Interviews | March 01, 2007
Interviewer: I’ve heard you say that you’re not the funny person in your family. Amy’s funny. Your brother’s funny. When did you figure out that you were funny?
Sedaris: Oh, I’m not really. I can do things with paper sometimes, if you give me some time. But no, I’m observant. I know how to tell a story. You meet some people who don’t know how, and they’ll say, “It was me and Philip and Elizabeth, and we were at dinner. No, wait, wait, ’cause Mark was there. Was Mark there? Or did Mark come later? I think Mark came later, with Tony . . .” And the audience is already gone. Hugh and I argue about storytelling. He’ll say, “Now, that’s not true. You left out half the room. . .” He’s talking about people who didn’t contribute to the story. I would get rid of a lot, so we can move there quicker.
Interviewer: Is writing plays with your sister Amy similar to writing your own essays and stories?
Sedaris: No. When you’re writing a story, it’s completely private. You’re struggling with it on your own. The way my sister and I work on a play is like this: three weeks before opening, we get together with a cast; we have a script, we read the script out loud and then throw the script away. And then say, “Fuck. We’re opening in three weeks.” Then you just start from the ground up all over again. You write a brand-new act and, practically still wet from the typewriter, you’re bringing it to the theater and a group of people are reading it aloud. It’s important to listen to people when you’re working on a play. There’s a part of you that wants to say, “I stayed up all night writing that, goddamnit, and you’re going to say it.” But then someone like David Rakoff comes up with a line, and so what if you stayed up all night. Sorry you wasted your night. What he just said is funnier than—
Interviewer: —what’s on the page.
Sedaris: Right. So that wins. We’re going to go with that. We call ourselves “the Talent Family,” and Hugh’s a member, too. It’s a “Let’s-Put-on-a-Show” kind of family. Hugh does the sets, and he directs. He directed the show at Lincoln Center, and he directed the last one we did with the Drama Department in New York. I’m never in the plays. I would never want to be, but writing them is a form of excitement that isn’t matched by writing books or reading out loud.
Sedaris: Oh, very much. And, there’s nothing better than being in an audience and having people laugh at your lines. I’m never in myaudience when I’m reading out loud. Plus, I’m just some guy on stage reading and looking up every now and then. This is people moving around and dressed up in costumes. It’s a completely different feeling. Lately I have this idea that you’re supposed to say something when you write a play. I’ve been hung up on that lately.
Interviewer: Something political?
Sedaris: Something to say. Maybe I’m just going through a phase, and I’ll drop this in a while. I’m so hung up on it that I can’t think of anything I’d have to say.
Interviewer: That’s a lot of pressure.
Sedaris: I never wanted to be false about it. When I went to art school, there were teachers who would say, “Now, all art is political, and your work needs to be political.” So there’d be a show about U.S. intervention in Central America, and all of these people would be submitting self-portraits with “U.S. out of Nicaragua” written at the bottom. But it wasn’t natural to them. They were faking it. That really stuck with me, the faking, and I don’t want to fake it. My sister and I lucked out one time. We were always interested in welfare, and we had seen Frederick Weisman’s documentary, Welfare, around the time Clinton was talking about initiating welfare reform. Amy started hanging out in a welfare office, and we wrote a play in which the government now says that if you’re a woman you cannot collect welfare or SSI or food stamps unless you learn to put on a one-woman show. The play was called “One Woman Shoe” because they live in a housing project of all shoes. Soon after the play opened, Clinton announced his welfare reform. Politically it worked out well for us, but it was just an accident. I’m not apolitical; I just don’t consider myself an original thinker. I know people who are, and I love to listen to them, but I’m more the kind of person who might read something and then try to pass it off as my own.
Interviewer: Like leaving a page in a typewriter of someone else’s writing?
Sedaris: Have you ever done that? I have this friend named Lily, and she had a brother, Oscar. When we visited him, he was teaching at Princeton, and what I found on his desk was a Hart Crane poem. I’d never read any Hart Crane, and I thought Oscar wrote it. One of the lines was “Bone from infant bone,” and I had so much respect for Oscar for years and years for this poem that he wrote. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that he said, “That’s Hart Crane. I was, like, copying that down for a class.” If I had a page of Alice Munro’s writing in my typewriter and someone broke into my apartment, wouldn’t they say, “This person’s phenomenal. Shit! I can’t steal from him”? But of course, they’d just steal the typewriter and never think twice about it. Because it’s the sort of thing I would notice, I tend to think everybody would. But everybody has an eye for different things. My sister Lisa and I could go somewhere, and the things that we would each notice would be completely different. What she would notice would be much more entertaining than what I would notice. Everybody’s got an eye for something. The only difference is that I carry around a notebook in my front pocket. I write everything down, and it helps me recall things. Later I write them in my diary, and sometimes they show up in a story.
Interviewer: You do other things a little differently than most people, such as not driving or using the Internet or a cell phone.
Sedaris: I’ve always been convinced I would hit and kill a child, so I don’t drive because I’m afraid. Where I grew up, in Raleigh, North Carolina, you needed a car. I stayed at home a lot, and I had to entertain myself. Ultimately, I think not driving was good for me. And I never learned to type; I type with one finger. So I’ve never worked in an office, which was also probably good for me. As for the Internet, everyone tells me it makes you lose a year. A bread truck will go by, and on the side it says, “If you want to learn more about our products, go to www.breadtruck.com.” Then you’ll go to a computer and look that up. But who cares about bread? Then there’s something else, and something else. I don’t want to lose a year like that. The world is already full of books and magazines. I have a friend who gives me hell because I don’t have a cell phone or an e-mail address. At this point, I think I can say that doing without those things isn’t holding me back. I’ve actually done fine not knowing how to do certain things. So much of e-mail is about people wanting you to do stuff. My lecture agent will forward things to me. They always involve me doing something. I don’t want more of that. People will say, “What’s your e-mail address?” I’ll say, “I don’t have one,” and then they think that I’m lying. And with e-mail, once you get it, you never get another letter. I’ve written Hugh nine letters since this trip. He sent a letter to the hotel in Louisville. It was waiting for me when I got to the hotel. There’s a fellow who’s producing a lot of these shows that I’m on, and he was waiting for me outside the airport last week, and I didn’t know where he was. I figured I’d find him. The next day he got me a cell phone, but I haven’t turned it on. I haven’t given anyone the number. I would be embarrassed to be seen with it, talking in the airport, the baggage claim or anywhere. It’s just another thing to carry around. I’ll give it back to him at the end of the tour. I have a friend in Paris who also gets after me for not having a cell phone. I’ve just never needed one. People don’t call me that often. Most of my calls in Paris don’t come until ten, eleven, twelve o’clock at night because of the time difference. People know that it’s fine to call me at midnight. And then I’m at home, so I don’t need a cell phone. The New Yorker wants their stories e-mailed, so Hugh does it for me because he has e-mail. If I were him, I’d say, “You better pay attention and learn how to do this because this is the last time I’m doing it.” But I think he kind of enjoys me being helpless. And he’s perfectly happy doing it for me, so why should I learn it myself? Or you can always pay somebody. If The New Yorker said they wanted me to e-mail a story today, I could just bring my computer to the theater tonight and pay somebody to do it for me. I’d say, “Does anybody in here know how to send e-mail? Do it for me and I’ll give you twenty bucks.”
Interviewer: So you have a computer.
Sedaris: Yeah. I used a typewriter for years, and then Hugh bought me a computer, but I didn’t want one. After September 11, it became really hard to travel. They weren’t used to seeing typewriters in the airport. My lecture agent finally said, “You don’t have to carry your typewriter. We’ll just make everyone give you one and have it waiting in your hotel room. What kind of typewriter would you like?” I said, “IBM Wheel Writer, 1, 2 or 3,” and then I’d show up and it’s some piece-of-shit Cannon that they found in the office with this much dust on it. You type three words, and then the ribbon breaks. Hugh gave me this computer, and I know how to make letters big, and that’s about it. And I can change the font. But mainly I just use it as a typewriter and a DVD player.
Interviewer: Do you ever feel you need to wait before you can write about certain events, or about things in your own life?
Sedaris: Definitely. I generally have to wait until I can laugh about something or put it into some kind of perspective. There are stories that I try to write every summer. I turn back to these stories and I wind up thinking, “Nope, not time yet.” There’s this woman named Helen who lived across the hall from us in New York, and I wrote about her for Esquire seven years ago. I worked on it really hard, but it just wasn’t right. It’s not time to write about Helen yet. The first magazine thing I ever did at Esquire was to spend a week at the morgue in Phoenix. I’m not a reporter, and I felt this pressure to flatter the people who worked there. They were very kind to me. Every summer I think, okay, maybe now I can write that story, but it’s not time yet. Sometimes I’ll try to force it. Then other times, wham, all of a sudden I’m able and the time is right. I tried to write about going to the Anne Frank House right after I went, but it took me two years. Was it Flannery O’Connor who said that a writer’s job is not to have an experience but to contemplate experiences? That seems right to me—trying to make sense of it all. Then, too, it’s all about finding the first line.
Interviewer: Is that all you need?
Sedaris: It used to be. But I’ve got a lot of things that have a first line and then two pages, and then pshhh . . . oops. Then it just sort of dies. Sometimes I can go back to things like that and I make them work later on.
Interviewer: Have you ever made substantial changes or put something away because of your family’s response to it?
Sedaris: Generally I’m pretty good at guessing what they would be opposed to. Once, my dad wanted me to change something in a story about my brother, and it was a really good call. I wouldn’t have seen it.
Interviewer: Would it have hurt your brother’s feelings?
Sedaris: Oh, no. Paul was absolutely fine with it. But Dad was really good at foretelling how an audience would have interpreted it. One night in Germany, someone said, “Well, what was it?” And I said what it was Paul had done, and I’ll never say it again. My father was so right. Even telling people about the thing I took out changed their feelings about my brother. To me it was no big deal. And to Paul it was nothing at all. When I read a story about my brother in the South, he’s everybody’s brother. And then, if you read about it in another part of the country, people will say, “Read the story about your white-trash brother!” White trash? What are you talking about? “Read the story about your trailer-trash brother!” Trailer trash? What are you talking about? Because he lives in North Carolina and he speaks a certain way, this is what they’ve decided. That’s one of those words like “dysfunctional.” I can’t believe that people are still attached to that word. To me it’s like when people say, “Don’t go there.” The phrase is so over. “Dysfunctional” is so over and so meaningless. And “trailer trash” is so over and so meaningless. People still say it all the time, and you think, Man, you wouldn’t wear your hair and you wouldn’t have bushy eyebrows like you did in 1984. Right? So, why are you still wearing words from the ’80s? Why are you still using those?
Interviewer: Earlier, we were talking about writing fiction and nonfiction. What do you feel are the most important differences between those two genres?
Sedaris: I’ve been asked that a lot on this trip during question-and-answer sessions, and I love it. Okay, James Frey wrote a book saying, “I’m a fucked-up alcoholic.” And then people read the book, and now they’re saying, “That drunk lied to us!” Well, he kind of warned you in advance that he was a fucked-up alcoholic. I can’t understand the self-righteousness that goes along with that anger. You can let the truth slide when it comes to the president, but if it’s a first-time memoirist, how dare he? How dare he lead us on? I loved Angela’s Ashes, but if I found out tomorrow that Frank McCourt was born in Dublin instead of Limerick and that his family was wealthy, it wouldn’t change my feelings about the book at all. I think autobiography is the last place you would look for truth. Biography, maybe, but not autobiography. Ever since that business with him [James Frey], fact-checkers are in overdrive. It’s made my life miserable. Like, the fact-checker fromThe New Yorker will say, “We talked to your father, and he said that the grandfather clock is made out of oak, and you say it was made out of cherry.” And it’s not a story about a grandfather clock. It doesn’t really matter. It’s important to me that the people I love aren’t hurt. If I write about anyone in my family, I give it to them first and say, “Do you have any problem with the way you’re portrayed? Is there anything written here that you don’t want people to know?” That’s important to me, but the clock being oak or walnut is not important to me.
Interviewer: Do you collaborate with any other writers besides your sister?
Sedaris: No. Someone told me that collaborations only last for seven years. Writing plays together with Amy lasted that amount of time, and now it sort of feels over to me. This might be because I don’t live in the United States anymore.
Interviewer: Are the logistics difficult?
Sedaris: Yes. It’s amazing when you can collaborate with somebody, but it has to be organic. A couple of years ago, the Sundance Festival invited me to participate one summer. They were going to put me in a cabin somewhere with a screenwriter. Aside from the fact that I never wanted to write a movie, the thought of sharing a cabin—they didn’t say Four Seasons, they said cabin—and expecting to meet a stranger and be able to collaborate with them seemed completely illogical to me.
Interviewer: So you didn’t go?
Sedaris: Oh, no. Aside from being in a cabin with a stranger, there would be people waiting for the results.
Interviewer: Outside the windows?
Sedaris: Right. When Amy and I were working on the plays together, it was almost like we were one person. There wasn’t a lot of fussing about “That’s my line” or “When’s it my turn” or anything like that. It was partly because she doesn’t write. She doesn’t type.
Interviewer: So you were doing the typing?
Sedaris: Yes. That makes it easier to not have those arguments. And the goal was to serve the audience, not just to keep those people in their seats, but to have them want more.
Interviewer: When we were talking earlier, I told you I first found your books in the gay and lesbian section of a bookstore. From what I’ve read about you, though, it seems important for your work not to be put into a category, such as humor or gay writing.
Sedaris: I don’t think that you can avoid it. In terms of the gay and lesbian section, whenever I see one in a bookstore, I think, “What’s that doing there? What’s that section doing there? Why are these books segregated? Why are we deciding this? What are they so afraid of? I use the word “boyfriend,” so I go next to the fisting manual? Because I use the word “boyfriend”? It’s not that I’m ashamed of being gay. It’s just that first on my list right now is that I’m foreign. If my average day-to-day life said one thing, if it said, “What are you?” I’d say a foreigner. Living in France, I feel like a foreigner more than anything else. I started writing when I was twenty. I just started one day, mainly keeping a diary, and it was around that same time that I started reading voraciously.
Interviewer: Do you bring back some of that feeling of being a foreigner when you come to the United States?
Sedaris: I’ve always managed to come back twice a year to do these tours, and they’re usually during pivotal times. I was here three weeks after September 11, and I was here during the last two elections. Every time I come back, things are a bit different. If you’re living here, things become different but you don’t notice it that much because of your day-to-day life, whereas if you go somewhere and you come back, you think, “Wow, that’s fucked up.”
Interviewer: Have you always read a lot?
Sedaris: When I was in high school, I took a world lit class where I had to read Candide and things like that, but I never did much reading beyond what was required. I started writing when I was twenty. I just started one day, mainly keeping a diary, and it was around that same time that I started reading voraciously. They go hand in hand, especially for a young person who’s trying to write. I have tried to make art, but I didn’t know how to make what I was doing look like art. Even conceptual stuff. Somebody else could defecate on a shingle and it would look magnificent, but I would defecate on a shingle and it would just look like shit on a shingle. People ask me to look over things that they’ve written. I often want to say to them, “This doesn’t look like how things in books look.” Reading is important when you’re trying to write because then you can look at what’s in a book and remind yourself, “Hey, I’m young; I just started, and it’s gonna take me a long time, but boy, look at the difference between this and that. How, in the book, every sentence doesn’t start with the word ‘I.’ Look how in the book the sentences aren’t all choppy, how there’s not Joni Mitchell written all over it sideways in the margins.” Reading is one of those things that changes your life. I didn’t know when I was nineteen that a year from then, 90 percent of my joy was going to come from library books. Well, there was always pot. So, let’s say 70 percent of my joy was going to come from library books. That wouldn’t have occurred to me. I’m in awe of people who read a lot and who don’t write. I thank God for them, people who never wanted to be writers themselves and they just love to read. When you write yourself, you’re always reading with that—
Interviewer: Critical eye?
