Books by David Sedaris:
He is completely fascinated by our waitress. She is a pale blonde, perhaps 20, with perfect skin and eyes the color of bottled water. His eyes follow her as she goes about her chirpy duties in the crowded restaurant. "She's beautiful," he breathes, as though this were the most natural thing in the world. "And her skin! You know," he adds quite seriously. Deadpan. It's his signature. "I don't think she has pores."
Those who have read any of David Sedaris' work at all know that he's openly and happily gay. In fact, he shares his Paris home with Hugh Hamrick, the person he refers to frequently as his boyfriend. I find myself wondering what Hugh would make of Sedaris' lunchtime obsession with our server. After a while, though, I don't wonder. Sedaris' curiosity is large and very real. He is curious about almost everyone and everything and occasionally, when he finds something especially noteworthy, he pulls out a battered little spiral book and jots himself a note. Fuel -- as is everything he comes in contact with -- for the furnace of creativity he can become while working on a book.
In reality, "furnace" wouldn't be far off in describing the pace Sedaris set while working on his latest book, Me Talk Pretty One Day. He challenged himself to a page of prose each day which, for him, translated to a 10-page story in as many days. The book was completed in seven months and has been published to practically unanimous rave reviews and a fairly quick rise through the non-fiction bestseller lists. It's one of those books that really deserves its spot there. Me Talk Pretty One Day is a collection of short essays. Entirely autobiographical, the picture that emerges is of Sedaris' life almost to this point. Me Talk Pretty One Day alternates between deliciously sidesplitting humor and heartrending observation of human experience. Me Talk Pretty One Day is truly about Sedaris' keen observation of the humans closest to him as well as -- and perhaps most pointedly -- the character he's always hardest on: himself.
Physically, Sedaris is not unlike a youthful Woody Allen. Now 43, Sedaris was born in New York state and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina, the South lends a soft touch to a voice that is nasal and neither deep nor unpleasant. In an interview, Sedaris is quicksilver. Bouncing ideas around, periodically making his own notes and coming up with stories that seem alternately intended to shock or perhaps to test the idea of some future work on a living ear. Either way -- and just like the work that has so endeared him to a growing number of readers -- Sedaris isn't boring for a second and time in his company seems well spent, indeed.
This book is going to be huge for you, David. I have a sense that it's going to be bigger than Naked.
Yes. And they printed up more copies. The first printing is bigger. But I'm confused because I think The Times list is not actual sales but orders. But that doesn't mean that people are buying those books. So I just worry about that. When they say they're going back to print more, I say: don't print more. Because I hate to see them remaindered.
I didn't expect the book to do so well. Every bad review was written in my head and then I wrote it in my diary. Scathing, horrible reviews of the book. Heartfelt. So then I thought: well, I don't know that anyone could say anything worse than this. Because that's what I expected.
What would a bad review sound like?
It just talks about how weak most of the book is and the stories that don't belong in there and that the things I've written are obvious setups for jokes that don't work that well. I can give anyone 20 good reasons not to buy that book.
But you're always your own worst critic.
I guess so. Because I didn't expect it to do well at all.
And the reviews have been tremendous. Everything I've seen has been beyond good: glowing.
I haven't read anything.
Do you do that on purpose?
For this book I'm doing it. Because I just find it confusing. If people say they like something, then I think: Oh, I'll do it again, if that's what they want me to do. Then somebody will say this is what I do -- because I don't think about it. I just type -- and I think: Is that what I do? should I do that more? And then I think about it consciously. So it seemed best. I'll read them when I'm 50.
You live in Paris now?
We've been there for a few years. I don't know how long we're going to stay, I don't have any plans. We kept our apartment in New York. We sublet it.
Did you write most of this book in France?
Over how long a period?
It took me seven months to write.
Well, there's certain things -- like the story about my brother -- that had been written before and a couple of things that had been on the radio before that needed to be rewritten, but the majority I wrote in seven months. That's one of the 20 reasons not to buy the book. [Laughs] I tried to write one publishable page a day. I don't mean you write one page of a story and say: Well that will work; that's my day's work. I would write a seven-page story and then try to rewrite it at least five or six times over the course of a week. Or, if I had ten days it would be a ten-page story. At the end of the month I had to have 30 pages that could go into a book.
You sound like a fairly disciplined writer.
Yeah. I never had any problem. You know, I just started writing and then I wrote every single day at the same time. I never have to make myself sit at the typewriter.
Was Me Talk Pretty One Day a hard book to write? It's very personal.
