He talk pretty
An interview with writer/humorist David Sedaris
David Sedaris’ cranky mix of insight, humor and observation has gotten him compared to Woody Allen, J.D. Salinger, Robert Benchley—even Mark Twain. But as any fan knows, Sedaris is none of these.
As one-of-a-kind as they come, the author boasts three best-selling books—Barrel Fever, Naked and his latest, Me Talk Pretty One Day—each packed with slightly deranged, mildly absurd, laugh-out-loud autobiographical essays.
His musings appear regularly in the New Yorker, Esquire and Harper’s, and many know him as a regular commentator on the BBC (he lives in Paris) and on National Public Radio where he first came to fame for his “Santaland Diaries,” tales of a dispossessed Macy’s elf during the Christmas season.
In Sacramento last week for a reading at Borders (Me Talk Pretty was just released in paperback), Sedaris found time to sit down with SN&R for a conversation.
SN&R: So what’s it like to be back on tour?
David Sedaris: With a lecture tour, you get paid. But on a book tour, you are not getting paid. So what I started doing, I started putting a tip jar on the table. And I tell the audience, “You’d tip somebody if they gave you a cup of coffee.” Why not? I arrive early, I’m signing books for people who can’t get a seat. And let’s see, yesterday I made $300 in tips! Everywhere I go, I get dollars and change. Like, I was looking through my book bag for a pen at lunch and it was like, oh! [Sedaris pulls a huge wad of bills from his bag.]
[Laughs] It looks like drug money.
I’m so shameless. I mean, I don’t shake people down, but I do talk about my tip jar. At some point, people inevitably ask me to sing like Billie Holiday because I wrote about doing that. And I hate doing that. I just don’t want to do it. But if you don’t do it, they think you’re an asshole. So now if they ask, I say, I’d be happy to … $50, please. And every night they cough up $50! And then, every night, somebody will say, I don’t have your book, but will you sign my copy of War and Peace? They think that it’s hysterical and that nobody’s ever asked that before. And I just don’t believe in signing something I didn’t write. So now I say, “I’d be glad to sign War and Peace … $5 dollars please.”
People really ask you to sign their copies of War and Peace?
Every night. Or whatever book they came in to buy. A lawn mower manual. They want me to sign something. But I like signing books. I like meeting the people.
Let’s talk about Me Talk Pretty One Day. Was the book hard to write?
I had a bunch of stories sittin’ around, and the publisher called and asked if I could have the book in six months. And I said OK, ‘cause I don’t do anything without a deadline. So then I busted my ass for six months. The hard thing is, when you write about yourself incessantly, and you don’t have a very adventurous life, it’s hard coming up with material. Every time I get on a plane I hope it’s hijacked. I do. I’m so jealous of, like, people who go to the Philippines and get kidnapped. Whenever I hear that someone got kidnapped, like in the Philippines, I think, “Now, how would you turn that into a book?” If you were, I don’t know, in a hut for three weeks—is that enough for a book?
Is there one essay in Me Talk Pretty that people seem to respond to most? When I told friends I was coming to talk to you, they said, “Oh, ask him about his dad’s dog, Melina.”
Well, I don’t know if lots of people feel that. But that story really affected my dad. I mean, ‘cause really he didn’t care about his little dog at all before Melina. Now with Melina, he was like: “This is the greatest dog, I love this dog.” And I think people liked the essays about me living in Paris. They ask how my French is going. But nobody ever asks me the writerly questions. If I go to somebody else’s reading, someone will ask the author what he’s just read. Nobody ever asks me that. I get asked what impersonations I do. But I figure you get the questions you deserve.
You actually have your family read the stories beforehand to make sure they’re OK with them?
Yeah. Like I had my dad and my brother read the “You Can’t Kill the Rooster” story about my brother. And actually, I changed a part because my dad wanted me to. Usually at the readings, somebody asks, “What does your family think about the stories.” So I thought I’d write a story about that and then I won’t have to answer that question again. So I’m writing a story about my older sister. And she has a parrot. And she’s going through a rough time, so she taught her parrot to say, “We love you Lisa! You can do it!” It’s like a motivational coach. And I went to visit my sister to talk about her parrot … but she’s very tired of me writing about her.
Why does your family seem so much more interesting than most families?
