- Ingrid Christie
Author David Sedaris appears unassuming at first glance. Standing at just 5 feet, 5 inches, he speaks with a high-pitched, radio-seasoned voice, and his physical presence belies the larger-than-life character he is in his books. This celebrated humorist and author of autobiographical essays is best known for his collections like Me Talk Pretty One Day, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and most recently, Calypso. But he has also contributed frequently to National Public Radio’s program This American Life; written plays with his equally famous sister, actress and comedian Amy Sedaris; published a collection of his diary entries; written countless stories for The New Yorker; and is currently a commentator on CBS Sunday Morning.
His essays, which he has been publishing since The Santaland Diaries aired on NPR in 1992, cover a breadth of topics from his life growing up in a six-child household in Raleigh, North Carolina, to his brief stint as an apple picker in a migrant camp in California, to his bygone meth addiction, to his present-day existence — living with longtime partner Hugh Hamrick in Rackham, West Sussex, England.
Sedaris will once again be visiting Colorado Springs, sure to be dwarfed by the massive Pikes Peak Center stage. Audiences can expect to hear some recent essays, diary entries and more. Before that, though, we invited Sedaris to talk shop with us at the Indy — and it was mostly about Sweden.
Indy: I’m not the first one to say that you’re a very observant writer. But the next step there is making the connections between your observations. How do you tie these threads between cultures or life experiences?
Sedaris: I just got back from Sweden last night — this is answering your question — and I was in Norway a couple weeks ago. In Norway, they feel like the word “stepmother” carries negative connotations. So now they say ‘bonus mom’ instead of stepmother. [Laughs.] They don’t even say “bonus mother,” it’s “bonus mom,” and you would have bonus kids as well. Whereas in Sweden, stepchildren are called “plastic children.” Such a difference. So I learned that in Norway a few weeks ago, and then I returned to Sweden over the weekend, and then I was asking people in Sweden questions, too.
But just ’cause you ask questions, that doesn’t mean you’re going to land on something interesting. We were talking [in Sweden] and this guy said he was looking for a school for his son. ... Private schools and public schools, they’re all free. And I said, ‘Then why do you even call it a private school?’ And they said, ‘Because it was founded privately. Otherwise it’s just normal. You go to school, you take your shoes off, you go to classes.” [Laughs.] I said, “What?!”
You take your shoes off when you go to school, and you change into slippers. To make school feel more like home. Isn’t that great?
That’s so cool! That wasn’t even the question that you asked.
I know it. But I love the idea. Like, how badly could you really be bullied by someone in bedroom slippers?
So do you just kind of mine these nuggets and pull them out whenever you find something that works with them?
It’s usually things that just kind of fall into my lap. Like if I say to somebody, “Gosh, what’s strange about your country?” They don’t know. Because it’s not strange to them, because they live there all the time. But this just kind of came about by sitting around a table, you know? Also, interesting thing: Sweden, years ago, they said, “You know, every household has a different word for a little girl’s vagina. We need to come up with a uniform word.” They thought “vagina” is kind of a big word for what’s in between a 5-year-old girl’s legs, so they need to come up with a new word. And so they did. And then they did the same thing for a little boy’s penis. And I learned that years ago on a trip to Sweden. And then I was in England signing books, and I said, “Oh, what do you call a little girl’s vagina?” And everybody in line had a different term for it. You know a government has crossed all the big stuff off their list when they’re thinking, like, “What do we call a little boy’s penis?”
So when you are coming up with stories to convey this very strange information to people, do you ever forget anything that you have to go back and read your diaries? Or does it all just kind of stick in your head?
Well when I was out to dinner with the Swedes the other night, and then somebody said that thing about wearing slippers to school — I mean, the notebook came right out of my pocket. Because I didn’t want to take any kind of a chance on forgetting that. And then the other day, I saw this T-shirt of a cow shitting into a boot. And, and “shitboot” is the Swedish word for ‘bastard.’ I thought, “Oh, that’s kind of nice. Write it down.”
When it comes to making these connections, you juxtapose this humor with stuff that’s kind of dark. I wonder if this is your way of processing the dark stuff.