No. I mean, I'm always happy if I have, like, humiliating asshole things that I did. I think: Oh good, that's a good story. Because if you write about humiliating asshole things other people do it doesn't work as well. I mean, you can, but you can get away with it better if you talk about what an asshole you are. It's much easier. And I'm the biggest jerk in every one of those stories, but that's not faked. I mean, I'm the worst person -- the worst human being -- at this table. And with the exception of that woman over there with the black jacket on [he points at a stranger at an adjacent table] I'm probably the worst person in this entire restaurant.
That of course is self-perception, or...
Yeah. Self-perception. I mean, I can fake otherwise but I hate myself pretty much.
And you work very hard.
And I get a reward. I get to go on a book tour. And 200 people are going to stand in line and they're going to tell me how much they love me. That's not work. That's great. I don't believe it. You can't let it affect you. But it's just fun. And people will tell you whatever you want to know. Like you'll say: Are those your real breasts? [Laughs] And they'll answer any question.
So now my new thing is guessing ages. I'm pretty good at that. And I always like to find out what people do. It seems like everyone in Washington, D.C. is a librarian. And then sometimes they're like: Well I'm a computer consultant, you know. And you're like this... [feigns falling asleep with his elbow dragging across the table]. Because it's one of those computer jobs and you don't even really know what they are. A lot of people do that.
I've never been wrong on this tour. I say: Are you a doctor? And I'm never wrong. It's something about the hair. Doctors have a lot of hair on their hands right here. [He indicates the place on the back of the hand just above the wrist] And they look like the kind of guy that has to shave twice a day and it's still not good enough. With women it's a glasses thing, but I've not been wrong yet. I mean, I'm sure doctors have come but I just haven't asked them if they're doctors, but every time I say: Are you a doctor? I'm right. So I don't say it lightly, because that means a lot to me.
I went to the morgue, because I just wanted to see a lot of dead people. So they sent me there for 10 days.
Wait a minute. They sent you to the morgue for 10 days? Who did?
Esquire Magazine did. I was right there in the autopsy suite standing over the bodies and it was really funny. I had a great time. But I didn't realize that with a lot of smokers, you can look at someone's legs and tell if they were a smoker.
Because they wouldn't have hair on their legs or they'd have a cardiac collar around their neck. And also there's a fold on the ear that would foretell a heart attack.
What was the piece you were doing for Esquire?
It was the first thing I did for them. I didn't think it was that successful, because I felt really responsible for the people who worked there [in the morgue]. They were all really excited about the article coming out, so I had to be a reporter. But also I kept thinking what they would think when it came out, so I couldn't repeat a lot of the things that they had said, because it would make them sound insensitive. But for me, just personally, it was so much fun. Everyone that comes in, they take a picture. So they had books and books and books of dead people who died any way you could think of. They had catalogs: This is what you look like if you were dragged behind a truck for 45 minutes. This is what you would look like if you were dragged behind a truck for an hour.
At the morgue, people were so desensitized that they would eat lunch in the glass walled room adjacent to the autopsy room. A viewing room. Because it had the best air conditioning in the building. So they would eat in there and maybe somebody would come in who had been found after being dead for three days and they would say: That is the exact purple I want for those drapes in the study. They didn't miss a beat. They could eat through anything.
But it was just great. They were like perfect little detectives. Now I watch movies and when someone is being killed, I think: they're gonna figure that out. That's gonna be traced right back to you. They can find everything. But it was fun, you know, to see the top of a skull sawed off and just yanked down. I mean, they're dead. If they were alive it would be hard. But they're dead, so it's not that hard.
All of the stories in the book are funny. But the rooster story, about your brother, was a favorite.
He got a lot of floor sanding work out of that article.
And now that the book is out, he'll get work. And my father now wears Silly P's Hardwood Floors T-shirts to advertise for my brother.
Did your father seriously yell that stuff out at your performance? [From "Twelve Moments in the Life of the Artist"]
Yeah. Now my sister and I write plays together and we did a show at Lincoln Center and we told them that our father was our manager. He took it to heart and he calls all the time now with ideas for our new play. And he says: What you ought to do is just listen to this, it's a play about OJ. And OJ Simpson, wasn't that like seven years ago? And we say: Dad, that's kind of old. And we wouldn't do a play like that. And he says: Bullshit! All you need to do is find an Oriental to play Ito. You got that friend of Amy's, that black. He could be OJ. Amy can be that whazzername, that Marsha whazzername. All you need's an Oriental for Ito.
And his new idea is the screwiest and he won't let go of it: Amy is pregnant and she's talking to the fetus on the telephone. The only plays my father has ever gone to are ours. But he's taking his role seriously and he's full of ideas now.
In the story with Melina, the dog. ["The Youth in Asia"] I cried at the end.
What did you cry about?