Interviewer: Do you remember why you started a diary when you were twenty?
Sedaris: I was hitchhiking around and picking apples, and I didn’t have an address. I would write to people, but they couldn’t write me back. That was frustrating, so I just started writing for myself. I found a bunch of those early diaries in my dad’s closet, and I mailed them to France last summer. When I started going through them, cataloguing what was in each one, it was really painful. Really painful. No one was worse than me. No one.
Interviewer: A worse writer?
Sedaris: No one was a worse writer than me. No one was more false. No one was more pretentious. It was just absolute garbage. And what frustrated me was that I would find myself writing in the margins, “Just state it.”
Interviewer: Just state what?
Sedaris: What color was the landlady’s hair? What did she look like? Was there a tub? Or a shower? All of this crap I’d been writing didn’t really say anything about anything. Like a lot of young people, I guess I was thinking, “Well, that’s obvious. That’s what other people would write. So I’m just going to transcribe all of the sounds that I hear when I’m in bed at night.” That doesn’t really tell me anything. There are some artifacts that tell me more than what I had written down during that time, like the rent receipt from the boarding house and the fact that I paid eighty dollars a month. There’s nothing to be had in those diaries, really.
Interviewer: Can you identify when your writing got better?
Sedaris: It came in different phases. I started writing stories when I was twenty-seven, and that made everything better because then I had less time to write in my diary. When I started going to art school, I tried different things. We had these critiques—painting critiques—that were exhausting. You would put up your work and talk about it. A lot of people talked the way they would to a psychiatrist.
Interviewer: Defending their work?
Sedaris: Yes. And there was nothing entertaining about it. Absolutely nothing entertaining. That’s when I started writing little stories. I would put up my work and then read a story out loud, maybe a page and a half long, written in the first person. I would be the character who had done this work. And people laughed. It was quick, and it wasn’t boring. Later I took writing classes. Again, you’d put up your work and then talk—like you’re talking to a psychiatrist—for forty-five minutes. You don’t care about the person that follows. You’re the important one. It was like walking into a situation and saying, “How can I make the most of it?” I think that was the very first time I ever read out loud. And I thought, Oh, I could make this work. When I started writing [longer] stories, I wrote in the third person. At that point, I was trying to be other people. What do you do? I wasn’t that young, but I was twenty-seven, and I was a late starter. I have more respect for things that are written in the third person than in the first person. It allows you to write in a different way because you’re not writing as if you yourself were speaking. If I write in first person, it tends to be more how that character would speak. These days I’m writing stories about animals, and they’re in third person. I set up rules for myself. One is that no one can have a name. It’s “the squirrel” and “the chipmunk.” I don’t want to get into anything too human. They can have jobs and stuff, but I don’t want to put that humanness on them of a name. It’s hard because, see, the chipmunk has a sister. You’ve got two chipmunks. One is the chipmunk, and one is the sister, but you can’t do the things that you would do in regular third-person writing, where you could use “she” and then you could use “Elizabeth.” You’re denied that. I wrote something about a leech, and I had a lot of animals in that. I read it out loud, and it didn’t seem to work, so I’m going to take a few of the characters out. Plus, it took place in Africa. There’s a certain kind of leech that only lives in the anus of a hippopotamus. There’s another variety that only lives in the noses of camels. I read this in The New Yorker, and then I started writing about a leech who lives in the asshole of a hippopotamus. I read the story to an audience last week, and I decided to move it to America. I had all these African animals, but it didn’t seem right. I started rewriting it last week. He still lives in a hippo’s asshole, but the hippo is taken to the United States shortly after the story opens. The hippopotamus needs another one, to make the Friend. It can’t be Hippopotamus Number Two. The mechanics of the writing gets difficult. Your editor will call you and remind you that you have a particular word ten times in a paragraph, and you’ll think, “How did that slip by me?” So, it’s just the math of writing, or the sudoko of writing, the headachy part of it that becomes difficult when you don’t have names.
