COVER STORY ‌ A Writer for Nonreaders 

An interview with David Sedaris

click to enlarge David Sedaris - Tues. April 11, 8 p.m. - N. Charleston Performing Arts Center - $27.50-37.50 - For tickets: 554-6060 or 529-5000 -
  • David Sedaris
    Tues. April 11, 8 p.m.
    N. Charleston Performing Arts Center
    For tickets: 554-6060 or 529-5000

David Sedaris was "discovered" just over a decade ago, when National Public Radio producer Ira Glass heard him read at an open mic night in Chicago. A few months later, Sedaris made his national debut, recounting the strange-but-true experiences of his job as a Macy's elf in the story "SantaLand Diaries" on NPR. Soon after, Little, Brown publishers called and asked if he had a book, and the stack of stories in a desk drawer became a manuscript.

Ten years, two Grammy nominations, six books, and millions of copies sold in 27 languages later — David Sedaris is one of the best-known, best-selling, and hardest working authors in the world. Most recently, he has selected and edited an anthology of short stories entitled Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules, to benefit 826NYC — a writing and tutoring program for at-risk kids in Brooklyn.

I spoke to him by phone at his home in Paris last week, as he was finalizing preparations for his upcoming 30-day/30-city tour that brings him to the N. Charleston Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, April 11. What follows are a just a few of the exchanges over the course of the two-hour conversation covering everything from Communism to Kool Milds. Insert laughter after just about every sentence, and you'll get the general idea of how we spent the better part of what was the evening for me, and the earliest hours of morning for him.

Tell me about the anthology; it's called Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules, and you say in the introduction, "the authors in this book are huge to me, and I am a comparative midget scrawling in their shadow." So, how did you choose what giants to include?

Originally the idea was to publish an anthology of new stories, to ask a group of contemporary writers to contribute something specifically for this project. But I just couldn't bring myself to call up people like Tobias Wolff and say, "Could you write a new story for me, and, by the way, you won't get paid for it." There was no way. Plus, people ask me to do stuff like this all of the time; I know what a pain in the ass it can be.

So, I just chose some of my favorite stories. And that wasn't hard at all. The only thing I worried about was whether people have already read it a million times. For example, one of my favorite stories as a kid was Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," but I thought, "Well, I can't include that — everyone read that in grammar school."

The hope with any anthology is that you will inspire people to read more stories or books by these authors. A lot of the people who come to see me aren't big readers. I don't mean that as an insult — they tell me all the time that mine is the only book they've read in a year, or the only book they've bought in five years. And a lot of them don't even read my books — they listen to me on the radio. If I can introduce a few of these people to great writers like Alice Munro, or Lorrie Moore, or Tobias Wolff, I'm happy to do it.

Okay, but how could you possibly choose just one Flannery O'Connor story? Why did you pick "Revelation" over all the others?

I love Flannery O'Connor, I have since I was a kid. I think she does dialect better than anyone else has ever done it. But the problem is that most people can't get passed the fact that she used the word "nigger." When I was teaching, it was the only thing my students could focus on. They were convinced she was a racist for using the word, and I was a racist for making them read the story. I couldn't make them understand that it was 1964, it was the South, it was the way people really talked then, and she was just writing what she heard.

They weren't consoled by the fact that the characters who used that word, who were the most racist were also the ones who died the most horrible deaths? They didn't get that she was all about divine punishment for one's sins?

No! They acted as if I was the one who should get gored by the bull for suggesting they read the story in the first place!

So are there any writers you don't like?

I don't like writers who are constantly trying to prove how smart they are. What's the point in reading something that hard? When I hear people say things like, "Oh, I've just spent the last six months reading Gertrude Stein," I immediately think to myself, "Why would anyone spend six months reading the same book? There is obviously some type of problem!"

Flannery O'Connor is smart, but she's not a show-off. Her stories make me want to be careful. When I finish reading them, I think, "I'm going to be a better person from now on!" Of course, that usually lasts for about seven minutes. But that's better than nothing, right? If you read enough stories, those seven minutes can really add up.

Speaking of being a better person... "Hejira" [from Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim] is one of my favorite stories. I could not stop laughing at you thinking your dad was kicking you out of the house for being a college drop-out, slacker, and drug addict — not having a clue that it was because you were gay.

Yeah, well, the funniest part is that I was back in the house two days later. But that kind of ruins the story.

You're right. Because what stays with me is the image of your mother driving away when the story ends; you close the door, and she drives back home to your father, absolutely broken-hearted.

And that's what the story is really about, that's why I ended it the way I did. She was not a woman who normally cried, and it meant something that she was crying so hard in the car, but I had no idea what it was. I wrote that story for "This American Life." Ira [Glass] asked me to write something about cars, and that was the very first thing I thought of, seeing my mom cry like that as she drove away.

Your mom is my favorite all of your characters. Maybe that's just because I'm a mom myself.

Really? That means a lot to me. My dad was really worried when the stories first came out. He didn't necessarily talk about her like she was a saint after she died, but I think he was worried about people knowing her bad habits, knowing that she smoked and she cursed.

