‘Someone suggested that my new book is bedtime stories for children who drink’. The humorist David Sedaris talks to Hadley Freeman
The man routinely described as the best living humorist in America, David Sedaris, was recently enjoying a plate of marinated salmon over greens while signing books in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois when a fan decided he wanted more than the writer’s autograph. So he reached over and grabbed a handful of food off the Sedaris plate. Understandably, Sedaris was not best pleased. In fact, he was downright annoyed, which is not a common reaction from a writer who tends to regard the world in general with wide-eyed affection and his readers in particular with real fondness (“I always think it’s a good policy to like the people who like you,” he says with an almost straight face). It wasn’t the hygiene issue that bugged him. It wasn’t even the loss of the food, although he was a little upset about that (“I’d been looking forward to that salmon!”) – it was the fact that the man was trying to cheat.
“He just did it because he wanted to be written about,” recalls Sedaris, with the distaste of an artist discussing a plagiarist. “It was a gimmick, you know? So I ignored him because I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction.” For a few moments, Sedaris’s face clouds at the memory. “But then a woman came up to me later after I read the story about the rabbit and the unicorn” – in Sedaris’s new collection, Squirrel Meets Chipmunk – “and she said, ‘You know it’s just wild that you read that story because I went to see my gynaecologist yesterday and he said my uterus is shaped like a unicorn.'” Sedaris leans back in his chair, clouds cleared and replaced with a smile of delight. “I mean, someone handed me a gold coin there.”
This tale, like all of Sedaris’s short stories and autobiographical essays, makes wider points beyond its classically Sedaris-esque world-righted-again conclusion. Just as “Go Carolina”, from Me Talk Pretty One Day, isn’t only about his school’s failed attempts to cure him of his lisp but also about his youthful attempts to conceal his homosexuality; and just as “The Sick Rat and the Healthy Rat” in Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is partly about animal testing but really an exploration of the cruel smugness of the homeopathic set (“I’m sorry to say it, but if you have a terminal illness it’s nobody’s fault but your own”), so this story about Sedaris’s stolen dinner reveals why he is so popular – his delighted fascination in people’s eccentricities (the real, not the faked ones).
His past five collections of essays, When You Are Engulfed in Flames (2008), Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004), Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000), Holidays on Ice (1997) and Naked (1997) have all been bestsellers and have made celebrities out of not just Sedaris, but also the most frequent subjects of his essays: his siblings, his parents, and his boyfriend, Hugh. At a reading in London in March this year, Sedaris himself garnered plenty of happy applause, but it was Hugh who prompted gasps and camera phone flashes when Sedaris pointed him out in the audience, as though Mr Darcy had been suddenly summoned from the wings by Jane Austen.
The most unlikely subjects become hilarious in Sedaris’s hands, such as the time his father threw him out of the house when he realised he was gay. He was, however, too embarrassed to say the word “gay”, so the 22-year-old David assumed, with a shrug of fair-enough acceptance, that he was being ejected from the family home because of his fondness for his bong: “I guess I could have pinned him down, I just hadn’t seen the point. ‘Is it because I’m a failure? A drug addict? A sponge? Come on, Dad, just give me one good reason,'” he wrote in “Hejira”.
Yet his delight in eccentricities is often undercut by a sharpness and a darkness that at times can be startling in a writer who enjoys such mainstream success. In “The Smoking Section”, his essay about his eventual, reluctant, abandonment of smoking, he writes about how he was introduced to his favourite brand of cigarettes: “Just after she started chemotherapy, my mom sent me three cartons of Kool Milds. ‘They were on sale,’ she croaked. Dying or not, she should have known that I smoked Filter Kings, but then I looked at them and thought, Well, they ARE free.”
That his stories are telling most of all in their detail is also shown in the saga of his pilfered dinner – the simple fact that he was eating it at a book event: “I just found that if I do an evening book signing I don’t get back to my room until 2am, and then room service takes another 45 minutes,” he explains blithely over cupcakes in a New York coffee shop. “So now I just bring my dinner with me.” It is a rare author whose readers regularly queue until after midnight to get his autograph.
In America at least, Sedaris is in the tiny golden circle of writers – along with Stephen King and Woody Allen – who commands rock concert-sized audiences in venues such as Carnegie Hall, and whose fans shout their love for him when he walks down the street in New York. “And,” adds fellow humorist and American-abroad writer, Bill Bryson, “he really ought to be as famous here in Britain as he is there. He is the funniest and most original American writer since SJ Perleman.”
In fact, it was at least partly to escape fame that Sedaris fled America for Europe several years ago. “I mean, it’s nice to be told that people love you, but you can’t live like that and I can’t write about it. So I had to go.” To where people are rude to him? “Yeah,” he agrees with a smile. His first refuge of rudeness was of course France, but he now lives in Britain – in London and in a recently bought house in West Sussex. “But I don’t know what that means – West Sussex,” he says, rolling the words with pleasure on his tongue, his lingering North Carolina accent rendering them even more foreign-sounding. “If someone bought a place outside New York I would know what that said about them. So it’s weird not knowing what West Sussex says about us. But I also kinda like that.”
Sedaris was born in New York and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina, along with his siblings, Lisa, Gretchen, Amy, Tiffany and Paul. Everyone in the family, he says, had a role, and his was “the drop out”; it was the other members of his family who were funny, particularly his sister Amy and his brother Paul, who, if warned not to wear shorts at a fancy restaurant, would turn up wearing a thong. “And if it embarrassed me, he would think it well worth it.”
