Sedaris: “Right now I’m on the third floor, so I could hurt myself but I wouldn’t kill myself.”
Me Talk Pretty One Day, Little, Brown & Company, 2000; 272 pages; $22.95.
Author: David Sedaris was born in 1957 in Upstate New York. He is the second of six children. When David was in third grade, his father, an IBM engineer, moved the family to Raleigh, North Carolina. Sedaris graduated from high school in Raleigh. He attended and dropped out of Kent State. He spent several years doing odd jobs. In 1984 he entered the Art Institute of Chicago. After graduation he.taught Art Institute writing classes. In 1990 Sedaris moved to Manhattan. His short stories began to be published in literary magazines. To support himself, Sedaris again took odd jobs — moving man, personal assistant, housecleaner, an elf in Macy’s Santa Land. In a 1992 appearance on National Public Radio, Sedaris read from what became “The SantaLand Diaries.” This reading ended his obscurity. Sedaris is author of the books Barrel Fever, Naked, and Holidays on Ice and is a regular commentator on Public Radio International’s This American Life. He lives in Paris.
Sedaris’s new book, like his earlier titles, collects a series of deft first-person essays. Sedaris means to be funny and he is funny, but he’s often funny-sad, poignant Reviewers compare him to Mark Twain and J.D. Salinger, but I don’t quite know why. Like Salinger, Sedaris is a bit of a loner, and he writes about his own large Greek-American family, which perhaps bears some resemblance to Salinger’s eccentric Glass family. I don’t know enough about Twain — other than that he was a humorist who at least once went abroad — to know why the comparison between Sedaris and Twain is made. But, it’s made. Maybe reviewers simply feel the need to classify.
On the day that we talked, Sedaris was in his Paris apartment. It was morning in California, evening in Paris.
I was curious as to what Raleigh was like for the Sedaris family.
“We were in a great way responsible for the ruin of Raleigh, North Carolina, which had its own identity before we moved there. After we moved there, my mom was in line at the grocery store one day. This woman in front of them turned around and said, “I wish y’all would just go back where you came from. I can’t even get a girl to come and clean my house for $5 a day anymore.’
“It was sort of invading that city and then announcing that the city was a dump. So I don’t think we really endeared ourselves in any way. I was in Scouts. And, gee, almost everyone in Scouts, their dad worked for IBM or Westinghouse. It was odd. Entire neighborhoods were built for IBMers. The whole north side of Raleigh started off as a suburb for people who had been transferred from New York State.”
“I’d never really heard the word ‘Yankee’ before I moved there. I’d never thought of myself as a Yankee. You would often get beaten up because you were a Yankee. Which was surprising to me, even as a child, that people were still thinking about the Civil War. I guess if you win the war, you just don’t think about it anymore. I was shocked that people were still talking about it.”
I mentioned that I thought readers imagined that it was easier to “write funny” than to “write tragic.”
Sedaris thought a moment, then said, “I would love to write something that would make people cry. That seems so hard because if it seems like you’re forcing people, or if people can see that coming... Like at a movie, when you can see it coming; I was at Cider House Rules, and I thought the movie was over, and then I thought, ‘There’s no way they’re not going to show us the homecoming, him going back to the orphanage and everybody running in.’ So, of course, that’s what they did show. So in a situation like that, I don’t know. Often when someone wants you to cry, it’s a setup. But often it’s a setup if they want you to laugh, too. You see it coming a mile away.
“So I think the hard part is surprising people either with tragedy or with comedy. To me, that seems like the hard part. In comedy or tragedy, I think they’re equally difficult. 1 would love to write something that would make people cry. But, really, I’m not capable of much more than feeling sorry for myself, and I don’t know that people would cry about that.”
Some pieces in Me Talk Pretty Some Day originally appeared in Esquire. Sedaris said that his editor there had been of great help to him in seeing the setups coming. “I’ll send him things, and he’ll say, ‘Lose a joke here.’ I’m, like, ‘Joke? That’s not a joke.’ He can see the setup. I wish that I had a better eye for that. Because it’s sort of embarrassing. It’s one thing to make people laugh, but it’s another thing to have jokes in there. Ifyou say something, and it’s not funny, and you’re at a dinner table, maybe people don’t know you’re trying to be funny, so they’ll forget about it. But if you’re trying on the page to be funny, and you’re not, that’s really embarrassing. When I was working on the book, and I would read things out loud to an audience and whatever it was didn’t work, well, there’s nothing worse than that silence if you’ve really put a lot of work into something and it just bombs. Nothing worse. It’s so embarrassing. My face turns red.”
Sedaris’s lecture agent had told me that Sedaris enjoyed public appearances in part because they gave him an opportunity to try out new pieces on audiences. The agent said that Sedaris, as he read, meticulously noted audience response. Sedaris said about this, “I do take a pencil up there with me. I put a check next to things that got a laugh, and if it got big laughs, I put several checks. But that wouldn’t mean that I wouldn’t cut something that got a laugh. I would still cut it, sometimes. But it also helps me just to hear myself. I find myself saying to myself, ‘That doesn’t make any sense at all,’ or, ‘That is completely unnecessary.’ I cut a lot of things for the book just because it didn’t give me any pleasure to say them. It seemed like a waste of time. I was looking forward to the next paragraph. Just speeding through something. So I thought, ‘Aw, let’s get rid of it.’
“So audiences do help me an awful lot. But audiences are so different. In Texas, people will laugh at anything. So you can still learn things from reading out loud there, but you can’t think, ‘Oh well, this works great. They laughed in Texas.’ Maybe they’re just trying to be polite. But, really, they will laugh at anything. You could get up there and tell knock-knock jokes and they’d laugh.”
It must be difficult, I suggested, “always to be making comedy out of your own life. Your own day-to-day life must hurt more than does the life that you put on the page.”
“Well, I write in a diary every day. I have for, gosh, 23 years. So I feel like what I write in my diary is the real material. Then, too, — if I’m writing a story, I feel the need to make myself a character and to think of myself as a character. A character in a story. So I see a difference between those two things. But, yeah, my normal life is no great shakes. I mean, it’s nice to be here and everything, but it’s not one big laugh riot or anything. Also, I suppose I feel like those things that bring me down are things that wouldn’t work for me to write about. Like to write about the inability of being able to write. You know, having a deadline and not being able to come up with something, or you try and try and try to work your way into a story and it doesn’t work. Then you just want to throw yourself out the window.”
“How many floors up do you live?”
“I’d have to go up. Right now I’m on the third floor, so I could hurt myself but I wouldn’t kill myself.”
“Somebody would have to take care of you for the rest of your life and diaper you.”
“That would give me something to write about.”
I asked if Sedaris continued to be amazed at his success, surprised that people are interested in adventures in the life of David Sedaris.
“They called me last night to tell me that the book is going to be on the New York Times best seller list. I’m really shocked. I’m completely shocked. I did not expect that at all. The last book did well, so I just figured that this one would be a complete flop. I’m completely surprised that people would be interested. I really am. So, yes, I’m surprised that people would still be interested in that character who is me. But I can’t imagine why. That’s one thing. I can’t imagine why. I don’t know. Maybe it bears some resemblance to their lives. Maybe they like the fact that I’m just a normal person, that my life isn’t much different than theirs. My life is not glamorous in any way. I mean, it’s nice living in Paris. But my life isn’t that interesting.
“When I was teaching college, my students would write about growing up on the streets and sleeping in back alleys and all that stuff. They were middle-class kids, for the most part. And that wasn’t their experience at all. But they were ashamed of their past. They felt like growing up middle-class in the suburbs, they had absolutely nothing to write about. They were envious of people who had led these remarkably wretched lives.
“I remember being surprised that they were ashamed of their lives. I always thought you were supposed to be ashamed of your life if you were a poor person. But it seemed to me like it’s people with some degree of privilege that are often more ashamed of their lives than the people that we imagine. My childhood was not remarkable in any way. I don’t think really that any of my experiences have been that remarkable. And I think that’s partly what surprises me. Why would people be interested?”
I said that, in part, I thought it was the voice in which Sedaris told his stories that charmed people.
“Mmm,” Sedaris said, and then added, “I just read that new Francine Prose book. I loved it Loved that book Blue Angel But I don’t remember where I read it. I just remember that I read it. When you’re on the radio, people remember where they heard you. Ira [ Ira Glass, producer and director of PRl’s This American Life] sends me tapes from his shows. When I’m looking back and thinking about a story that I want to listen to again that was on This American Life, I’ll think ‘Monoprix’ or ‘Luxembourg Gardens.’ I remember exactly where I was.
“So when I listen to something on tape or on the radio, it’s my story because I remember where I was when I heard it, and it was me. I was active in that I was listening to it and that I was going somewhere. I recall that. And I know when I go on the book tours, people say, ‘I remember I heard that story when we were driving to Monterey, California, or San Francisco.’ So it becomes their story in a way, it becomes personal in a way that something doesn’t when you read it in a book.
“I don’t have that memory with a book; I just have it with the story that’s being told to me. Ira explained to me once that if you do something live on the radio, then often people feel cheated. Because if it is not live, somehow, you were just talking personally to them. They were in a car, and you were talking to them. And then you do something live, and they feel cheated. They think, ‘Well, he was talking to these other people too.’”
When Sedaris went out socially, did people expect him always to be funny?
“Yeah, but when I think of that person, like when I go on the book tour, it’ll be like a character is going on a book tour. It’s not me. I try to be what people expect me to be. But that wouldn’t be me in real life at all.”
David Sedaris will discuss his book and sign copies at Borders Books & Music in Mission Valley on Wednesday, June 14, at 7:00 p.m. Early arrival is recommended.