‘My feelings never interested me’
David Sedaris on finding the funny in the sad and making something out of nothing
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.
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
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being gay. “It’s just America. People feel perfectly comfortable yelling things at you from their cars. It’s a cultural thing.”
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’