Every writer (especially the self-absorbed ones) dreams of being David Sedaris, the author and memoirist whose every book shoots to the top of the bestseller list, and whose Santaland Diaries on NPR (about working as a Macy’s elf) has become a seasonal classic. For airport reading, he’s right up there with Tom Clancy and J.K. Rowling. Personal appearances are mobbed.
Sedaris’ latest collection, When You Are Engulfed in Flames (just released this month), is his sixth since 1994. The New Yorker and Esquire not only return his calls but run his stuff, and his essays have appeared in several anthologies and collections.
The perfect world according to Sedaris: “You become a character, the world cooperates perfectly and you’re just writing the story in your head.”
That’s (some of) his altogether amazing rap sheet. One might expect the in-demand Sedaris to be a bit bored by the interview process, but instead he’s just like his writing: affable, chatty, relaxed. He makes the not-unreasonable assumption that you know him already, weaving casual references to his life and family into the conversation.
He asked me to call his London flat at what was for him 11 p.m. It was definitely a little odd, but, you know, fitting.
Brianna Snyder: I’m concerned about calling you at 11 p.m. Are you sure this is O.K.?
David Sedaris: Oh, no, it’s fine. I had work to do and then I ate dinner and now I’m just washing my dishes. …This actually works out well for me.
Congratulations on your sixth book.
I just got a copy today. I went to Indianapolis 10 days ago, and I signed 5,000 books, but they didn’t give me one.
How do you feel about it?
I just put it in my living room and I walk by and I look at it every now and then and I think, “Oh, that’s interesting.” I try to pretend that I didn’t know what was on my book cover. And I try to imagine what it might look like if I didn’t already know what it looked like—you know what I mean? If I walked into someone’s house and saw that lying on a coffee table, what would I think? …I knew a year ago that I had to turn the book in but I didn’t know what the cover was going to look like. Although, I’ve had that postcard for, I don’t know, a couple years.
Where did you get it?
Amsterdam. It’s a Van Gogh painting from, I think, the Van Gogh museum. I don’t go to museums, I just go to museum gift shops. If someone said to me, “Oh that’s a Van Gogh painting on the cover,” I’d go, “Yeeesh,” [laughs] but I think that’s like a really good Van Gogh painting.
I just found out army bases don’t want to carry the book because they think the skeleton’s smoking a joint. So the publisher had to call them and explain that the painting was done in, like, 18-something, and that they didn’t have joints then—it’s a hand-rolled cigarette. But that’s pretty silly to me. Soldiers, American soldiers…you don’t want to tempt them with a joint. You also don’t see books with black covers too often. Well, the Bible. …And I think it looks really good—all that black on the cover.
Have you managed to continue not smoking?
Yeah. Uh-huh. It’s funny, though, how people will ask that. They’ll say, “So you quit smoking. That’s great. Do you smoke now?” I say, “No, I quit smoking.” And they say, “Well, like, when you go to a party or something, you smoke, right?” So I finally say, “No, I really quit smoking, which means I don’t do it anymore.”
You’ve written a lot about having symptoms of OCD as a kid, and using smoking as a way to temper that. Are you finding those old symptoms are resurfacing?
It comes and goes. There’s this little thing that I started doing when I was in Japan, and it’s really kind of insidious. It’s hard to describe, but it’s like exercising a muscle. If you emphasize the muscle in your shin, and with every step you take, you just kind of make sure you put a little bit of extra weight on it and then twist it a little. I started doing that and then I started concentrating on my side, like pulling this muscle in my side so I was hobbling, and then I was bent over in pain. The problem is that if you tell yourself not to do that, then you know you’re guaranteed to do it, so that’s my new thing. I haven’t done it in a couple weeks, but now that you mention it [laughs], I’ll probably be doing it for the next couple days.
I’m sorry I brought it up.
There were all kinds of things I told myself when I quit. I thought when I quit smoking I wouldn’t know what to do with my hands. But, really, that’s not an issue. I haven’t given it any thought. I’m sure I do stuff with my hands, and I’m sure it doesn’t look that strange or people might have pointed it out to me. There’s tiny stuff to do. You can run your hands through your hair, or you can wave at people, or check your fingernails.
