Catching Up With David Sedaris

9.28.2010

By Joseph Hassan

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.

Tags: Art & Books
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