Interviewer: What prompted you to use a formal restraint in writing these stories?
Sedaris: In fables, generally, you’ve got the mouse and the crocodile and the crow, and they don’t have names. In The Wind in the Willows, the animals have names, but the thing about fables is that the moral is very obvious. You can’t miss it. My stories wander a bit, so I don’t know that I have the right to call them fables. “Little stories about animals” doesn’t sound terribly compelling, but I’m afraid that’s what they are. “Little” being the operative word. They’re all four or five pages long.
Interviewer: Do you have a goal for how many you want to write? Of forming a collection?
Sedaris: I was thinking about a collection, but there are only so many you’d want to read. It would be all right if I could get thirty. I’d be happy. There’s a precedent for illustrations in books like that. If you look at old books of Aesop’s fables or The Wind in the Willows, it makes sense that there would be illustrations and that those would take up a lot of space. That’s what excites me. Those little illustrations take up pages. Most of these stories are inspired by things that people tell me. There’s a sheep farmer across the street from us in Normandy, and he told me last summer that you always want your lambs to be born in the barn. When they’re born in the field, crows will come and pluck the eyes out of the newborn babies and eat them. I wrote a fable about that. In that illustration you would just see the etching of a crow, and you’d think, “Is that an olive in his mouth?” Then you would read the story, and you would realize that it’s a lamb’s eyeball. This is completely new for me, so I can’t tell how queer they are. They could be completely queer, and no one’s told me, and I can’t see for myself. Normally I can see for myself.
Interviewer: How do you see for yourself if something is working? One of the things that fascinates me about your process is that you read your work out loud to live audiences before it’s actually published.
Sedaris: When you read a story on paper, you don’t realize you’ve already said something before, or that you’re just treading water, or that something’s a cheap laugh. When you read a story out loud, you realize—I, anyway, realize— those things. On this tour, I’m going to thirty-six cities and I’ll be reading ten new stories. Two of them have been in The New Yorker already. Two more are scheduled to come out, and I’m changing them all the time. I wish I could go back to the ones that have already been published and have a week to read those out loud. I like learning as much as I can on my own before I give a story to an editor. Reading new stories out loud helps me to do that. There’ve been times when I’ve gotten a few pages into reading a story out loud and I’ve thought, This is really bad. I should stop right now. But that seems unprofessional. I make myself read until the end. Maybe the audience doesn’t think it’s as horrible as I do, but if people don’t laugh, then I tend to panic. The worst is people coughing. That’s like a hammer driving a nail into your coffin.
Interviewer: What does coughing mean?
Sedaris: Coughing means that I, the audience member, wish I wasn’t here. There’s a story I had in The New Yorker last month about collecting art, and I think on paper it’s fine. When I read it out loud, I heard a lot of coughing. Then when I got to the end and people laughed, I was shocked. I was thinking, “You’re still here? I thought you left. You were coughing.” Sometimes I can’t tell the difference between listening and wanting to be home.
Interviewer: Where did you come up with the idea that a story that works out loud is also a story that’s going to work inside of a reader’s head?
Sedaris: That’s the hard part. Sometimes your biggest laugh when the story is read out loud comes from a pause, or from looking up. To imitate that on paper—putting five double spaces to indicate a pause—looks unprofessional. There are two different versions of a story: the story out loud and the story on paper. Last week, I had a story in The New Yorker. My editor very wisely suggested cutting things out. On paper, the reader would be stacked too much against this character. The story is being told by a twelve-year-old. I can take care of that out loud. I can read it in such a way, not with a baby voice, but in such a way that the audience understands not to believe everything that I say. On paper it’s different. As far as a reader’s head is concerned, my test subject is Hugh. He’s a serious person. If I’m working on something, I never mention it. If I talk about it, it dies. I keep it completely to myself, and when the magazine comes out and Hugh gets the magazine, I hide. Or I sit in my office waiting for the sound of his laughter. He’s my test subject.
Interviewer: How did you get involved with putting together the anthology for 826NYC?
