My Life is a Fairy Tale
An Interview with David Sedaris
© 2014 by Bryan R. Monte. All rights reserved.
On a sunny, early autumn afternoon, best-selling humorist and NPR and BBC radio personality, David Sedaris, whose most recent books include When You Are Engulfed in Flames (2008), Squirrel Meets Chipmunk (2011) and Let’s Talk About Owls with Diabetes (2013), gave an exclusive interview to Amsterdam Quarterly in Amsterdam’s Ambassade Hotel. Sedaris first explained how his experience in radio, live performance and living abroad has affected his writing. Next, he revealed the inspiration behind his last two books and his depiction of his family in his work. Lastly, he described his family of choice and how he discovers new topics for shows and nurtures new talent while on the road.
Bryan Monte: How do you think coming from a background in the performing arts and radio influenced your prose writing? Do you think, for example, that you pay more attention to the sound, timing, rhythm and the duration of pieces than other writers?
David Sedaris: Yes, very much in all of those things; duration especially because I don’t want to read anything over 25 minutes long.
DS: I would never get up there and read something that’s an hour, because if you’re not into it, you’re just trapped. I like to read at least three stories in that hour. And I always end the evening with reading from my diary, so there might be 10 or 15 diary entries, which sort of function as jokes.
And rhythmically it affects it. I can look back at things I wrote before I started reading out loud and going on tour and some things just sounded so clunky to me, rhythmically so awkward and just not fun. I used to write things so that I could read them onstage. Now I feel that I write things so that anyone can read them out loud.
BM: I asked you that because when I was in radio briefly in the late 80s/early 90s, we had these one, two, five and ten minute segments we had to fill. We had to hit our marks on time—not go too long or be too quick—so everything fit together. Do you ever have to do that when you’re working on your pieces for your performances? Or do you feel, “No, I’ve got more room now, and I can expand a bit.”
DS: I can do whatever I want when I’m in the theatre, but when I started on the radio on a show called “Morning Edition” and then Ira (Glass) invented “This American Life,” Ira would say the story could be as long as it needed to be. But then he would say, “Actually we’re going to have three other stories on that, so you need to cut it down to eight minutes…”
…and if you tell me to write something that’s eight minutes long, I can do it. But don’t tell me to cut down something that’s 20 minutes long to eight minutes. I’m sorry. I might have done that when I was 25. But now I do a show for the BBC called “Meet David Sedaris.” I just recorded several new programmes and every one is about a half hour long. And because I don’t have any stories that are longer than 25 minutes, I’ll fill that (remaining time) with diary entries, one to three minutes long. And then there are other shows where I read two ten-minute things or three ten-minute things. The producer takes care of all that. By the same token, I used to write for Esquire.
DS: And sometimes Esquire would say: “Oh, we just got an ad here, so we need to cut 300 words out of your story.” But now I write for The New Yorker, which has never cut anything I’ve written for space. If the story’s too long, then it needs to be edited, but they’ve never said we need to lose 250 or 600 words.
BM: It’s good that you have mentioned The New Yorker because I want to talk to you about your literary influences. As I was researching for this interview, I looked at James Thurber’s life and began to compare his to yours. Are you aware of any parallels between his career and yours?
DS: My eyesight is better. [Laughter] I’ve been fortunate with that.
I don’t think I’m as angry. I mean, I am angry, but I’m not as angry, but I’m not in my seventies yet. I might get there. I write about domestic things the same way that he did. I keep a diary. Didn’t he…well no, I read his letters and his letters almost feel like a diary.
BM: I mention Thurber not only because he wrote for The New Yorker for forty years, but also because of the series of fables he wrote, Fables for our Time, that were illustrated. I was wondering if his fables provided any inspiration for Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk.
DS: No. I made it a point not to open Fables for our Time again. I think I might have read it in high school, but I didn’t want to be influenced by him in any way.
