‘My feel­ings never in­ter­ested me’

David Sedaris on find­ing the funny in the sad and mak­ing some­thing out of noth­ing

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS&BOOKS - Caro­line O’Donoghue Theft By Find­ing is pub­lished by Lit­tle Brown

David Sedaris on the writer’s trick of find­ing the funny in the sad.

Ihave 30 min­utes with David Sedaris, and he has just spent four of them at­tempt­ing to write down my last name. He is pro­nounc­ing it the way Amer­i­cans of­ten do: as though I were a mob boss of the clan O’Who. “Don O’Who? Is that it?” “Sure,” I say, con­scious of the tick­ing clock. “Well, what is it?” I cor­rect him and he asks me to spell it. He is writ­ing each let­ter into the note­book he car­ries with him at all times, the one he then tran­scribes into his di­ary, the di­ary that even­tu­ally be­comes the source ma­te­rial for his short sto­ries. At last count, Sedaris’s books of short sto­ries have sold 10 mil­lion copies, and are be­ing read in 28 lan­guages.

David Sedaris writ­ing your name into his note­book isn’t just see­ing how the sausage gets made: you’re left with the cu­ri­ous sen­sa­tion that you are the sausage.

And that’s what we’re here to talk about: be­cause with the re­lease of his di­aries – vol­ume one of which, Theft By Find­ing, is out now – he is giv­ing us a look at his process, the raw ac­counts of events be­fore they’re run through his per­sonal joke- mill. It’s more of a book for long-time fans than new­com­ers, and the re­sults are a par­tic­u­larly po­tent bag of dolly mix. Sedaris main­tains that “my feel­ings never re­ally in­ter­ested me – other peo­ple’s sure, but not my own”. What re­mains are wry ob­ser­va­tions of peo­ple, places and things.

Stone- broke

This is at its most fas­ci­nat­ing in the lat­ter half of the book, when af­ter years of be­ing stone-broke and clean­ing houses for a liv­ing, The San­taland Di­aries – Sedaris’s short story about his Christ­mas work­ing as a depart­ment store elf – be­comes a huge hit, and he gets a book deal.

“March 9th,” the en­try reads. “Roger Don­ald called from Lit­tle Brown to say that he would like to ne­go­ti­ate a two-book deal. To cel­e­brate, I bought a denim shirt, and thought it amaz­ing how quickly one’s life can change. I never thought I’d want a denim shirt.” And, later, as more suc­cess comes: “I am find­ing it pro­gres­sively more dif­fi­cult to have my pic­ture taken.”

Other en­tries are more dif­fi­cult to digest. Sedaris spends a great deal of his early 20s in and around South Carolina, and it be­ing the 1970s, it’s not al­ways com­fort­able. He tran­scribes over­heard con­ver­sa­tions that are of­ten dis­turbingly hate­ful, with the dili­gence of a court­room stenog­ra­pher. A good deal of the char­ac­ters seem to spend their time yelling at Sedaris him­self: peo­ple are ei­ther spit­ting in his face, or call­ing him a ho­mo­pho­bic slur, or try­ing to rob his cig­a­rettes.

“When you’re young, it’s just part of it. It’s just some­thing you put up with,” he re­sponds, his voice easy and cu­ri­ous, re­mind­ing me a lit­tle bit of a car­toon snail. “Partly it’s just liv­ing in crummy neigh­bour­hoods. And partly it’s youth, and the way young peo­ple f**k with each other.”

He doesn’t even par­tic­u­larly think this stream of abuse is any­thing to do with his

The best of David Sedaris

be­ing gay. “It’s just Amer­ica. Peo­ple feel per­fectly com­fort­able yelling things at you from their cars. It’s a cul­tural thing.”

Pop­u­lar­ity

Sedaris’s pop­u­lar­ity means that he’s a lit­tle like the lit­er­ary Ellen DeGeneres. They’re so well known, so ever- present and ef­fer­ves­cent, that the fact of their gay­ness rarely even comes up. Sedaris is a writer who is gay, but rarely re­ferred to as a “gay writer”.

“I went to this read­ing in Paris,” he says. “And there was a fel­low read­ing from a book he had writ­ten. It was about him giv­ing some­one a blow job while the guy was sit­ting on the toi­let. Defe­cat­ing. Now he’s thought of as a gay writer. And I’m like: yeah buddy! You earned that.

“I’m a huge fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race,” he con­cedes, when I bring up his stint as a guest judge on the show. “Now that show makes me want to be gayer. It’s be­cause I don’t write about sex. I don’t even write about sex in my di­ary. I never have. It’s just not my sub­ject. I’m too prud­ish.”

