David Sedaris’ long literary career continues with the publication of Calypso, a new book of essays out today. It’s both his warmest and darkest book to date, commingling his typical observational humor with a more introspective examination of family, aging, and death. Sedaris answered our 11 Questions, discussing which of his books he feels got too much positive attention, his favorite podcasts, and why he loathes ghosts.
In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.
1. What makes you optimistic about the future?
David Sedaris: All those high school students who are protesting gun violence.
The A.V. Club: That’s been a common answer lately. Is there anything specific about it for you?
DS: No. Just that.
2. Which single work of yours do you feel didn’t get the attention it deserved?
DS: I kind of feel like I wish I could complain that way. You know, I wish I could say [In a whiney voice.], “My publisher didn’t do anything when that book came out.” But if anything, everything has gotten too much attention. Attention it didn’t deserve. I feel very fortunate that way. Really, I can’t complain.
I feel bad for providing such a non-answer. You know, maybe in the scope of things I can say my first book didn’t get—but then again, do I want that for my first book? I mean, if the world said, “We’ll give it all that attention now,” I’d say, “Okay, no, that’s all right.” It probably got as much attention as it deserved.
AVC: Is there anything you think got too much attention?
DS: Yeah, I don’t understand Me Talk Pretty One Day. It’s a book I wrote, and I don’t understand why it did so well. I really don’t. I know you should be grateful if you have something that worked well, but I just don’t think it’s deserving. And quite often, whenever a story gets reprinted in a textbook, they send me a copy of the textbook, and my agent notifies me. But I have to say I—quite often a textbook will rerun something from Naked or Me Talk Pretty One Day, and I just—there’s so many better things. I mean, those books were written so long ago, and they’re over-written in my opinion. So I could give you 20 reasons not to buy either of those books and not a single reason to buy one.
AVC: Me Talk Pretty One Day is one of my favorites of yours because it was my introduction to your writing. I read it in middle school because I was going through speech therapy and my mom thought I would like your essay about your own speech therapy.
DS: What was your impediment?
AVC: I couldn’t say the letter R correctly. It came out as a strong W.
DS: See, when I meet people now and they have a speech impediment, I find it so charming. I met a young man a while ago who couldn’t pronounce his R’s, from somewhere in Massachusetts, and I just thought it was so charming. You meet somebody with a lisp—again, I just think it’s adorable.
3. What was the first album you bought with your own money?
DS: It was probably that first James Taylor record. The one with “Sweet Baby James” on it. I could be completely wrong about that. I bought a lot of 45s, but then when the time came to buy an album—I remember having three albums, and thinking, “Wow, that’s a pretty pathetic record collection.” Carole King was one of them. Carole King’s Tapestry.
AVC: Do you remember your first 45?
DS: 45s, I mean, jeez. “Build Me Up Buttercup” was probably one of the first.
AVC: Do you still like that song?
DS: Well, I liked it once. [Laughs.]
4. Do you believe in ghosts?
AVC: You talk a lot about this in one of the essays in your new book, so I know you have strong opinions on this.
DS: I so completely do not believe in ghosts. I hate ghosts. I don’t hate them because I don’t believe in them. But I hate them as a topic of conversation.
AVC: How do you feel about horror movies with ghosts in them?
DS: I don’t mind ghost horror movies, no. There was that movie with Nicole Kidman, the ghost movie with her—what was that called?
AVC: The Others?
DS: Yeah, I liked that. I don’t have any problems with a ghost movie. I just hate it when you’re sitting around and other people, like, they claim that their first apartment was haunted. I can’t bear it.
AVC: You get a lot of people who visit your home in England thinking it’s haunted just because it’s old, right?
DS: Yeah, it’s 450 years old, so people are convinced, just operating under the assumption that it’s haunted. I’m like, “Don’t bring your baggage into my house.”
5. If you’re only allowed one condiment the rest of your life, which would you choose?
DS: I don’t know what you mean by condiment. Like mayonnaise?
AVC: Mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard…
DS: I’d probably go with mayonnaise, I guess. I was in El Paso, Texas recently, and I [ate a] “Juarez” dog. And it had mayonnaise on it. A hotdog with mayonnaise on it.
AVC: What is a Juarez dog?
DS: It’s like a hotdog wrapped in bacon. But it takes them fucking forever to cook because I ordered this thing, and then I had to wait 15 minutes for it, and it shows up, and it has mayonnaise on it. It’s a hotdog, but it has so much shit on it that you pick it up and it just all falls down on the table. I was so angry.
AVC: Did it taste okay?
DS: Did it taste okay? All I tasted was my rage.
6. In what type of social situation are you most uncomfortable?
DS: Probably like a drinking—I mean, I’m fine if I have to work a room, you know, then I’m fine. But if I have to go to a party somewhere and it’s just… people don’t know how important I am. [Laughs.]
