Catching Up With David Sedaris | Out Magazine

Catching Up With David Sedaris

Catching Up With David Sedaris

Asked about the inspiration for his latest work, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary, David Sedaris put it simply: 'I was just sitting at my desk and wrote, 'The cat had a party to attend and she went to the baboon to get herself groomed.' And I thought, Oh! What happens next? A cat? A baboon? Let's hear what they have to say.' As it turns out, quite a lot: The baboon is particularly -- and somewhat tragically -- loose-lipped. The obsequious primate, in an effort to secure her client's favor and, ultimately, a hefty tip, manages to trip over her own words, falling directly into a hilarious lesson about the very fine line between kissing ass and licking it. Throughout Squirrel, what the animal characters lack in manly monikers they make up for with strikingly human shortcomings. Through his furry protagonists (you can see a Sedaris-narrated video introduction to the cast of characters here), Sedaris manages to broach topics ranging from racism to homophobia in a way that is at once engaging, irreverent and -- par for the David Sedaris course -- uproariously funny. Finding the ever-elusive comfort zone where he tackles complex and controversial topics that provoke not only thought but a great deal of laughter, Sedaris proves that he has what it takes to chase some serious "tale."

Out: You're vacationing in Normandy right now, right?
David Sedaris: Correct.

That seems like a far cry from [Sedaris's hometown] Raleigh, N.C.
Not so much. Americans tend to think of France as being so sophisticated. But the people across from us have seven cars in their yard and they haven't taken the Christmas decorations down yet. [We spoke with Sedaris in August.]

Really?
Yeah. And then the people on the other side of them have lots of gnomes in their yard... So it's not that far.

So I assume you're liking living your life between Paris and London right now?
Yup. It's not like I was mad at the United States, I just always thought that if I had the opportunity then I would just like to live in other places. I'd be happy to just keep moving to new places.

I wanted to talk a bit about your road from obscurity to international popularity -- that process of being discovered. What was the turning point?
I was living in Chicago. I started writing when I was 20. And then, when I was 27, I went to school at the Art Institute of Chicago and I took some writing classes. There was a little club in Chicago that would let my friends and I put on little shows. A little basement club. It would say, 'Here you go, you can have every Wednesday night in April.' So, my friends and I were putting on this series and I was reading a story one night that I had written and Ira Glass from public radio was in the audience.

And so we just met and shook hands. And then I moved to New York and he called me. I think I'd been in New York for about a year, two years maybe. And he called and asked if I had anything Christmas-y that would work for a local radio show that he had in Chicago. My first job in New York was working as an elf at Santa Land and I kept a diary from that time. And so I just recorded bits of it and then he put it on the radio on the local show. And then he put it on [National Public Radio's] Morning Edition and that's pretty much what changed it. I'd been reading out loud pretty steadily since the time that I moved to Chicago. But, you know, at first the audiences were like, maybe there were 20 people in the audience. And then there were like 60 people. The most I think I'd ever had in Chicago, part of this variety show that I read with, was maybe 500 people in the audience. And then 10 million people listened to Morning Edition.

Wow.
Which was a real leap -- 500 to 10 million. And that's what changed everything. I had a book, it was kind of like a primitive version of Barrel Fever. And it was sold to a small gay press and they went out of business before they published the book. They went bankrupt. But I was on the radio and then Little, Brown [and Company, Sedaris's current publisher] called and said, 'Do you have a book?' And I said, 'You know, I have a book right here.' So that worked out great. And then The New Yorker called and said, 'Would you like to write for us?' And I said, 'Yeah.' So I was just very, very lucky. It was just like somebody came along with a wand and made all my dreams come true.

And I assume that's why Holidays on Ice was dedicated to Ira Glass?
Yes. But it's interesting. I was on tour a couple of months ago and somebody in the audience asked, 'How did you get your start?' I told them exactly what I just told you. And this woman wrote me and she sent me her writing and said, 'Please, Mr. Sedaris, you could be my Ira Glass.' And I thought, 'No -- it's different.' I never asked Ira to come and hear me read. I didn't ask him to put me on the radio. I didn't ask anything. It was just chance. He just happened to be there. And he just happened to remember me. I didn't press anything into his hands. I didn't manipulate him in any way. And so that, to me, is a pretty fundamental difference.

