| the ledge files
the ledge - nl - uk
|Interview David Sedaris
ĎThereís real life, and thereís real life "the story."í
Eekhrn zkt eekhrn
|SK — Youíve done audio versions of all your books, including Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, the book weíre here to talk about today. But with Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, youíre not the only one reading the stories. There are several other readers. How did that come about?
DS — I usually do my audio books by myself. But this time I wanted other people to read some of it. Because I donít like the sound of my own voice, I usually never listen to my own stuff. They have an audible version of some of my stuff on the website of The New Yorker, and itís like they just go to some guy and say, here, read this. So heís not an actor and heís not prepared. Someone said to me: Oh, the guy who reads your stuff in The New Yorker - heís awful! And I thought, well I can listen to it, because itís not me. And I think itís great! Because heís not an actor and because heís not prepared, you can really pay attention to the words. Because actors can cover the words up. I listened to Judy Dench recently read a novel by Muriel Spark and I was just stunned. I had to stop at one point to copy down a particular passage, because the way it flowedÖ but Judy Dench made it flow, itís not there on the page, it was Judy Dench being magnificent that did it. So for this book, I got some other people to read. I read four of the stories and then four of them were read by an actor named Dylan Baker and four were read by Elaine Stritch. And then ĎThe Squirrel and the Chipmunkí and three others were read by Sian Phillips, who is a British stage actress. I was in the studio when she recorded it, and she read from beginning to end, no mistakes, she had obviously put a lot of thought into it. I listened to her version of ĎThe Squirrel and the Chipmunkí - I probably listened to it five times - and now I canít read it my way anymore, because I thought her choices were so good, I just want to do what she did.
SK — You hear her voice in your head while youíre reading.
DS — Now I do. I didnít hear it when I was writing.
SK — Do you write to be listened to, or to be read, or both? Or neither?
DS — I always think aboutÖ I read out loud a lot.
SK — While youíre working?
DS — Nono. Like, two weeks from today, I start a tour of the United States. Iím going to thirty-five cities, on a lecture tour, in thirty-five days.
SK — One a day!
DS — Yes. I read for an hour. And thatís in theaters. Theaters anywhere from one to three thousand seats. I have four new stories that Iím reading, and I havenít read any of them out loud, but I definitely wrote them with the intention of reading them out loud. But sometimes somebody can write something and itís meant to be read out loud and then you realize it doesnít really work on the page. So thatís the thing, is to get them to work on the page, and to work out loud, too.
SK — Have you ever written a story and found that you couldnít actually read it out loud? That it just didnít work?
DS — Yes. It was before I started going on tours like that -
SK — When did you start?
DS — Oh, I probably started in about 1998. Naked, I didnít read out loud. I was just in a room writing, and I wrote that book. If Iíd had to read from itÖ I was in Germany a while ago and I thought, oh please donít make me read it, because thereís no place to breathe! It wasnít written with the thought of a reader trying to stay alive and read a story at the same time (laughs). So that
changed it a lot for me. The rhythm. Or when I look at things that I wrote, twenty-five, thirty years ago, trying to read those out loud - itís awful, because itís so choppy and the sentences are short. So it was going on tour and reading out loud that really sort of changed the way that I put stories together.
SK — What was it you liked so much about Sian Phillipsí interpretation?
DS — Well I guess, as an actress, what I liked about her was that she wasnít Ďhuge.í She wasnít like, when you listen to things that sheís done out loud, itís not like she thinks that sheís got to make every character sound different - so one talks (in a deep voice) like this and another (in a high voice) like this. Or: Iíll give this one a Scottish accent, and Iíll make that one sound Jamaican. She could just shift the rhythm of her speech a bit. When I go on tour in Europe, often people will say, ĎYou and Woody Allen!í And itís like, ĎMe and Woody Allen what?í But they donít really know of any other Americans who write humor, and then to them, he and I sound exactly alike. But I think itís because they donít speak English that it sounds alike to them. I donít see the similarity at all. In the United States no one ever says anything to me about Woody Allen, ever. But I guess what I mean is, the way you and I speak, because weíre speaking the same language, I mean thereís a difference between rhythms of our speech and the way that we pause, but our voices still have something in common. Although your voice is deeper than mine.
SK — Itís true! But (in very high voice) I can talk like this, too.
DS — (Laughs) I listen to a lot of audio books. A lot of Ďem. I love Ďem.
SK — Did you like being read to as a kid? Were you read to as a kid?
DS — Not too often.
SK — Would you have liked to have been read to as a kid?
