In his latest collection of essays, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls (Little, Brown and Company), bestselling American author David Sedaris hopscotches from French dentists’ offices to Beijing squat-style toilets to his current home in England, leaving no stone (or piece of garbage) unturned. We pinned him down.
When you sat down to write this new book, what were you setting out to achieve?
I’ve never sat down thinking I’m going to write a book about travel or about getting older. I don’t have that much to say about anything. I just kind of write a story, and then I put it in a pile, and then eventually the pile gets to be book-sized and I think, Oooh, I bet that’ll be a book!
You now live in the U.K. What do you miss most about living in the U.S.?
What was the inspiration for your essay “Dentists Without Borders"?
Now that I live in England I can get my NHS (National Health Service) number, because I have my green card here. For some reason, I just haven’t gotten my NHS number yet. I was supposed to go to Sweden last summer, and I was really looking forward to it, but I was convinced that something was going to get in the way of my trip. Then I decided that I had pus dripping down the back of my throat. And an abscessed tooth. Now, none of my teeth hurt, there was just a taste in my mouth, and I decided it was pus dripping. So, I called a dentist who was not an NHS dentist -- she’s a private dentist. I called at 9 o’clock and she said could see me at 11 o’clock. So I went to her office, I had X-rays taken, she examined my teeth, and she said, “You know, I’m sorry, I do not see any abscess here. I don’t see anything wrong with your teeth.” And then I went to pay and the receptionist said, “I hate to charge you because there was nothing wrong, but sorry, you just gotta do it.” The bill was $70. (chuckles) Nothing. I mean, I paid her in cash.
In “Dentists Without Borders,” you write about European physicians who make $50 house calls and take patients on Saturdays without appointments. How is health care overseas treating you?
If I broke my leg in the United States, I'd go to the airport and buy a first-class ticket to France and go to any hospital in Paris, and it would be cheaper. In Brazil, apparently, plastic surgery is really cheap. It's interesting to go there because everybody has had stuff done. You can just say to people, "Are those your real breasts?" And they'll say, "No! As a matter of fact, I just got those last month!"
Speaking of health, in one essay you write about your fatty tumor and seem to be totally cool with it just hanging out below your right rib cage. What’s the status on it?
If you cut a boiled egg in half, that’s how big it is. But it’s been that size for a couple of years now. I was on a book tour in the United States and a veterinarian came up and said, “I’ll cut that tumor off for you tonight.” His office was, like, a half an hour away, so I said, “Well, I don’t have a car or anything.” He said, “No problem, I’ll go get my stuff and I’ll just do it right here at the table!” I asked if he was going to have to stitch me up, and he said "yes," but I was going to a nice hotel and didn't want to get pus on the hotel sheets. So that was the only reason I said no. But I kick myself for not allowing myself to be operated on by a veterinarian.
“Rubbish” is about your obsession with picking up trash by the road. Any bizarre finds?
I found a pile of soaking wet magazines about spanking women in the woods about six weeks ago. But that was the only rare thing. Generally, it’s the same crap over and over again: Red Bull cans, candy wrappers, a lot of used condoms. Somebody likes to put a rubber glove on and shit into their hand. And it’s not dog shit, you know? You can tell the difference.
So how did this obsession start in the first place?
I’ve always been pretty clean inside my house, and I just kinda moved it outside. I picked up rubbish today. I think I’ll do it tomorrow. And I did it the day before yesterday. It’s just sort of what I do now.
You’ve painted houses, been one of Santa’s elves, and in “Standing Still,” you write about being a life drawing model for art students. What’s the worst gig you’ve ever had?
This guy in Chicago had squirrels crawling under the eaves of his house and dying in his attic, so I had to go collect them and staple chicken wire up the eaves so more couldn’t get in. I couldn’t clean myself enough. I just could not shake the smell and taste of dead squirrels. That was pretty bad.
You've been with your partner, Hugh, for quite some time now. Any chance you'll be tying the knot soon?
Here are my thoughts on gay marriage: I wish that gay people would get the right to marry, and then not a-one of them would do it. I wish they'd say, "Fuck you! We don't need your stupid marriage!" You need to listen to me: Nobody wants to go to your wedding. Nobody does. People will give you double gifts if you elope, I guarantee it! Your wedding is not going to be fun. It's just going to be another wedding, and nobody wants to go.
You reflect on growing up gay in one essay. How is being LGBT different for kids today?
I was signing books a couple of years ago, and a woman came with her son who was 8 and living as a girl. When I saw that kid I thought, Hopefully within my lifetime you won’t have to think twice about being gay. It’ll be like, “I have brown eyes instead of blue eyes.” That would be a beautiful thing.