It's a huge difference. You've brought this up in interviews before -- about not wanting to be an 'asker.' You wanted to be discovered. Is that a fair way to put it?
I guess I was just always told that if you just work and you just keep working and work hard then everything will take care of itself. And I think it might be different for me because, for me, writing is so tied up with reading out loud. The first time I read out loud, I read out loud in a class in a critique, a painting critique at the Art Institute and then somebody said, 'I'm having a happening at my loft this Saturday. Can you read there?' And so I thought, Well, you know, sure I'll read there. And I loved it. Maybe there were like 20 people there and then somebody said, 'I've got a better happening at my loft next month. Can you read something there?' So, I always made sure to write something new for every event. I didn't ever want to read anything old. Because sometimes you just bomb. And you'd think, Fuck, the last thing I read went over so well. Instead, I took a chance on something new and that's how you learn.

I've read that you've been quite reluctant to adopt technology. I've been wondering recently about reality television and reality TV celebrities. With the advent of the Internet, it's an avenue to become famous -- but not necessarily successful. That whole growth process is curtailed. Are you glad you grew up without all this technology?
I kind of am glad that I grew up when I did. I really do understand wanting to be noticed. God, I understand that. I feel like I understand that better than anybody. And, as obnoxious as somebody can be, I can recognize that in them and then think that's something we have in common. And I started writing when I was 20, but I kept it really completely to myself for like eight years. Because I would write and I would think This really sucks! And then I would think Well, maybe tomorrow it'll be better. And that's kind of still what I tell myself. But I can understand being young and saying, 'I just want to get my stuff out there. I just want people to see it.' Perhaps I was just fortunate that there weren't things like [YouTube and Facebook] so I wasn't even tempted. Perhaps it would be different if I were 20 years old now. But as a 53-year-old, I wouldn't know how to tailor my dream to the Internet. I don't have a vocabulary for that dream. The dream that I'm living, I knew what that was about. I knew, I'm going to write for The New Yorker. I'm going to have a book and see it in a shop window arranged into a pyramid. That, I understood.

What strikes me is that some of the most talented people -- the ones who have the most to offer -- are often also the most insecure and sometimes even unwilling to accept the fact that they are talented. So to put yourself out there on a platform these days with Twitter and YouTube -- where you can get a lot of negative feedback -- could be a detriment.
When I first moved to New York, I remember I went and saw somebody's show at [Manhattan theater] La MaMa. And I thought this show was so good. I'd never seen anything like it. And I remember there was an intermission and it seemed like half the people in the lobby had fliers for their show. I had just moved to New York and I remember thinking, Is that the way it is here? There's something about that that really switched me off. And I think it turns a lot of people off and I think sometimes people like to feel' instead of you pushing yourself on them, I think people like to find people.

One of my favorite essays is from Me Talk Pretty One Day and deals with the war you waged against your speech therapist -- and the letter s -- at the time. I was wondering if your lisp -- a handicap in some respects -- could actually have helped you become a better writer because it kind of forced you to develop a more expansive vocabulary.
I didn't start writing until so much later than that. I guess it would have made sense if I'd started right then. But, you know, I just wrote when I had to. Like if I had a paper due. Sometimes when I go on tour I meet kids who are 13 or 14 and they've started writing and I just kind of envy them. I always think, 'Oh that's nice to start early. Because then you can stop sucking sooner.' [Laughs]

So writing was an ordeal then when you were younger?
You know, when I started writing, I didn't know that I was going to do it. I didn't plan on it. My best friend and I had picked apples in Oregon and then we were hitchhiking through the Northwest. And I was writing letters to people but I didn't have an address so there was no place for them to write back to me. So I just started writing to myself. We were in a coffee shop and I turned a place mat over and I started keeping a diary on the back of the place mat. And the next day I did it again. And the day after that. And the day after that.

When exactly did you start doing that?
I was 20 when I started keeping the diary. And I've been gradually taking them to Paris. The earliest ones, I just brought them to Paris last week. And they are so bad. They're worse than a 12-year-old girl's diary. Because they're pretentious. Twelve-year-old girls' diaries usually aren't pretentious. They're like, 'I saw Mark in the hallway. He's so cute.' But at least they're being honest, you know. But I felt like it would be too obvious to say that. So it's like the poetry of someone who's never read poetry. [Laughs] So, it's just awful. I would've thought, Well, to say that I went to the grocery store, that's too' anyone could go to the grocery store. That's not special in any way. So I'd just write this bullshit. Luckily it didn't last very long. Then it moved into a different kind of bad writing.

