Interview: David Sedaris on his Edinburgh show
In his biographical tales David Sedaris has an uncanny knack of discovering the remarkable among the mundane. Interview by Jay Richardson
YEARS before he appeared on radio or published his first collection of stories, even before he kept a diary, David Sedaris had a notebook. He can’t recall the exact moment he started perceiving the world as a writer, and he’s adamant that he never deliberately places himself in unusual situations just for the sake of recording them. Still, he won’t ignore them when they steal up on him.
In the story Picka Pocketoni in his book Me Talk Pretty One Day, he recounts the episode in which another American on the Paris Metro mistook him for a French pickpocket, conversing with his wife in English, assuming Sedaris couldn’t understand them.
“So many people have asked me, ‘why didn’t you say something to him?’” the 56-year-old laughs. “But the moment he called me a pickpocket, I just thought, ‘great!’ Someone had dropped a story right onto my lap. Why would I want to end it?”
Something similar occurs in the title tale of his most recent collection, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. Searching for a stuffed owl as a Valentine’s Day gift for his partner, Hugh, he visits a London taxidermist and is shocked to be shown a preserved human arm and an ancient 14-year-old girl’s head. Instead of being outraged, Sedaris is impressed that this man, a stranger, can see into his soul and know him as a man attracted by such grisliness.
“If I’d pulled my notebook out and asked him, ‘what’s your name again?’, it would have changed the nature of the whole encounter and made him self-conscious,” he suggests. “I just wanted it to play out naturally. And I actually had to remind myself to be myself in the midst of our interaction because I was so excited by the things he was showing me.
“Of course, if you’re a regular person you’d be excited, too. But as a writer you’re excited because first, someone’s showing you an arm and you always wanted to have one. And secondly, you’re thinking, ‘this is a story! I can work with this!’ I really don’t know what normal people do. Perhaps they simply enjoy it for what it is, tell it round the dining-room table to a few friends once or twice.”
As one of the most feted humorists of his generation, with a fond eye for the inexplicable or disturbing, the North Carolina-raised author admits that often, a story simply lands on you. Recalling the inspiration for Laugh, Kookaburra, he remembers feeding the bird strips of duck meat in Australia, “looking out over a lake and thinking, ‘this feels like a story to me’”. Routinely though, an experience becomes a yarn retrospectively. Elsewhere in Owls, he recalls how, as a 12-year-old, he accidentally intruded upon two men having sex in a public library toilet. “Now, at the time that didn’t feel like a story, it felt like an event. But once you become a writer, you look back over the course of your life and say that was a story, that was a story and that was a story. You just couldn’t identify them at the time.”
Of course, it takes a certain insight to spot their ripe potential. Like a stand-up comedian, he vigorously roadtests new stories by reading them aloud to audiences, noting their responses, before repairing to his hotel to refine them. “It sounds crazy that a taxidermist had the head of an ancient, 14-year-old girl in a Tesco bag. But while implausible things happen all the time, you don’t want it to sound implausible, so I really had to work at expanding the dialogue in that.” At the same time, at his book signings and readings, his more eccentric and egotistical followers are emboldened to foist their most treasured ¨anecdotes upon him, in the hope that he will immortalise them in the pages of The New Yorker.
Sedaris “doesn’t want to sound like an ingrate”. But conversely, these would-be muses “have been thinking about their stories too hard.” Dispensing small gifts like paracetamol, hotel toiletries and condoms to his fans, he generally enjoys chatting to them, polling them in 2008 as to whether they thought President Obama was circumcised.
“Men gave it a lot of thought, taking age, birthplace and his parents into consideration. Whereas I think women just went with the last penis they saw.” He enjoys “knocking someone off balance by asking them a question they didn’t expect. Then you can have a whole different conversation and they’ll tell you something amazing.
“A woman on my last tour, let’s say her name was Karen. For some reason, I said ‘what’s your last name?’ and she said ‘Drydyk’. ‘And what do you do for a living?’ She said, ‘I’m an eighth-grade schoolteacher’. I said, ‘oh my God!’ And she said, ‘ I know! I tell my students my name and they laugh! No vowels right!’ She thinks they’re laughing because ‘Drydyke’ doesn’t have any vowels. That was so fascinating to me and so funny.”
Strip-mining his own experiences, and those of his family, the Radio 4 regular’s latest show features more of his life in West Sussex, “driving through these tunnels of trees, it’s what beauty means to me I suppose;” his relationship with his father, distinctly unimpressed at his son being No 1 in the New York Times bestseller list; and far more reflection on being a gay man than before. Hugh has always featured prominently in Sedaris’ stories.
But sex and sexuality have tended to seem incidental to his everyman accounts, at least until recently. Owls includes an alcoholic flirtation on a train and a fictional monologue, I Break For Traditional Marriage, with a man so outraged by a successful gay-marriage bill that he shoots his wife and daughter, before stabbing his mother-in-law with an ice-pick and driving into a pedestrian. “This might sound inexcusable, but if homosexuality is no longer a sin, who’s to say that murder is?” reasons the bigot.
Although he doubts that he and Hugh, a painter, will ever tie the knot – “I might sneak off to City Hall and sign something if it would mean saving money but I won’t be inviting people to any ceremony on a mountain top” – Sedaris was “heartened” when the Defence of Marriage Act was struck down recently in his homeland. Restricting marriage to heterosexual couples,¨denying gay people rights to a deceased loved one’s assets, “basically, it was taxing people for being gay,” he says.
“I kind of like it when something is reduced to bureaucracy. It’s not an emotional argument, it’s a tax argument, which is sometimes the way you have to do things in the United States.”
Recording a new series for Radio 4 in September, he recently watched and enjoyed C.O.G, the first successful film adaptation of one of his autobiographical accounts. He can’t describe it as anything “except ‘weird” to sit in a theatre and hear a character say, ‘David!’, then watch as someone from Glee turns his head and says, ‘what?’ Nothing prepares you for that.”
Back in Edinburgh again, he expects to be “dragged kicking and screaming” to festival shows by friends, before concluding, “God, I should do this every night.”
“But I generally feel that Scotland is more about the countryside than the cities, it’s just breathtaking to me. Usually when I come here I spend most of my time in the woods, so it’s going to be very interesting being confined to a city for a whole week.”
MORE INFO: David Sedaris, EICC, 17-24 August, 6:30pm
Originally published in The Scotsman