Monday, March 19, 2007
He Said Sedaris Said
So David Sedaris made stuff up says the New Republic (March 19th issue).
I've interviewed David twice via telephone and actually met him in the flesh once. Nice guy, short like me. I'm completely ambivalent about this little development. It's not like Sedaris wrote self-help books. They were funny stories from life, and that they may have been embelished is no shock. Or a turn-off.
I guess claiming fiction is non-fiction is a messy affair, but I can't think of much non-fiction (or at least biography/autobiography) that is truly 100% real. It's always tainted by subjectivity, whether the first person or people relaying their accounts of someone or something.
Is this lying thing like discovering your boyfriend/girlfriend was faking orgasms years back?
David's books remain genius.
I present my uncut second interview feature, published originally in 2004, and below it an edit of my 2001 feature. Enjoy!
Still in Fashion
By Lawrence Ferber
David Sedaris, the acerbic, sardonic, and self-deprecating openly gay humorist/writer, is at his best when life seems worst. His foibles with an eccentric family, employ as a Macy’s Santaland elf, a homophobic midget guitar tutor, insane neighbors, and tricky French culture/language after moving to Paris with boyfriend Hugh Hamrick have made for riotous reading in bestselling books like Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day, and June’s highly anticipated Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (Little, Brown & Company). In this new collection he recounts equally outrageous, painfully funny, and sometimes deeply affecting experiences with a Bad Seed little girl neighbor and her equally monstrous mother (“The Girl Next Door”), losing his Halloween candy as a child (“Us and Them”), and paranoia in the wake of the Catholic Church pedophilia scandal (“Chicken in the Henhouse”).
Sedaris is also a widely published essayist, an acclaimed (albeit self-conscious about his tinny, youthful voice) radio presence on “This American Life,” and regularly packs reading appearances at diverse venues from independent bookstore to Carnegie Hall. He’s also one half of “The Talent Family” with sister Amy, best known for her starring role on TV’s “Strangers With Candy.” They’ve collaborated on seven plays including the Obie-winning 1995 production, “One Woman Shoe,” and “The Book of Liz,” which was published by Dramatist’s Play Service in 2002.
These days Sedaris divides his time between home bases in France and England, although he’s hitting the USA for an extensive Summer/Fall reading/signing tour. To discuss his book, getting into trouble by himself, with Amy, and with small town child molesters, I spoke with Sedaris, at his London home that moment, by phone.
How do you go about constructing your stories these days?
“I go on these lecture tours twice a year to different theaters and colleges and whatnot and generally I start a tour with maybe four or five new stories. Then I read things out loud and go back to my hotel room and rewrite them, read, and rewrite. I like it that way because it gives me a chance to try things out in front of an audience. It’s not like I keep everything that gets a laugh, though. It just gives me an understanding of what a story needs. Sometimes on a page it’s hard to determine, but when you read out loud it’s easier.”
How many stories never make it to a completed published state?
“About 80 percent. I have a whole, big file of stories that are three pages long.”
Can you give me an example of one?
“My boyfriend owns a house in a very small village of only twelve houses in Normandy, and one of our neighbors was taken to prison for sexually molesting his granddaughter. He got out of prison last summer. Everyone assumed he would move but couldn’t afford to. There wasn’t a town meeting, nobody officially said we aren’t going to talk to him or look at him again, but that was basically what everyone did. But the man was always nice to me and I walked by his house a lot and he was very lonely and so he started talking to me and inviting me into his house. In this small village when you’re an outsider to begin with and everybody sees you leaving a child molester’s house, it doesn’t look good.”
Was he guilty?
“He did it. I never asked him but I never doubted he did it - he’s sort of functionally retarded. That’s a story I never finished [writing] and I don’t know if I just wasn’t approaching it the right way or being honest when I needed to or it just didn’t have an ending.”
Can child molesting be funny? There’s a whole lot of Michael Jackson jokes out there, but…
“I wrote the story [‘Chicken in the Henhouse’] for the new book when the Catholic Church [child molesting] scandal broke. I know a lot of people, all gay men, who wouldn’t hug a [child] nephew or put a hand on their nephew’s shoulder. You were so paranoid at that time. Pedophilia was front page news, and listening to American talk radio people would start talking about pedophiles and use the word ‘homosexual’ instead, as if they were the same thing, and the host wouldn’t stop them. It makes you very self-conscious. And I accompanied this ten-year-old boy to his hotel room. I had some easy laughs, jokes, in there and I cut them out because I think they got in the way of what I was trying to talk about, which is that paranoia you feel sometimes if you’re gay. Suddenly people are willing to believe they can’t trust their children around you.”
