Oh, I can put this into words and everyone will know, EVERYONE WILL KNOW!" It's that moment when you're thinking about being a writer and instead you become a mad scientist. I think what ended that for me, well, it never really became public, but what put a cap on it for me is realizing that people don't really believe that stuff.
You know, if someone comes to you and they just broke up with somebody and they're telling you what a horrible person their ex-boyfriend is and they were horrible from the very first day, they want you to think, "Oh, you poor thing." But what you're really thinking is, "Then why did you stay with him? Was it the sex? What part are you telling me?" So the story becomes what you're not being told rather than what you're being told.
Tell me a little bit about how you developed as a writer. It seems like from the beginning, the things you wrote early on, that you have the same feel. When you first started did you just feel like, 'This is my natural voice'?
I think things changed when I began reading out loud more and started being on the radio. Before that I was writing for the page mainly. Everything I've written in the past few years has more of a rhythm to it. I understand where I'm supposed to breathe. It doesn't feel choppy. There aren't four sentences in a row that start with the word "I" or the word "he." You just start to be more careful. I think you get to understand the math of writing more. I listen to a lot of books on tape and I'm really aware of when people repeat words or in an effort to not repeat words reach for the thesaurus. They don't want to use the word cat. They'll say they let the cat out and then in an effort not to use the word "cat," they'll say "two hours later the feline returned." Oh, come on! You never use the word feline! [Laughs.]
You seem to have a very clear memory for detail.
Well, a lot of it, if you're looking for truth, I think memoir is pretty much the last place to find it. Say I was writing a story--the story I'm working on now, I've got this minor character in there who's a cab driver, and I thought, "OK, I'm going to have to say what the cab driver looked like. So I just went downstairs. There's a cab stand right by my apartment and I just went down there and looked at cab drivers and I found one with a shaved head that had lumps on it. I made him the cab driver in my story. A listener has to picture someone in that front seat. They don't need every wrinkle on his face, but they've got to have a figure in that front seat. I mean, I'd written in my diary the conversation with the cab driver and the subsequent conversation with the limo driver and I had described the limo driver, but I hadn't described the cab driver. So the description in the story is a cab driver all right, but it's not the cab driver I had.
Have you ever been uncomfortable writing about yourself? Some of the things you've written seem like things that people would confide in their closest friends.
I think I just give the illusion of revealing myself. When I saw Edmund White yesterday, I bought his book, and he's, like, 66, years old. And there's a chapter in there where a 30-year-old is peeing into his mouth. And I thought, "That's revealing! I have not ... even ... come ... close ... not even close to anything like that!" [Laughs.] And I could just not imagine, especially if you're standing in front of people reading, if you say you are in the back seat of a town car, they're going to put you in the town car. You get a little doll and you put it in the town car. But if you say someone's peeing into your mouth ... I guess there are people I wouldn't mind imagining someone peeing into their mouth, but, um, it just didn't make a very pretty picture!
But I've never written about how much money is in my bank account and I've never written about--I think the real me is in my diary and I would never let anyone, ever, get their hands on that, because that's a person I work very, very hard to keep hidden.
Again, I think it's just sort of the illusion. Like I had a story in The New Yorker a couple of weeks ago about a trip to the hospital and I didn't understand what the nurse said to me and I wound up in the waiting room in my underpants while all these people were coming in fully dressed. Now that's the audience picturing me there in my underpants and that's bad enough and that's about as far as I've ever gone. And it doesn't make me feel exposed. I felt exposed in that waiting room in my underpants, but writing about it, I thought, "Will my life be any worse if people know that I spent 20 minutes in the waiting room in my underpants?" And I thought, "No."
Generally, it seems that the things that I find the most embarrassing are the things that most people can relate to. The same things happen to everybody, It's just that some people know how to type and some people don't.
You mentioned earlier how people in the North and the South see your brother differently. Are there other things like that?
