David Sedaris: Interview

By Jeff Walsh

I've been a fan of David Sedaris for years, to the point where many of his stories have become touchstones in my life.

There are people in my life who are more highly valued because I can say "You can't kill the rooster" at an appropriate moment, and nothing more needs to be said. Living in San Francisco, where food is a way of life, Sedaris's "Today's Special" remains my favorite, where the often-beleaguered Sedaris suffers through gourmet cuisine featuring entrees served with a "medley of suffocated peaches" or "mummified lychee nuts."

His latest book, "When You Are Engulfed In Flames," continues the journey millions of readers have taken into his life and features 22 of his humorous essays. It is currently the number one book on the New York Times Best Seller List for hardcover nonfiction. The essays jump decades and moods, with Sedaris as the only constant. There are moments that are touching, uncomfortable, and hilarious, with the largest piece in the book being Sedaris's tale of quitting smoking (which he did solely because his favorite hotels all went non smoking).

Already, my favorite moment in the book is Sedaris having an uncomfortable encounter with a taxi driver taking him from LaGuardia to the West Village in "Town and Country." During the ride, the cab driver starts talking incessantly about sex and finally determines that Sedaris is gay, taunting him non-stop with "Do you like the dick, David?"

I read half of the book and had Sedaris read the other half to me (on audio book, not in person), and I have to say there is a lot of benefit to hearing him read his own work. At this point, I hear his voice when I read the book anyway, but his delivery and characters are really getting better and better.

I met Sedaris for an interview two and a half hours before he was scheduled to do a reading at Books, Inc. in San Francisco. We did the interview in the manager's office while he signed stock for the store to sell after he leaves town. Nearly 75 people were already lined up outside waiting to attend his event that night, and the reading would be completely sold out without question.

The interview was pretty breezy and fun, and flowed pretty well. Given the fact that Sedaris is a known diary keeper, who has gotten famous turning those diaries into humorous essays, I thought that was a good place for us to start our interview, seeing that this is a site largely founded on people writing about their lives.

Here's what we said:

Our site is called Oasis Journals now, and all of the kids on there are writing journals about their lives... so, I figured, if anyone would have advice for people keeping journals in your teens that you might get to put to good use much later in life... I thought you might be that guy. What's not in your journals from when you were a teen that now makes you think, "If only I had..."

I didn't keep one when I was a teenager. I started when I was 20. But I guess my first advice would be not to put it on the Internet (laughs). I would never ever ever let... but that's a young person thing, though. The same way that I need a CD to hold in my hand, I don't trust in downloading stuff... but I would never give my journal to anybody. I would never let anybody read my diary.

I guess I think that if it's out there for public consumption, then it can't be a real diary... because you wouldn't want to hurt people. I mean, bad things go through everybody's heads every now and then and that's what a diary is for. It's for calling someone an asshole, but you might change your mind the next day. So you wouldn't want that person to see that you called them an asshole.

In our case, there's a lot of pseudonyms and a lot of the kids are closeted and sorting their whole sexuality thing out, so no one in their life knows that's their website. It's an anonymous place they go ... like if I see the MySpace pages of a lot of the kids that are on the site, it will often say straight or doesn't have anything, and on my site they're working all of that out.

I suppose what I'm curious about is... let's say I put my diary on a website, and I said that my name is Little Mickey or something, who reads it?

The other users of the website, for the most part. It's kind of a supportive community where they all try to help each other out, the whole 'I had that issue' or 'I have a crush on the boy in my class.' And once they start getting comfortable with themselves, I lose them and they disappear, so it's a constant, churning user base as far as Oasis goes.

Well, that's a nice way to put it.

It's funny, they're often very apologetic when they tell me about it. 'I'm really sorry, but I'm just not getting as much out of this anymore...' And I'm, like, 'That's perfect.'

I wish that I had started keeping a diary in high school.

What was the impetus at 20?

I was hitchhiking through the Northwest, and I'd been writing letters to my family and friends, but I didn't have an address for them to write back. So, I started writing to myself. I just started one day, and then I did it the next day at exactly the same time, and the day after that, and the day after that...it just sort of kept going.

So there are things you write about in your books that are pre-journal then.

Yeah, mm-hmm.

So, it's memory up until 20 and journal after that.

And in my journal, it's not like I write... I was looking for something recently, from a train trip that I took 25 years ago. And I had a lot of it written down, but I didn't write down everything. There was this fellow who I met on the train going through Italy. And I did write down his name, but in my memory... I know we talked for a long time. But I don't have, written down, word for word what we talked about. Sometimes when you're writing something in your diary like that, it doesn't occur to you that 25 years later you're going to be sitting down to write about it, and you're going to want all the details.

And are you surprised lately, it seems silly, when people are talking about whether what you write is true, is it fiction, is it non-fiction. I've never thought that your essays were the equivalent of a transcript... are you surprised when people bring that up more and more now?

I think it has a lot to do with money, frankly. If your books do well, then people want to talk about it. And if nobody buys your books then nobody cares, to tell you the truth. You know, like, 'What if a book is shelved in humor and it's not really funny? What does that mean?'

Well, there are a lot of those.

I think there's this notion now that you very cynically call something non-fiction so you can make more money. And I don't think it's that cynical. Like, my publisher never said, 'Well, call it non-fiction, that way more people will... our statistics prove ...' To me, if something is like 96 percent true, I'm going to call it non-fiction.


msquared's picture


Kudos on catching a chat with David Sedaris! 'Twas interesting. I REALLY need to read some of his books, though...

“Never forget! The higher we soar, the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly.”
-Friedrich Nietzsche

ACCgirl's picture


I've only read Me Talk Pretty One Day and I absolutely loved it. Been meaning to get back to this author and read more. He's such an intelligent man - a wonderful observer of human nature. :-)