DS — Well, I donítÖ like, I remember my mother reading to us from The Wizard of Oz, and I actually think that only happened once. But I loved it so much, just being read out loud to. But then, I grew up in North Carolina, and there was a radio station that played old radio programs, ĎOur Miss Brooksí and the ĎLux Mystery Theater,í so I would schedule my bathtime so I could get in the bathtub and listen to these things on the radio.
SK — Just to have someone else reading and to be able to absorb it.
DS — Um-hm. Well, plus - and some people think itís cheating, or some people think, thatís not the same as reading a book... Maybe not. But when you read a book, you enter the world of the book. When you listen to a book, it comes into your world. So youíre in the supermarket and Jonathan Franzenís novel is going on, and youíre listening to it, completely listening to it, and youíre buying what you need in the grocery store. So his book has entered your world instead of the other way round. Sometimes people are very apologetic, like, Oh, Iím so sorry, I bought your book, but itís the audio versionÖ
SK — And you think, great!
DS — Yeah! I donít differentiate.
SK — Itís a whole different kind of concentration. The fact that youíre listening, and you might be doing something else at the same time, you might notÖ
DS — Um-hm. But sometimes, you know, you get a book and you like it for a chapter, and then youíre like, hmmm, why did I get this bookÖ Sometimes, when itís audio, you will listen to the whole thing, and youíll think, OK, well, instead of just doing the grocery shopping, Iím also going to think about what I might have for dinner tomorrow (laughs). But you can find a way to get all through it. But with a regular book, it you donít like the first chapter you might just say: Lifeís too short.
SK — Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk has as its subtitle Ďa Modest Bestiary.í Where did that come from?
DS — Well, the publisher wanted some kind of subtitle, so first they said Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk and Other Fables. But fables have a moral, and most of these donít have one. Some of them do, but I didnít want to impose morals on other ones. Because that just seems queer, when itís forced and imposed. Like, the story about the setter? Thereís no moral there. If thereís three stages in the disintegration of a marriage, this is ĎLate Stage 2.í But thereís not a moral, necessarily. And I just started, I was reading this collection of African folktales about seven years ago, and - I know this sounds bad, butÖ
SK — Come onÖ
DS — I got to the second or the third one and I thought, I can do better than that! (laughs)
SK — Shocking!
DS — And so, I just sat down and I wrote that story about ĎThe Cat and the Baboon.í
SK — Was it that long ago? Seven years ago?
DS — Yeah.
SK — And that was the first of this collection? Or, you didnít know it was going to be a collection yet?
DS — Right. Then I brought it with me on my tour and I went on a tour six months later and I wrote a new one, so I just started, and I thought, well, eventually Iíll have enough for a book. I think I wound up with twenty-five of them and I picked out fifteen for the book. The other ten werenít so great (laughs). And I guessÖ Iím not an animal person necessarily, I mean I like reading about animals, I like reading a book about a parasite, or, I mean, I had a cat, and it died ten years ago, and I was happy to have it, but I mean Iím notÖ But if for some reasonÖ Sometimes you can just say things and you can have animals in the place of people and itís just a differentÖ
SK — Are there advantages or disadvantages to using animals as characters?
DS — Well, like the story about the setter. It would be a bit different. Those couldnít be people, really, because people can leave the house whenever they want, and dogs canít. So it would have to be about slaves. But for some reason it was more satisfactory to me to write that story with dogs in it than with people. Part of it, too, is that with people you have to describe them, and everyone knows what a squirrel looks like. And they all look alike, squirrels.
SK — Maybe thatís what squirrels say about us.
DS — (Laughs) And I knew it was going to be illustrated.
SK — You did know that, from the beginning? That was the idea?
DS — I always felt like it would be.
SK — Did you already know Ian Falconer, the illustrator?
DS — I knew Ian. I met Ian, he did the sets for a play that I wrote before I ever left New York, thirteen years ago maybe? And I knew him from The New Yorker, and weíd just always wanted to work with each other again. But I didnít ask him until about eight months ago.
SK — How did it go from there? Did you send him a pile of stories and then -
DS — I didnít want to tell him what to do, because I figured you either choose the right person or you donít. But then, if youíre going to pick somebody, then you treat them like an artist. You donít say, ĎCan we be a little more playful here?í You donít treat an artist that way. And heís an artist. And itís weird, isnít it, how you donít want to beÖ I mean, heís an easy guy to get along with, and he said ĎIs there anything that bothers you, anything you donít like?í So he made it really easy. But I can imagineÖ Some people, when I said, oh, Iím going to be doing this book, and itís going to be illustrated, a lot of people sent me their stuff. But what made a difference with Ian is that because he does childrenís books, his own childrenís books, he knows that when you have an illustration, youíre going to turn back to it, and itís going to need something when you do turn back to it, itís going to need another illustration you can compare it to, a kind of continuity.
