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David Sedaris

To his regular readers, David Sedaris needs no introduction, as his life is his most frequent topic of discussion. The product of a large, colorful family of Greek descent, Sedaris grew up in North Carolina before leaving for college and a quasi-vagabond life of work and travel, as memorably described in his best-selling 1997 collection Naked. One such odd job, a seasonal gig as a Macy's Christmas elf, brought Sedaris to national attention when he converted the experience into the piece "The Santaland Diaries." First heard on NPR in 1992, "Santaland" led to more NPR stints, including frequent appearances on This American Life, and more writing opportunities for outlets such as Esquire. But until his Naked editor more or less forced him to quit, Sedaris kept his day job as an apartment cleaner. His latest collection, Me Talk Pretty One Day, deals with, among other topics, speech therapy and moving to France, where Sedaris lives with boyfriend Hugh Hamrick. This year also saw the production of Sedaris' fifth play, which was co-written with sister Amy Sedaris, best known as the creator of the Comedy Central series Strangers With Candy. Shortly before leaving for a vacation on an Italian island, Sedaris spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about his fans, his desire to exaggerate, and the rudeness of the French.

O: What keeps you from making that breakthrough?

DS: A lot of times, I realize it's no different... When I sit down and I think, it's really no different than it would be in the United States. In the United States, I think ask for a light, or I could ask where a record was. But I wouldn't, after somebody cut in line in front of me, say, "Excuse me, the line starts back there." Or, if a cashier hit me up for exact change and I needed that change for something else, I still wouldn't say, "No, that's my change. I'm collecting it, it's mine." So in a lot of situations, it's not really that different. But in the United States, I'll tell myself I just don't want to get into it, when the truth is, I have no backbone whatsoever. Here, I can say, "It's not my backbone, it's my vocabulary." It's not my vocabulary.

O: You were working other jobs full-time until Naked was published, right?

DS: Yes.

O: Does being a full-time writer limit your experiences and give you less to write about?

DS: Yes. It was never a goal of mine to be a full-time writer. I know other people who would never feel that they were a writer as long as they had another job, but I never felt that way. You meet people who say, "Oh, I'd like to do such-and-such, but I don't have the time." But it always seemed to me like you make the time. And if you have a wife or a job, if you have kids or whatever, you find a way. If you really want to do it, you make the time. When you have nothing but time, it's not nearly as satisfying. I don't have any place I need to be. I don't really fit in anywhere.

O: Have you considered any plans to remedy the situation, like going undercover?

DS: I don't really do very well when I'm sent somewhere. A lot of magazines want to send you somewhere to do something. They want you to stow away on a ship, or something like that. And it's never really worked for me, because it's homework, basically. When you're in the situation, you're looking too hard for what's strange about it. What's strange is that you're stowing away on a ship in the first place. For money. When you write things like that, you always have to make it sound like you just decided to stow away on a ship. Which, if you're the kind of person who decides to just stow away on a ship, they probably wouldn't have asked you to write the article. So, yeah, I don't do very well when I'm sent somewhere to do something. I would like to get a volunteer job, because I don't have any working papers. That would give me a place that I needed to be, and it wouldn't really matter to me what it is, as long as I'd be around other people. If they sent me out to clean graffiti off of mailboxes, that wouldn't be satisfying, because I would be by myself, and part of the goal is to improve my French. So I'd like some kind of a little job where I was with people. Like old people, or retarded people. I'd do anything. It wouldn't matter to me.

O: Do you think you'll actively pursue that when you get back from vacation?

DS: Part of the problem is that I go on these lecture tours twice a year, so I'm going away from mid-October through mid-November. So I need the kind of volunteer job where you can take lots of time off.

O: You've done a number of book tours now. How would you characterize the typical David Sedaris fan?

DS: I suppose that they're radio listeners, most of the people who show up. I guess I've just been surprised that they run the gamut, in terms of age. Sometimes, there'll be a college student sitting next to some grandparents sitting next to a Japanese person. It's all over the place. I look at them sometimes and think, "What are you doing here? Why are you–why?" Because it's just not... When you're on the radio, you don't even imagine an audience. You're just in a room, by yourself. It's the same thing when you're writing. You don't really imagine anybody on the other end.

O: Is it true that Naked was recently optioned for a movie?

DS: Yeah.

O: What are your hopes for that project?

DS: My hope was to do like most people do in a situation like that–that is, take the money, and then nothing ever comes of it. That was my hope. I really like Wayne Wang, the director. I like him very, very much. Today, I don't know what's going on with it. It was supposed to be a movie of the book, and there came a point where he said, "Well, you know, actually, let's not make it about the book." Which I was very relieved about. But the problem is, I never wanted to write a movie in the first place. I go every single day. Saturday I went and saw Apocalypse Now, and yesterday I saw Gloria, the John Cassavetes film. Did you ever see that? They remade it with Sharon Stone, and it was such a joke. Gena Rowlands is just... her age and her look... it sort of needs to take place in 1979. And it's such a great movie. You go and see something like that, and then you leave the theater and you think, "What would I possibly have to contribute?" Most movies, I forget about them while I'm watching them. I go every single day. But I've never thought about participating in any way. It's like being at home all day. It was never a goal to me.

