When you get on the phone with David Sedaris, naturally you need to have a good icebreaker. You want to ask him about the fatty tumor he fed to a turtle (as described in Calypso, his most recent book, reviewed here). You picture a man standing on a pristine North Carolina shore, resting one hand on his knee, holding out a small pus-colored bubo towards a turtle with the other, his face set in a grimace. Or, you think, you’ll jump right in with the question about whether he still gives out condoms to young people who come to his readings.
Of course, naturally, he manages to disarm you, throwing you off by taking note of how you answer the phone, and how formal and polite your tone is. It’s a daunting conversation when you’re talking to someone you’ve read for over a decade; you end up talking about everything you’ve ever wanted to know, from the big-picture details of how he sees his audience, to whether the painter he refers to as “Broderson” in Calypso was actually called “Bradlington” in When You Are Engulfed in Flames. (It is.)
This interview has been edited and condensed.
I hope everything is going well for you. Are you jet-lagged? How long has it been since you got in?
I don’t really acknowledge jet lag. I think when I lived in Paris… when you live in a foreign country with a different language, whenever you hear your own language, you perk up.
This is true.
And it seemed when I moved to Paris, whenever I heard English being spoken, it was people saying, “we got here two weeks ago and we’re still so jet lagged”, so I just never acknowledge it. It’s a short distance between here and the UK. When you go to Australia, [jet lag] is a thing. But not from here to there. I don’t really notice it. But a couple things I was actively dreading…
What were you dreading?
Going on television. I’ve been dreading that for months. I agreed to go on Colbert and I just kept thinking “goddamnit, why did I agree to do that, what am I going to talk about?” Anyway, that’s over.
Was it as bad as you had anticipated?
I know him. He and my sister were at Second City together, and I’ve always known him as a lovely person, so I was never afraid of him. I was afraid of television.
So that must have been really interesting, because he used to do the character [on the Colbert Report], but now he interviews people as himself, and you knew him before he did the character.
I knew him 30 years ago. But I wouldn’t have gone on his show with the character, because it’s sort of like talking to someone with a mask on. You have to be quick on your feet. You have to be an improv person in order to talk to a character. And again, I’m not afraid of him.
The audience is different. When I do a show, the audience bought a ticket to come see me. But this audience came to see Anne Hathaway or whoever the star was, because there were people from New Jersey and Long Island and they had relatives in town, so they got tickets, and that’s who they wanted to see. You can’t blame them. You want to see a big star.
I never have made it to one of your readings. When I read your story about how you’re giving out condoms to the young people [who come to your readings], I was wondering, are you still doing that?
I still have things that I give away, but I don’t give condoms anymore because once I wrote about it, people started expecting it. What I noticed were that grown-ups would come and say, “where’s my condom?” It’s sort of like once you write about something, it gets ruined in a way, because then people expect it. I always have gifts for people if its their birthday or something, and then I write about it. I can’t tell you how many people say, “it’s my birthday”. A lot of times now I say, “let’s see your ID.” I don’t trust them anymore!
So I still have stuff for teenagers, but just not the condoms. But my suitcase—I’m really struggling with the weight of my suitcase, and my suitcase would be so much easier if I didn’t have all those giveaways, and then I was just saying today to somebody: “I think it would make it so much easier if I didn’t.” But if there’s a teenager you think, “I need to mark this, I need to make it special somehow.” Because I’m so honored that teenagers would come because I’m [basically] their grandfather. And the fact that they would come hear someone their grandfather’s age read out loud… and ultimately what I give them is not a bottle of shampoo from my hotel. But it’s something.
How do you feel that your audience has changed? Have you always felt like you’re writing for people your own age when you were writing for that particular NPR set? Or are you still surprised that younger people come to your readings?
It’s funny. When I first started reading out loud, I started reading in schools, and then I would put on these shows with my friends, and a lot of those were kind of gay-themed, so the audience wouldn’t all be gay, but they were gay people and friends of gay people. And then somebody invited me to take part in a variety show. One of the reasons I did it, is [that] her audience is so different from mine. I guess I would think of it as a squarer audience than my audience.
When I started on the radio, I guess that’s when I started having more of an NPR audience, but if I look at that audience I think, “what do you have in common?” It’s a level of education, that they all went to college, but I don’t see much beyond that. Well… they went to college, and something tells me that if you sat them down and say, “what do you most look for in a community?” they’d say “diversity”.
So well-meaning liberal people of a certain economic and educational strata?
Yeah. And to tell you the truth, I honestly don’t know what’s worse: to have a right-wing audience or a left-wing audience. They’re two hands around my throat, slowly squeezing the life out of me. A lot of times people will say at the end of a show, “I cannot believe the things you said on stage,” and I’m thinking “what did I say?” I don’t even know what [they’re] talking about.