I’m interested in stuff that’s just dark and not funny, you know? I mean, it doesn’t have to be funny to capture my interest. But I think if I’m going to be talking about it in front of people, I want to get a laugh. And so I guess I’m thinking about how to do that. And maybe sometimes you get it by putting it next to this other thing. Or I mean — I wanted to write about all that stuff that I learned on my last trip to Norway and Sweden, and I had it all in my diary. So I could have just read a diary entry, and then you could have learned any of that stuff. ... Generally, you know, something in my diary is just an incident or an anecdote or something. And it’s not necessarily an essay. So I think, “Well, how can I take what I learned and shape that into an essay?”
I mean, I learned in Norway — and same is true in Sweden — they don’t say Mr. and Mrs. anymore. Everybody’s on a first-name basis. When you check into a hotel, it’s “Greetings, David.”
That sounds nice.
I really love being called ‘Mr.’ I have kind of earned it. I’m 62. And quite often, I’ll meet a young person, maybe it’s somebody who — you know, maybe it’ll be a bookstore event or something. And it’s a young person who maybe couldn’t afford the hardcover of my new book. So they bought an old paperback or something they got at a yard sale. And I’ll say, “I’m coming back to town in a few months and doing a show in the theater. Can I give you some free tickets?” And then I’ll say, “Here’s my email address, and write me under the heading: Promises Were Made.”
So I can’t tell you how many emails I get: “Hi, David.” It’s like, all right. I believe that is, “Dear Mr. Sedaris.” I mean, you’re 22. And we don’t really know each other. ... But anyway. I always thought, well I wouldn’t mind living in Sweden or Norway. But now I think if I did, I would change my first name to Mister. Because that’s the only way I could be Mr. Sedaris there. ... It’s kind of like a dress-down Friday for language, you know, getting rid of Mr. and Mrs.
How else do you think language conventions — like the culture and practices around language — have changed since you started publishing?
I think one difference is that now it really doesn’t matter what it is; it’s hard to imagine not offending somebody. I mean, a friend of mine has a novel that just came out a few weeks ago, and there’s a stepmother in it. And the stepmother is really, really evil, you know? And I imagine she’s getting all kinds of angry letters from stepmothers who feel like she’s just kind of reinforcing a negative stereotype.
Is that why you were asking about the word “stepmother” abroad?
No, but I know this woman! And so I wrote her and told her, “Wow, you know, if you’re doing a lot of interviews now, you might want to mention that.”
I don’t know if the evil stepmother would be considered a “bonus mom.”
Yeah, she’d just be like, “My bonus mom’s a bitch.” That’s what she would say. [Laughs.]
So have you been trying to toe those lines more, where you try not to offend people?
You know, it’s impossible. Because you can’t predict what people are going to be upset about. Man, I got a letter recently, somebody angry [that] I said, “Goddamn it.” That’s taking the Lord’s name in vain. And then you get a woman upset because I used the word “cancer” to get a laugh — I don’t remember what the context was. … That’s somebody’s issue that they’re bringing into the theater with them.
Do you find that once you put a word into existence in a certain context, it’s really tough for you to change it?
Yeah. I mean, it’s usually — it used to happen on the radio, like, on This American Life, Ira [Glass] would say, “I feel like your story really starts on page three, so what if you start it right here?” But that’s — that’s not an opening line. And if you’ve got your essay, and you’re trying to rewrite your opening line, that’s the worst position to possibly be in. Because everything sprouts from your opening line. I can’t go anywhere without an opening line. Sometimes I’ll sit at my desk and probably write 50 opening lines. And it’s like trying this key and this key and this key and this key, and then you finally find the key and you think, “Oh, OK, I’m in now.” And then you can write the second, third and the fourth and the fifth and sixth. But then for somebody to say, “Oh, no, you need to change that.” I’d just as soon write a completely different essay on a completely different topic than to change the first line.
So you’re a chronological writer? You can’t write bits and pieces and connect them later?
No, that never works. That would happen a lot with scripts, somebody saying “Oh, can you marry these two scripts?” Then you just wind up building something around a joke. But the joke then doesn’t feel organic anymore.
Speaking of scripts, are you still writing plays with your sister, Amy?
We haven’t done one for a long time, but we wrote seven or eight of them. … They seem to belong to a really particular time. I mean, it was great doing it, and Amy and I both loved it, and we talk about it all the time. But it seemed to belong to a certain time. It would almost be like going back to high school or something.
On the subject of your family, you wrote once that all five of your siblings had to break away from the family at some point, to figure out how to be — not just a Sedaris — but your own unique Sedaris. I was curious how you thought you had accomplished that.