Sedaris: My friend Sarah Vowell told me about it. They wanted me to help raise money and proposed putting a book together like Nick Hornby had done, where I would get my favorite authors to write an original story. I wanted to do something different, so I asked if I could collect my favorite short stories. Whenever you write about yourself, real people live in the world, and characters live on the page, and you become a character.
Interviewer: How did you pick the stories?
Sedaris: Whenever I go on a lecture tour I choose one book to promote not written by me but by someone else. Right now it’s a collection of short stories by Jean Thompson called Who Do You Love?I included a story of hers in Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules. It’s interesting putting together an anthology because to last, it’s got to be in schools. That isn’t going to happen unless the book has writers representing all different groups. You’ve got to have your races covered. So one way to put together an anthology is to think, “How could I do this so the book will find its way into schools?” That didn’t interest me. What I wanted was to pick my favorite stories. I listen to a lot of books on tape, and I have this magnificent recording of “The Garden Party,” by Katherine Mansfield. If you listen to it, there’s no way on earth it won’t be one of your favorite stories. I chose “The Garden Party” mainly based on the audio of it. The Joyce Carol Oates story as well. I’d heard that before I had actually read it. I saw this anthology as a great opportunity. A lot of the people who buy my books aren’t big readers. I’ve heard from people who’ve bought the anthology, and then they’ve gone on to read the Tobias Wolfe story, or they’ve started reading Lorrie Moore. That’s what you always hope for in an anthology. Interviewer: It opens the door for them to read more. Sedaris : Right. I check out lots of anthologies from the library. That’s how I discovered everyone in Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules. I read a story by Lorrie Moore in The Best American Short Stories, and I thought, “Oh, who is she?” I had to read everything that she’d written. For Richard Yates, and most of the writers in the anthology, it was the same.
Interviewer: In the introduction, you talk about not having any backbone. How are you able to do the things that take so much courage as a writer, especially a writer of nonfiction, like revealing yourself, and being in front of live audiences?
Sedaris: That’s the illusion of courage. I just give the illusion of exposing myself, but really, I’m not exposed at all. There’s a real me that lives inside my diary, and then there’s a character of me. Whenever you write about yourself, real people live in the world, and characters live on the page, and you become a character. So, I don’t think that I expose that much about myself. That said, I’ve never written about sex. Partly, it’s because I don’t want anyone I’ve ever had sex with writing about me in bed. The other part is that when you’re out in front of an audience, you’re the model. If you write about yourself scratching your babysitter’s back, they’re going to picture you scratching your babysitter’s back. If you read about yourself in your underpants at the hospital, then they’re imagining you in your underpants. But I’m not going to take those underpants off. I wrote something, just a glorified diary entry, and it’s in one of the books. Really, it’s just a diary entry with a little ending tacked on: I went to this guy’s house for Easter dinner. And when I went to use the bathroom, there was this huge turd in the toilet and it wouldn’t go away. It was huge. Sometimes during book signings people will come up and say they love that story, and they’ll say, “One time, I took this shit, and it was like . . .” And I’m thinking, “No, no, no. See there’s a difference. I’m talking about something I found. You’re talking about something you made.” But they couldn’t see the difference. Which is formidable.
If you are a student, faculty member, or staff member at an institution whose library subscribes to Project Muse, you can read this piece and the full archives of the Missouri Review for free. Check this list to see if your library is a Project Muse subscriber.
Want to read more?Subscribe Today
SEE THE ISSUE
Aug 05 2019
A Conversation with Janet Burroway
Janet Burroway, Lawton Distinguished Professor Emerita at Florida State University and recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award for writing by the Florida Humanities Council, is the author of eight novels
Jan 12 2015
A Conversation with Mary Roach
Mary Roach’s wildly successful books, including New York Times bestsellers Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, blend serious scientific inquiry with uproarious comedy,
Apr 28 2014
A Conversation with Chang-rae Lee
Chang-rae Lee’s novels are often peopled by characters who don’t quite fit into the cultures in which they find themselves. They are stories of cultural identity and assimilation, tales of