“I haven’t got the slightest idea how to change people, but I still keep a long list of prospective candidates just in case I should ever figure it out.”
— from Naked (Little, Brown and Company, 1997)by David Sedaris
The hardest part about reading the work of David Sedaris — the best-selling author and NPR commentator with a sense of humor drier than the Sahara — is knowing when not to laugh. And a conversation with Sedaris, known for what he terms his “high-pitched and girlish” voice, poses the same challenge.
His observations cut close to the bone, making them as dangerous as they are funny. Sedaris admits he’s a great liar, and a solid lie relies on a profound understanding of the truth — which is precisely why his words can be disorienting.
“So,” this reporter tentatively begins the interview, “as a kid, did you really do all of those things in ‘A Plague of Tics,’ that story in Naked where you compulsively lick light switches, count all of your steps, press your nose to the hood of scalding cars, and frequently tap your forehead three times?” (Was I missing the joke, I’d wondered, or was it really true?)
“All the things that I did are true. … If you do that kind of stuff, it’s all perfectly believable,” Sedaris says, though he admits that other, even-more-outlandish sections of the book are made up.
Still doubtful, however, I press on: “What about all of the endearing but embarrassing tidbits about family and friends, like when your sister brought home a whore for Christmas, or when your Dad accidentally ate part of his hat?”
“Obviously, there are certain things I’m not going to write about people that I know, or they’d be really mad at me. I run it by them first, and if they feel uncomfortable about something, then I don’t say it. But I’m just lucky that they’re all good sports,” claims the humorist.
“Have you heard from others you’ve written about,” I wonder — “like the racist Lithuanian lesbian who employed you, or your hairy, midget childhood guitar teacher?”
“No, no … luckily, I haven’t,” Sedaris says with a laugh. “But their names are changed and their identifying characteristics have been changed. There’s this woman I used to work for in New York … and she was a nut, you know? I mean, just a lot of material on that one. But she’s a big reader, so I don’t ever feel like I can ever write about her. Because she would read it. … She would be hurt.”
Maybe reading is a necessary defense against Sedaris, yet his sensitivity is palpable in his new book, Me Talk Pretty Some Day (Little, Brown and Company, 2000), which he’s currently promoting through a book tour that brings him to Asheville. Its tone is more comfortable than Naked, as its author relies less on hyperbole and more on the weight and clarity of his stories. (The title of the new work reflects Sedaris’ less-than-smooth experience learning French.)
“I tried really hard to [exaggerate less] with this book,” he confesses. Still, it’s apparent even in this volume that Sedaris thrives on keeping himself — and others — somewhat off-balance. Of his recent move to Paris, he comments: “You know, as long as I can smoke — anywhere I want — I’ll put up with anything. … [The French] can spit on me. As long as they give me an ashtray, I’ll be fine.”
Sedaris lives to observe, and to be noted for what he notices — as long as no one pays him too much mind, that is. “I often wish I was the kind of person that could believe the nice things that are said to me, but I don’t believe it for a minute,” he says. “I mean, I believe that it might be true to them, but … it doesn’t make me feel the way I always thought it would make me feel. It, basically, is just embarrassing.”
The writer — originally from Raleigh, N.C. — appreciates the fame he has enjoyed for nearly a decade, but that’s the extent of its influence on his life. He hates having his picture taken and is still self-conscious about hearing his childish voice over the airwaves. “Often people say, ‘Turn up the radio, you have something on!’ And I say, ‘Who do you think I am?’ I never turn the radio on, ever. … As long as I don’t have to hear it, I’m OK with it.”
Sedaris is supposed to be writing a novel right now (“I never wanted to do it. You know, an amount of money was offered, and a piece of paper was put in front of me, and I signed it. … I don’t know if I’ll finish it or not”) but he spends most of his time avoiding people’s articles about him, and writing — or talking — about life’s everyday conundrums. These days, the problem is his decision to try to write using a computer.
“My boyfriend gave me an iBook, like, a month ago. But the problem is, you can’t get anything to come out of it. I mean, things go in, but they don’t come out.” I point out that having a printer might help, but Sedaris is unmoved: To him, the computer is a writer’s version of the Roach Motel.
“Yeah,” he says, “but I didn’t bring a printer with me, and then I was told, ‘Oh, you just go to the business center of any hotel.’ But they don’t have plugs that look like my plugs, and so things are trapped in there. I [usually] bring my typewriter on these things, but this time I brought [the computer], because I believed all the lies that people told me. And one day … I turned it on, and it was just a blinking question mark. And my boyfriend is a nerd, so it took him, like, four hours and he fixed it. And then I figured, if that happens again, I could just throw myself on the mercy of some nerd in the bookstore. I mean, there’s bound to be a nerd there.“
This is how Sedaris gets started. As he continues, I realize that hearing him work a random subject like this is a relief, of sorts, because his skill lies in relating how mundane or absurd the other person is.
“And I can say, ‘I turned it on, and it just started blinking, and nothing will happen.’ I would imagine a nerd will say, ‘Oh, let me help you with that.’ … That’s the thing about nerds …”
And on it goes.
Sedaris, it seems, is a thoughtful person and a brilliant humorist who’s most fond of nothing else but living his life, reflecting on it, writing about it — and laughing, when he can. And as Sedaris himself admits, “Why would I think that I would fool anyone into believing anything but that?”