A chat with David Sedaris
By Katie Scarvey
It was in 1992 that writer David Sedaris broke like a tidal wave on the national consciousness ó at least the National Public Radio consciousness. In his distinctive, high-pitched voice, he read about his experience, as a grown man, wearing tights and playing an elf named Crumpet at Macy’s.
It was called “SantaLand Diaries,” and after that it became clear that Sedaris would no longer need to clean houses to make money.
Now, 17 years later, Sedaris is at the top of his game. His last five essay collections have all made the New York Times bestseller list, including his most recent, “When You Are Engulfed in Flames,” which is now out in paperback. His work regularly appears on NPR and in The New Yorker.
These days, Sedaris, who grew up in Raleigh, lives most of the year in London with his longtime boyfriend Hugh. He still has family in North Carolina; his father and brother are in Raleigh and sister Lisa lives in Winston-Salem. His sister Amy Sedaris is the other celebrity in the family. An author and comedic actress, Amy is perhaps best known for her role on Comedy Central’s “Strangers with Candy.”
His fans are enthusiastic, and they ó we ó are legion. Most of us, on reading Sedaris for the first time, feel like he is our own personal discovery, a gift meant just for us. We want to share him though, and press his books on family and friends.
He’s the kind of writer who inspires people to call friends and read passages over the phone, or argue passionately with those few who express indifference to his work.
He’s that good, he’s that funny, but he can also break your heart. A dark vein of self-awareness runs through his writing, and perhaps that is what has endeared him so fiercely to such a diverse group of fans, many of whom feel like he’s the eccentric best friend they’ve never actually met.
Clutching books, hundreds of Sedaris fans gathered in a Borders Bookstore in Winston-Salem last Tuesday to remedy the “never actually met” part.
With security on hand to help control the large crowds he typically attracts, Sedaris began the reading with some unpublished work and moved on to a recently published story about an embarrassing trip to Costco. He also read from his diary, which he’s kept since he was 20.
Then, Sedaris signed books. And talked to fans. And signed books.
Midnight came and went, and still people waited in line for him.
It was 3:30 in the morning when he left.
“I think I signed books for 9 1/2 hours,” he said in a phone interview from the Grove Park Inn a few days later, before an appearance at an Asheville bookstore. From speaking to so many fans, his voice was almost gone, and he squeaked and whispered through the interview.
His record, he noted, is 10 hours.
Of course he wasn’t just signing books. He was talking to fans and collecting material, jotting ideas in his ever-present notebook.
Perhaps because Sedaris is so unflinchingly honest in his essays, people reveal things to him. Very personal things. He appreciates these revelations ó the weirder, the better.
Lately, he wants to know about … breast milk. He shared a story with his Winston-Salem audience about how a woman at a yard sale had found two champagne glasses and had mentioned she’d buy them if only there was something to go in them.
In response, the owner of the glasses poured some of her own breast milk in one ó and the yard saler drank it.
Or so she told Sedaris.
He told me that he’d gotten another good story Tuesday night ó about someone who knew someone whose nipple had fallen off.
“I don’t know if it’s true or not ó I’m not sure if it really matters ó all that matters is that someone told it to me,” he said.
Sedaris’ voice betrays boyish glee as he shares rude stories about bodily functions, without a trace of embarrassment.
And indeed, part of Sedaris’ appeal is that while he’s the consummate literary craftsman, he doesn’t hesitate to apply his brilliance to things like catching crabs from a pair of thrift store pants, or doing detective work as a child to figure out which family member was wiping his or her bottom on the family’s brown towels.
Sedaris hones and polishes his work based on feedback he gets during the readings. He takes meticulous notes about how material goes over.
If a passage bombs, he draws a skull in the margin, a reminder that he needs to revise.
If Sedaris resonates with a broad range of smart people, it’s not necessarily because he’s an everyman. He’s a little too odd for that, with his well-documented obsessive-compulsive inclinations, like a sometimes overwhelming desire to touch people’s heads, for example.
How many people, in order to quit smoking, for example, would just pack up and move to Tokyo for three months? That experience is detailed in “When You are Engulfed in Flames.”
Sedaris has written often about his parents and siblings, and fans frequently tell him that they love
reading about his dysfunctional family. Sedaris, however, says he doesn’t really like the word “dysfunctional” and thinks it’s overused.