SK — Theyíre not really the kind of drawings one would normally include in a childrenís book. Although, maybe you would. Some childrenís bedtime stories are pretty gruesome.
DS — Well one thing that the English were worried about, they were worried that people were going to think this was a childrenís book. And then, I just found out, in Publisherís Weekly, in the United States, they listed this book under ĎChildrenís Book News.í I was interviewed by someone recently, and he said, ĎI see this book as bedtime stories for children who drink.í
SK — (Laughs) I like that!
DS — I do too!
SK — Itís a whole new category! Itís unusual for a book for adults to be illustrated, but itís wonderful. Why not?
DS — Well I was surprised in America at the size of the book. Itís smaller than this. Itís about that thick. Itís hardcover and itís smaller than this. So the pictures really seem to work.
SK — Oh, yeah! Well I think theyíreÖ you know, what I like about the pictures is what I also like about the stories. Theyíre not cute. And the animals are not cute. Theyíre pretty crude and theyíre funny and theyíre raunchy and theyíre silly, but theyíre notÖ well, except for that one lamb. Heís pretty adorableÖ
DS — But not for long!
SK — (Laughs) Thatís exactly what I mean. A few pages on we see him with his eyes gouged out by a crow. Nasty. But I like it.
DS — The book comes out in two weeks in the United States. I havenít read a review in ten years. I have absolutely no idea, no idea whatsoever how it will be received.
SK — Do you care?
DS — HmÖ Well, Iíve read them out loud, so I donít, you can feel an audience drifting away from you, and most of these are too short to allow for drifting. But itís not like I saw the door open and people leaving. When I read them in front of an audience I think, OK, I feel good about this, but that can be different too, reading them out loud as opposed to reading them on the page. So I have no earthly idea how it will be received. Do I care? I (long silence) Ö sure. Sure. I mean, if I have a choice of being trashed in The New York Times and having something good said about me in The New York Times, Iíll go with the good, but the bad one usually wonít stick with me for more than a couple of days. Whatís interesting is the people who so need to tell you about it. They so need to tell you about it, ĎI saw that review, my God,í and Iíll say, ĎActually, itís fine,í ĎBut to go that farÖí But I always figure thatís something for my enemies. Itís like a little gift for them.
SK — Feed Ďem every once in a while.
DS — Yeah. But I have no idea. Is there going to be a feeding frenzy for this? (laughs)
SK — Theyíre licking their chops! By the way I discovered something interesting in one of your earlier books, When You Are Engulfed in Flames. When I read it I thought, that sounds familiar: ĎIíd been keeping my ear to the ground and had learned that birds are not as carefree as theyíre cracked up to be. Take the crows that descend each winter on the surrounding fields and pluck the eyes out of newborn lambs.í There are those lambs! And thereís another quote, later in the book, ĎIíve often heard that anthropomorphizing an animal is the worst injustice you can do it. That said, Iím as guilty as anyone.í
DS — Oh! Oh! As guilty as anyone!
SK — Whatís your response to that?
DS — Well, our neighbor in Normandy - where we used to have a house - was a sheep farmer. He told me that you want your lambs to be born in the shed, because when theyíre born in the field, crows will come and pluck out the eyes of the babies. Actually, the story about the crow and the lamb was written before I wrote those lines in When You Are Engulfed in Flames.
SK — And how about the anthropomorphizing thing?
DS — Yeah. Iím horrible about that. Iím really bad. Like in Normandy, I always used to find a lot of animals in Normandy. Iíd go for a walk and come home with a shrew, or a mouse, or a toad, and Iíd give them names and invent lives for them, and, oh yeah, Iím bad.
But there were certain things, like, our neighbor told me that about the lambs, but a couple years ago I also read an article about leeches in The New York Times. It said thereís a certain kind of leech that can only live in the anus of a hippopotamus. So in an earlier version of my own Hippopotamus story, I started with the Times quote, because I needed people to know about leeches. And then I thought, no, The New York Times doesnít have any place in this book. So Iíll just have the rat say it to the owl, and most people wonít believe that itís true, but thatís what they get for not reading such interesting articles (laughs).
SK — Itís interesting that you felt the need to somehow insert proof of the truth of this thing, whereas the rest of itÖ But I guess, as you yourself write at the end of the book, itís so farfetched it had to be true.
DS — Well, itís like with the crows. Someone said when they read that story, ĎThat is so mean!í I said, ĎItís not me! Itís crows!í One thing you learn, and are reminded of constantly, if you spend time in the country, is how cruel animals can be. Not gratuitously cruel - the crowís not taking the eyes out of the lamb just so there can be another blind being in the world, but itís a bloodbath, you know, and everybody wants to eat a mouse, donít they? I mean, mice have so many enemies! They have so many enemies. Did you know that bullfrogs eat mice?