BM: And he (Thurber) also went on to have a play produced that I think he collaborated on with a friend. You’ve had plays also which have been produced and put on stage, so that’s why I was thinking, “Ah, this looks very interesting here.” So, he worked at The New Yorker for 40 years. I don’t know how many years you’ve worked on The New Yorker…
DS: …it’s almost 20 now. And I think too, when he was a writer, you certainly couldn’t use the word “fuck” in The New Yorker. Now, it’s really hard for me to think of a word you really can’t use.
BM: Are you aware of any other literary influences, such as Pope, Molière, Voltaire, Twain or Wilde?
DS: No. I mean, I think of Thurber again. It was mainly the domestic stuff that could be enough of a subject. I don’t ever feel guilty—I remember my next door neighbour growing up, his mother, when my first book came out, said: “That’s fine, but are you ever going to write anything serious?” [Laughter] And I said, “No. Why would I? Why would you want me to?” But no, I don’t feel bad at all because of what I’m writing. There are people who write about war and deprivation and they move me. Their books move me and can even change me. I will always be there to read their books. They never have to worry about me trying to hone in on their territory. That’s not going to happen.
BM: Well, that’s good. I have another question. Do you think you started writing fables because your own life, as you have mentioned in the past, is something of a fairy tale?
DS: No, actually I wrote them because somebody gave me a book and it was a collection of South African folk tales. It was an audio book. I started listening to it and one of the stories was the hyena and the giraffe. And the hyena and giraffe got married. And on their wedding night, the hyena ripped out the giraffe’s throat. And the moral is: Be careful who you marry. And I just thought, I could do better than that in my sleep. I could write a story about a cat and a baboon. And then it just tickled me. And then I just started writing two a year and I just put them on a pile and then one day, I had enough for a book.
But my life is a complete fairy tale. There is a book called The Secret, and I only know about it because this young man wrote me a letter. He wants to make it in show business and he told me he’d really been influenced by it. He sent me the audio book. [In a whisper] And the secret is, let’s just wish/want something really badly, and you’ll get it. And I thought, I could have told you that. Nobody ever wanted this more than me, nobody. That’s all I ever did and thought about. It’s true, you have to work, and you have to be in the right place at the right time and you can’t arrange any of that. You have to be lucky and you have to want something. And you have to work. But, yeah, I can’t believe I’m the one who got to have it and not the person next to me, who was working just as hard as I was. The person who just wrote 14,000 words on Syria doesn’t get to be in The New Yorker. It doesn’t make any sense to me that I am allowed to be on the radio with this voice and a person with a beautiful radio voice is not.
BM: Well, actually, I think your voice is just fine for radio. Some people have all the highs or the lows, but they’re usually announcers or hosts. Your voice has a very distinctive timbre to it. When I hear it, I can recognize you in just a sentence or two.
SD: Thank you.
BM: I’d like to move on to your latest book, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, an interesting collection of stories, some about your own life and some that are clearly fictional. I read a review in The New York Times where the critic seemed to be taking you to task saying it wasn’t your best work. I also got the impression she didn’t understand the reason you put these somewhat different pieces together in one book. How do you respond to that?
DS: I never read anything about myself. I know that The New York Times review was really bad because my publicist called me up and said: “You might not want to buy The New York Times tomorrow.”
You know a friend of mine, George Saunders, wrote a book a couple of years ago called The Braindead Megaphone and it was essays mixed with little pieces of fiction, so I was hardly the first one to do it. And I just thought: “Why not?” At first we thought about segregating those little stories in the back of the book. And then we thought: “No, let’s put them in there because somebody will be reading them and then they’ll be like: “Wait a minute. A wife? He’s not married.” That might disorient you for a couple of seconds, but I hardly imagine anyone walking out of my house saying: “I don’t know who I am (he is) anymore!”
BM: For me, the combination of the personal and imaginative pieces works. Something else, however, which I want to talk to you about now, is the poem about the dogs in the back of the book. I also noticed a poem on the back cover of your book of fables. My question is: Are you going to write more poetry in the future?
