David Sedaris interview – Sunday Times

DAYDREAMING by the dishwasher in his after-school restaurant job, a teenage David Sedaris used to fantasize about having his own TV show. In it, he would travel the world with a loyal proboscis monkey called Socrates.

Each adventure would climax with a nugget of folksy wisdom as the pair gazed into the sunset – as long as he could come up with something profound enough for the voiceover. “The hard part was thinking up the all-important revelation,” he recalls. “It suddenly occurred to me that… That what? Things hardly ever occurred to me.”

Three decades later he’s tapped a more reliable formula. Feted as a “literary rock star”, Sedaris has wooed US audiences of 4000 in venues as prestigious as Carnegie Hall, and sold out next week’s Edinburgh Book Festival reading in days. In the end it wasn’t cod philosophy that got him the limelight, but a darker, funnier, more potent source: his own dysfunctional family. Socrates the imaginary ape became a passing anecdote in Dinah the Christmas Whore – an altogether earthier tale about the time his sister rescued a prostitute for the festive season. If there’s a voiceover to his new life, it’s this: “It suddenly occurred to me that nothing that bad can happen to you if you can write about it,” he offers sardonically. “I mean basically, the greater my misfortune, the more money I can make…”

Dive into any of his five best-selling collections of confessional essays and stories – Barrel Fever, Naked, Santaland Diaries, Me Talk Pretty One Day and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim – and it’s easy to see what he means. The second of six children raised in upstate New York and Raleigh, North Carolina, Sedaris apparently accumulated behavioural problems the way other kids collected football cards. A Plague of Tics recalls an early compulsion for licking light switches and hitting himself over the head with his shoe, while in Let it Snow he convinces his youngest sister to lie in the road and try to get hit by a car so that their parents will feel guilty for locking them out of the house in winter.

It’s unsparing but painfully funny and chronicled with a bittersweet love of the human condition. Sedaris, as self-deprecating in person as on paper, is still baffled by his success. “It amazes me every time I get up there on stage,” he says, speaking from his Normandy home. “I look at the audience and think: what are you doing here? To want to see this guy, who’s nothing to look at, read out loud about his stupid life?”

His early career offered few hints of what would follow. He dropped out of art school, got hooked on crystal meth and lived in his parents’ basement, until his father evicted him for being gay. Attempting to get his life together he enrolled in writing courses at the Art Institute in Chicago and attempted occasional recitals in small venues while working his way through a series of cleaning jobs and a humiliating stint in green tights as a Christmas elf at Macy’s department store.

But Crumpet the elf also caught the attention of a producer on National Public Radio who happened to hear Sedaris at an open-mic session. He called him in to record Santaland Diaries for broadcast, and on 23 December 1992 everything changed.

“It was one of those definite before-and-after moments,” recalls Sedaris, now 49. “It was broadcast at 7 in the morning and then the phone just started ringing. You’d hang it up and it would ring again and again. It was opportunity calling and I hadn’t had opportunity before – and I could understand then how easy it would be to get drunk on it.” Turning down offers to do television commercials, he grabbed a book offer from Little Brown and sent them the manuscript of Barrel Fever. Before long his voice was a fixture on America’s airwaves – a high-pitched deadpan, like Woody Allen with a faint lisp.

“I always thought radio would be such a wonderful medium for me because I wouldn’t have to be seen,” he says. “But it seemed impossible that my voice would ever be on the radio. I mean, whenever I’m in a hotel and call room service, they always say: “We’ll have that right up to you ma’am”. Always. I don’t think Garrison Keillor has this problem.”

Constantly squirreling away stories and characters and newspaper cuttings for his diary, he inevitably starts to see life as “material”. “I feel bad for people that don’t write,” he says, deadpan as ever. “You know, somebody breaks up with them, they take a bullet to the leg, whatever, that’s the end – they can’t make money off of it.”

He’s joking – or at least half-joking – but he’s the first to admit that writing from life can also have unintended consequences. In particular the hilarious depiction of his sadistic Parisian French teacher in Me Talk Pretty One Day caused huge offence. “It was all true, but what I left out of that story was that I really liked her and that she did a lot of things that were really remarkable. I went for the easy laugh, but it would have been a much better story if I’d rounded it out. It never occurred to me that it would get back to the teacher, but it did. If I could go back and undo one thing in my life that would be it.”

He pulled the plug on a Hollywood film adaptation of Me Talk Pretty One Day for similarly conscientious reasons. “If it had been a fictional story it might have been different, but what changed it all for me was my older sister said: “Will I have to be fat in the movie?” She said it like a person who has no power, and I just felt like an absolute monster, so I just got out of it. That was never a part of what I wanted.”

Other friends and family members have proved more enthusiastic, not least his brother Paul, who uses his worldwide reputation for scatological bluntness to promote his floor-sanding business and sell merchandise over the internet. “He loves being written about,” sighs Sedaris. “I went to a bookstore in Memphis and right next to my book were these ugly T-shirts my brother had printed. It was really embarrassing, but I guess I can’t really accuse him of exploiting me.”

Surprisingly for an introvert, he thrives on his twice-yearly lecture marathons, and embarks on a 35-night tour of 33 American cities soon after his Scottish visit. “I always use new material on a lecture tour,” says Sedaris, who spends the rest of the year between houses in France and London with his long-term partner, the painter Hugh Hamrick. “I love the opportunity of being able to rewrite in front of an audience. Sometimes on paper things seem fine, and then you hear yourself reading it and think: “God, that was boring” or “That was a cheap joke”. I’d much rather learn that on my feet, so that by the time I give it to my editor all that stuff’s worked out.”

This week’s Edinburgh reading will mark his third visit to Scotland, a country already etched in his notebooks for its natural beauty – and the memory of a woman on a bus feeding Coke to her newborn baby. The smoking ban is somewhat less stimulating to a Francophile chain-smoker, but Sedaris claims to have been broken in by a recent visit to Japan. “Where I was staying you had to stand next to an outdoor ashtray with a sign that said: “When I fart, I look behind me. But when I light a cigarette I don’t bother.” After that Edinburgh won’t seem so strange.”

Above all, he’s looking forward to meeting his audience, who invariably make him feel relatively normal. On the last tour he heard reports of people who compulsively defecate in shop fitting rooms; a father who ritually ate his daughters’ placentas and hair trimmings; and a man who chased mice outside to a woodpile and set fire to it, only to have a flaming mouse scurry back into his house and burn it to the ground. “That to me is a perfect story,” laughs Sedaris. “I love hearing about stuff like that, because it goes on around us and we don’t know. I put it all in my diary”.

At the end of each season he gets his diaries professionally bound, and leaves them to mature like barrels of whisky. After a few years he’ll open them and see what’s ready for use. “Most of it’s just whining,” he says, as disarmingly honest as ever. “But then I’ll find something and think: “Oh maybe that would work…”

It’s a strange way to make a living, but the boy who once dreamed of co-presenting a TV show with a monkey has never been happier. “When I get in front of an audience I always think: “This is what I wanted”. But I don’t think it ever occurred to me when I was 12 that you could just read out loud and people would actually show up. It’s the perfect job.”

20th Aug 2006, Ecosse section, Sunday Times

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