Some towns are more politically correct than others and sometimes the story suddenly screeches to a halt, and it didn't occur to me that it would've happened. And there's a problem if the story screeches to a halt or if somebody is putting the brakes on and saying, "Wait a minute. I don't like that. I don't agree with that." You can't please everybody. But I'm constantly surprised by what stops it.
Well, this woman in Pennsylvania wrote me a letter. I'd been in Philadelphia, and I end the program by reading from my diary. And I don't read higgledy-piggledy from my diary. I'd cleaned them up and arrange them so one thing will follow another and maybe not have a theme, but they will leave you with a certain feeling, hopefully. And I had these three little stories about monkeys. And this woman wrote me a letter and said, "I was in your audience and the first time you said 'monkey,' I laughed. And the second time you said 'monkey,' I saw you for what you really are, not just a racist, but a gay racist, and that's the worst kind. In case you weren't aware of it, African Americans were called monkeys for years." But the monkeys weren't a stand-in for black people. They were stories about monkeys. It never would've occurred to me that anybody would've thought differently. I'm not going to stop reading them because this one woman from Philadelphia wrote me a letter, but I thought, "Who is she? What is her life like that she would be that convinced, I suppose, that everything is a code for something else?"
Do you think people have misconceptions about you?
Occasionally people will come up and say, "I was afraid to get my book signed." And I would say, "What did you think I was going to do?" They'll say something like, "Well, you were so mean in that story." Well, you know, I may have said that I wanted to say something, but I didn't actually say it. I can't be the only person in the world who entertains wicked thoughts now and then. I think you get a greater sense of misconception when people send me stories and say, "Here's a story you might be interested in writing about." And I think, "Hmm, wonder what makes them think I'd be interested in writing about that?"
So people send you stories all the time?
Well, it depends. People send different letters for different things. A book will get you one kind of a letter. The radio will get you another kind of a letter. The New Yorker gets the kind of letter where people sort of rewrite your story. "I read your story in The New Yorker and it reminded me of the time I had gone to the hospital with, you know, a bladder problem." And, suddenly, it's their story about being in a hospital waiting room, or their story about a high school art teacher. I guess they think in a few weeks time The New Yorker is going to do a whole issue of stories similar to the one you wrote.
Have you settled in to living in France?
Typically, I live in England. I live in London, but I go back and forth. I was gone most of the summer, but I got to Paris about a week ago. But then when I come back from tour I'll go to London. I kind of half moved there about three years ago. I just go back and forth. It's so easy. I take a train and it's about 2 1/2 hours. And the two cities are so completely different. They're contrary places, really.
What does it feel like to be reading your works and know that so many people are laughing, that so many people are having a good time?
I think sometimes people can will themselves to have a good time. I think if people buy a ticket and they get a baby sitter and get a little bit dressed up, they're gonna try really hard to have a good time. So a lot of time I think it's the audience making the effort. When I go out with these new stories, I don't have any idea what's going to work or not. Two weeks ago I put something in a story and it made me laugh out loud at my desk, and then I got rid of it two days ago, because I thought, "You know, this looks like it's trying too hard to be funny." I'm sure I could've gotten a laugh out of it, but it wouldn't have felt right to me. So I try to get rid of things now that seem like they're trying to be funny. If something is funny, that's great, but when the attempt shows, it bothers me. So I won't know when I go on this tour what's going to get a laugh and what isn't. So if I go on this tour and nobody makes a sound throughout the whole story then I'll probably go backstage afterwards and kill myself. I so admire people who can get up and read serious things, because, to me, if the audience isn't making noise I'm convinced that they're not listening. Sometimes I'm up there reading and I can see the back of the hall and sometimes I see someone leave. I'm up onstage and I'm reading out loud I'm thinking, "That's a doctor. That's a doctor on call." And if more people walk out I think, "They're all doctors and a bus has turned over somewhere."
Do you have a list of, say, 'These are the books that helped shape me'?