O: It's still an enviable position, you have to admit that. A lot of people want to be in your position.

DS: You know what's strange is, the people who want to be in the position are never asked to be in the position. Like, if you don't want to do something, then people really want you to do it. And the more you say, "No, really, I'm sorry, it's really not for me," the more they want to convince you that it is, in fact, for you, and that you'd be absolutely perfect.

O: The inevitable casting question, of course, is who would play you.

DS: Well, Wayne was talking to some people, and the last I heard was that Matthew Broderick had expressed an interest.

O: That'd actually work pretty well.

DS: I'm just crazy about Matthew Broderick. He's so great in The Producers, and I loved Election, and I loved You Can Count On Me. I would have been happy to have written either one of those movies.

O: They're both fantastic. So you have some models to work with.

DS: But you know how sometimes models just don't help. You look at them, and you... I suppose in a casual way, I can understand what it is that makes those movies so great. And I could imitate those movies. But it would just be an imitation. I could imitate them, except, like, make the school teacher Puerto Rican, but otherwise it would be exactly the same story.

O: What led to the decision to do a play every year with your sister? How did you reach that schedule?

DS: Usually, we start talking about it a few months before, throwing out ideas, and then we get a deadline, and nothing really happens until we get that deadline. Then, we write up a script and get together with the actors, and they read it over, and we throw the script away and start all over again, usually about three weeks before we open. Then it's just a frenzy of activity. My boyfriend does sets, and he directed the last few shows. Everybody contributes. It always seemed like a mistake to me, because the people who are in the plays are really funny people, and it always seems like a mistake to not listen to them, to pull that thing where you say, "This is my play, and I wrote it, and you're going to do what I tell you to do." It's kind of like not every suggestion is taken, but we listen to people.

O: In your non-fiction writing, how do you handle the temptation to exaggerate?

DS: Oh, I just do. With Naked, there were certain things that I tended to exaggerate a little bit more, and then people didn't believe anything. Like, I did hitchhike across the country with my quadriplegic roommate, but nobody believed it. I've been trying to cut back on that a little bit. I was doing one of the things that I used to do in terms of being sent out somewhere; a couple years ago, I went to the county morgue in Phoenix, Arizona. I always wanted to see a lot of dead people, and I had to be a reporter, and I couldn't exaggerate at all. I had to have a tape recorder. It gave me a whole new appreciation for people who can honestly tell the truth, because people just didn't always say what I wanted them to. So my temptation was to change it a little bit, and it could be really funny, this thing that they said. But that's not what they said. They'd never been interviewed before, and they were really looking forward to this article coming out, so it wasn't one of those things like, "Oh, they'll never see it." They couldn't wait to get their hands on it. So I had to deal with all the questions that you have to consider when you're a journalist: moral questions, and questions of fairness, and questions of who are you actually there for. I hated thinking about things like that. I'm much happier the way that I am now, just being able to change things whenever I feel like it. Usually, I do that in terms of dialogue.

O: Do people react to you differently, knowing that they might be fodder for your writing?

DS: Most people, or at least most of the people that I've come into contact with, would like to be written about.

O: Is that a problem?

DS: They often give me stories, saying, "Here's something you might want to write about." Or they'll tell me incidents that happened to them. But often, it's almost like they're auditioning for something. Whenever I'm with [This American Life host] Ira Glass, I notice people doing the same thing with him. It's like they're auditioning.

O: It's probably more of a problem for him.

DS: Yeah, well, because he would actually put somebody on the radio, where I would just steal things from them.

O: You don't read reviews, but do you ever look at your fan sites?

DS: No, I've never seen a web site.

O: There are some out there.

DS: Yeah, somebody told me that one of them said I had six toes. I don't have six toes. Things like that, I just always assume that if I don't see it, it doesn't exist. It'll just go away.

O: What are your plans for the next book? Do you know, or is it still taking shape?

DS: Oh, I started on something, but I don't know if it'll be what I finish doing or not. I don't want it to be like the last few books, so I've been writing some fiction.

O: Are you generally planning to return to fiction?

DS: Yeah, I originally started writing the non-fiction for the radio, because you have to tell true-ish stories when you're on the radio, and I thought, "I don't have to do that." The plays are complete fiction. It's sort of fun to just be making... It's not only making stuff up, it's taking things that I can't write about with non-fiction–either because people ask me not to, or because it's something about me that I really wouldn't want anybody to know–but I can always give someone in a story that experience, and use it that way.

O: Does your essay writing inform your approach to writing fiction?