What do people in their late teens and early 20s say? “Thanks for the gift?”
They’re just waiting for me to say “pussy” again. [Laughter]
It’s interesting: I was interviewed with another writer last week and the two of us were being spoken to at the same time, and the other writer said, “if somebody comes up to get their book signed, I won’t say anything, and that will let me know what led them there, because they’ll say ‘oh, I read your first book.'”
But I would never let that happen. I would never sit there and not say anything. I don’t want to talk about myself when people come to get their book signed. I feel like I just read about myself for an hour and just answered questions about myself for half an hour, so it’s really enough about me. I feel like that’s not a really good question: “what do you like about me?” I really don’t have a clue.
A woman came up to me a while ago. She taught in a Christian school. [She had her] students read “Jesus Shaves” [Me Talk Pretty One Day, 2000] and she said that they were so offended by it. So very offended by it. And I thought that was interesting, because I don’t see anything in there to be offended by, but it was interesting that she told me that.
So I’ve read all of your books, and I’ve noticed as I’ve read some of your later books that your writing style has changed. The way you enter a story and the way you decide to frame it has changed. In Calypso, I noticed that with the story about the Fitbit [“Stepping Out”] it goes in one direction, where you’re talking about the woman you met, and then it goes into [your adventures with] FitBit. Or with [“The Perfect Fit”], you think it’s going be about your relationships with your sisters, and then it’s about shopping, with the relationship in the background informing it, right?
There’s an essay [“Day In, Day Out,” Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls] where you talk about about your writing habits, but I was wondering if you could expand on how you feel your writing has changed from your first book to now.
I was a fiction writer. And I just wrote fiction. And then “Santaland Diaries” [Barrel Fever and Other Stories, 1994] was on the radio, and then “Morning Edition” [NPR] said they wanted to have me back, but it had to be nonfiction. And so I kind of accidentally ended up writing about my life. I knew I wasn’t a journalist; I knew I didn’t want to go out into the world and act like a reporter. Nothing about that appeals to me. But I think when I started, Ira [Glass] started doing “This American Life” and he’d say, “our theme this week is going to be music lessons,” so then I’d write an essay about that. But I feel like back then— you know, if you’re in school and you write an essay, you’re taught to have a topic sentence, and Ira wants the story to be under way within two paragraphs.
But I think I evolved away from that, so now I’m like, “I’m gonna talk about this for a while, and I’m gonna talk about this for a while.” One of the things I like about The Simpsons is that if you watch most sitcoms, you think, “oh, someone’s going to get their finger stuck in a bowling ball, or someone’s high school boyfriend is going to run into them and they’re going to get back together.” But if you watch the first few minutes of The Simpsons, I defy you to know what the episode’s gonna be about. And I really like that about it. So I would rather be that way.
A lot of times I’ll start writing, and I don’t know what the essay is going to be about. Sometimes it’ll be something in my diary that got a good reaction. I was signing a book for a woman not long ago, and I just pulled this question out of my ass: I said, “does your mother want to be your best friend?” and she said, “oh my god, you have no idea.” She said, “my mother told me recently: ‘I wouldn’t mind trying anal sex, but your father’s dick is too big.'”
Oh my god.
And I said to her: “you should say to your mother: ‘oh really? I didn’t think it was too big.'”
That diary entry gets such a good response, so that would be the good opening to a story. I don’t know what the story would be. You know, my mother drew a line. She was our mother; she wasn’t our best friend. We really liked each other, but she didn’t try to be our best friend. But later in life, she talked shit about our father all the time, which we didn’t care about, because we were always happy to hear shitty things about him. So maybe the essay would be about that, or about people you know whose mothers want to be their best friends.
But what I like about that, is that I know the first paragraph is going to get a great reaction. It’s not enough for an essay. You try to stretch it out… the girl comes up and you say hello, and her saying, “oh, hello,” and you’re describing her, and you’re saying she had blue nail polish on. I mean, that’s just false, like trying to make more of that than it was. It was the incident. It was a funny incident. But it could be used as an opening to an essay about something completely different.
One of the stories I really love of yours is from Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, “A Guy Walks Into a Bar Car”, because it’s so interesting to see how you’ve recognized these situations coming up again in your life, and how the way you felt about the guy in the nineties is sort of repeating itself, if that makes sense. But there’s also that sense of growth, where it’s like, “okay, back then, I did this, but in this situation, I did a different thing, because I’ve grown.” And its a really nice encapsulation of being able to see that the writer has changed.
