David Sedaris on irony, family punch lines and French kissing
The work of essayist David Sedaris has been in circulation for more than a decade, and so at least one generation of American readers have grown up listening to his distinctive voice. He's a a storyteller who transcends genre, as iconic, possibly, as Woody Allen or John Lennon. He's a writer for people who have hardly stumbled into an essay since high school English class.
Sedaris first burst onto national consciousness in 1992, when National Public Radio broadcast his essay "SantaLand Diaries," about his work as a department store elf, thanks to Ira Glass, now the host of "This American Life." (Utah theatergoers might remember its adaptation as a one-man play that used to be a Salt Lake City holiday classic.)
Sedaris's personal essays, a mainstay of The New Yorker that also appeal to Costco readers, carry enough contextual heft to pass for literature, but always with plenty of room for juggling wit. What makes his writing so much fun, whether read or heard on the radio, is his impeccable timing. For his sixth book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames , Sedaris tackles mortality head on, sideways, and with laughs all around.
Do you cultivate a tone of irony in your voice, or does it just come naturally?
"If you asked me for examples of irony, I wouldn't know what to tell you. Writing is more about crafting an experience, about deciding when to begin, when to end and what details to leave in. I can write a story about my neighbor, Helen, but it took years to get the right material. Perhaps if I were more skilled I could have added the bad or boring parts of her life and made it good, but in a way I'm selling her. I want people to understand her and stick with her."
Does your family ever express anger or frustration that you divulge so many details in your writing? Certainly people ask you how you could reveal so much about your family.
"Yes, but you get the questions you deserve. I wrote 'Repeat After Me' to answer that question completely. I felt a combination of feelings after reading that aloud at the podium: guilt, shame, pride and love.
When I write a story about someone in my family I give it to them first and ask them if there's anything they'd like taking out. It's not like I try to sneak anything past them.
People often say, 'I feel like I know you,' but the books just give the illusion of revealing myself. I often want to say what do you think you know about me or my family? You might know that my sister has a parrot, but you don't know who my family voted for or what they do in bed.
At the same time, if people think it's bad that I reveal something about my family, I have no control over that. One of my stories anthologized in a textbook was about my mother locking my siblings and I out of the house during a snowstorm, and at the end of the story one of the questions for discussion tells students to explain why David Sedaris' mother was such a bad parent, even though the story wasn't about my mother being bad at all. Normally she would have had the whole house to herself, but because school was closed for the storm she had a whole week with five kids in the house. She wanted one day to herself and was entitled to it. But people bring their own issues to a story. There's nothing you can do about that."
What's the biggest difference between you and your friends in France, where you currently live?
"It's disgusting how people kiss in France. It turns my stomach. It's everywhere you go, and it's not just teenagers. You go to the movies and even ticket lines for movies and there are people making out. They're sucking each others' tongues and drooling on each other's chins. Anything you've done once, you can forgive. But I never made out with anyone in public. Part of that's being gay, so that allows me to enjoy being self-righteous."
What advice would you give to a gay man living in Utah?
"Move. Then again, the world is so different than when I was growing up. In those days being gay was supposedly the worst thing that could happen to you. The only gay person I remember seeing growing up was Truman Capote on "The Mike Douglas Show." I thought, 'Wow, he doesn't act like the dads in my neighborhood.' These days, even if you live in a small conservative town, you know you're not alone."
Have you ever considered writing traditional fiction?
"I'm writing a book right now, a collection of stories about animals -- almost like fables. I once read a story in the form of an e-mail on my lecture tour, about a woman writing to thank someone for a wedding gift. It's hard to finish those on stage though, because by the time the audience accepts the fact that it's fiction, it's over. They'd rather hear about my brother defecating on his lawn. The truth is that I would too, so I understand that."
Do you have any special memories about past tours to Utah?
"I love the Little America Hotel. It's like a four-star motel. In any other city, they would have remodeled a place like that by now, but in Salt Lake City it's like a weird time capsule. You get the best motel room on earth, and they have a great coffee shop. I love it."