A drinking party in England—English people are hard to talk to. They’re just hard to talk to. And a lot of the things we can say to each other, like, “What do you do for a living?” they don’t want to answer that. Like, “I’m not my job.” So I’m, like, “Oh my god.” And I don’t drink, so situations where people are oiled up, I just find it really awful. I don’t like being around drunk people.
AVC: Is that more of a problem where you are in England now?
DS: The only thing that makes it more of a problem is that in America if you were at a cocktail party and you were drinking water, people would think, “I bet he’s a recovering alcoholic.” But in England they’re like, “Well, why don’t you drink? You can have one. You can have one drink. I don’t trust people who don’t drink.” They give you all this shit about it, and I don’t want to make a big deal about it. I mean, I don’t want to run around telling people.
Sometimes a waiter will say, “Will you be having wine with your lunch?” And I say, “Oh, no thank you, I’m a tragic alcoholic.” [Laughs.] But generally speaking I don’t want to make a big deal about it—I just don’t want to drink. And in England it can be a lot harder. They give you a lot of lip about it. In France they do, too. And in Germany they do, too. So all over Europe.
7. What was your dream job when you were a kid?
DS: Define “kid.”
AVC: Just when you were young enough that a job was more of a fantasy—you weren’t thinking in practical terms.
DS: Handing out towels in the boys’ locker room. That is the best job in the world. Like, high school locker room, not elementary. I’m not a pervert. [Laughs.] I remember, though, in high school, thinking, “How did he get that job?” Like, how is it fair that that guy got that job? He’s not even paying attention.
AVC: This was at your school?
DS: At my high school.
AVC: I did not have that in my high school.
DS: You got out of the shower, and you had to go to somebody who would give you a towel. You had to stand in line, naked, to get a towel from this person. And that was my job right there.
But I would’ve been the kind of person to say, “How was your shower?” [Laughs.] I’d keep them as long as possible. “Pretty refreshing, was it?” And then they’d leave, and I’d go, “Oh, wait wait, another thing, another thing.”
8. What do you watch when you’re in a hotel?
DS: I’m sorry to disappoint—all I do is stay in hotels. I’ve been in, oh, 200 hotels this past year, and I did not turn the television on in one of them. I can’t remember the last time I turned the television on in a hotel room. I remember turning it off, because a lot of times you get there and it’s on.
AVC: That’s so annoying the way hotels do that.
DS: You know what annoys me? That hotels don’t want to change your sheets, and they don’t want to wash your towels, and they have all these signs saying, “Save the Earth!” But then you go out to your show and you come back and all the lights are on and the TV’s on. It’s like, “You just told me to save the Earth, and now you’re wasting all this electricity I didn’t even want used. I wasn’t even here.” A complete waste.
So it’s probably been—during the second time Barack Obama ran for office, I was at the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago, and I turned the television on in my room because I had election night off. So I watched election night coverage. And that’s the last time I turned on the TV in a hotel room. Even Trump’s election I just listened on the radio. I didn’t turn the TV on.
AVC: So do you read in hotel rooms if you’re in the room for a bit?
DS: Gosh, I don’t feel like I have much time in hotel rooms. I do like to take a bath, and so I try to give myself time to take a bath, and I’ll listen to a podcast or listen to NPR or something while I’m in a bathtub. And then I work, but I don’t have big stretches of free time in hotels. Or let’s say I have the afternoon off and I’m in Los Angeles—I would leave rather than stay in my hotel room.
AVC: What podcasts are you listening to now?
DS: I like that New York Times one called The Daily. That’s a good one. I like the Dana Gould Hour. There is a podcast they don’t make anymore called Superego with Paul F. Tompkins, and I listen to that over and over and over again. I listen to that Pop Culture Happy Hour one at NPR. I listen to Bill Maher as a podcast. I don’t watch the show but I listen to the podcast. There are a lot of podcasts out there that might be interesting the first time you listen but then—oh, I listen to What’s The Tee? with RuPaul. I listen to Slate’s Political Gabfest. I listen to that once a week.
9. Do you think art should be separated from the artist?
DS: Oh yeah. I mean, I don’t know where you get into that—that’s a really slippery slope, I think, to go down. Because, I always figured if you want to be president, you need to start running for president when you’re 5. I mean, before Trump, you could not have had any mistakes, you could not have made a bad grade, you could not have cheated on an exam, nothing.
But I don’t feel like you need to start being a painter at age 5—to run for being a painter, or to run for being a movie director, or to run for being an actor at age 5. I think you’re allowed to be as big of a fuckup as you want. And maybe that’s how you work through some of that stuff, do you know what I mean? So you’re not, you know, punching people in the face. Maybe you’re an asshole who’s a really good painter, and if you didn’t have the painting you’d just be such a big asshole that you’d wind up killing people.