And what was that phase?
The next phase of bad writing was stuff that I didn't even care about. You know, like it was everything. It was unedited everything. Like everything. Like every moment of the day. It was writing without any form of internal editing. I mean, I wrote in my diary this morning and I guarantee that nobody would want to read that. And a year from now, I probably won't. Maybe when I'm old I'll read it and I'll remember being only 53 years old and maybe it will make me feel something. Or if my boyfriend is dead and I'll think, Oh! If only I could have those veal chops that he made that night. [Laughs]

It's pretty amazing that you've been capturing that level of detail ever since you were 20 years old. Because it's almost impossible to know what will be important in 10 years.
I write a diary every season. So it's four a year. And at the end of the season I go through it and I think, Oh, that's interesting, or Oh, that's kind of funny -- maybe I can use that later. I've just been keeping a diary for so long, and I didn't know how to stop. I just feel compelled to do it. I've just been looking over this diary that I wrote 10 years ago. In hindsight, looking back 10 years, there's stuff that I find interesting that I didn't find interesting then.

Back to what you were saying earlier about the diaries -- that they sucked at the beginning because of bad writing and then they sucked for being completely unedited. So, when did your writing become good?
Actually, and I never thought I would hear myself say this, but I think, when I finally started working on a laptop, that made a big difference. When you're just writing something, you're typing something [on a typewriter], then you can realize 'Oh, I just started two sentences with the word 'He.'' Or -- 'Oh, I just used the word 'coin purse' twice in one sentence. But with the computer you can say 'Oh, I'll just change that,' or 'I'll just clean that up a little bit.' So it was not more interesting, but it was cleaner. The writing was cleaner. And I discovered paragraphs. [Laughs] For years I just didn't believe in them. And that's just so uninviting -- when you look at a solid page of words. And there's no little place to rest.

One of the things that I enjoy most about your work is that the stories you write often deal with the hilarious outcomes of miscommunication. I'm specifically thinking of When You Are Engulfed in Flames and your trip to Japan. I was in China with a good friend recently and there was this sign that said, 'Make no nuisance' and --
Make no nuisance?

Yeah. We were preparing to head up the Great Wall. But we saw this sign and obviously, after that, we had to find a way to make as much trouble as possible --
I just had four teeth pulled by my periodontist [in France]. What you said about miscommunication, it's like, I think he said he's giving me implants. I think he said something about temporary. Really? Are these teeth just temporary? [Laughs] And I heard my periodontist call for a screwdriver and' it's like, did he just say screwdriver? Most people are like, "Are you insane? Those are your teeth you're talking about. How could you submit to something and not understand what he's saying?" [Laughs] And I'm like, "I think he means well." Especially how people now will look everything up and get a second opinion and third opinion. I'm like, Eh, no. He seems friendly...

I hope you write about that.
Yeah, I am. There are a couple things that you try to write about and the audience gets hung up. And if they're hung up then you're wasting your time up there.

Are you able to read an audience's mood pretty quickly and do you adjust how or what you read based on that?
Sometimes it's just like, OK, maybe this'll be better for the page. Dental things, I think are just squeamish -- a real problem for a lot of people. One time I went to a morgue for 10 days and I came back. I was so excited about it. And so I read about my experiences at the morgue. I didn't realize until I started that if you've just lost somebody, you don't really want to know what happens to their body once it gets to the morgue. If the article were in a magazine, you could say, 'I'll skip over this.' But instead you're trapped in an audience. And I didn't realize because I thought anyone is going to find this interesting. Squeamish people I'm not that concerned about, but more of my priority would be to someone whose mom just died.

Right. It goes back to what you were saying about your diaries -- it depends on the reference point, the context.
Another thing that I'm writing about -- and I was thinking today about how I might try to go about this -- is that anybody, when they spend a lot of time outside of the United States, realizes that the second you return to the United States, it's like they hand you a really heavy overcoat. And that overcoat is race relations in the United States and you put that on the second you return to the United States. You can be abroad and it can just not be a part of your life at all. But it's a huge thing in the United States. And it's one of those things that I don't really feel like people talk about. They fake-talk about it. There's a fake talk that you do. You say, 'I remember when I was young, these white kids started picking on me in the playground and these black kids came up and said 'Hey! You leave him alone!' and I realized then that people are people.' That [kind of] story is OK. But other things just freak people out or they make them uncomfortable.