In Connecticut, they passed a law that prohibits smoking in the car if you’re carrying children under the age of 10.
Now, see, they did that in California. I think it is dangerous to give children that much power [laughs]. You’ve got a child that can call the police and turn you in. That child is driving you insane, right? You can’t beat that child in public anymore because someone’s going to get involved, and now you can’t even smoke to relax yourself.
I saw a woman today—whew—on Kensington/High Street. I don’t know what had gone on before I got there. But there were town policemen on the sidewalk and she was in her car and she said, “FUCK YOU! FUUUCK YOU! GO FUCK YOURSELF! FUCK YOU!” and her face is purple and the cops are laughing…she’s yelling, “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you,” and the girl next to her in the front seat is a mortified 8-year-old girl. And I thought, What is that little girl’s life like? Because I’m getting the idea that this is not the first time that her mother had yelled “fuck you,” like, 85 times at a cop.
About each of his new books Sedaris says, “I try to pretend that I didn’t know what was on my book cover. And I try to imagine what it might look like if I didn’t already know what it looked like—you know what I mean?”
My mother smoked when I was growing up. Everybody’s mom and dad smoked, and you sat in the car and both your parents smoked, and if it was winter, you sat in the car with the windows open and both your parents smoked and that was just the way it was. There wasn’t an alternative to that. You wouldn’t say, “Do you mind?” Children weren’t allowed to say things like that back then.
I noticed you blend nonfiction into your fiction. Did you initially pursue writing fiction?
A lot of it was written when I lived in Chicago. At that time it wouldn’t have occurred to me to write nonfiction. Like the mom in the story “Barrel Fever.” That wasn’t exactly my mom but there were elements of my mom in that character. Like I woke up one morning and I had passed out drunk and woken up with my head on the vacuum cleaner. But I didn’t have a neighbor like [the one in the story]. When you get the story like “Merry Christmas to our Friends and Family,” that was completely made up. That wasn’t anything close to my life.
I’m writing these little stories about animals right now. I’m doing that partly because it’s a shortcut to getting back into fiction. If you write that Glen and Steven have lunch together, you sort of need to describe what they look like, but if you say that the termite and the beaver have lunch together, everyone knows what a termite and a beaver look like. [Laughs.] But it’s hard because I’m not giving any of these animals names. So they’re the Beaver and the Termite.
Are they children’s stories?
No. The story I’m writing now is about a really ugly fox and he’s really, really ugly and that’s a problem because he’s a fox. So everyone makes that obvious joke. That he’s the “unfox.” His mother says, “O.K., if you let me keep my eyes closed, you can have sex with me.” So, yeah, it’s not for children. But those are completely made up for the most part. There was one where I thought it was something that somebody had told me that I could not write about in real life, so I thought maybe if I turn them into a chipmunk…I could do it that way.
Have you ever been sued by the people you’ve written about, or received angry letters or complaints?
I’ve been very, very lucky that way. I don’t know what the laws are concerning if you use somebody’s real name. With The New Yorker, if you don’t use somebody’s real name, you have to acknowledge that you haven’t used their real name. You can’t just change their name. The New Yorker has changed the way I write a lot because there will be things I want to write about and I think, “Well, if I do, then The New Yorker’s fact checker is going to get involved.”
I had this incident in London and it was delicious. And I don’t need to change a word of it. But if a fact checker from The New Yorker calls this person—who’s spent some time in prison—to say, you know, “Do you really have a forearm in the back of your shop?” he probably will say, “No.” Or, “Do you really have the head of a teenager in a plastic bag?” He’s going to say, “No.” But he does. And I saw it. And he let me touch it. But I’m making it sound better than it is. It’s a 600-year-old teenager from South America, but it’s still the head of a 14-year-old in a plastic bag.
It was just one of those moments that I pray for because every now and then your life just feels like a story. You become a character, the world cooperates perfectly and you’re just writing the story in your head.