SK — Iíve heard that.
DS — Like, the tail will be hanging out and theyíll use their hands to push it all in. If you go on Youtube you can see loads of videos of snapping turtles eating mice and anacondas eating miceÖ Itís snuff, basically, animal snuff. You know, like the asshole at the street fair with a big snake around his neck? (singsong) Someone wants at-ten-tionÖ Well, those people love making videos of their asshole snake eating something. They love it.
SK — I remember the first time I ever saw a spider catching a fly, in its web, and I thought, I shouldnít actually be watching this. It felt like some secret ritual I wasnít supposed to witness. But I couldnít take my eyes off it. It was animals being animals. Creatures being creatures.
DS — Well see, thatís the thing, too, when I see them feeding bunny rabbits to snakes, I think, hey, arenít I the guy who catches flies and throws them to spiders? But on the other hand, flies! I mean, death to flies (laughs). Death to flies!
Actually I wrote a story about flies, but itís not in the book. Itís a bonus on the audio, because my editor felt like, if the story went in the book, then people were just going to focus on that one story. Iíd read it out loud in Chicago once and thereís always a Q&A and this woman said, ĎWhy did you do that?í She said, ĎI just came from dinner and I felt like throwing up.í Because the flies in the story are eating shit and vomit, but itís like the world turned upside-down: theyíre talking about how good it is. So I said, ĎYou know, if it was a story about children eating shit and vomit, you might have a point. But flies - thatís what they do!í So it didnít seem disgusting to me in any way. But my editor said, ĎI feel like if itís in the book then people are going to go right to it.í So I put it as a bonus on the audio.
SK — The anus of a hippopotamus, flies feasting on shit and vomit, those are some really earthy moments.
DS — (Laughs)
SK — But if you left them out, the animals wouldnít be animals, I suppose.
DS — Well plus theyíre not self-conscious about this like we are.
SK — How did you actually choose the animals you used as your characters, and how did you create their personalities, the way they speak? The way they act? And why do you use certain animals and not others?
DS — Well, I once wrote a story about an ant and an aphid.
SK — A what?
DS — An aphid. At first, I had them as enemies. And then I did some reading, and ants and aphids are actually like best friends. Aphids have this life-giving juice in their asses and ants pump it out with their mouths, like milking a cow with your mouth, like suckling off a cow. And the aphids are like, ooohhh, it feels so good to get that out of there! And the ants are like, that was delicious! So there went that story, right? So a lot of times just by reading, like with the story about the migrating warblers. It was a different kind of bird before, and then I realized, oh, they donít go to Guatemala. So who does go to Guatemala? Because I had to rewrite it. And then, okay, I found this other bird, but it doesnít go cheep cheep, so the ending wouldnít workÖ
SK — So youíre very specific about the biological details?
DS — The first letters you get when a book comes out are from grammarians. ĎI donít know what you were thinking when you used that comma on page 14, but whoever youíre dealing withÖí - first letters you get. And the second ones are, ĎDid no one tell you that warblers donít go via Brownsville when they migrate?í So thatís inevitable, that youíre going to get those letters.
SK — But what do you care? Youíre the writer.
DS — UmÖ Well, I met a woman, a zoologist, and I donít remember what we were talking aboutÖ oh, I think Iíd started that owl story, and I just had the first couple of pages, and I made the mistake of reading the first three pages to an audience - I usually never read something before itís finished - but I just, I donít know, I thought, well if I get a reaction itíll help me finish it. So this zoologist said, tell me youíre not going to have the wise, old owl. She said, that is just such a clichť. She said, owls are smart enough, theyíre smart enough and theyíre good at their jobs. But if you want a really smart bird, take a crow. And I guess I thought, I liked this woman, and I thought, I donít know, I guess I just thought of it as anotherÖ I mean, I thought, well why be wrong? So I thought the ant-aphid thing was a good catch. And IÖ why did I choose certain animals?
SK — You did use the owl in the end.
DS — Yes. Yes, I used the owl, but heís smart, but everyone in his family is an idiot, so heís just rare, heís a rarity. Why did I use certain animals? I wrote a story about groundhogs and my editor - my editorís fantastic - she said I think one of the reasons the story doesnít work is that we donít have any expectations of groundhogs. When you write about a cat, we expect a cat to be vain, or we expect a crow to be smart. But we donít know what to think of groundhogs, so we donít know if theyíre acting the way theyíre supposed to or not. I mean, the story had bigger problems, but I thought that was a good observation on her part. I was in the airport in a small town, in Wausau, Wisconsin, and I bought a vest and Iíd been wearing this vest, I donít know what I was thinking with this vest, but anyway, I was on one of my tours and so Iíd been in twenty cities and this is number twenty-one and Iím going through security and this grandmother who works at security says, ĎI need you to take that vest off.í And I said, ĎWell, could you tell me why?í I said ĎIíve worn it for twenty-one days in twenty different cities and no oneís ever hassled me -í ĎI want it off now.í And I looked at her a while and I thought, what animal are you, exactly? And then I thought, Iím gonna turn you into a rabbit.
|SK — Did it make you feel better?