“I always felt my family functioned better than most,” he said, adding, “I’m not saying we get along great all the time…
“Growing up in a big family, though ó I think I always felt in a way that I had a lot of my needs taken care of, especially my friendship needs,” he says.
“When you have a big family like that … allegiances shift,” he says, noting that he has, by turns, been best friends with his sister Gretchen, his sister Amy, and his sister Lisa.
Besides the breast milk stories, Sedaris says he’s been collecting stories of people being rude.
In his own life, Sedaris says he’s always relished incidents of maltreatment ó like the time a woman whose house he was cleaning insisted that he leave his things on top of the bathroom toilet ó because they’re good story fodder.
“There’s nothing you can do with people being nice to you,” he says.
Although he’s undoubtedly a celebrity these days, Sedaris isn’t immune to feeling invisible with age. He’s 52.
“When you’re older,” he says, “you feel like you just don’t count any more.” He agrees that this sense is probably more acute for women and gay men.
The upside to invisibility, though, especially for someone whose livelihood depends on his powers of observation, is that it’s “easier to be the spy,” he says.
Sedaris must carefully attend to the details of his observations. The New Yorker, in which his work frequently appears, fastidiously checks the facts in his stories, no matter how minor.
They called his sister Amy, for example, to verify something he’d written about how he used to buy chicken legs from her at the dinner table, for 10 cents each.
Amy, who was just messing with the checker, Sedaris said, told him that it was actually 15 cents per leg.
In the wake of scandals about memoirists like James Frey fabricating material, a story several years ago in The New Republic argued that Sedaris’ stories are too exaggerated to be considered nonfiction.
Sedaris was, and is, unapologetic.
“If somebody is a little crabby, then as a humorist, you make them a lot crabby,” he says.
“I’m not a reporter. I don’t want to be a reporter. There are certain tools that humorists have used since day one that I don’t see an reason to stop using.”
His greatest fear, he says is being sued ó although he notes that that wouldn’t be as bad as “having pigs chew off your arms,” a reference to a story told to him by a fan.
“Repeat After Me,” he says, is his own favorite story. The title alludes to a parrot owned by his sister, but the story is ultimately about his decision to back out of a movie project based on one of his books, realizing that it might be hurtful to his sister Lisa.
The essay is a gem. Poignant, funny, self-aware, perfectly crafted.
“It’s the kind of story I always wanted to write,” he says.
Some of his stories are about his life as a gay man. He has many gay fans, but his writing isn’t defined by his sexuality.
Some of the most poignant essays are about how he had to hide his leanings when he was young. Sedaris is gratified by how the culture has changed so drastically when it comes to acceptance of sexuality.
“I met a lot of kids on this tour who would come with their mothers,” he says, “and the mother would say, ‘Brian is off to see his boyfriend next week.’ Or there will be a teenager who went to an alternative prom.”
“And I’d say, ‘When I was your age, you couldn’t admit it even to yourself.’ It was the absolute worst thing to happen to a person. It was easy to believe you were the only one.”
That huge cultural shift, he says, makes him “feel like a million years old.”
When asked about his idea of perfect happiness, Sedaris pauses to think.
“Sitting in my living room in London in the winter with a fire in the fireplace, watching ‘Friday Night Lights.'”
I can’t restrain myself; I have to tell him that I watch “Friday Night Lights” religiously, that it’s absolutely my favorite show and that I was terrified when I thought it was going to be canceled.
“I like that nobody watches it but they keep making it,” he says.
Sedaris says he loves the character of Matt Saracen, especially the way he uses a different voice to coax his grandmother ó who has Alzheimer’s ó out of the bathroom.
“It’s heartbreaking,” he says, and he’s right. I feel the same way about Matt Saracen.
This reflection reminds me that Sedaris told his Winston-Salem audience he’d cried three times while watching the film “Up.”
It’s somehow comforting to know that Sedaris has feelings that can be manipulated by a great story, the same way he manipulates his readers’ feelings ó in the best possible way.
I don’t want to stop talking to Sedaris, since I’ve been looking forward to it for months, but I realize that I have gone over my allotted half hour. I don’t want to be a jerk and end up in one of the stories he’s collecting about rudeness.
I picture the people who are probably already waiting for him in the Asheville bookstore. I imagine what a long night of signing and talking he has ahead.
Reluctantly, I tell him that I know he has things to do and that I should probably let him go. I tell him that I hope he gets his voice back.
Unfailingly kind, he agrees that he probably does need to go, that he needs to iron his pants before he goes to the bookstore.