DS: No. I wrote those actually in 2000 or 2001 and then I wrote some poems a couple years ago about food issues, because in the United States, now you can’t have a dinner party because someone is allergic to wheat, and someone else can’t eat dairy…
…and so I wrote most of that about food issues. And I thought: “These will go over real well because everyone has food issues in the audience.” But it didn’t work at all. But those dog poems, however, for some reason, really work. And I thought, “Well, I’m never going to write a whole, thick book of them, so I’ll just throw them in this book.”
BM: Well, everyone loves dogs, especially in England and I don’t know if you’ve read Mark Doty’s Dog Days memoir. It’s mostly about his dogs’ lives mixed with descriptions about his own life with his partners, one of whom died of AIDS, so that way he brings everyone with him because, as I said, everyone loves dogs.
DS: Everyone but me. I hate dogs. [Laughter] I cannot stand dogs. And I realized, if I got up in front of an audience and said: “I hate women,” the audience would be like “Oh, God.” But if I say, “I hate dogs, [the audience says]: “We need to leave.” People don’t like you if you don’t like dogs. And I just don’t like dogs and so that’s what led me to write those poems.
DS: But if I wrote poems about cats, they wouldn’t work that same way. It’s like what you said: “Everyone is crazy about dogs,” and that’s not why I wrote them. The first thing that I wrote that ever worked was that Christmas elf story. And I didn’t write it for that reason. It was just my diary that I kept when I worked at Macy’s. Everybody has to acknowledge Christmas. Christmas affects everybody. That’s why that story worked because everybody is touched by Christmas.
BM: I have some questions also about how living in a multi-lingual environment in Europe has affected your writing. For example, living here in the Netherlands, I sometimes speak Dunglish—Dutch and English mixed together—so instead of time being at the beginning or the end of the sentence, it gets thrown in the middle and the verbs get tossed to the end. Did that ever happen to you when you were living in France?
DS: I really have something against using, putting French words into your writing. You know what I mean? And you see people doing it all the time. And they never put Portuguese or Chinese words in their writing. But they just do it in French because, I don’t know, it sounds good or makes them look smart or sophisticated. But in French, you know, someone could say “regarding that TV” for “watching TV.” I started using that phrase, “regarding TV,” because, in another language, sometimes you hear how a verb is used and you think: “Oh God. That is so much better. That really sums it up.” I don’t use a French word, though. I just try to translate it into English if I want to use it.
In England I find, there are certain words that I use that are Anglicisms. I like the way the English use the word “bits.” They talk about their genitalia as their “wobbly bits.” They just use the word “bit” a lot. We just don’t use it in the United States. They use it a lot. So there are certain little words there that I’ve found myself picking up. One thing is (the word) “proper.” We just bought a beach house on the coast of North Carolina. I think I got it for my family and I write that it’s on “proper” stilts because I talked about how most of the houses now aren’t on stilts. That’s very Englishy and I worry about it a bit, (but) it just sounds better. It’s more precise.
BM: When did you decide to live most of your adult life abroad?
DS: As soon as I could afford it. I had a job after my first book came out. I continued to work. After my second book came out, my publisher needed to get the next book out of me and they said: “You need to make it your job to finish this book.” And they got me this place in Yaddo and then that was when I thought: ‘As long as I don’t have a job, I can go wherever I want.’ I went to France and I was going to go for a year and, you know how that is. I went for a year and the next thing you know, you have grey hair….
….and we were in France and then we were in England, and I’m trying madly to get Hugh, my boyfriend, to move to Germany just for a year. But sometimes I think: I’m always going for book tours and I’m always rushed around. Maybe all I need is a day off and then I’ll be like…I don’t need to move here. I just needed that extra day.”
BM: Well, you travel to so many cities. I was wondering if you ever have time to actually look or do anything outside the hotel room or the place where you need to give your performance.
