It has been 15 years since humorist David Sedaris stepped—with pointy, elfin shoes—into the national spotlight with “Santaland Diaries,” his public radio account of his stint as Macy’s Christmas elf.
In quick succession, Sedaris found himself a regular contributor to radio’s “This American Life,” a best-selling author (“Naked” and “Me Talk Pretty One Day”) and a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and GQ. David Letterman was so smitten that he invited Sedaris to do a rare, on-air reading.
In March, Sedaris also found himself in a dust-up with The New Republic, which tried to fact-check his stories and paint him as a James Frey-like fabulist. A few months later, the magazine itself came under scrutiny for publishing three “Baghdad Diaries,” written by an American soldier under a pseudonym. Army officials investigated and called the columns “false.” The New Republic conceded one geographical error but stands behind the accounts.
But more on that in a moment.
Sedaris splits his time between residences in London and Paris, when he’s not on the road reading.
Below, he talks about not smoking, applying for British citizenship, and not writing about his niece.
When we talked about this a few years ago, you said smoking helped control some of your compulsive tendencies. Have any resurfaced?
When I very first stopped smoking. They say the best way to stop smoking is to move, and if you can’t move, move your furniture. So, I went to Tokyo to quit. I went for three months. At first, it wasn’t old habits that came back to me, it was new and more insidious ones.
Such as really concentrating on a muscle in my leg, until I basically could cripple myself. I was hobbling. I could do it in my neck as well ... just completely focusing on it. I was in pain. But that kind of went away. It is pretty amazing how quickly you feel better. It’s amazing how quickly your skin changes. I was gray—now my skin has colors to it.
I just quit so I could stay at nice hotels. Generally, I’m on tour two months out of the year, and all the good hotels have gone non-smoking.
You recently said that you’re not anti-smoking—that, in fact, you would vote for Barack Obama because he was a smoker.
It’s funny that when you quit smoking, people assume that you’ve immediately become intolerant.
Why aren’t you on camera for “This American Life’s” TV series on Showtime?
I’m just incredibly uncomfortable in front of a camera—incredibly uncomfortable. On the radio, you don’t have to worry about what you look like. I have really crummy teeth.
On the radio, it’s one thing. ... There was a time, and maybe we’re still in that time, when people would say, “Wait a minute. What’s that guy doing on the radio? That’s not a radio voice.” I think, especially on TV, people are gonna say, “What’s the guy doing on the television?”
So that was it, just my own discomfort. I can’t imagine it changing. If anything, it gets worse as I get older.
Do you have any new perspective on The New Republic article?
Well, correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding is that they have a guy who’s reporting from Iraq, who’s a soldier. Well, it turns out that his reports aren’t necessarily true. So therefore, the deal is, if you’re reporting from a war zone, it’s OK to exaggerate. But if you’re writing about guitar lessons you took from a midget in the 5th grade, every single word has to be true. That was what I got from it.
I’ve been asked in 1,000 interviews: “Do you exaggerate in your stories?”
And I’ve always said, “Yes.”
I don’t understand why it would be news when somebody else says it.
But, at the time, people were hanging James Frey (author of “A Million Little Pieces”) out to dry for fabrication. What was your initial reaction to the piece?
I guess it was, “Who cares?”
Even with the James Frey stuff. In his book, he basically says: “I’m a (messed) up alcoholic.” And then people said, “That (messed) up alcoholic lied to us!”
Well, that’s what (messed) up alcoholics do.
Has it made you think about labeling future works differently, perhaps as fiction?
They just want something to put on the back of the book so people will know how to shelve it. Not that that necessarily does any good because my last book (“Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim”) ended up in the sewing section.
“Essay,” I suppose, would be the closest. But it wouldn’t really matter to me. I’ve never gotten up and said, “Every single word of this is true.”
You still sound a little upset about it.
It bothers me because it doesn’t go away.
But lot of people came out in support of you and your work.
I didn’t read the article, I didn’t look at the letters—any of that stuff.
Why wouldn’t you read them?
The same reason I wouldn’t read a review or an interview.
I read reviews of my first book, and it would confuse me when people said that they liked something. Then I’d think, “Is that what I should do?” It’d just mess me up.
And maybe reading the bad reviews would be instructive ... but I go out on these tours, I read out loud. I think I get a sense then if there’s something that’s really bad. I really beat myself up.
Why are you applying for British citizenship?
Once I have a British visa, I can live anywhere in Europe that I want. And I don’t have to give up my American passport, so you don’t lose anything.
I had to study this book called “Life in the U.K.” I can now tell you the difference between the House of Lords and the House of Commons. I can tell you when British women gained the right to divorce their husbands—when they gained the right to own property.
You’ve written extensively about your brother, The Rooster, who recently had a child. What kind of uncle are you?
Well, it’s strange. I went to North Carolina recently ... and it was my niece’s birthday. I’d brought her all these gifts from Japan. And it was like taking these gifts and throwing them off a cliff. Every day, my brother buys his daughter a gift. Every day. The entire house is a playroom. There is not a single room in the house that’s not filled with stuff for her.
But I don’t think there’s a finer child than my niece.
And when other people say, “Well, my niece is the best,” I feel sorry for them a little bit, because I know that they’re wrong.
You’ve often mined your family for material. Has your brother said that you can’t write about Madeline?
No, but I wouldn’t, really. I think it’s perfectly OK to write about your parents, but I think it’s creepy to write about your children. So, I told myself I would not write about Madeline. But when I went to my brother’s house last spring, I was thinking, “God, I hope she doesn’t do anything memorable. Please let her be boring.”