On the topic of race, in Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, one of the fables that really spoke to me was the title story about the squirrel and the chipmunk. That story sort of talks about the same thing -- the squirrel not being accepted because he's different. It ends sadly, but at the same time there's a beautiful message about how to appreciate people who are different.
An interesting thing about this book is that it was illustrated. Ian Falconer illustrated it. Then, usually I do the books on tape myself, but I wanted other people to read some of these stories. So we divided them four ways. Dylan Baker read four stories. Elaine Stritch read four stories. And then [British stage actress] Sian Phillips read four stories. I'm supposed to receive the Elaine Stritch and Dylan Baker recordings some time this week and I can't wait to hear them. Just the fact that Elaine Stritch would even read my name on a magazine cover -- just my name -- is enough to put me over the edge. Anyway, Sian Phillips read 'The Squirrel and The Chipmunk' and I was in the studio in London when she came in and read it. And she read the story and I thought, Oh, that's what that means. She read it and it was as if I'd never heard it before. And I would think, Oh, what happens next? [Laughs] And often it was the same way with the illustrations. Usually it's just me. I write the story, I read the story on the book on tape. The only influence I get is my own.

And Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is very different from your previous works. How did this book come about?
Oh, I think I wrote a story about a cat and a baboon. It was about six years ago. And, I don't know, I didn't mean to. I was just sitting at my desk and I wrote: 'The cat had a party to attend to and she went the baboon to get herself groomed.' And I thought, Oh, what happens next? [Laughs] I guess if I had written that Marjorie had a party to attend and she went to a hairstylist to get herself groomed, I wouldn't be that interested. But I thought A cat, a baboon? Let's see what they have to say! There's something childlike about it that appeals to me. It's such a good and kind of lazy way to get back into writing fiction. I would be naturally inclined to listen to a story like that. I mean, if you told me that the groundhog was being sued and retained a stag beetle as his defense attorney, I'd be right there, too, in a way that I maybe wouldn't if you were talking about people.

There's almost more freedom. Not only in writing, but also for the reader. When I hear 'Marjorie,' I think, what does she do? Is she married? Is she a lawyer? With animals it's easier to just pay attention to what they're doing, yet they still have human characteristics.
One of the rules I made for myself was that no animal would have a name. I didn't want it to be "Carol the stork" because that's just not interesting to me. And once you've named it Carol, you've already made real big decisions about her character.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on Squirrel later down the road, sort of like with your diaries -- looking back on it later from a different point in time, a different perspective.
You know, I just turned the book in like a week ago so I'm not used to talking about it. Another thing is, I haven't seen it. It's not a book yet so it becomes different once you hold it in your hands. But it doesn't exist to me. This is always such a weird time between the time you turn the book in and it coming out. [It] is actually kind of the absolute worst time because that's the period of time in which you write every bad review in your mind.

I sort of get that, maybe, at the beginning of your career -- when you're still starting out. But how is that the case now? I mean you've sold millions upon millions of copies of your books. How many years has it been since you've read a review of one of your books?
At least 10 years. Longer than 10 years. Since 1997. Because what puzzles me is I was more distracted by good things people said than by bad things. Because when they say good things I would think Oh, is that what they want me to do? Is that what I should do? Should I do that again? Is that what they want? If I'm on stage and I'm reading in a theater with 3,000 seats and someone walks out I think: He's a doctor on call. And then a couple others leave: They're all doctors and there was a bus accident. And I'm not thinking about the people who are in their seats and seem to be enjoying themselves. All I'm thinking about is the three people who left.

You have to come up with a back story for the people who left?
It all becomes about me telling myself a story. I was reading the diary from 10 years ago. Ten years ago I was reading in a theater with 300 seats and a man left and when I left, when I went out into the lobby to sign books, I said to the woman in the lobby, 'Oh, somebody left.' And she said, 'He wanted you to know he had a babysitting problem.' And I thought that was the nicest lie. That was so kind of her to say that. And so I like to tell myself that a lot, too.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary (Little, Brown and Company) is available now. David Sedaris embarks on a speaking tour throughout the U.S. that coincides with the book's release and you can find tour dates and additional information here.

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