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David Sedaris has become one of America’s top literary humorists at a time when the country is sorely in need of some laughter. Since exploding on the scene with “Santaland Diaries”—his account of forty-five days spent toiling as an elf at Macy’s—and his reading of it on NPR’s This American Life in the 1990s, he has gone on to share the most awkward, intimate, and hilarious moments of his life with readers and radio
listeners. His books include Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Barrel Fever, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and When You Are Engulfed in Flames.
With his latest book, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary, Sedaris has taken a different approach. There are no personal essays here, but rather his take on classic African fables centered upon anthropomorphic animals who shine a light on the human condition.
Sedaris was recently on a national tour to promote the book. He sat down for an extensive interview outside the Zona Rosa Caffe in Pasadena, California, before an appearance at that city’s venerable Vroman’s Bookstore.
Q: You found your success a little bit later in life, rather than fresh out of college. You were an apartment cleaner and did odd jobs.
David Sedaris: I started writing when I was twenty. My first book came out when I was thirty-five. But I never expected that it would happen quickly.
All of a sudden, when you’re exposed to a large audience, they think you just started writing that day, but I started years before. I look back at things I wrote then and I’m so embarrassed—the writing seems so blocky and choppy to me and I wouldn’t have wanted success any sooner because the writing was even worse.
I wrote a story when I was twenty-eight years old, and I read it out loud once when I was invited somewhere. But that’s nothing. When I go on tour now, I know it can take ten times before you learn how to read something. The rhythm of the story must be adjusted to the rhythm of something being read out loud.
Take a difficult story like “The Grieving Owl.” It was kind of long, and it almost got out of control.
Before I turn a book in, I always go to the Steppenwolf in Chicago because they have a 300-seat theater there, and they give it to me for a week. I read the owl story out loud every night, and every night the ending was different.
Q: How did you decide to do a collection of animal fables?
Sedaris: Somebody gave me a collection of South African folk tales on audio, and I was looking forward to listening to it. But it was really awful, and I thought, “I can do better than this.”
Q: It’s rare that two siblings in the same family become offbeat pop culture figures like you and your sister Amy. What happened in your childhood to create such unique voices?
Sedaris: We’re not unique in our family. We’re more ambitious but we’re not special. I’m not funnier than anyone else in my family; it’s just that we wanted more than Raleigh, North Carolina, had to offer. If my brother wanted more than Raleigh had to offer, you would know his name. My sister Lisa has a really unique and different voice, but she doesn’t want that. She’s a fine writer, but never said, “I want a book. I want that kind of attention.”
Q: You were raised in the Greek Orthodox Church. How did that upbringing influence you?
Sedaris: I never got the idea of a punishing God, just a really boring one. To see people growing up in the Carolinas who were Baptist, I knew there were others who felt God was going to send them to hell for any little thing, but not me.
Q: What is your take on the tea party movement?
Sedaris: It makes me wonder sometimes. Remember a couple years ago, when Mexicans went on strike? It was talked about a little bit but not that much. But some old white people, and there aren’t even that many, they put bonnets on, and then they control the news. It didn’t seem fair to me that Jon Stewart’s rally didn’t get the same kind of attention that Glenn Beck’s did. Why was Beck’s seen as checking the thermometer of the country, and Jon Stewart just dismissed as a satirist?
Someone told me something recently about Sarah Palin, someone I trusted in the book business. They said, “I worked with Palin. She did an event at my bookstore, and she was really, really nice, and even more beautiful in person.” I didn’t want to hear that. I wanted to hear that she was awful and hideous-looking. But I thought, I have to listen to that. I have to hear that. I don’t want to be the one who is going to deny anything complimentary said about somebody just because I disagree with that person.
Q: How do you feel about the major political shifts of the last couple years, from Obama to the backlash from the right?