DS: No, I find lately that listening to things affects my approach more. I've turned into a tapeworm, listening to books on tape. Ira sends me copies of his shows, and I get little things here and there. Have you ever listened to Alan Bennett? He's a national treasure in England, but we don't know who he is in the United States. He wrote The Madness Of King George, and he did this series of monologues called Talking Heads, monologues for different actresses, and they don't sound like they're read. They sound like they're told. Lately, I find myself getting more excited by things that I hear. But I did love that book The Columnist by Jeffrey Frank. It's a guy, and he's an op-ed columnist, and it's his memoirs, and it's really funny.

O: Other than that book, what makes you laugh?

DS: Accidents. I usually don't laugh at jokes. I'll go and see a funny movie, but often... I think I laughed more at Apocalypse Now than I had at any of the funny movies I've gone to see.

O: You say accidents make you laugh. In quite a few of your pieces, you appreciate macabre stuff, but you never really go into detail. Where do you think that comes from?

DS: From never having grown up. I think it's just a juvenile fascination with things like that that most people grow out of, and I never did. I had to have my picture taken the other day for this guy who's a photojournalist for Time. After about the 25th question about dead and starving people, he noticed I didn't have that look of horror on my face that most people would have. "Yeah, but do you ever get to touch them?" I think it's just something I never grew out of.

O: When you're on the radio, I assume people in the studio respond to what you're reading. Do you find that it's different doing public readings? Do you have to pace things differently?

DS: You don't have to pause on the radio. I don't like to read anything on the radio for the very first time, because I don't have any notion of a reaction. When I read it out loud, then I get an idea of that, and more of an idea of how to read. That's like 70 percent of it right there, figuring out how to read something. When I do it on the radio, I don't imagine. Sometimes there's an engineer there, playing solitaire or talking on the phone, and then you think, "God, this is really awful. They're not even listening." So you just imagine that no one at home is going to listen to it, either. Then you read it out loud in front of an audience, and you say, "Oh, actually, this works." All I ever needed was that evidence.

O: Do you ever get reactions that you don't expect, like laughs in unexpected places?

DS: Yeah. Usually, if I think something is really funny, it doesn't get any reaction whatsoever. I was reading something on my book tour. I'd been on this plane, and there was this kid on the plane who was like 5 years old, and he was bald. I naturally assumed that he had cancer. Everyone on the plane noticed this child. When they announced that there would be no beverage service, we were fine with that, but we were all thinking, "Oh, but can't you round up a bag of pretzels for our little friend in 11B?" [I told this story] and the audience was laughing. I was surprised by that. A woman came up afterwards, and she had down on her head. She was bald and had little downy baby hair on her head, and she said that she had a little problem with that, getting people to laugh at a child with cancer, and I said, "That wasn't my intention." But sometimes you don't have control over that.

O: Are there any stereotypes about Paris that you find to be completely true?

DS: The rudeness thing is what you hear most often, but again, it just depends on where you go. I think that for a lot of people who think Parisians are rude, it's because they don't speak the language. They're imagining that people are saying one thing when they're actually saying something else. If somebody slams a door in your face, that's universal. But if you think that somebody's being rude, and then in the same breath you understand that they're looking for a hair brush, and that a hair brush really isn't going to solve their problem, then you look at them a little bit differently. That's the biggest stereotype, that people are rude. The biggest thing I've found about here, and I don't understand it... I had to go to Scotland last week, and I was in Germany a couple weeks before that, and I kept feeling some freedom there, like some big weight had been lifted. It's that in those countries, when you go to buy something, you give the money to a cashier, they deduct what you owe them, and they give you back your change. In France, it's all about exact change. Everyone wants exact change all the time. I have a little coin purse, and when I first moved here, I'd make the mistake of holding up my coin purse and looking for that change, and they would take the coin purse out of my hand and rape me of my change. Rape me of it. At that point, I needed to go to the Laundromat once a week, and they don't have change machines there. It would take me a week to save up change to go to a Laundromat. I'm willing to work with people–it's not like I always give a bill and expect to get change–but sometimes you want to hold onto your change. It drives me crazy here. Like, if I go to buy a newspaper and it's 11 francs now, I'll give the guy 16 francs, thinking he'll give me five back, and he's like, "Don't you have exact change?" I'm kind of working with him already, so it drives me out of my mind.

O: So one thing you miss about America, then, is the change.

DS: Yeah. You notice in New York, guys are much more apt to... it doesn't matter what they're buying, they'll throw down a $20 bill. Whereas women will try to find the exact change. I've never been the kind to throw down a $20 bill. It's just when you're trying, like when the cashier... I was at the grocery store today. The cashier had just settled in, and I had to sit out there and I waited, and I saw her empty all these rolls of change. So I get up there, and she asks me for exact change. It's like, "You're sitting on a mountain of change. You're sitting on a mountain of it." That drives me out of my mind. And if you don't have the exact change, and if you speak with the accent, they automatically assume that you don't understand the money, so they just want to get their hands on your change purse.