David Sedaris is Taking Notes 

Writer returns to Charleston with observations on chimps, twats, crybabies, and crap

click to enlarge ILLUSTRAION BY ERIC VINCENT

While we're still months away from pulling out our Christmas tree, David Sedaris is sitting at his home in Paris, wrapping presents. The popular humorist, famous for his essays on NPR and in The New Yorker, as well as collections like Me Talk Pretty One Day, will be stateside for a month as he tours the country with nightly readings of fresh material with his notoriously nasal, yet powdered delivery.

He's bringing the presents now to avoid international shipping delays. As for what he'll be taking back with him when the tour wraps — well, the trip is always full of surprises.

"People give you stuff along the way," he says. "I don't know what they're thinking. People give me coffee table books. ... One time somebody gave me a big baked salmon. I can't bring a big wrapped fish on the airplane."

After eight or nine years of these tours, Sedaris has grown accustomed to the road, but he's picked up at least one unexpected characteristic: he's a self-professed hotel snob.

"I never thought it would happen," he says. "I spent my youth hitchhiking and sleeping in ditches on the side of the road. I had one crummy apartment after another."

His digs in Charleston get high praise, as does the city itself. He's got fond memories of his past visits, even recalling an unusual landmark — the Kickin' Chicken.

"It's really something I look forward to," he says (of visiting the city, not necessarily the Chicken). "I like how Charleston looks different from other places. Most cities in America look alike now. If someone sat you down in Charleston, I think you could say, 'Wait a minute, I'm in Charleston.' If someone sat you down in most places, you wouldn't know."

The tour will include brand-new stories that could be included in his next collection, tentatively titled All The Beauty You Will Ever Need, due out next summer.

"That's like a working title," he says. "I think that's what I'm going to do on this trip — offer people money if they can come up with a better title."

Leading the batch of new material that he'll pull from is the surprisingly brief story about his decision to quit smoking. Considering his well-publicized criticism of smoking bans and his affection for nicotine, faithful readers might expect volumes on the big change, but it turns out it wasn't that hard.

"I mean, I smoked for 30 years," he says. "So, I quit and I thought, well there's 150 pages right there. Really, it was everything I could do to wring 30 out of it. It just wasn't that difficult for me."

He's also got a story on food that recently ran in The New Yorker, along with stories about a Polish crybaby, throwing shit in a paraplegic's yard, chimpanzees at a typing school, and people visiting him in France. Just ticking off the topics gets him laughing (which we'll take as a good sign).

A story about a neighbor he had in New York may also be on tap, but he said that he doesn't really like to do her voice.

"It's shocking to hear the word 'twat' from a 70-year-old woman, so I'm not sure how that one's going to work."

Sedaris says that one familiar voice for fans — that of his brother, Pete, also known as The Rooster — is one he prefers to do in the South.

"If I read that story in other parts of the country, people will say, 'I like that story about your redneck brother' or 'I like that story about your trailer trash brother,'" he says. "My brother doesn't live in a trailer, my brother isn't a redneck. But it's the way he talks, people hear that accent and think, 'Oh, I saw someone like that in a movie. He's a redneck. He lives in a trailer.' But when I read about my brother in the South, everybody's got a brother or a cousin that sounds like that. He's not someone they've seen in a television commercial. He's familiar to them."

click to enlarge ROBERT BANKS
  • ROBERT BANKS

More than six months after a New Republic article pooh-poohed the minutiae of Sedaris' more extraordinary tales, the subject is still a sore one. After the scorn died down over James Frey's best seller A Million Little Pieces and it's less-than-factual aspects, the magazine's Alex Heard decided to dissect Sedaris' work, pulling apart what exactly Sedaris did or didn't do. While Heard tries to sensationalize his piece at every twist and turn, he basically comes to the conclusion that Sedaris, himself, has noted time and again over the years — his stories are true, but exaggerated for color and comic effect.

"There's this book I'm listening to right now. It's a memoir and it's a really good one. It's called Foreskin's Lament by a guy named Shalom Auslander," he says. "There's a point where he's 13 years old and he's walking to synagogue with his family, and a brown Pontiac, let's say, passes them. And he's wondering what the driver would think as he sees this Jewish family walking along the side of the road. And you could say, 'How do you know it was brown? Do you remember that it was a brown car? Do you remember that it was a Pontiac?' But I don't care. I absolutely don't care."

He doesn't mention The New Republic's famous fabricator, Stephen Glass, who published more than 20 reports that turned out to be fiction. But Sedaris does note the magazine's latest scandal ­— dramatic war-torn accounts from a soldier in Iraq that have drawn criticism. The magazine has admitted to at least one inaccuracy, a conversation that was supposedly in an Iraq cafeteria actually happened in Kuwait. The New Republic has promised to continue investigating the facts, but they've been silent for months, leaving it to bloggers to pull the war stories apart.

"They had this guy sending dispatches from Iraq ... and it turns out none of that stuff is true," Sedaris says. "Therefore, it's okay to make stuff up if you're reporting from a war zone, but if you're writing humor, then every single word has to be true. I think that's bullshit."

We move on to talk about "Go Carolina," a story where Sedaris recounts his experience with a speech coach because of his childhood lisp. ("I do meet an awful lot of speech therapists, and I get so self-conscious," he says. "When I meet a speech therapist, I feel like he or she can see right through me.") But he quickly turns the conversation back to the New Republic article.

"I had said that speech therapy was Future Homosexuals of America," he says. "So this guy went to my elementary school principal and asked if he rounded up homosexuals. This was obviously a joke. It never occurred to me that anybody would take that line seriously."

Sedaris says he hasn't read the magazine article and he still struggles with whether he should.

"The thing is, it just bothers the shit out of me," he says.

With his writing frequently published in The New Yorker, Sedaris says the magazine has a crack team of very dedicated fact checkers.

"I'd written one time that a painting cost as much as the average person pays for car insurance," he says. "And so the fact checker for The New Yorker said, 'Well, how much did the painting cost?' And I told him. Then he called back and said that's more than the average person pays in car insurance. So I said, 'OK, let's say it's more than the average epileptic pays in car insurance.' And he called back and said, 'You'd have to say the average epileptic in Connecticut, because they have the highest insurance rates for epileptics.' So here was just a throwaway line, and all of a sudden it's a paragraph about insurance rates for epileptics in Connecticut."

The fact checking has even led Sedaris to fret over submitting some works.

"This one story I'm going to read ... for them to have published that story, they would have to call my neighbors in Normandy and ask this woman if she really dragged herself through her backyard. And I thought, this is going to be weird."

Aside from backyard adventures, Sedaris' time in France has provided ample fodder for his stories. The title Me Talk Pretty One Day comes from one story about his efforts to learn the language. He says that French people are much better than the English at distinguishing between the American people and the American president.

"I think French people figure that if you're American and you're here, then you're not that kind of American," he says.

While French friends were hurt, puzzled, and confused by America's anti-French atmosphere at the start of the war, Sedaris says they love America now.

"It's like Tijuana," he says. "The American peso is worthless. Worth. Less."

When the euro first came out, you could buy one euro for 87 cents. Now, it costs $1.41.

"French people go to America and they're like, 'I'll take seven of those iPods and give me a couple of those Apple computers — and, quick everybody, let's head to the Prada store.'"

It's hard to say what Sedaris will pick up from his trip stateside, but we're pretty sure he'll stay away from the baked fish.


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