My mom loved being the center of attention. If she were still alive, I'd give her five minutes at the beginning of every show to say whatever she wanted. She'd love it! I think I'm just trying to give her some of that attention with the stories. But there are stories I know she wouldn't want me to tell, things she wouldn't want people to know. I haven't told those stories, I haven't told any of her secrets.

You use your readings as part of your revision process before you publish new material, but how much rewriting do you do while you're on the road?

I have 10 new stories this time, and they are all nearly finished. But I do take notes when I'm reading to get a sense of what works and what doesn't. It's nothing distracting, it's not like I'm furiously scribbling in the margins, but I have these little symbols I use. Then I'll go back to the hotel and rewrite certain things, and in the morning I'll read it and rewrite some more.

These aren't necessarily big changes — it's not like I start off reading crap. These are the ninth or tenth drafts of things that have already been revised and edited. But I do continue to make changes.

Sometimes it's something small. I'll think, "That's a lazy word, you can do better than that," and I'll spend an entire two- or three-hour plane ride trying to come up with a better one.

So how does a David Sedaris story get to be a David Sedaris story? Are most of them from your journals?

I've kept a journal since I was a kid, and it's amazing to go back and read them, and try and imagine who you were then. I'm always fascinated with the record-keeping stuff, how much a certain item cost, what song I liked on the radio. I found a whole bunch of old journals not long ago, and I read them to my sister Lisa. She couldn't remember any of it. It was like it had happened to someone else.

So, yes, I use the journals. I might be working on an assignment for "This American Life," or Esquire, and they'll give me a theme, and I'll go back and look for things that work. And I might start with 10 or so ideas, and then one of them will just work out better. Other times I might see something and write about it, not really knowing where it will fit in to a story later.

For example, I'm working on a story right now, and for the ending I'm using something I saw on the streets of Paris years ago. Here in France, they call the fire department for everything — no matter what it is. So an elderly woman had fallen, and someone called the fire department. They arrived with lights flashing and sirens blaring, and they rushed to help the woman.

She didn't seem to be in any great danger or have any serious injury. So one of the firefighters reached inside the cab of the fire truck, reaches behind the seat and pulls out a beautiful crystal goblet and a bottle of water. He opens the bottle, fills the goblet, and hands it to the woman like it was the most normal thing in the world.

It seemed a remarkable thing to me that these firemen drove around with goblets always at the ready in times of need, but I never knew how to write about it. And then recently I was searching for an ending to a story, and this seemed perfect. It doesn't make the story any less true because I end it with a fire truck, but that's not exactly how things happened.

Your work is being published for the first time in French and Greek this year, aren't you nervous about the translations?

For the French book, I worked really closely with the translator, and I think she did a really good job capturing the rhythm of my sentences and it seems to work really well. So I'm fairly okay with that one.

But my books have been published in 27 languages, and for most of them I don't have a clue what they say. My favorite is the Korean translation. It has this really simple and beautiful cover, and I just love to hold it in my hand. But I have no fucking idea what it says. It's something completely foreign from me.

And you're giving the commencement speech at Princeton's graduation ceremony this year?

Yeah. Can you beat that? My father is so excited about it. Finally, he's got a kid at an Ivy League college. He even called me up and said, "See if they can give you one of those honorary degrees." I was like, "Oh, Dad, they don't just give those things away! It's an honor that I was even asked." Really, I just didn't want to admit that I'd already tried, but apparently you can't request those types of things; you have to be chosen. So my father and I are going to go and just pretend that it's my graduation ceremony.

You like doing the tours, right? You don't mind the traveling?

No, I don't mind. Why should I? A month of plane rides and room service, what's there to complain about? I mean, it's not all fun, and some of those plane rides can get boring and the room service can get bad. But it's not like it's hard to do. And I really love meeting people.

Do all the cities blend together when you're changing towns every day? Or are you able to get a sense of each particular place?

I don't spend a lot of time in each place, so I don't see much more than the airport, hotel, theatre, and maybe an Applebee's. If I go someplace like South Dakota, people will say, "Oh, you have to go and see Mount Rushmore while you're there!" But I'd much rather spend my time talking to people in South Dakota than sightseeing.

Maybe you could ask them about the new state law banning abortion...

Exactly! I want to know what in the hell those people were thinking. That's much more interesting than looking at a big rock.

Weren't you doing some work with an organization called Helping Hands in Boston that trains monkeys to assist people with disabilities? I heard you even did a reading where they had one of the monkeys on stage with you.

Yeah, it seemed like a good idea at the time...

Isn't that one of the first rules of show business, never share a stage with monkeys or small children?

Yes. The audience kept bursting into laughter, and I thought, "Well, that's weird. I never got a laugh there before..." And then I turned around and saw what was literally monkey business going on behind me. I quickly learned that it doesn't matter what you're doing or what you're reading, if there is a monkey on stage, no one is paying attention to you.

Any other tricks of the trade that you've picked up along the way?

Well ... it's never a good idea to the let the audience see your papers. No one wants to see that. We've all been to readings where a guy walks up to the microphone with 40 or 50 pages, and you think, "Oh God, I'm going to be stuck here all night."

I've also learned that if you are going to read something with the word "pussy" in it, it helps if you're wearing a suit. It seems less offensive somehow.


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