“Prud­ish” is hardly the word I’d use for him, when some of his best sto­ries are pep­pered with some of the most in­ven­tively re­volt­ing images. His mother- in- law, who once had a worm liv­ing in her leg. His brother Paul, who trains his dogs to eat each other’s fae­ces. The woman who once baby-sat his sib­lings for a week, and forced them to scratch her back us­ing a plas­tic man­nequin’s hand. The ev­ery­day odd­ness of how peo­ple be­have in pub­lic is more in­ter­est­ing to Sedaris t han any­thing t hey could be hid­ing be­hind closed doors.

No one has been more sub­ject to his scru­tiny than his fam­ily. As the sec­ond old­est of six chil­dren, he rel­ishes be­ing from a big fam­ily, and of­ten works with his sis­ter, the ac­tress Amy Sedaris.

“The thing about hav­ing a big fam­ily is that there’s one of ev­ery­one. You know. There’s a gay per­son, and there’s the crazy per­son, and there’s the one who went to j ail, and there’s the al­co­holic. And be­cause there’s so many of you, there’s one of ev­ery­one.”

Sedaris now lives in England, and we bond briefly over how English peo­ple re­act to fam­i­lies with more than two chil­dren in it.

Peo­ple from small fam­i­lies don’t al­ways “get” Sedaris, and tend to read his child­hood sto­ries – such as Let it Snow, in which his mother locks him and his sis­ters out in a snow drift be­cause she’s so fed up of deal­ing with them – as dys­func­tional, rather than amus­ing.

“I be­come en­raged when peo­ple say ‘ I love to read about your dys­func­tional fam­ily.’ It makes me so an­gry, be­cause I never said my fam­ily was dys­func­tional. I think we func­tion pretty well. I talk to my brother and sis­ters, we go on va­ca­tions to­gether, we clearly en­joy one an­other’s com­pany. How is that dys­func­tional? I think it’s one of those words that peo­ple trot out to feel in­ter­est­ing. If your par­ents kept you in a cage, let’s call that dys­func­tion.”

Sedaris is an eter­nal op­ti­mist, and has the “oh, god, don’t be so dra­matic” de­meanour of some­one who grew up in a fam­ily where funny was prized over feel­ings. And in a world that feels in­creas­ingly self-se­ri­ous, talk­ing to him is like open­ing a win­dow in a dusty room. I won­der if the cur­rent trend for per­sonal writ­ing – which tends to be more in­ward and brood­ing t han Sedaris’s l i ght, c apti vati ng style – irks him. “If some­thing hor­ri­ble has hap­pened to you, that’s not enough,” he says de­ci­sively. “Let’s say your fa­ther beat you be­yond recog­ni­tion. That’s re­ally sad and ev­ery­thing, but that doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily make it art. It’s great you have a good story and ev­ery­thing, but if you’re a writer, you can make some­thing out of noth­ing. You could talk about a bill­board you passed on the street and you could make that mov­ing, and funny for peo­ple to read. Whereas just, if your fa­ther beat you be­yond recog­ni­tion, it’s sad, but it’s not enough.” He pauses then, amused by how heart­less that sounds. “I’m like: where’s the funny?” He refers, once again, to his own fam­ily. This is what it al­ways comes back to with David Sedaris: when he wants to make sense of some­thing, he brings it right back home. “In our house, the ques­tion was never ‘ Why are you cry­ing?’ But ‘ Why are you laugh­ing?’ Tell me why you’re laugh­ing, so I can laugh too. Then we can all have a great time. But, ‘ Tell me why you’re cry­ing?’ ” He pauses t o chuckle again, aware of how cal­lous that might sound, aware that I’m a jour­nal­ist, aware of what I might do with the quote. “Who cares?”

My feel­ings never re­ally in­ter­ested me – other peo­ple’s sure, but not my own Let’s say your fa­ther beat you be­yond recog­ni­tion. That’s re­ally sad and ev­ery­thing, but that doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily make it art

“I just think that the peo­ple who say: ‘That’s not true’ when some­one tells a story at din­ner are the peo­ple who didn’t get any laughs when they told their story.”

“Like all of my friends, she’s a lousy judge of char­ac­ter.”

“It means ‘fe­male dog’, I’d ex­plained to my sis­ters, ‘but it also means a woman who’s crabby and won’t let you be your­self’.”

“Draw­ing at­ten­tion to Gretchen’s weight was the sort of be­hav­iour my mother re­ferred to as ‘stir­ring the turd’, and I did it a lot that sum­mer.”

“It’s just a pe­nis, right? Prob­a­bly no worse for you than smok­ing.” In­ward and brood­ing

David Sedaris: ‘I think it’s one of those words that peo­ple trot out to feel in­ter­est­ing. If your par­ents kept you in a cage, let’s call that dys­func­tion’

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