Do you ever actively try to get into trouble or horrible situations for a good story?
“Not to get in trouble, I’m not that adventurous. Usually I wait for things to come to me, but if you’re at home writing all day not that much is going to come. So I have been trying for six weeks to get a volunteer job in London because it would give me something to do. But God, they’re making it hard for me [by requiring training courses and red tape hurdles]. I don’t need a training course! I love hearing people complain. I love it. Especially when it’s nothing I can do anything about. Back pain or the health system – great, I’m all for it. I want to hear people complain and do little tasks for them, like I’ll go to someone’s house who’s old and clean their oven. Happy to do it. And I’ll wash their windows and I don’t need a training course for that. So it’s really frustrating. I think part of the problem is the volunteer system is staffed by volunteers.”
What if they gave you a happy person to care for?
“I’d be disappointed if I went to someone’s house and they were very sweet and gave me cookies and I cleaned their oven and it wasn’t really dirty. I’d come away disappointed. I’m hunting for crackpots, basically (laughs).”
How about someone who might hurt you? Are you willing to get seriously injured for a good story, like hit in the head with a wrench?
“Probably not, because I think often if it comes to that it takes you years to be able to write about it, to put it into perspective.”
So you’re an American living in Europe, which must have been interesting during the whole start of the war. French hatred of Americans was at a high, I understand, with frequent anti-war/American protests.
“I saw a lot of protest, but then I saw a lot of protests in London as well. If anything I would say the protesting was fiercer in England than France. I was in London the day the war broke out and then I was in Paris and then the USA for a month traveling around the country. In the United States, everywhere I went, I saw signs that said ‘support our troops’ or American flags. This whole war industry. And when Jessica Lynch returned, when she was freed, I was watching TV and the reporters surrounded her parents’ house. ‘What did you do when you found out she was still alive? Did you cry? Did you pray? Which did you do first – cry or pray?’ Nothing short of a reenactment would satisfy them. It was interesting coming back to London because they’re in Iraq too, but I have yet to see a flag, or ‘support our troops’ bumper sticker or T-shirt… It’s on the news every night but it hasn’t inspired greeting cards. It’s not sentimental like it was in the USA.”
So what is the British take on what’s happening in the USA right now politically?
“What’s interesting here is you read such different things. If you read the Guardian or Independent you get the idea Bush is going down. These hearings, he’s going down, his days are numbered. And then you get the Herald Tribune and it’s on page six. So I don’t know if it’s just wishful thinking. One thing I do like about London is there are ten daily papers. So many that there will be a column in a paper saying what the other papers are saying that same day. And on TV every night they tell you what’s going to be in tomorrow’s papers. The columnists and reporters from the papers are on TV.”
Do you see your sister Amy a lot?
“Not so much because I don’t live in New York anymore. I see her when I visit and she comes here sometimes. It’s hard when you don’t live in the same country. That’s the only thing I miss about the USA, my family and friends.”
Do you two ever do something to take the other aback?
“Amy does that to me more than I do to her. We were in Paris and I was pointing out that you always see American couples fighting in the street. They’re on vacation together and just snap, they can’t take it anymore. Generally they don’t spend much time together and often they feel threatened, don’t speak the language and only have one another to depend on and they snap and I hear fights all the time on the street outside my apartment. I pointed this out to Amy and then Amy and I were in a crowded place and she turned to me and yelled ‘this is my vacation too, can we please just try to have a good time???’ I thought damn, that’s what I get for pointing things out to her. Back in your face.”
How much embellishment did you add to the stories in Dress Your Family?
Is your mother that out of control and overdramatic?
“I don’t think so much in this book as in earlier books. There’s a story about wanting a beach house and I think if I had written about that earlier I would have given my mother certain heightened vocabulary. We’re trying to think of a name of this beach house and she says ‘everybody likes Sandpipers, right?’ which is not a funny thing to say. There’s something so normal and naked about it, it makes it real in a way that sort of an invented smartass comment wouldn’t.”
Have any of your stories gotten you into trouble with your family or others?
“I always let members of my family read a story before its published?
Are you afraid at of that psychotic neighbor child from “The Girl Next Door” discovering your story about her?
