The allotted time slot for chatting with author David Sedaris, who is currently living in France, was 30 minutes -- 6:30 to 7 in the morning here, 2:30 to 3 in the afternoon there. As we spoke, he was having lunch and I was sipping my first cup of coffee. But as I quickly discovered, conversation with Sedaris elicits 100 times more of a buzz than any amount of caffeine could ever produce, and it is, in fact, possible to have actual fits of gut-busting laughter prior to 7 a.m.
Sedaris catapulted into the alternative stream of consciousness one morning in 1992, after reading his now legendary piece "Santaland Diaries" on National Public Radio. That dark-humored tale of his stint as a Macy's Christmas elf earned him an immediate following. He can be frequently heard on Ira Glass's "This American Life," and his essays, which appear regularly in The New Yorker, Harper's and Esquire, have been collected in three books.
For Sedaris fans, it's been three long, dry years since his last book. But fear not -- his newest book, Me Talk Pretty One Day, hits bookstores next week.
In the tradition of Barrel Fever, Holidays on Ice and Naked, Sedaris' latest work is another collection of autobiographical essays. Fodder for the first half of the book is his bizarre family life. Whether candidly detailing his childhood battle with a lisp, his guitar lessons with a midget, his simultaneous discovery of crystal meth and conceptual art, or family vacations, a serious eye-watering, laugh-out-loud experience is inevitable.
The funniest essays in the book, however, are those which focus on Sedaris' current life in France and his attempts to learn the French language:
On my fifth trip to France I limited myself to words and phrases that people actually use. From the dog owners I learned "Lie down," "Shut up" and "Who shit on this carpet?" The couple across the road taught me to ask questions correctly and the butcher taught me to count. Things began to come together and I went from speaking like an evil baby to speaking like a hillbilly. "Is thems the thoughts of cows?" I'd ask the butcher, pointing to calves' brains displayed in the front windows. "I want me some lamb chops with handles on 'em."
Sedaris has lived in France for the past two years, where he and his long-time boyfriend, photographer Hugh Hamrick, split their time between Paris and Normandy. I phoned him at their 400-year-old farmhouse in Normandy, and we conversed in English for the next 30 minutes.
Indy: How's the mastery of the language coming?
DS: Oh, I have good days and bad days.
We went to dinner with some friends the other night, and I know the guy I sat next to was thinking, "Dammit, I had to sit next to him last time." Because my example of sparkling conversation is "Today I saw a bird. I saw a bird in the road, and then I look again and he be in the air." You know, who wants to listen to that?
Indy: It sounds like your French class was an absolutely masochistic experience. Is everything you've written about your teacher true?
DS: Yes. But see, I still thought she was a good teacher. And I thought those things were funny. But no, the article came out (an excerpt published in Harper's several months ago), she got her hands on it and it turned ugly. I was invited not to return to school.
Indy: You tend to write about real-life experiences. Are there any experiences or aspects of your life which are off-limits?
DS: I wouldn't write about my sex life, because I don't really know how to. I went to a reading once in New York for a magazine where people write about their true sexual experiences. I had written a parody. But other people read things like, "Terry's balls were bouncing off of my chin ... " And I was like ugh, no, ugh. I could never do that. There are people who can, I'm just not one of them. Plus, I don't know, one small scrap of dignity is all I ask.
Indy: You often use your family as material. What do they think of that?
DS: They're fine with it. When I'm writing about my family, like my dad, I say "Dad, it's not really you. You know, he has your name and he says the exact same things that you say, and he looks like you and lives in your house, but it's just a character." And I've somehow convinced my family to believe me. Even in writing about myself, I think of myself as a character. It helps me step back a little bit and think, OK, this is not something I'm writing in my diary, this has to be a story and [has to] have the elements of a story.
Indy: Do you still prefer your typewriter to a computer?
DS: My boyfriend went to the United States in March, and I was hoping he would bring me back a carton of cigarettes. And he gave me that kind of present, you know, close your eyes -- and I thought maybe he brought me 10 cartons of cigarettes. And then he put one of those iBooks on my lap. So I turned it on and then I turned it off and then I put it in the closet. Then I was working on something and thought, I wonder what would happen if I typed it on that thing. So I brought it out about a week ago, and now if someone came into this house and took it, I would say "over my dead body!" And it would come to blows. I cannot believe it happened that fast.
Indy: What clinched the conversion?
DS: Two things. One, is that if certain people called me on the phone, I would not type while I was talking because it made too much noise. But you can use the computer and talk to people at the same time and they don't know it. I've been told that this is called multitasking.
Indy: I had no idea there was a term.
DS: Yeah. It figures that they'd take some Wall Street word and attach it to what is basically rude behavior.
But the other thing I like is that, well, when I'm using the typewriter, if I'm searching for a word or run out of an idea, I get up and clean the bathtub or the refrigerator or wipe off the sink. But with the computer you can just sit there and wonder what a word would look like really big. And you can make it big. Or you can wonder how many words you've misspelled. Or how many words are on the page. You don't get up from your seat as often. Writing is fluid. But now my windows are dirty.
Indy: Taxidermy comes up from time to time in your latest book. So I've just gotta know, what's up with the taxidermy?
DS: To me, taxidermy is the perfect sculpture. A stuffed kitten touches a place in the heart you're not going to get anywhere near, with like, a Rubic's Cube. It just arouses feelings in people that I really don't think you can in any other way. And that's what I like about it. I mean, if I could get my hands on a taxidermied fetus, I would be so unbelievable happy.
Indy: You've been compared to Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker, James Thurber ...
DS: It's always nice when people make those comparisons, but I never pay them any mind. I'm not worthy of being compared to any of those people. I just figure, it's somebody being nice. For me, the ultimate compliment is when I hear people saying that they actually laugh out loud when they read my stuff. Because that doesn't happen to me too often, that I laugh out loud when I read something, and to me that's a nice feeling.