DS — Yeah it did.
SK — And did you take the vest off?
DS — Yes, I took the vest off, because you learn not to say anything to these people, so you just go like this (nods pleasantly) and you donít say anything and you take the vest off, and then you go through security and then you go like this (taking out a little notebook) and you look at her and itís not against the law to make notes (starts scribbling in notebook with deadpan expression on his face).
SK — I wish I could film thisÖ
DS — But see, it makes me feel better, because I was really angry and what I was angry about was she was just being a bully and it was a small town airport and there were some small town airports. So what. You can either have a fit and get in trouble, you can tell people about it and they can think, God, we all go through this, so shut up about it - or you can make money off of it. So you make money off of it then you feel good about it.
SK — Is this sort of your general approach to life?
DS — Um-hm! Somebody was telling me, an American friend in Paris, a Southerner, so she has very good manners, and her French is excellent, and even after all this time a lot of stuff goes over my head, a lot of stuff. But nothing goes over her head. So she gets every slight, everyÖ like people are just rude to her constantly, and sheís been having a really hard time of it. But thatís what itís like for people who donít write. See, if you write, if someoneís rude to me, if someone gives me a hard time, itís like they just gave me money. I canít do anything with people being nice to me. I canít get anything out of it. But spit on me, deny me entrance, humiliate me in a public place, make me wait two hours for my lunch and you are doing me a favor. But I wonder, for people who donít have that outlet, I mean itís always a good story around the dinner table, but not to everyone, you know? I kind of think my boyfriend would consider that a good story to tell at the table.
SK — What would he do in a situation like that?
DS — What would he do? He wouldíve acted badly if he had been in my situation in the airport. And Iíve seen what happens to those people. Heís got much more of a temper than I do. But againÖI wrote a story years ago, I was on the train in Paris and these people decided I was French, and a pickpocket. They were American, and they started talking about me, saying all kinds of degrading things about me -
SK — Oh yes, I remember that story! And they didnít know you could understand every word they were saying.
DS — Right. People have often asked me, why didnít you say something to those people? And I was like, why would I? I didnít want the story to end. The more shit they said about me, I thought: 6 pages, 7 pages, 7 Ĺ pagesÖItís like when you stick a gasoline nozzle into a car and you see the numbers going (laughs).
SK — I suppose that could work. Itís a kind of objectifying. There you are, experiencing it, but if you take a step back, as a writer, you can take it in.
DS — Right. Well plus, again, if you say something to stop it, itíll change immediately.
SK — And theyíll be apologetic, or maybe not. But not very interesting material for a story.
DS — I was in a situation in London, I went to this taxidermy store there, and I didnít know, I found out later, that this guy who owned this shop had been imprisoned for selling endangered species, but he recognized something in me. Heís only open by appointment. And he recognized something in me. It was like he saw into my soul, and he said, ĎIíve got something. You interested in human stuff?í And then he pulled out some human parts that he had.
SK — How did he know?
DS — Oh, we can recognize each other. And at that point I had to play myself, because I thought, if I pull out my notebook, if I ask a kind of a question that a writer would ask, itís gonna end. So I really had to be very conscious and kind of back down so I wouldnít spoil it.
SK — And it continued?
DS — It continued.
SK — Did you write about it?
DS — I have to explain something first. The fact-checking department at The New Yorkeris exhausting. They would find out this guy had been in prison, and if theyíre gonna call this guy and ask him these questions, thereís absolutely no way that the guy would go along with it, heís gotten in so much trouble before. Even if I didnít mention the name of the taxidermy store. So that doesnít mean I canít write about it, but I couldnít write about it in the New Yorker. Or it could wind up being one of those situations where I think, Iíll save it for fiction, because I donít want to have to get into that whole thing, I donít want to get anybody in trouble. But again, that day, I didnít want to end it. I didnít want to ruin it. Because sometimes something happens and youíre, you know, sometimes your life feels like a story, and you thinkÖ and those are like the best times, when your life is like a story, and it doesnít happen to me very often, but I always know when itís happening and I would never do anything to cut it short.
SK — The stories in your earlier books are Ďstory-stories,í fiction - presumably. And then there are the Ďessays,í which may or may not be true. I always assume, because you call them essays and use the names of the people in your family, that they are basically true, but I can never know for sure.