Well, I mean, I appreciate your noticing the stories have changed, [that] the way of telling stories has evolved.
I remember reading an essay where you talk about how Hugh is a very private person [author’s note: it’s a diary entry in Theft by Finding from May 5, 2001]. In Calypso, it feels like we see more of him—maybe more of his personality—in a few ways than we did earlier. Is that a conscious decision on your part? Or is it because you’ve been together for so long, that you feel like there’s a familiarity that comes through in the writing?
If Hugh had said to me, “you absolutely cannot write about that,” I wouldn’t have. There’s a lot of things I don’t write abut Hugh. I might give the illusion of exposing who Hugh is, but it’s really just the illusion of it. That’s a good question. I mean Hugh is an evolving character as well.
I was saying this in an earlier interview, that I know a lot of people who are funny people and who are good people, but they’re not necessarily good characters. And Hugh is a good character because he’s so uptight, and because he’s so strict, and he’s always on my back. It’s almost like the classic henpecked husband from the comic essay. When you reread James Thurber, it’s funny how you’re more inclined to think of the wife as standing behind the door with a rolling pin in her hand. It’s so dated now, the idea of a woman with curlers in her hair… and so I think of that. I said to him the other day, “yes dear.” [Laughter]. “Yes, dear.”
This book seems to have a more specific, narrowed-down set of themes than a few of your other books. It’s about your family and the beach house. Do you decide in advance whether you want to write a bunch of essays about a certain topic, or do you write a bunch of essays and find that a theme has emerged?
I put together a bunch of essays, and find what has emerged. When I bought the beach house, I knew I’d get a bunch of stories out of it. Every time my family got together, I thought, “every time we get together, thats going to be another essay.” It’s not like anything huge happened. It just felt like I felt a story taking place.
I’m always wondering what people whom I’m reading are reading.
I just got this book by Rick Bass [The Traveling Feast: On the Road and at the Table with My Heroes]. He’s a short story writer, and the book comes out in a few weeks. He went and cooked for different writers that he likes, and so I was one of the writers. He came to my house and cooked.
What did he cook?
He cooked quail. It’s interesting because when someone writes about me in a newspaper or something, I’m not going to read it. I don’t read anything about myself. But he’s such a good writer and I’m curious. I know his fiction and admire it, so I was curious what his nonfiction was like, and he’s such a good nature writer. So I liked hearing how he would describe my house and the area that I live in. He did such a better than job describing it than I could ever do.
How do you decide whom you’re going to dedicate a book to? In the review copy I got of Calypso, it said “Dedication TK.”
That’s a really good question.
It has to be the right book, and the right person. And to tell you the truth, you want to dedicate the book to someone who will read the dedication and cry.
So I remember I dedicated my first book to my mother, and she’s dead, so she didn’t cry. I dedicated Naked to my sister Lisa, who reacted just the way she was supposed to. And Me Talk Pretty One Day I dedicated to my father, and I sent him the book, and I called and asked, “did you get the book?” “Yeah, I got it!” “Did you see who I dedicated it to?” “Yeah, I saw!” and it’s like, fuck, I just wasted a book dedication.
My last book [Theft by Finding] I dedicated to my dear friend Dawn, and she just happened to be visiting when I got the first copy. I said to her, since she’s a designer, “can you look over the first page?” so I could watch her. I watched her turn the page, and she thought that just that one book, that that one copy was dedicated to her.
But this time, I dedicated it to my cousin, and she’s the only person I ever dedicated a book to who wrote me a letter about having the book dedicated to her. It was exactly the right person to dedicate the book to. She said, “I turned the page and I saw my name, and there were just tears streaming down my face.”
I was wondering—are there tears on the letter?
She sent an email, then she sent a letter. She said that “[it was] a gift, having my name in print,” and I guess it’s because my name has been in print for so long, I forgot that not everybody has their name in print whenever they want to. I completely forgot about that. But she’s my cousin, and she’s the dearest person.
And it’s funny, too, when a book is dedicated to you. I wouldn’t know; I’ve never had a book dedicated to me. But you feel like it’s your book, in a way. I’m keeping her informed on “our book”, on how “our book” is doing. I was on TV promoting our book, and there’s an article in the New York Times about our book, or our book is going to be the cover of the New York Times book review section. She’s a wonderful, wonderful person.
[…] Nobody’s ever asked me about [dedicating my books] before. It’is something you think about. You don’t want to waste a dedication; you want it to count. I dedicated my book [Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls] to Amy, but I waited because I wanted it to be the right book to dedicate to her. I’ve dedicated a book to everyone in my family except my brother Paul, and this didn’t seem like a good book to dedicate to Paul.
So you’ll just have to keep writing more books!