“I don’t worry about her because I don’t think she grew up to be much of a reader (laughs). I was somewhere in New York State a few years ago signing books and a woman came up and said ‘remember me?’ Which is my nightmare, anyone saying ‘remember me?’ I couldn’t place her.”
Who was she?
“I had gone to a nudist colony and written about a woman there who had just one nipple. It took me a long time to notice that because I’d been there for a week and you stop noticing other people’s nudity after a week. I thought something was different about her and then I realized she just had one nipple. The other had been removed and was very neatly stitched up. So she says ‘I’m the one with one nipple.’ And I said ‘oh boy, it’s so good to see you again,’ and she was perfectly nice. She didn’t mind – I didn’t write that it was grotesque to have one nipple. The way I had written about it was just in terms of how if it’d been my first day I would have noticed immediately. Anyway, it was a close call because she could’ve been angry with me. And one of the reasons I didn’t finish that story about the man who was arrested for child molestation is I didn’t think he was a huge reader either, but the people across the street from me, when the books are translated into French, would’ve asked for a copy and it would feel wrong somehow. If you moved the story to London, there are lots of child molesters in London. There’s only one in this village of 12 houses so I think that had something to do with why I was unable to finish it.”
So he should move to London because then you’d be good to go.
“(laughs) He doesn’t want to - he has a steel plate in his head and when he was in prison he got a hip replacement so he gets a 75 percent discount on all train travel, but only in France. The person he travels with gets a 75 percent discount, too, and he proposed we go on a trip together. He just wanted to hop on a train and go to the south of France.”
“Yeah, but at the same time, like what you said about getting into trouble, I think ‘oh, a train trip with a child molester!’ I would feel so nervous. If he wasn’t in my sight I’d wonder what he was up to. I would feel responsible if anything horrible happened – ‘I knew what he was and brought him to your town.’”
How is Hugh? There’s a lot of him in this book – far more than in Talk Pretty.
“He’s fine. Yeah, I guess you’re right. He is in this book more than the last one. I just exploited my family to death so now I’m moving onto his family.”
What else are you up to lately?
“I finished my book so now I’m just answering my mail, which is a huge task. Most of it is from people I never met.”
“I don’t answer the letters that are hostile or scary. I just sometimes read something like a letter in which they’re proposing they come to France and stay with me for a while. You’ve never met this person and they’re very serious about it and wondering when they should get their ticket. Even if you write them back a letter that says ‘that’s very nice of you to want to come to visit me, I’m so flattered you’d want to stay with me in my home, but this is not a good time.’ Then they’re just going to write back ‘when is a good time?’ Those letters I tend not to respond to.”
Any recent favorite letters?
“There was a teacher somewhere in a small town in Illinois and he had his students read one of my books and then they had to write letters [about it to me]. He sent me all of the letters the students wrote. Most are very nice, the sort of letters where you can tell they’re high school students and it’s just a job and they mention they like this and that. But here’s my favorite. (finds the letter) ‘Dear Mr. Sedaris. We read your book. Although not very interesting they brought lots of joy into my life due to all the pointless stories. I wondered to myself after reading Me Talk Pretty, what were you thinking about when you began writing because some of the stories seemed quite retarded to me and to my close friends. Somebody who writes stories like that and puts them into a book seems to have way too much time and money in his hands. Maybe you should stop writing stupid stories about your family and go out and get a real job like everybody else.’ ‘Signed, Jason Schmidt.’ I love that the teacher included that! That he didn’t say ‘I’m not going to send that because that’s unpleasant.’”
Don’t cut off the crusts! Flattering that you’re part of some teachers’ curriculums, isn’t it?
“It sort of troubles me. Stories are anthologized more and more in high school, writing, and college textbooks. Usually with notes at the bottom that say ‘notice how he does this and this, what does this make you think of or can you think of three examples of…’ I hate the thought of anybody having to read what I wrote or write a paper on it, because that takes all the fun out of it. And [students] send me their papers sometimes and it just breaks my heart because they’ll talk about ‘this is a symbol of such and such,’ and I wasn’t thinking anything when I wrote the story. I wasn’t thinking ‘this is a metaphor for man’s inhumanity against man.’ I don’t know that anybody consciously sits down and thinks that when they write. And I just don’t like the thought of [my writing] pushed on anybody. Somebody having to stay up late because they have to write a paper about something I wrote. I’d be so angry.”
Are you contributing to any UK outlets?