It was so beautiful. And it was so right on. The new dog as the younger woman and it doesn't quite fit: it's not quite right. And your cat Neil was in that story. And vacuuming Neil up.
I go on lecture tours. I went to 20 cities last October. So the story talking about Easter in French class, ["Jesus Shaves"] it took me a long time to get that right. So I'd read it out loud and then go back to the hotel and rewrite it and then read it the next day. Not everything did I get a chance to read out loud like that. And I'm sort of surprised sometimes. Like when I read the story about my brother ["You Can't Kill the Rooster"] I have to think about something else when I get to the end or I'm afraid I might just start sobbing because I start thinking about how I'd feel if anything ever happened to him and it's so sad: the two of them. The house. I don't know. And I didn't mean it to be that way. But then I read it out loud and I get so sad. And that story about my dad and the dog, I didn't notice it because it was on paper and then I read it out loud and it just made me unbearably sad at the end. But I didn't know it was until I read it out loud.
Your writing is so beautiful. There are such funny things in that story. And in the same sentence it can be indescribably sad. You were obviously really sad about [the cat that had to be euthanized] Neil.
We had to have our last cat put to sleep. But it was easier this time because my boyfriend fell apart, so I was the strong one. It was my job to be the strong one in the whole thing.
And Neil: you wrote that she'd never expressed an interest in outdoors, so you scattered her remains on the carpet and then vacuumed her up. There was something so beautiful and yet hilarious at the same time in that. I could see you ceremoniously spreading her ashes around your apartment. I don't know if you did, but that's what I envisioned. And then, just as ceremoniously vacuuming her back up. Is that right?
Yeah. But the rest of the vacuum cleaner bag was filled with her hair so, like, why not? We pieced her back together. [Laughs]
I used to live in Chicago and was in the Palmer House Hotel and it was the first time I'd ever seen those ashtrays where they stamp the logo on the top. And it was the fanciest thing I'd ever seen in my life. So I want my ashes put in the ashtrays of the Palmer House Hotel.
Are you working on anything now?
My sister and I have a play that's going to open this fall. But we we have to work on that. I have no idea what it's going to be about, except it's not going to be about OJ. And I have no idea the name or anything.
Your sister Amy?
Yeah. She always casts the plays and she knows the funniest people in the world, so we'll write something, we'll get together with a cast and a month before we open, the cast will read the script and we'll throw it away and we'll just work through improvising. We'll do that for a month and see what we come up with.
You're committed to opening something and you have the dates set?
Do you know what it is?
We thought we were supposed to open in the middle of October but there might be a change. We might be opening it in January  instead. And I think: Oh January would be great; I'd have more time. But I know that in October I'll be in the same position I'm in now. I have a lot of deadlines that I'm working under right now, but it's just really hard to get work done while I'm traveling. I get up early, like I had an eight o'clock interview this morning. So I got up at 6:45 so I could write my diary, because I can't get behind on that. I just can't because then it will all just be lost to me.
Is that a daily thing for you?
Yeah. It always has been.
Is that where you get pieces of stories done?
Yeah. A lot of them.
Is that why it's important? Or is it a personal thing?
Just for me. None of this really exists until I write it down.
I know you did the tour through Raleigh. [North Carolina. Where he grew up] Do they love you in Raleigh? Native son, almost?
Yeah, that felt great. There were probably about 500 there in the book store and it felt great to go back. One of my English teachers was there. People I went to high school with. That feels great.
I did an interview with the paper and sometimes they'd say: Why do you hate Raleigh so much? And I say: I don't. it's just not for me. It wouldn't matter where I grew up. If you hate that time in your life, it's not what you had in mind. You want to live on Park Avenue and have a house full of servants and you live in Raleigh, North Carolina or Phoenix, Arizona or... it doesn't matter. It's just not what you had in mind. Now I welcome all that stuff. Like, I wish my school had corporal punishment. I could write a story about being beaten by a key chain. Now I just wish that all those people had been worse. I would have had more to write about.
It's how you look at things, right? One reviewer talked about how you had mined your peculiar childhood. But I don't think you really had a peculiar childhood, did you? It's just your view of your childhood, I think. What do you think?
When I was teaching -- I taught for a while -- my students would write as if they were raised by wolves. Or raised on the streets. They were middle-class kids and they were ashamed of their background. They felt like unless they grew up in poverty, they had nothing to write about. Which was interesting because I had always thought that poor people were the ones who were ashamed. But it's not. It's middle-class people who are ashamed of their lives. And it doesn't really matter what your life was like, you can write about anything. It's just the writing of it that is the challenge. I felt sorry for these kids, that they thought that their whole past was absolutely worthless because it was less than remarkable. | June 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine.