An interview with David Sedaris
Calypso, humorist David Sedaris’ tenth book, was released last May to rave reviews. A (reliably) hilarious collection of essays, it’s notable for its darker outlook – still funny, but not blind to the realities of growing old in the Trump era. I caught up with Sedaris as he prepares to take his stories on a reading tour, which stops at Symphony Hall next week. He apologized for calling a few minutes late, explaining he’s been busy moving into his new apartment in Manhattan.
How is everything?
I was just out looking for an ironing board. It has to be the absolute perfect ironing board or I can’t have it.
Well, I don’t want a shitty ironing board. I know the exact one I want; I saw it in England but I haven’t found it here. [Sedaris goes into great detail about why this particular ironing board is the perfect one for him, the jokes from which I’ll keep to myself.] Some would call it a pressing problem, ha ha.
I just finished reading Calypso, which is somewhat different from your other books in the way grief influences its tone. I saw you say in an interview that you need “sorrow to give laughter a little weight.” Are you laughing more than ever now?
My sister Amy used to be in Second City and I’d go to her shows and laugh but, afterwards, I wouldn’t remember anything. I don’t want to add sorrow all the time, though. Right now I’m writing an essay about how people spoil everything for you. You know, like, you’ll be wearing an article of clothing and someone will say, “Oh, you look like Pee-wee Herman,” and then you never want to wear it again? There’s no point, at the end of the essay, to have someone say, “Oh, you look like your sister Tiffany,” and go into the details of her suicide and all that. I don’t apply sadness everywhere but it helps to dig a little deeper sometimes.
Are you finding more catharsis through your writing, then?
I never thought of writing as cathartic. Not for me, anyway.
Really? So writing is just a thing you do?
Yeah, I suppose it helps me make sense of the world, but it’s not cathartic. Can I say those two things at the same time? It doesn’t make me feel any better, but it does help make sense of things.
You tour with your stories a lot; do you reprocess these things when you tell them live?
I have a couple of new essays on this tour, but sometimes I’ll read something out loud and go back and rewrite but if it doesn’t ever perform well, it’s not fair to subject an audience to it.
Do you play around with the delivery?
Yeah, I usually do. It usually has to do with having a good microphone. I like when there’s a good monitor and you can really hear your voice. Because, after a while, you go into automatic and stop thinking about it, and I don’t ever want to go into automatic.
So are you the type of person who rewatches your interviews and performances?
Oh god, no. Like, whatever you write from this interview? Rest assured, I will never read it. You don’t ever have to worry about me calling you up and going [baby noises].
Sometimes, though… So I listened to my last audiobook and it was pretty helpful. But with those, there’s always an editor who wants to go in and cut some of the pauses and ruin my timing. But I’m a professional.
In high school, I had to give a 25-minute presentation on the use of punctuation in one of your stories, so I’m deeply attuned to your pauses.
Oh god, I’m sorry. Which one?
“Remembering My Childhood on the Continent of Africa”.
Mmm, okay. Well, you want to write something that anyone can read out loud. So that they can read the page and know when to pause, but… oh, I don’t know. Like at the end of that “Jesus Shaves” story: “A bell, though, [perfectly timed pause] that’s fucked up.” You don’t want to recreate that on the page and have five double-spaces because that just looks amateurish.
Something I was thinking about –
You wouldn’t believe how nice my new apartment is. I got here at 3 o’clock on a Wednesday, and at 11 that night, I found a bathroom I hadn’t even seen before. Isn’t that amazing? We have all this furniture on the way but it’s not being delivered as quickly as I want it to be. But I’m pacing through my apartment right now, and it’s fantastic. I’m sorry I interrupted you.
By all means, interrupt me. You mention shopping, though, and that’s something you praise often throughout Calypso. Should we expect to see you in some Comme des Garçons when you come to Boston?
God, yes. I got a jacket especially made for this tour. Two, actually. One looks like I had two sports coats on at the same time before stepping on a landmine. The other looks like I’m a Hasidic man who got clawed by a tiger.
So you really are into some tragic looks, huh?
They’re clownish! I realize, though, the audience… they don’t know what Comme des Garçons is. I mean, my audience knows a lot of stuff and usually has gone to college, but they have no idea who Rei Kawakubo is. It’s not like they’re looking at me and thinking, “Ugh, that’s from last fall.” They’re looking at me and thinking, “What happened?”
In Boston, you’ll stand out as long as you’re not wearing a Patagonia vest, so feel free to wear whatever you like.
How do you pick which jacket you’ll wear at each city?
Now that I have my New York apartment I’ll be able to swap them out more often since they’ll be closer. The Hasidic-tiger one is kind of long so it’s hard to travel with. The man-wearing-two-sports-coats-who-stepped-on-a-landmine is more summery, I think. But then I have an extra summer backup that looks like I was wearing a dinner jacket on the Titanic before they discovered my body.
You might not read things about you, but I was looking at a Washington Post review of Calypso which, sort of rudely, claimed you do things just for the story. I had to laugh because I thought, “Is that a bad thing?”
[Laughs] Well, that’s completely wrong: I don’t do things just for the story. Sometimes you’ll think, “Hmm, what would happen if I walked out in my underpants?” And I’m sure you could get an essay out of it, but then what are you going to say about it? It’s a stunt. I don’t do stunts.
For example, when I mention the woman at the book signing who said she would cut my tumor out of me… I did think, “Well, I can write about it and I do need my tumor taken out,” but it was more than that. I think people are so cowardly. I know people who wouldn’t have surgery performed on them, like, in France. So when I tell them I let a random woman from a book signing cut a tumor out of me, they think, “Oh, really?” But, I mean, it’s not like she was removing an organ. A few years ago, a veterinarian offered to do it and I would’ve had him do it, but I was on tour.
You don’t do stunts, of course, but as a writer – as someone who is so observational – I’d say you’re more susceptible to wanting these sorts of experiences. Do you feel that way?
Well, one thing I do is say yes. Most people say no to things and nothing ever happens to them. It’s also a question of control, I guess. Most people have more control over their situation than I do. I never learned how to drive a car. If you know how, you get into your car and have your radio tuned to whatever you like and have your whole little environment programmed and you don’t interact with anybody. But I can’t do that. So I’ll be on the bus, or the subway, or being driven somewhere, and I’ll talk to the driver. If I were more of an independent person, or more in control, I wouldn’t have those encounters.
There’s a fun kind of freedom in not having that control.
Right. A lot of it comes from my not being independent.
At the same time, though, putting yourself in those situations is its own kind of independence, no? I mean, you said most people are cowardly and would never do these things.
People are cowardly when they say, “I would never let someone I met at a reading operate on me. How do you know she’s even a doctor?” Well, because she told me she was. Why would I doubt that?
I think I’ll let you get back to your apartment now. Did it take you a while to find the place, by the way?
Kind of. We actually looked at Judge Judy’s old apartment at one point.
Judge Judy’s moving out?
She left this one place with a sign that said ‘Judge’s Chambers,’ or something like that, and we said we’d only take the apartment if we could keep the sign. The apartment hunt was maddening, though, and now we’re living somewhere I never thought I’d live – on the Upper East Side…
Why’d you never see yourself there?
Well, when I was young, it just seemed kind of dead to me. But now I’m old and I don’t want somebody setting up a drum kit outside my window. Like, that shit gets shut down on the Upper East Side. Or if your neighbor’s dog barks non-stop, it’s, like, taken out and shot.
Well, good luck with your apartment and your ironing board hunt.
Thanks so much, Juan. Bye.
CELEBRITY SERIES: DAVID SEDARIS. 4.10 AT SYMPHONY HALL. 301 MASSACHUSETTS AVE., BOSTON. CELEBRITYSERIES.ORG