You know, I dropped out of college after my first year and hitchhiked around the country and lived in, like, migrant camps and sort of established myself as, you know, the hobo. [Laughs.]
Things have changed a little bit for you.
Yeah, but that was the time that I needed to break away and just sort of be on my own, and kind of establish myself that way. … I just needed to go to a place that no one has ever been. No one in my family had been to California. Nobody had been west of Ohio. And so I kind of needed to claim that territory as my own. And then I kind of needed to claim the world as my own. I needed to be the first person to, like, go abroad and to live abroad.
One thing that’s been hard, I think for other people in my family is, you know, “You’re Amy’s sister. You’re David’s brother.” That’s hard if you’re one of the other siblings; it was really hard for my sister Tiffany because she wanted to be her own person. And then everyone was defining her through other people in the family, you know? Because people can be — I don’t think they mean to be assholes. I just think they can just say stuff that maybe they think it’s funny or something. But it’s like, you know, [rude comments can] really put you in a lousy mood, and especially if you’re not terribly stable. … But I think if you’ve got a foundation, or if you’re confident, you can deal with that stuff.
Do you feel like you’ve got a pretty stable foundation?
Yeah, I’m confident in who I am. And — you know, if you say something right now that hurts my feelings, I’ve still been on the paperback bestseller list for 16 weeks, since my book came out in paperback. I can always grab that as a liferaft. At least I have that to grab. But if you don’t have that to grab, if you don’t have anything to grab, then you know, it can really hurt you.
That bestseller list isn’t new for you, yeah? You’ve had all these accomplishments throughout your career; it’s like you’ve hit the top. So what are your goals now? What are you trying to accomplish?
You know what’s interesting? I don’t have any. I mean, I used to have goals. I used to ride around on my bicycle — I never am in the present when I’m on a bicycle; I’m always in some imagined future, fantasizing about something. I would fantasize that I had a book, or I’d fantasize that I wrote for The New Yorker, or I would fantasize that I lived overseas. It’s been years since I’ve fantasized about something like that.
I think that just kind of happens though, when you get older. I think it’s really, really important to have dreams like that. And I feel bad for a young person who doesn’t have dreams, because then it’s like, you know, they don’t have anything. It’s scary. I remember when I said to myself out loud, “I want to be a writer.” And it was scary to say it even to myself, because that way, if it didn’t work out, then I would be a failure.
Once you announce an ambition, [it’s scary]. But I think, you know, I think it’s probably normal for people my age. Like, what? Am I going to become a doctor? I mean, by the time I got out of medical school, I’d be like, 75.
Maybe not that dream, then. But is there kind of a freedom in not having that goose with the golden egg or whatever it is that you’re striving for?
I mean, I want to be better at what I do. You know, I think about that every day. But it’s not like it comes with anything, you know what I mean? It’s not like it comes with a certificate. It’s just a desire to be better, but there’s not a prize for it. It’s just something that I personally strive for. Which is silly, because most people can’t even recognize that. People will say, “Oh, I loved that Santaland thing.” And that thing [The Santaland Diaries] is so clunkily written. I mean, it’s just horribly written, and people can’t even see it. So a lot of people, they’re listening to the story, but they’re not paying attention to how it’s constructed, or they’re not paying attention to the words that you used. They’re not hearing the craft of it.
But I think it comes through subconsciously, right? People are drawn to things that are better-constructed or use the right words, because that’s what makes it effective.
You’d think! But then let’s say for instance, if you had a president, you know, who had like a 17-word vocabulary.
Hypothetically of course.
[Laughs.] And there would be all kinds of people — my father, for instance — who always admired articulate people and said, “The articulate guy is the guy who is going to get ahead.” And who then hated Barack Obama, who I would argue is pretty articulate, and then supports Donald Trump. My father doesn’t hear the words that Donald Trump uses.
In Sweden, the Swedes said, “You know, when the President of the United States is irrational, and does and says crazy things, we don’t know where we stand anymore. It’s like the rug’s been pulled out from under us.”
Trump has this narrative, right, that when Obama was president, we were disrespected. And we were a laughingstock. And so he tells his followers that now, finally, we’re respected again, and they believe it. But they’ve never been anywhere. I wish that they could have been at that table with me in Sweden.