DS — Thereís a story in this book called ĎThe Toad, the Turtle and the Dog.í Itís these animals that are waiting on a line, I never say what the line is for, but theyíre all complaining. I had a flight once that got canceled, I was in the Denver Airport, and I was in a long line of people and the guy behind me said, ĎThe gal at the counter said sheíd call my name when it was my turn, but hell, she didnít call me, I shouldíve taken her name is what I shouldíve done, hell I shouldíve punched her!í Which is a line that turned into a story. I wrote about that in The New Yorker, right? And I wrote about it in the book, but in a fictional way, and with animals instead of people. In the New Yorker version I said my flight got canceled due to thunder storms, right? Iíd written that Iíd been in South Dakota and my plane was delayed due to thunderstorms over Colorado. The fact-checker called. ĎI canít find any record of thunderstorms over Colorado in Spring of 2009.í Iíd written it down in my diary, so I told her June 10th, 2009, and then they were like, okay, found Ďem. But I mean they check every, e-ve-ry aspect of it. In the New Yorker version, I had this line ĎWould Adolf Hitler please meet his party in Baggage Claim 1.í Fact-checker calls: ĎItís Baggage Claim A, B, and C, they donít have Baggage Claim 1.í
SK — The fact that Adolf Hitler was no longer alive didnít bother them?
DS — No, they left that in for some reason. But the rest had to be factual. But no, I make no real distinction between whatís real and whatís not. I mean, if I was writing aboutÖ I often feel like when youíre writing an essay, itís what you leave out of it, I think, that often makes it a story. Itís what turns it and helps you shape it into a story. Because sometimes, like a child will tell you, a child will go to the movies and theyíll say, oh, in the movie, and then thereís this scene where the whale comes out of the water and it looks at a crab and it says hi and the crab says hi and the crab walks away and then the whale walks a little bit further on the beach and it sees a shell and it doesnít do anything and it keeps walkingÖknow what I mean? And as an adult youíre thinking, fuuuuuck! But as a grown-up, you think, okay, the shell doesnít really do anything in the story, the crab just says hello to it, so Iím going to cut this moment. So even when youíre editing, youíre fucking with the truth of it, because maybe the whale wouldíve learned some slight lesson from the crabÖ so when youíre cutting to the chase later, the whaleís personality is a bit mysterious because youíve left out the lesson it learned from the crab. But another thing you learn as an adult is you canít put everything in there. Your first draft - you put everything into the first draft. And then itís like youíre chiseling the story away. So thereís real life and then thereís real life Ďthe story.í Real life is what I live, and real life Ďthe storyí is what I write.
SK — Why are the essays called Ďessays?í
DS — I donít know what else to call them. Usually I think of an essay as being about a thing, instead of about a person. But I donít know if thereís another term Iím comfortable with, really. I donít like the word Ďpiece,í because itís just begging to have Ďof shití on the end of it (laughs). But the first thing I wrote when I finished this book was another piece of fiction, because Iím going on tour and for every tour I include a piece of social satire. Which is tricky. With these animal stories, I could write them and then I could think, OK, I want to make a book out of them. With social satire itís a little harder, because by the time you make a book out of it few people remember what it is anymore, so itís got more of a timer on it. And itís usually completely over the top. If people are going to walk out of my show, thatís whatís gonna do it. They initiated this program in Paris, called Velib, where they have these bikes all over the city, and there are these parking spaces you can use, and you get a bike and it costs you like a euro to use the bike for an hour. So they initiated the program and a lot of people were getting hit, because they werenít really bike riders. So some people got killed, but they were the right people. And I kind of feel like, those people who walk out during the social satire section - I didnít want them there anyway. Itís getting rid of the right people (laughs).
I was reading a couple of years ago at the University of Los Angeles, UCLA. And I like to have fun when I can, you know, with what little power I have. So I offered priority signing to smokers, because I said you donít have as long to live, so your time is more valuable. And this man initiated a lawsuit against me, that I was discriminating against non-smokers in the State of California, on California State property. And itís like, what were you doing in my audience? And I got this very angry letter from this woman: ĎI waited with my daughter to get a book signed and David Sedaris gave my daughter, sheís fifteen years old, and he gave her a condom, and he told her it was only for anal sex, because he didnít want to be responsible for her losing her virginity. How dare he?í
SK — Was it true?
DS — Yeah it was true! But what was she doing in my audience? What did she thinkÖ?
SK — She had obviously never read anything you had ever written, never seen you on TV, never heard you speak.
