O's books editor, Leigh Haber, talks to the funniest writer in America about his father, guest rooms and his new book, Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls.
By Leigh Haber
Most of his readers know that author David Sedaris has an obsession with owls (which he describes in "Understanding Owls," a story involving a pervy taxidermist), but what about the diabetes part? He says that he had initially proposed this title for his last book, but his publisher balked. They didn't think it made sense, and worried that it might be shelved under health. This time around, he got his way. "A person would either leap at a book called Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls," he said last week over the phone, "or be repelled by it. I would leap for it. I'd think, 'What on earth do owls have to tell us about diabetes?' I laugh whenever I hear it."
Sedaris' speaking voice, in case you've never heard it, is like no other human's -- it's got this distinct cadence, dotted by awkward pauses and apparent non sequiturs, and because of its odd pitch and slightly singsongy quirkiness, it's hard to place the speaker as younger or older, male or female. He says he has given up correcting hotel clerks who routinely address him on the phone as Mrs. Sedaris.
In his best-selling, beloved books -- Owls is his eighth -- he's rocketed off innumerable zingers about everyone from his now-deceased mother, his 90-year-old father, his siblings (especially his long-suffering sisters) and his partner, Hugh, to oversharing strangers and pretty much the whole of China. Still, in conversation, as in his writing, he is thoughtful and sweet in addition to being slyly hilarious.
Leigh Haber: Your family must be very thick-skinned, or have a great sense of humor, since they don't seem to mind being written about -- or even made fun of -- by you.
David Sedaris: I was listening to Fresh Air on NPR, and Terry Gross was interviewing [late-night talk show host] Jimmy Kimmel. He told her that he and his sisters used to come home from school and find their mother on the floor, motionless, as if she had fallen all the way down the stairs. She was pretending to be dead! She would keep it up until Jimmy and his sister started crying. They fell for it again and again. Terry asked him how his family could stand him, why they're even still talking to him, given how often they are the butts of his jokes. I shouted to the radio, "Because they have a sense of humor!" People are always telling me they love reading about our "dysfunctional family," but I think, "How is it dysfunctional?" Maybe there's one sibling out of six of us whom nobody really talks to, but that's pretty normal. The rest of us are in touch with each other all the time.
LH: How is your dad doing?
DS: He's 90 years old, and he goes spinning four or five times a week. He does all of his own shopping and cooking, and he never forgets anyone's name. He lives by himself in the neighborhood in North Carolina where we grew up -- everyone his age is dead except him. They all sold their houses and moved into retirement places. It's people in their 50s -- my age -- who are his neighbors, and they're crazy about him.
LH: And he doesn't mind when he is the subject of your stories, like when he starts bugging you to get a colonoscopy even though you were only 21 at the time?
DS: Money means a lot to my Dad. Basically, he doesn't mind if I'm making money off doing it. That I'm making money doing it makes him proud, even if I'm making money writing about him sitting in his underpants hitting me over the head. He'd be: "Attaboy! Good for you. You figured out a way to make some money."
LH: Are there certain comedians who've inspired you?
DS: I used to buy Bill Cosby's comedy records, and later on, George Carlin's. These days, I like the podcast WTF with Marc Maron. He's a comedian who interviews other comedians, and what makes it good is that no one just does shtick on his show -- they just talk shop. It's exposed me to a lot of people I wasn't familiar with before.
LH: Is there one comedian who's had a really significant impact on you?
DS: I'd have to say Whoopi Goldberg was a huge influence. I had a videotape of her first Broadway show, and I bet I watched it 75 times. What I liked about it was that she's such a great performer that it didn't really matter if you were totally blind -- you still would've gotten everything. It was the stories she told and the way they were monologues but [that] they always came back around. Every one of them had meat to them. It wasn't just that she was funny. My sister Amy was in Second City, so I would go to Second City shows and laugh and laugh and laugh, but afterward I wouldn't remember anything about them. But in Whoopi's stories, there was some sorrow stuck to them, which made them more memorable -- that moment when the story turned and you had to ask yourself questions. You felt like you were entering the story, not just witnessing it. It had never occurred to me before then that a person could make a living reading out loud. She made me realize that although I'm not an actor, and [that] I could never do what she does onstage, I can do what I do onstage.
LH: Who are some writers you really enjoy reading?
DS: I just finished the George Saunders book Tenth of December. Right now, I'm reading Aleksandar Hemon's essay collection, The Book of My Lives. He grew up in Sarajevo and is writing about his life as a writer in the middle of a war. As I'm reading it, I'm thinking, "Oh...don't end." The book I'm going to do on the next tour is a book on North Korea by Barbara Demick called Nothing to Envy.
LH: Is there one book you return to again and again when you really want to escape?
DS: I go back to Richard Yates' The Easter Parade. Books that follow the entire course of somebody's life are always so sad. The novel starts out when two sisters are just 7 and 8, and then follows them through their mid-50s, which was old when the book was written. One of the sisters is not married. We don't use the term "old maid" anymore, but when the book came out, being that age without children and a man in your life was such a tragedy. Drinking plays a huge role -- one of the sisters dies of alcoholism. I think it's easier to conceive of our own death than of old age. I turn down the pages of that book, and I mark it up and make notations in the margins. The older I get, the more things I find to marvel at.
LH: Is there a new story you're working on now?
DS: I just finished a story, and I'm not sure about it. I'm getting ready to go on this long tour, so I can read it out loud and then go back and rewrite it. The story is in there. It's about a guest room. All my life I wanted a guest room -- just a room that's set up all the time for company. I finally have one. I think a lot of people get them when they're around my age because their children leave home. I got one because, all of a sudden, I lucked out and got a bigger house. I love that it's a guest room and not an office or anything else. When people come to visit, I don't have to say, "Oh, I have to get the craft table out of there." So I just started writing about guest rooms and [how] when company comes, because of the guest room, I don't have to think, "Who are these people?" Like Hugh's sister. I walked into the living room once, and she said to her mother, "Don't you just love the feel of an iguana?" I wanted to say, "Pack your things and get out of this house!" But now, I don't have to be responsible for them, because they're in the guest room!