David Sedaris: Interview

For me, reality ends as soon as something happens. As soon as something happens to me, I immediately start embellishing it, tweaking it, making it a better story...

It's different, though, if I were to say that I met... I met... I'm trying to think of someone here... that I met Arnold Schwarzenegger, right? No, that's not a good example. There are certain things that are so ridiculous that it wouldn't matter. There's a ridiculous clause, where you can write things that are so ridiculous that you can't be sued over them, just because it's so silly.

If I were to give your first and last name, and if I were to say that we met and that you made a pass at me, I think that would be wrong. That's your first and last name and that's a lie that I told about you. I don't justify that in any way. If I'm writing a story about someone in my family, or somebody unnamed who sat next to me on a plane or bus or something, no one's going to go to that person. I think that's different. No one's being hurt. I suppose. Maybe what I said is just completely self-serving.

One thing I found interesting, an Terry Gross mentioned it when you were on Fresh Air recently, and you can go out on the shelves here and find it... and people are described as the "David Sedaris of this" and the "David Sedaris of that," you're like the touchstone that everyone wants to be compared to if you're doing any kind of humorous writing. How do you know what to write from all of these journals, which pieces to pick from, and how it all comes together?

Oh, golly... I think that if I tried to... like I'll sign books tonight and I'll talk to a lot of people, but at the end of it, if I thought to myself, "What can I write that all of those people would like?" I wouldn't know what to come up with. I really wouldn't have a clue. So, I guess I just try to please myself.

Or sometimes, you know, you're sitting around with people telling a story at the dinner table, and it gets a laugh. Or you realize people are really listening. That's usually a good sign. And, usually, by that point I've written about it in my diary or what not, and I guess I think, 'Well, maybe I can write about that, maybe I can turn it into a story...' But an incident told around the dinner table is just an incident. It doesn't function as a story.

So the hard part, for me, is turning it into a story and giving it a beginning, a middle, and end. What I find myself doing, and what I did a lot in this book, is to take incidents and kind of stitch them together into a story. It's like three incidents turned into a story, because neither incident was big enough to be a story on its own.

I always love in your work... a lot of times when you read people, you can sort of tell what they're setting up, and you know they're going to call it back later, but yours really seem buried. But when you mention it again at the end, it comes back immediately, resonates, and all the circles connect, but I rarely see you planting those seeds. How much editing do you do on a piece to get them that perfect?

A lot. Actually, that's another thing when I think of young writers... I tend to write things seven times before I show them to my editor. I write them seven times, then I take them on tour, read them like a dozen times on tour, then go back to the room and rewrite, read and rewrite, and I try to learn as much as I can on my own before I show it to my editor at The New Yorker.

I would never show him a first draft, because then he's really going to be sick of it by the twelfth draft, so I'd rather show him the seventh or eighth and then work with him until the twelfth. When you're younger, I think the compulsion is that you're more interested in getting a response. You wrote something, and you want to get a response right now.

Yeah, we've had people on the site who want to write a novel, and they're like 'Here's chapter one!' and I'm like, 'don't do that.' I'm writing a novel and it's like 680 pages that no one but me has ever seen. And that's how it needs to be until I know it's ready.

I just sent back a big envelope full of writing that I've collected on this trip. People come and give me stuff that they've written, and most of them are young people. Like, they want me to critique them, and I don't really want to get into that with them, but I find that when you do, and I have done it before and put a lot of thought into it, but all anyone really wants to hear is 'My editor at The New Yorkers wants to know where to send the check.' Like, they're going to run this, as is.

But, if you say to people, 'If you rewrote this, and start here, and got rid of that character...' It's like, "Oh, that would be work." And I understand that feeling, sometimes you just want to move on. At the same time, I understand that. But I think it's important to be patient. Like, I met a young woman the other day, and she said, what advice would you have for a writer, and I said it would be to work every day. But then she said, and how do you get to know someone like Ira Glass?

And I said, that's not the point. You don't befriend people for that reason. I was just lucky and Ira happened to be in a place where I was reading one night and heard me read. I didn't invite him to come there. If I had gone out of my way to invite him, he probably wouldn't have come. Your job is to write. The rest of it will take care of itself. But, generally, it seems ... you know how that is, you meet people and they have a talent for self-promotion. Those are the pushy people. And you know their writing's not going to be any good, because that's not their talent.

I forget who this was, but someone said the perfect writer is a 50/50 balance of ego and insecurity, and when either one was off, then it wouldn't work. If there's too much ego, the work suffers. Too much insecurity, and it's never finished.

That sounds good. But I think that's a difference now, too, with the computers. When I started writing, I kept it completely to myself for... I'd like to say eight years, but having just said that, I can think of a performance piece I wrote when I'd only been writing for five years. But I kept it to myself for quite a while. But I didn't have the outlets that young people have now, like the Internet.

When you started writing the journal, did you hit a point where you knew 'There's something here'?

There was a point when I thought I want more than writing in my diary. I want to be a writer. That's what I want to be. And I remember so clearly in my head, riding my bike and saying that to myself, and I was 25. It was just announcing it to myself, but it's always scary when you announce something to yourself, and now you're either going to do it or you're going to fail.

A lot of times, I think it's easier to just not announce it to yourself, because then you don't run the risk of failure. For me, it had everything to do with reading. When I taught, a lot of my students weren't big readers, so they would write something and I realized that they thought it belonged in a book. Like, they didn't know what the inside of a book looked like, you know what I mean?

It's like with art, the same thing with art. People don't understand that what the just made isn't what you would see in an art museum or art gallery. Even if it's just laying a piece of plywood against a wall. Some people can do that and it looks like art, and some people can do it and it just looks phony.

There seem to be a lot of books now where it's 'I'm going to spend a year living the laws of the Bible,' or 'I'm going to do this for a year, that for a year.' And, it always reads as false, whereas I never get the sense that you act the way you do in your books because you're hoping it leads somewhere for a story.

I don't have that much to say about anything, you know? (laughs) I don't.

There's a line of people outside the store that disagree...

I mean, I squeezed 90 pages out of the smoking thing, but it wasn't that hard to quit smoking. I was almost disappointed. So, I squee-ee-eezed 90 pages out of it, but I had to talk about my mother's smoking, and my diary from living in Tokyo... The New Yorker reduced that story to 10 pages, and it was OK at 10 pages. (laughs)


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. :-)