Catching Up With David Sedaris
By Joseph Hassan
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.