But I don’t really—I mean, I feel like that door will be open in my lifetime. And I just don’t think it’s going to lead to anything good. There are plenty of people who are really good people and you spend time with and you might want to know and want to have friends—that doesn’t make them a good painter. And maybe the good painter is a complete raging asshole. I think, too, I think it’s interesting that now people are trying to hold people from the past to a standard of today, which I don’t really think you can do.
AVC: Who are you thinking of?
DS: I look at a writer like Flannery O’Connor, right, who used some language that today you couldn’t use in a school, right, and I can understand that, but I don’t think it’s right to then define her as a racist. She was a woman of her generation, raised in the South, who wasn’t terribly different than her neighbors, probably, in her thinking. So I just don’t—when you think about a statue in the park, like, I’m pretty sure any of those statues—if somebody on horses hated gay people [Laughs.], like, people on horses hated gay people. But in their time, liking gay people wasn’t really a consideration to people who lived 200 years ago. And maybe if you brought them back from the dead they would like gay people and maybe they wouldn’t, but I don’t know. I just don’t feel like it’s really about me in that way.
You know what it is? Everybody I like who is dead and half the people I like who are alive would hate me. I just like people who wouldn’t like me. [Laughs.]
10. What’s the most difficult professional decision you’ve ever had to make?
DS: I know there are professional decisions I have regretted, but I think I was pretty lucky in that when things started happening for me I was 35, I had my head screwed on straight, so I was able to say, “Gosh, that’s very flattering, but I don’t care to do a commercial.” Or, “That’s very flattering, but I don’t care to write for a television show,” because I knew what I wanted. So that was pretty easy for me.
11. If you had to stay one age forever, what would it be and why?
DS: I’d be 25.
AVC: Why 25?
DS: Because—I know this sounds weird to say—but I was so cute when I was 25, and I didn’t realize it at the time. I didn’t know it. There’s just something about that age. I always feel like people make a big change when they’re 27, but when you’re 25, you’re kind of on the cusp of that.
AVC: That’s pretty accurate, I think.
DS: Yeah, I think it’s a pivotal age. I dropped out of college, and then I dropped back in when I was 27. But you’re solidly in your 20s and you’re starting to think that things should be happening. And if they’re not, then you think, “What am I doing wrong?” It’s an introspective time and it’s weird, you can kind of—I want to say if you have a problem like that you can work your way through it. But when you’re 25, you sex your way through it. And I was just so cute.
AVC: I was looking at photos of you earlier on Getty Images—I’m sorry if that’s weird, I need one for this interview—and there was a collection of photos from when you were really young and you almost have a Bruce Springsteen look going on.
DS: [Laughs.] Once when I was 25 I was at a movie theater and people came up to me and said [In an awed voice.], “You’re Bruce Springsteen.” And I thought, “Why would Bruce Springsteen be watching Heaven’s Gate in a theater?”
12. From Kat Dennings: If you could choose, would you rather be fluent in another language or a genius at one instrument?
DS: What throws me there is the word “genius.” But if you were a genius at one instrument, it doesn’t mean that you love playing it. It just means that you’re good at playing it. And I think that without having the drive, the genius is no good. So I’d rather be fluent in another language.
AVC: Are you fluent in French at this point?
DS: Fluent to me is a special word. My boyfriend, Hugh, is fluent. I can say whatever I have to, but it’s like, “Oh fuck, now I have to say this.” There’s no joy in it for me.
This French guy came up to me at a book signing last week, and his wife was American and she started speaking in French to me. And I hate that. And so I answer in English. And then her husband, who was French, said, “You’ve made enough money off my language, the least you could do is speak it.” I wanted to tell him, “You know, I’ll tell you when I’ve made enough money off your language.”
AVC: That’s a pretty shitty thing to say to an author you ostensibly like.
AVC: What question do you want to ask the next interviewee?
DS: Do you think you’ll have an abortion this summer?
AVC: Really? Even if it’s not someone who that’s feasible for?
DS: Well, it’ll be really easy for those people to answer the question. [Laughs.] Actually, I think, “Do you think you’ll get an abortion this summer.” Do you say “get” or “have”?
AVC: I think both are right.
DS: [Thoughtful.] I’ll have an abortion… I’m going to get an abortion… Yeah, I think “get” is right.
Sometimes I ask people that when I’m signing books. I say to a woman, “Do you think you’re going to get an abortion this summer? You know, it’s not summer until you have an abortion!” [Laughs.] That’s just so funny.
AVC: What kind of answers do you get on that? Are they good?
DS: No, I mean, you get people jokingly saying yes or no, or that their husband has a vasectomy. A woman said to me a while ago, “I really doubt it. I had a miscarriage a couple of months ago.” I went, “Ahhhhhhhh.”