So no one’s sued you?
No, but there was that Polish guy who sat next to me on the airplane [“Crybaby”]. I don’t know who he was and maybe he read that story and said, “My nose does not look like it was roughly carved out of wood.” But I just hope that he doesn’t read a lot of things in English. I try to write about people who aren’t big readers.
By now the people in your life probably expect to see their names in your writing.
Well, I wrote a story about buying a chicken leg. I said there were a lot of children in my family so I wasn’t always certain I would get enough to eat. [I had said] that I would buy a chicken leg off of Amy [Sedaris] for 15 cents. So the fact checker called Amy: “Did your brother buy chicken legs from you? For 15 cents?” If someone in my family appears in a story, I give them that story to read first. Or I read them the part of the story they’re in and I say, “Is this O.K. with you?”
Your career is based on the details of your life. At times, do you regret that? When people approach you and ask you about these details, do you feel a little put off?
I just give the illusion of exposing myself, really. Like, you might know that I quit smoking or I coughed up a lozenge or that I bought some drugs in a trailer. But you don’t know how I have sex. Or you don’t know what I really think about certain people.
Do you think you’ll ever abandon that, and write a serious novel with those more personal details?
No, I’m comfortable with the level to which I expose myself. I’m surprised when I hear about blogs. I’ve been keeping a diary for 30 years, and for as long as I’ve been doing that I’ve been making covers [for them]. I find a cover—a painting or a piece of paper or a sign someone had in their front yard—and take it to a place and have it bound. But I don’t like the feeling that a stranger would have my diary. So when I hear about people with blogs and I think about putting that on the computer for everyone to read, that’s something I don’t understand.
But aren’t you giving your name to these people binding your diaries?
Actually, no. I give the first name. That’s actually a really good point. Every now and then there’ll be a quote [in my diary] like somebody will say, “David Sedaris, I hate him.” There are lots of names in there. When people tell me that they have blogs, I always think, “That can’t be your real diary, because how could you want people to know those horrible, horrible things about you?”
You had said in a previous interview four years ago that you had not seen the Internet.
I saw it in September.
Yeah, I saw it in September, but before I forget, to answer the other part of your question about if it bothers me that people know me? Not at all. It does bother me sometimes when people will say, “How’s Gretchen?” or “How’s Amy?”; “How’s the Rooster?” It bothers me a little bit, but the stuff about me, that doesn’t bother me.
So how did you finally stumble onto the Internet?
Hugh got that airport thing [Wi-Fi] where you don’t have to plug the cord into your computer…and then he showed me how I could look at The New York Times. I looked at The New York Times and two weeks later I thought, “Oh, maybe I’ll look at The New York Times again.” I didn’t go crazy the way a lot of people did.
Do you have a favorite story?
Yeah, I don’t remember what publisher did it, but they put out an anthology called This is My Best, and they asked different writers to select what they thought was the best thing they ever wrote. I selected “Repeat After Me,” [from Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim] about my sister Lisa and her parrot. People always ask me, “What does your family feel when you write about them?” And I have an answer, but it’s become so automatic at this point, I don’t even know if it functions anymore. I thought, “I’m going to write a story that answers that question and the way that story makes me feel when I read it is the answer to that question.”
In your new book, you talk about some of the screwy English in Japan. You mention a gift bag you found that says, “Only imflowing you don’t flowing imflowing.” Do you have any idea what the hell that means?
[Laughs.] No, and I think it had like a waterfall or a kitten on it. It was very sort of peaceful, but you see a lot of things like that in Japan. What I liked about it is that they weren’t exactly like mistakes. I mean, you see mistakes on menus, you see little typos here and there, but, in Japan, it’s like poetry. It’s something like “only imflowing you don’t flowing imflowing,” I’ve memorized it. I think about it as much as you do and I try to figure it out, because it’s not so pathetic that you can discard it. Really, you’re inclined to chew on it.
This interview originally appeared in the New Haven Advocate, from which it’s reprinted with permission.