DS — But like Proposition 8 in CaliforniaÖ People in California voted that homosexuals couldnít get married, and then it was overturned. So when it was overturned I wrote this piece about this man who thinks, now that homosexuals can get married I donít know who I am anymore and my marriage doesnít mean anything, and he goes and kills a lot of people. And he uses this as an excuse, so itís really bloody, but to me itís just cartoon violence. It made me laugh when I was writing it, but that doesnít mean the audience will laugh.
SK — Is there anything you wouldnít write about?
DS — Non-fiction wise, I donít write about sex. I donít write about my sex life, because I donít want anyone Iíve ever had sex with writing about me. Plus Iím on stage in front of people, and so people are picturing you doing whatever it is youíre writing about. So if youíre writing about riding home with a mouse wrapped in a handkerchief in your basket then people are going to imagine you doing that. I donít need for them to imagine me having sex. Plus, itís just not my topic. So I donít write about that. I donít expose anyoneís secrets. Like everyone in my family has something they donítÖ People donít know anything about my family that my family doesnít want them to know. So itís always interesting to me when people think that thatís not the case, because, like I read a book recently and the author talked about going to his parentsí bedside table and finding a dildo and a copy of Shaved Asian magazine. And I thought, heís not talking to his parents anymore, and it turned out I was right. Because if youíre talking to your parents, itís one thing for you to say youíve got that in your own bedside table, butÖ I mean, Iíd love to know people who are like, write about my copy of Shaved Asian! Always happy to meet someone like that.
SK — I remember in one of your earlier essays you talked about this process of writing about your family. You said they felt that anything they told you, they knew they couldnít trust you, because youíd use it anyway.
DS — Well like my sister, my oldest sister, will say, ĎYou canít write about this.í But - and Iíve often said this to her, ĎThe stuff you tell me I canít write about, itís really not that interesting to me. But meanwhile youíve got all this other stuff thatís goldÖí But Iím careful. My sisterís in-laws are dead now. But before they died, there were a couple of instances when they said some stuff to my sister that was unbelievable, really kind of mean. Funny. I mean, Ďfunny,í because you couldnít believe anyone could be so mean. But Lisa didnít want me to write about that because she didnít want them to know sheíd told me about it. And that kind of thing I understand perfectly, because nobody wants somebody to come and say, ĎYou fucking told him thatÖí
SK — But now that theyíre dead?
DS — No, I still wouldnít do it, because sheís still got her husband, and her husbandís brothers and sisters, so there are still enough people who might be hurt by it. And itís important to Lisa. So I do listen to the people in my life, and if somethingís important to them I donít say, well, Iíll pay you, or, whatíll it take? I donít try to talk them out of it. Itís hard sometimes, because itís really juicy stuff. People have said, doesnít it bother you that people know everything about you? I say, no, itís just the illusion, itís just the illusion of exposing myself. You donít knowÖ again, itís just stuff that I donít think is, I donít mean that I donít think itís valuable, but itís not costing me anything for you to know that I had that shrew in my bicycle basket. Itís not costing me anything for you to know that I took the wrong door at the doctorís office and was sitting there in my underpants. Thatís very different than me telling you who Iím jealous of, who I hate, that I hate, you know. I sort of admire people like Edmund White, he had a book out and I was in Paris and I wanted to go hear him read. And someone in the audience said, ĎI got that book, and I got to the third story in that book, and I just slammed it shut and I couldnít believe that anyone would ever write such garbage.í And I thought: Sold! So I bought the book and I couldnít believe it. Heíd write about giving this guy a blow job while the guy was defecating. I have such admiration for people who can do that, who can write like that, and still be a very good writer. Heís a wonderful writer. So it was the best writing about giving someone a blow job while theyíre defecating that there is. But I donít know what it would takeÖ but maybe, with him, maybe he thought, well, Iím not giving away anything important, people donít know who Iím jealous of, for instance - itís just sex. I think if youíve had as much sex as he has, with different people, then it would just be throwaway and it wouldnít matter.
SK — Let me ask you this: when you use the word ĎI,í in your essays, am I supposed to think itís you? The person sitting here in front of me?
DS — Well, itís like the character of me. Thereís me - in my diary, thereís me, and he isÖ oh boyÖ oh my God, he is so likeÖ One day Iíll look back in my diary and Iíll think, oh, I didnít mention September 11, but I did mention that shoe saleÖ I mean, I mentioned September 11, but I mean, political turmoil and stuff and itís more like, damn, I really shouldíve gotten two pairs of those things while I was down thereÖ So thereís that person, and then thereís a character. The character is for public consumption. The character isÖ Did you see that movie, Greenberg, with Ben Stiller? The guy he played just wasnít very likeable. That doesnít mean he wasnít interesting, but he wasnít terribly likeable, not the sort of character that Stiller normally plays. So itís two hours with somebody you donít really like, and that made it a hard sell, more than anything else, so I think thatís partly it, trying to make yourself maybe more likeable, or leaving out certain aspects of your personality, or I guess just cutting out all the stupid bullshit that you say and just trying to think of the Ďyouí that might be of interest to people.