“I’m doing three different series for the BBC. I did a series about France and I did a series of rerecording a lot of the essays I had done for Morning Edition, a weekly radio show from NY. Every week I would read an essay that was 5 minutes long.”
Would you like to write regularly for one of the numerous London newspapers?
“They use a bit of a term I hadn’t heard in the USA before. Because it often seems everyone in England has a newspaper column, there’s a term, gynocolumnist, which is a female columnist who writes about anything that comes out of her, basically. ‘I’m having my period’ or ‘I got Chlamydia.’ Or ‘do you ever notice how when you’re breast feeding it’s embarrassing when the milk drips onto your blouse.’ That’s a gynocolumnist. And there’s something about a newspaper column, I think that’s got to be the most difficult thing in the world. I can’t imagine a daily, even a weekly newspaper column, especially when it’s something that’s supposed to be funny. It gets so forced. At least here you don’t have the language restrictions [like you would] in a daily paper in the USA. In the Guardian you can say fuck, pussy, whatever you want.”
He Talk Pretty
By Lawrence Ferber
Acerbic, sardonic, and self-depriciating humorist David Sedaris, widely known for his best-selling books of scathingly funny autobiographical essays (Naked, Barrel Fever) and short stories, theatrical collaborations with sister Amy, and appearances on NPR’s Peabody-winning This American Life, is today pondering upcoming episodes of the latter. Producer and host Ira Glass has asked contributors to whip up material on the themes of “Cringe” and “Neighbors,” so Sedaris is wracking his brain for appropriate items, scribbling down whatever comes to the surface.
“I cringe when I watch COPS and see somebody being handcuffed in their underwear,” Sedaris admits in his distinctive, tinny register, “but it’s a little bit different because there’s no personal responsibility. I think I cringe harder at things I’ve done. That makes me even more uncomfortable.”
Like? Well, speaking.
“Most people feel that way,” Sedaris insists. “I like nothing about my voice.”
Of course, Sedaris’ voice, and speech in general – from his childhood’s unconquerable lisp to difficulty with French now that he lives in Paris – is given long thrift in his most recent tome, Me Talk Pretty One Day (Little, Brown), which he has been reading from during public appearances throughout 2001.
“I have no idea why people would buy a ticket to go hear somebody read,” Sedaris continues. “There’s nothing to look at, you’re just up there with your nose in a book. I mean, I look up every now and then but that’s all. I always feel like if they paid for a ticket, they should at least see a bit of movement or something, but I don’t wanna move around. So I don’t have much to offer that way. Even when I thought about [having back-up dancers onstage] I get embarrassed,” he says, giggling slightly. “Maybe like sort of a travelling carnival, but that doesn’t do much for me either.”
Sedaris’ new show, The Book of Liz, probably brings less guilt to his heart, then. Kicking off March 26 at New York’s Greenwich House Theatre, The Book of Liz was written with Sedaris’ sister Amy, best known for her role on Comedy Central’s Strangers With Candy. Dubbing themselves The Talent Family when collaborating – seven plays to date – the siblings’ 1995 show, One Woman Shoe, won an Obie Award.
The Book of Liz, which co-stars Amy and was directed by Sedaris’ boyfriend, Hugh Hamrick, involves cheeseball-making Sister Elizabeth, member of a Pilgrim-esque religious sect. Feeling unappreciated by her peers, she scrambles, embarking on a Candide style journey of her own.
“The theater reminded me of a church,” says Sedaris of the show’s creation, “so we wanted to do something that would maybe take place in a church. We don’t say that they’re Shakers or Menonites or whatever. They just sort of dress like Pilgrims and make their money by manufacturing cheeseballs. And because Amy makes cheeseballs [in real life] and sells them we thought we could sell some in the lobby and make some extra money.”
In fact, Amy’s traditional and smokey cheeseballs have received praise from none other than The New York Times, resulting in popularity and decent sales.
“It was hard coming up with the title for this show because the perfect title would have been ‘The Cheeseballs of Glousterhaven’ but that just sounds too campy,” Sedaris muses. “So we had to come up with a title that didn’t have cheeseballs in it and it was murder coming up with this title. Murder.”
Do they fear alienating the hardcore cheeseball fans out there with this decision?
“No,” he laughs. “I think we’d get all 3 of them maybe to come see this show.”
Tickets are $35. Call (212) 239-6200. Greenwich House Theatre, 27 Barrow Street (off Seventh Avenue South).