Really, it comes down to that none of us have children. I think if you have children, you have a natural, built-in sense of the life cycle. If somebody dies, you say, “Well that person died. But I have a new baby, or there’s a new nephew.” And all of this makes sense. People go and people come. But my family’s more like Italy. It just gets smaller. Basically, none of us has ever recovered since our mother died. Everything’s still about her. And the promise is, oh well, people who die will still be around, like in this ice tea. Or in the flowers. Maybe that works for other people, but it doesn’t quite work for any of us. So that’s why I’m writing about my sister’s parrot. It’s about how my family is sort of paralyzed even after so much time. It’s been 10 years since my mother died, and I’m driving with my sister in traffic and suddenly she’s sobbing. We’re always back there again.
And now someone’s making a movie out of my book. I’ve already exploited my family this whole time and now there’s going to be a movie!
Wow. Tell me about it.
Wayne Wang is making it. Money’s been exchanged. Matthew Broderick has expressed an interest in being me. That’s great, I love him. But that’s a thing I’m going through with my sisters, like there’s already been a book; now they have to be portrayed in a movie? In talking about the movie with them, and in trying to save my own ass basically, I’ll probably make a rule: “You have to be pretty to play my sister.” That might make everything OK.
Are people afraid of you? Thinking you might write about them?
No. People are flattered to be written about. And people offer me their stories all the time, but usually it’s not something I would write about. The stories I get that I want to write about are inadvertent. They’re not usually things that people come up and say, “Here, write about this.”
There’s a sense of sadness, sometimes even tragedy in your essays, even when they’re hilariously funny. Is that put on? Or real?
Personally for me, I like to give both sides equal play. To me, that’s all you’ve got. Like you go to Second City and laugh all the way through and you come out and don’t remember a thing. It’s not laughing that people remember so much; it’s that little kick—that moment where something happens. And then you laugh some more. I always like to laugh at things and then I like to feel like a complete shit for laughing at them. I like for stuff to come around behind me and bite me on the ass and make me question myself for having laughed at it.
Mark Twain said the secret source of humor is not joy, it’s sorrow. I think of that sometimes when I read your essays.
Well, yes. But I would be afraid to get up and read something that was just completely sad, because I don’t think I could sustain it. And it’s just not me. And I worry that it would sound precious or something. But I don’t know what I’m gonna do with the next book. I know I have to write it. I want it to be different. I could write fiction, but at the same time I would never go on a lecture tour and have something to read that takes, like, an hour. I’d rather have six short things.
I had a media escort in Iowa City, a guy named John, and he’s written a collection of short stories and won the University of Iowa Press Award. And they published his book. And I bought a copy and you can just tell, the guy’s a natural born writer. He probably went on a book tour and 10 people showed up. But if you’re on the New York Times list, hundreds of people show up and it makes you feel like …
… a fraud?
Yeah. A hack. So actually, if you don’t have success that way, you can comfort yourself and tell yourself that you’re really good—you’re so good that nobody wants to buy your book. But then, if people do buy your book, you say, “Oh, well; I’m a hack.” Like when you’re not on the best-seller list, you say, “Oh, all the books on there are trash.” But when you are on it, you say, “Oh well, Danielle Steele’s not so bad.”
But you’re not a hack. You make people think, and laugh.
But when you do that, people don’t consider you a writer. That’s why I don’t get writerly questions. People think I go to the radio station and just make up a story on the spot! And I struggle so much over those sentences. But it’s humor, so people think it comes off the top. I go to these readings and people say, “Have you ever done stand-up?” I spend all this time agonizing over the writing and they’re thinking they could see you with a brick wall behind you saying “Welcome to the show tonight!” It’s awful.
A lot of people look at your life and think here’s a guy who has it all—you’re on the best-seller list, you travel around the world, you live in Paris, you’re in a good relationship, you’ve probably got plenty of money …
[Laughs] Oh, and I’m so rich!
Well, you have the whole package. So why aren’t you happier?
Well it might look good—I do live in Paris, I do have a boyfriend, all that—but the punishment is that I still have to be me. Like, I got up at 5 o’clock this morning to write and today it didn’t go well. So today it doesn’t matter that I have all this. I absolutely hate myself. There’s no such thing as a vacation from being me.