SK — The Ďyouí that comes across in the books is a very complete you. I know thereís stuff left out, because thatís inevitable, but it doesnít feel like thereís anything left out. Itís a complete character, and then of course the reader - I, whoever - you add to it, the way readers do when you read something or listen to it, you round it out even more.
DS — Did you read Freedom, the new Jonathan Franzen novel?
SK — Not yet. Why do you bring it up?
DS — I was just really amazed at how complete the characters in that book are. Itís a wonder, how he did it. I mean, I donít mean itís a wonder that - I mean, I wonder at it, itís a marvel, itís marvelous how full he made those characters. What I like about him, too, is I like that heís thought of as a serious person, and heís gotten criticized by these people who say his books arenít experimental enough. But thatís what I like about him: heís good with a story, itís a story, itís a good story, the people are real, they seem incredibly real, and you empathize with them and you feel for them and youíre embarrassed for them and... I love that book.
SK — I canít wait to read it! David, I think we have to stop. Donít you have to meet someone?
DS — Oh, thatís OK, I have time.
SK — I was about to tell you a little about our website, The Ledge, but I seem to remember reading in one of your essays that you donít like Internet. Is that a fact of real life, or real life Ďthe story?í
DS — Things have changed a little. I went on a book tour in 2008, I think, when my last book came out. I went on an American book tour and in the middle of it I had to go to Brazil. The Brazilians were - it was really hard to make plans with them and to call them and I swore to get even. So then I started e-mailing and using the internet. Iíve been online for a couple of years.
SK — So what do you think?
DS — Whatís very interesting to me about it is how quickly any discussion - letís say you go on a political website or you go to any website, and then thereís comments - how quickly the comments degenerate to ĎFaggot!í ĎYouíre a faggot, not me!í ĎOh yeah? Well then why did you call me one? You wouldnít have called me one if you werenít one, fat faggot!í And then people offering their opinions on this stuff and I canít believe youíd really have an opinion on this. Then youíve got the haters, people who just - like, whatís that kidís name, JustinÖ the CanadianÖ. Bieber. Justin Bieber. Heís a kid, heís sixteen and can you imagine being sixteen andÖ OK, maybe heís not the best example, but anyway, I think thatís what was interesting, and also how quickly one could learn to disregard stuff like that, to think to yourself, aw, thatís a lonely person, thatís a lonely person in his basement, thatís a bitter person who says theyíre going to do a lot of stuff and never does anything and lives in the basementÖ Iíve never approached myself in any way, Iíve never Google-ed myself, Iíve never looked myself up on Amazon, Iíve neverÖ because that, I think, would be just, youíd really go crazy if you did that.
SK — Internet is vast.
DS — Do you know ĎSmigly?í
SK — Whatís that?
DS — (sings) Itís SMIG-lyyy! Itís on Youtube, this little cartoon called Smigly. Itís about this guy named Smigly. Someone compared him to Charlie Brown for adults.
SK — How did you find it?
DS — I think I read about it in The Daily Beast. I looked it up and I liked it.
SK — I just had a vision of the drawings in this book being animated.
DS — Well somebodyÖ you know, an earlier book of mine was supposed to be turned into a movie, but I got out of it, because it involved my family, and I thought, oh, someoneís going to have to play my sister and my dad, and I thought, nonononono. So now somebodyís making a movie about one of the stories in Naked, but it just involves me.
SK — A whole movie?
DS — A whole movie. But I really loved this guyís other work. His name is Kyle Alvarez, heís this young guy and he made this feature-length movie and showed it to me, and I thought it was fantastic, so I said OK, if you want to do this movie, go ahead. Somebody has expressed an interest in filming Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, but I donít know how they would possibly tie it together. Remember the Robert Altman movie Short Cuts? Maybe like that, but with Claymation animals (laughs).
SK — Hey, hereís something that might interest you, with your Greek background. Did you know that the very first bestiary was a Greek one?
DS — Oh, really? I didnít know that! I was afraid to read De La Fontaine or Aesop or anyone like that while I was working on the book, because I didnít want to wind up re-writing them. Because really, the sins havenít changed, just the tools with which we commit them. Itís like, donít be an asshole - on a cell phone. But the main thing is: donít be an asshole.
Redactie: Stacey Knecht, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dank aan: De digitale pioniers en
Het Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds
Ontwerp: Maurits de Bruijn
Copyright: Pieter Steinz, Stacey Knecht
Reproduktie en/of hergebruik uitsluitend in overeenstemming met de auteurs.