Amy, also a successful comedian and writer, disagrees with David’s self-deprecation: “We’re all funny in different ways but he was the funniest, and I gravitated to him. If I had to learn about Julius Caesar for school, instead of just helping me memorise the whole ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ thing, he would create a talk show with all the characters for the play. He has always been an amazing storyteller, but he also makes you want to make him laugh because he is the most generous laugher you’ll ever meet.”
Sedaris knew he wanted to be a writer from the age of 25, when he read a collection of Bobbie Ann Mason stories; he attempted to fulfil his ambition by “writing a lot of bad Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver.”
It would take almost another decade before he found success. In the meantime, he kept himself busy dropping out of two colleges, going to art school (“I know I didn’t really want to be an artist, simply because I wasn’t jealous of the other students’ success”), developing a full-blown drug habit and finding “jobs that needed no skills”, such as cleaning people’s houses and working as an elf in a department store at Christmas.
He also wrote a diary and it was while he was working in his odd jobs that Ira Glass, a host on National Public Radio, happened to hear Sedaris reading from his diary in a club in 1992. Glass immediately hired him to read on the radio and suggested that he broadcast a longer piece about his life: Sedaris wrote about his time as an elf (published as SantaLand Diaries). Suddenly, he says, “I went from having 50 listeners to 50 million listeners.” He still contributes to NPR.
He insists that he never puts himself in strange and unfamiliar situations just for the sake of writing about them. He does, though, love those initial moments when one is in a new place, that “too short space of time when your eyes are keenly and profoundly open” – such as when he and Hugh moved to Tokyo for a few months to help him give up smoking (the dislocation of the move did help him break the habit, although trying to learn Japanese nearly drove him back to it).
Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk takes him to a terrain almost as novel as Japan. As the title suggests, it is about animals as opposed to people, plus it is Sedaris’s first entirely fictional collection. Sort of. Ever since he was in his 20s, Sedaris, now 54, has carried around a notebook in which he records his observations. When asked how it felt to write a book without the help of these notebooks, he replies that it felt “kinda great! That said, there are some things in the stories that came . . . Like, one time this woman in airport security was just being horrible to me.” Again, his face darkens and then, just as quickly, clears again: “And I thought ‘I’m going to turn you into a rabbit.'”
Squirrel seeks Chipmunk is easily his darkest book, featuring baby lambs whose eyes get pecked out by crows and bears who are beaten and captured by circus owners. Yet it is still funny, particularly because it feels as though Sedaris is satirising the kind of sentimentalised anthropomorphism he often sends up in his essays (posters of animals wearing clothes are frequently cited as the nadir of humour).
“I’ve never been so unsure about the reaction to one of my books,” he says. “What I like is that you can’t categorise it. Someone suggested that it’s bedtime stories for children who drink, and I thought that was just great.”
But Sedaris has long been tough to categorise. While his early essays tend to be straighforwardedly funny, his later ones veer between comedy, darkness and something more moving. The member of his family who readers ask him about the most is his younger brother Paul (when I told friends I was interviewing Sedaris, four asked me to ask about Paul, and a fifth wanted to know what Hugh looks like). The essays about Paul are often extremely touching, such as “Baby Einstein”, in which his brother finds out his wife can’t have any more children.
Because of this ability to move between the hilarious and the heartrending, some critics have compared him to Mark Twain and James Thurber. Sedaris himself prefers to invoke early Whoopi Goldberg stand up routines and, in particular, the all-singing, all-dancing American TV show, Glee. “I love Glee. I cry all the time when I watch Glee because I don’t know if it’s satire or melodrama and that makes me feel like the writing is aware of itself, and that makes it OK to cry,” he says.
A somewhat trickier issue about the categorisation of Sedaris’s work arose in 2007 when the journalist Alex Heard wrote an article questioning whether Sedaris’s stories are as true as he claimed. The fact that he wrote the piece for the New Republic – a magazine which became infamous when one of its reporters, Stephen Glass, was caught fabricating news stories – was ironic enough. That Heard pointed out that a hospital Sedaris describes as “gothic” in one story is actually “Tuscan revival” tipped the whole venture into self-parody. Although the furore has since died down it still upsets Sedaris. “I just thought, what do people think this kind of writing is? I’m not a reporter. Do I exaggerate? Boy, do I, and I’d do it more if I could get away with it,” he says, his voice going just that little bit higher.
David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, which regularly publishes Sedaris, is far more sanguine. “As a magazine, it’s important to find a way to publish what David does, or what Thurber did, or what many humorist-memoirists have done, which is to tell the truth even while pushing against the stubborn facts. Our fact-checkers do check his pieces and David cooperates with that. Still, I think readers understand that they should read David Sedaris with a different understanding than the way they read hardcore investigative reporting.”.
“I just think,” Sedaris adds, “that the people who say: ‘That’s not true’ when someone tells a story at dinner are the people who didn’t get any laughs when they told their story.”
In any event, although he might confuse his architectural terms, he gets the important stuff right. Judging from the few instances his father Lou has appeared in the press, his son seems to have been captured him with little exaggeration. When Sedaris appeared at Carnegie Hall in 2002, a reporter from the New York Observer asked Lou whether he had ever expected to see his son playing Carnegie Hall. “Well,” his dad replied, “I expected to see him cleaning Carnegie Hall.”
There is one issue on which Sedaris has recently retracted: technology. Although he still doesn’t have a mobile phone, he recently did what he promised he’d never do: switch from his beloved typewriter to a computer. However, he conflates the words “email” and “internet” and he can’t quite figure out exactly what the white rectangular square in his hand is – “an iPod, no, it’s an iPad, no it’s an iPod”. At one point, he needs to get an address from his iSomething, but finds he can’t operate it (“Well, this is no good!”) and so reaches for his trusty, battered notebook instead. After all, when the authentic option is there in his pocket, there is no need for anything else.