DS: Generally not, but I wouldn’t trade that for what I do get and that is an opportunity to talk to people and to learn. For instance, I was talking to somebody here (in Amsterdam) the other night when we were having an event, who said when we insult someone here in the Netherlands, we throw disease into it.
That’s what I’ve just learned.
BM: That’s correct.
DS: I mean that is so weird to me, to call someone a “cancer whore.” Who would have thought, you would attach the word “cancer” to “whore?” That is so interesting to me. I would rather learn “cancer whore” than go to the Rijksmuseum.
DS: Anyone can go to the Rijksmuseum, but not everyone can learn about “cancer whore,” so when I have the reading tomorrow night, I’m going to talk a little about it on stage and ask people if they can give me more words like that. Also, I learn a lot during the book signings. Often when I’m on tour, a theme develops; something I didn’t know anything about. For example, my boyfriend grew up in Africa and, in his final year of high school, he moved back to the US and got a job at the Gap. And people used to go into the changing room and shit on the floor.
BM: Oh dear!
DS: Now, it (this store) was in a mall. There was a bathroom in the mall, but people would shit on the changing room floor. I mentioned it on stage one night and someone came up and said: “Oh, I work in a store and that happens all the time.”
DS: Then I mentioned it the next night, and someone said, I work in a library and that happens all the time. And I mention it the next night and all these people told me stories about people who shit in the store. And it’s not about needing to go to the bathroom; it’s beyond that. It’s about something else. And so this kind of theme develops in the course of the tour. And I can’t control it. I can’t control what the theme is or how it’s going to come about.
On my last tour, I was with one of my oldest friends I met in junior high school, and he’s gay and I saw him in Phoenix. We went out to lunch and when the dessert menu came, we decided to split a piece of coconut cream pie. And so, we are splitting the dessert and I looked across the room and there are two gay men our age doing the same thing. And I thought: You know, straight men would never share dessert.” So I started asking straight men: “Would you ever share dessert with anybody?” And they all said, “I may take a sip out of somebody’s drink, but sharing dessert, that’s going too far.” It was just fascinating. I didn’t meet any straight men who (shared desserts), so it was interesting to me—an observation that I had confirmed just by asking people about it.
So, that happens a lot during the course (of the tour) because I get to talk to thousands of people. I never sign someone’s book and just hand it back. I always have a conversation with them. That’s why on my last tour one night I signed books for nine and a half hours. It’s because I talk to everybody.
BM: And you get information about things such as these phrases and behaviours?
DS: “Oh, I loved your last book.” That’s nice and everything, but I really don’t need to hear it. I would rather ask people questions and talk about something else.
BM: So, you’re sort of a cultural linguist. You’re more interested in these things than going to the Rijksmuseum to see all the Rembrandts and Vermeers.
DS: Yeah. Like in Sweden, the government decided, a couple of years ago, that “vagina” is a pretty big word for what a six-year-old girl has between her legs. “We need to find a cute word for vagina.” And they put out the call far and wide and they came up with the word (sounds like SNEE pah). I can’t imagine the American government saying: “Look, we need to do something about the little girl vagina problem.” So that was fascinating to me. Or you know, the Swedes have come up with a gender-neutral pronoun. I’d rather know about that and talk to people about that, than do whatever it is you’re supposed to do in Stockholm.
BM: You write a lot about your family in your books. Is there any topic about your family that you would say: “This is out of bounds.”
DS: Oh, yeah; there’s lots. I mean it (my writing) just gives the illusion of saying everything about my family. But everybody’s got their secrets. Until recently I had four sisters and a brother and one of my sisters committed suicide in May.
BM: I’m very sorry to hear about that.
