Pictured David Sedaris will read from and sign copies of his new collection of essays Friday, June 4 at 7 p.m., at Unabridged, 3251 N. Broadway, (773) 883-9119.
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 NPR's 'This American Life,' and regularly packs reading appearances at diverse venues from independent bookstores 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 U.S. for an extensive Summer/Fall reading/signing tour.Read more story below....
LF: How do you go about constructing your stories these days?
DS: 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.
LF: How many stories never make it to a completed published state?
DS: About 80 percent. I have a whole, big file of stories that are three pages long. ... My boyfriend owns a house in a very small village of only 12 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. ... 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.
LF: Can child molesting be funny? There's a lot of Michael Jackson jokes, but ...
DS: 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 10-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.
LF: Do you actively try to get into trouble or horrible situations for a good story?
DS: 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. I think part of the problem is the volunteer system is staffed by volunteers.
LF: What if they gave you a happy person to care for?
DS: 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 (laughs).
LF: So you're an American living in Europe, which must have been interesting during the start of the war. French hatred of Americans was at a high.
DS: 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.
LF: So what is the British take on what's happening in the U.S. now politically?
DS: 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 10 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.
LF: Do you see your sister Amy a lot?
DS: Not so much because I don't live in New York. I see her when I visit and she comes here sometimes. That's the only thing I miss about the U.S., my family and friends.
LF: Do you two ever do something to take the other aback?
DS: 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.
LF: How much embellishment did you add to the stories in Dress Your Family?
DS: Not much.
LF: Is your mother that out of control and overdramatic?
DS: 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.
LF: Have any of your stories gotten you into trouble with your family or others?
DS: I always let members of my family read a story before its published.
LF: 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.
LF: Who was she?
DS: 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.
LF: So he should move to London because then you'd be good to go.
D: (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.
LF: How sweet!
DS: 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.'
LF: How is Hugh? There's a lot of him in this book—far more than in Talk Pretty.
DS: 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.
LF: Any recent favorite letters?
DS: 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.'
LF: Don't cut off the crusts! Flattering that you're part of some teachers' curriculums, isn't it?
DS: 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.'
LF: Would you like to write regularly for one of the numerous London newspapers?
DS: 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.