Whenever I go out on tour I always recommend a book. The book that I'm recommending on this tour [Is There No Place on Earth for Me? by Susan Sheehan], I read it when it was first serialized in The New Yorker in 1982. And it's not the way that I write, but I remember thinking "This is writing. This is what writing can get you." It's about this woman who spent I don't know how many years living with a paranoid schizophrenic in New York State, and it's just the ups and downs of this paranoid schizophrenic. And this romantic idea that people have of mental illness, this sort of pull yourself up by your bootstraps and eat a lot of ginger and go to counseling and you'll be fine. But it's a chemical turmoil that you have to live with and it's unpredictable and it's hell on earth. And this book reflects that better than anything I've ever seen or heard. It's not the way I write myself, but it had a profound impact on me and on my desire to write. And it had lot to do with my realization that things had to be clean, that you couldn't just ramble around, that the words matter. I believe in cleanliness in all things and this is a very clean book.
That makes me think about someone like Flannery O'Connor. She seemed very sparse in all she wrote. Is she someone who would fall into what you're talking about?
Well, this is reporting, so it's a bit different. But Flannery O'Connor, I reread her every year. I think she was the best American writer of the last century. I worry, though, that she won't survive.
Because of the language. If you think of a story like "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," I think she wrote better stories than that, but I think that story is pretty great and the length is good. I think that should be in a high school textbook. I think everyone should have to read that story. But it has the word "nigger" in it, so it's not going to be in a high school textbook. Things have changed in that way. And I think in order to survive that you have to be in a high school textbook. I worry that in 100 years people won't know who she is. I think she's magnificent. I just think she had a really, really great ear. And more and more I think it's hard to find anyone who knows their place, geographically. People move so much now. She was someone who was born and lived in one place. She went to college for a little while, but then she just came home and lived with her mom until she died. So she knew that area of Georgia inside out and she knew exactly what they sounded like and she knew exactly how they thought. You just don't find that too often anymore.
I think it also helps to be a little bit of an outsider in your home. That's the case with her. She's in a place where there aren't many Catholics and where she's in the middle of Pentecostals and Baptists. It would have to give you a different perspective. I think it's interesting about your works, when you're writing about being a young gay man in North Carolina. You have to feel a little on the outside. It's interesting to me that you have always written with affection for North Carolina. It seems to me that it's that way, anyway.
People in North Carolina don't see it that way. They tend to see more that I'm putting it down. It wasn't my choice when I was growing up to live in North Carolina. I was thinking, "Why do I have to live here? This is not sophisticated. This is not what I had planned." But it you're going to get your wish, it's better to get it when you're older--not when you're eight. Because if I didn't have that to complain about I don't know whatever would've become of me. [Laughs.]
Has it surprised you at all how popular you have become going on tour and reading your works? I don't know anyone else who can do this.
To tell you the truth, I really don't understand it at all. No. I know that if I had a choice of going to a play and going to listen to someone read out loud for an hour, I would probably go and listen to someone read out loud for an hour. But I wouldn't pay to listen to me read out loud! I think it's a fun way to spend time. I think it must be from being on the radio. When you're talking on the radio people feel like you're talking directly to them. So when they show up at a theater for me to read out loud I think it's because of that. I've never asked them. When I get there and read about myself for an hour and answer questions about myself for 20 minutes, it seems kind of piggy to say, "Why do you really like me?" [Laughs.]
Well, is there any misinformation that's out there, like in your bio or anything? I always ask that so I don't repeat inaccurate information.
I usually don't read anything written about me. I just feel like that's the author's job. And I certainly wouldn't want anyone calling me and saying, "I resent that," or "I don't use the word 'ain't.'" So I guess I just want to extend the courtesy to whoever is writing about me to let them know that I'm not going to give them a call and they can feel free to say that I'm an asshole. I mean, if I'd done an interview and it was on the telephone and they said that we'd done it in person and that I was wearing hot pants then that would probably bug me. [Laughs.]
David Sedaris appears Tuesday, Oct. 31, at 8pm at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 305 Church St. Ticket are $36-$25 plus service charges. Order tickets at the Civic Box Office in person, by phone at 831.420.5260, online at www.ticketmaster.com or at any Ticketmaster outlet.
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