DS: So I just wrote a story about that. But it’s not about her so much as about the rest of my family coming to terms with it. And there were a lot of stories about my sister who committed suicide and if I told you those stories, you’d be like: “Oh, my God. I cannot believe what I’m hearing.” But I know she wouldn’t have wanted the world knowing those things about herself. So even though she’s dead, I won’t write those things. I write about them in my diary, sure, but I wouldn’t put them in a story—and the same with my mom. She’s not alive anymore, but there were things she wouldn’t want people knowing and I’ve never written those things either. I think I just give the illusion of it. I just had a story in The New Yorker recently and in it I quote one of my sisters as saying: “You know when I was young, whenever I passed a mirror I would look at my face. Now, I just check to see if my nipples are lined up.”
DS: And she knows that’s funny. And she’s not a writer herself. When I read that out in front of an audience, the audience howls and it’s her laugh. That’s a laugh for Gretchen. I mean there’s plenty of things she wouldn’t want me writing about.
BM: That’s interesting to know because I think many people perceive you as the man who can say anything. And I think that’s probably why you have received such notoriety; because you write about subjects other people can’t approach. And you handle them in such a way that they can be published in The New Yorker.
Getting to my next question now and also to the theme of this issue of Amsterdam Quarterly (AQ9), families of blood and choice, how would you define the family of choice that you’ve constructed here in Europe?
DS: I definitely feel Hugh is family. Hugh and I were thinking of who to have over for Christmas and that would be the family we have made. Our friend, Pam, has an eight-year-old boy that she’s raising by herself. We’ve always been involved in his life and there are the grandparents and the sister that we’ve made. We’ll probably see them over Christmas. There is a family with all the members that we’ve constructed. It’s interesting to find as you get older, sometimes, don’t you look for your younger self?
BM: I don’t know if I could recognise my younger self anymore. That’s so long ago and I’m such a different person.
DS: There’s a young man who started writing me when he was 14 years old and now he’s 20. He’s impassioned and it’s so great to hear from a kid that age about the book he’s reading and how he’s on fire with it. He’s the real thing; a real writer. He’s in this for life. I guarantee it. I don’t mean to sound narcissistic, that he reminds me of myself, like: “Oh, I need more of me.” I don’t mean that. But sometimes when you’re looking for people in this life to help, you don’t want the person who asks you for help. You want it to be your idea to help that person.
This kid writes poetry, and he’s real good. Whenever I go to Atlanta, I say: “Will you open for me and read some poems?” Backstage in the dressing room he’s like this—(Shows hands shaking)—like he’s going to have a heart attack right there. But then he goes on stage and Wham! he is masterful. You don’t, (however), want to give him that opportunity too early. I didn’t want people to be applauding for him because they feel sorry for him and because he’s a kid.
And I know how sometimes, especially when you’re gay, older people will take you under their wing. I think straight people think of that as a perverse thing, but it’s not a sexual thing at all. It’s like they see themselves in you. And maybe you’re twenty years old and living in a rooming house, and you can’t really afford dinner every night and they invite you over for dinner, to their house for dinner every single night. It’s a beautiful thing.
BM: Well, that’s very interesting about how older gay men and women can help younger men or women along the way if you’ve got the ability to do it and if someone has the gift.
DS: When I go on tour, I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I get. People say: “Can you help me get published?” and I know, before I open that manuscript, how bad it’s going to be. And I get things in the mail, and they’re really awful. But what people don’t understand is that you want helping someone to be your idea.
I did a reading in Manchester and this young guy assisted me in the bookstore and I asked him: “What do you do?” “Well, I work at the bookstore.” “No, but I know you do something else. What do you do?” “Oh, I guess I write a bit.” “What do you mean a bit?” “Well, you know, I have this thing.” And I had to pull it out of him. I said: “I would really love to see your writing. Here’s my address. Will you send it to me?” And he sent me this thing he was working on and it was the most inventive, spectacular…I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I wrote him back and said when you’re ready to be published, please let me know because there are people I know who would love to see this writing.
And that’s how you want it to be. You kind of want it to be your idea rather than someone pushing themselves. Because when someone pushes themselves on you, that’s their talent: self-promotion. AQ