Sedaris: I was very excited about Barack Obama, but it was very discouraging to see the midterm elections. My boyfriend can tell you anything about the coalition government in England, but he doesn’t know about the U.S. I’m just the opposite. I can’t make the emotional break with the United States. After these elections, I wanted to say, “OK, you know what, I’ll become a British citizen and you can go to hell.” But I can’t do that, I just can’t.
It always seemed like a pendulum to me. But with so many things now, the Republicans are against it when they could have been for it normally. But because Barack Obama endorsed it, they were suddenly against it. Maybe it was the same way under Bush, I just didn’t notice or pay attention as much. To tell you the truth, if George Bush was for morning, I would be against it. Every day that begins with a morning, I would say “fuck you,” and think each day should begin with an afternoon.
Q: What’s your opinion on gay marriage?
Sedaris: People need to just get over it. The good thing about being gay, though, I always believed, is that you didn’t make anyone go to a wedding. Nobody wants to go to a wedding. Nobody. It kind of bothers me now that you have to go to gay weddings, too. I don’t care. It’s still a wedding. And I would give anybody double gifts if they would elope. I’m for gay elopement, not for gay weddings. I’ve been with my boyfriend for twenty years. I don’t feel like that would validate our relationship in any way. But I would really fight for someone else to have the right. Just elope, though, please.
Q: What do you think about the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy?
Sedaris: That’s so silly. It was silly under Bill Clinton. But you know, I was in a car being driven—I never learned to drive—and I was in Virginia in a car for two hours. The guy driving was a Republican, but we had a nice conversation going. Then I happened to mention my boyfriend, and he was like, “Oh, stop the car everybody! Newsflash! We’ve got a homosexual in the backseat!” I replied, “You said ‘wife’ four times since I got in the car, so why can’t I say ‘boyfriend?’ ” Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is like, “Don’t say anything about the most important part of your life.”
People discuss their relationships all the time, but you can’t. I don’t think people realize how harmful that is, how it twists you up to hide who you are. It’s not healthy, and the great gains that homosexuals have made in my lifetime, I think that we’ll look back in twenty or thirty years and say, “I can’t believe we ever made them go through that.”
Q: How did you decide to move to France, and has the move affected your perceptions of America?
Sedaris: Actually my boyfriend is American but he bought a house in Normandy before I even met him. We met, and we started going there for the month of August. I wanted to learn French, and the best way seemed to be to move there. We moved to France for a year originally, then it turned into two, then three, then four. Now we live in England. I live in London. We just bought a house in West Sussex, in the south of England.
It does make you see the United States differently. It makes you aware of how American you are when you’re living in another country. When you go to that other country you realize that in France and in England, you don’t ask somebody what they do for a living when you meet someone. A lot of the obvious things, the shortcuts we take in America—in America you can talk about money all you want. You can ask how much they make, rent they pay, how much their house costs and how much their car costs, and they’ll feel comfortable telling you. But it’s scandalous to ask anyone in England or France a question like that.
In America, if your next-door neighbor has a Rolls-Royce, you want one too. But in England, if your neighbor has a Rolls-Royce, you want him to die in a fiery accident. That’s a quote from someone else, but there’s something about American optimism, that feeling you can do anything if you’re at least middle class in America. If I can have a writing career, anyone can. There’s nothing special about me.
Q: You still have high standards compared to most other writers, because even your biting humor seems to know when to stop. How do you know when you’re going too far, or being too mean about someone?
Sedaris: The difference between writing where you know where to draw the line and writing where you’re being way too mean is whether you can tell that the writer is not talking to family or friends anymore. Generally, if you say something bad about somebody on stage, you need to say two bad things about yourself. A lot of times, I think I’m the worst person in the room.
Carl Kozlowski is a staff writer for the Pasadena Weekly and Relevant Magazine. Hes the co-author of Seize the Day Job: The Humor Book Al-Qaeda Almost Kept You from Reading, which is available for sale at his website, www.americasfunniestreporter.com. He interviewed Matt Taibbi in the February issue.