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David Sedaris 

A CONVERSATION WITH HUMORIST

David Sedaris, who will read from his work April 29 at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts.

How's not smoking coming along?

  I haven't thought about it for weeks. I think it's like a lot of things — you're just afraid of what might happen if you do it, and then you do it and think, gosh, what was I was so afraid of? Not that I wish I quit 10 years ago or 30 years ago. It's just that it wasn't as difficult as I thought.

How has this affected your self-described compulsive behavior to touch things — heads, purses, briefcases, etc.?

  I started doing something else. It was sort of like, almost like focusing on a muscle, and then sort of antagonizing it until you're in great pain. I tend to favor the muscles of my legs. I can sort of walk in a way that I can lean on an ankle muscle, then I can start hobbling on one side. That's what I do instead of smoking.

In your essay "The Smoking Section," you write it so that the pack-a-day crowd, recent quitters, wake-and-bakers and those who haven't smoked anything since a joint 20 years ago in college can all feel like they get the joke. When you write, whom do you picture as your target audience?

  I think I'm lucky that way, because I go on these tours so often. ... I try to have it dark when I do the reading; I try to have it light for Q&A. When I sit down and write, I don't know how to make those people happy. In one row, there's a 70-year-old woman sitting next to a Chinese couple sitting next to a 14-year-old girl with her parents sitting next to a pair of lesbians ...

  I tend to think more of myself when I'm writing. There was something that I wrote a couple months ago, and it made me laugh very hard. I don't laugh at the typewriter or the computer now very often. I was laughing at a word choice. What I'd written was so completely ridiculous, but at the heart of it was losing weight. Again, probably everyone in that row had tried to lose weight. Once that was established, I could go anywhere, but it was ultimately about drinking your own breast milk. How many people in that row had done that? I look forward to reading things out loud, and I have new things that I'm going to be reading on this tour that I've never read before. I look forward to that and I'll make notes about what works and what doesn't work.

What aspects of your life are off-limits to write about?

  I don't write about sex because it's not really my subject. I love it when other people write about it, but it's not my subject, and I don't want anyone I've had sex with to write about it. Plus, you're in front of an audience, and they picture wherever you're writing about. I'm 52; no one in the audience wants to picture that. I didn't write about political things. Not because I didn't feel that way, but because it felt like pandering. Say you've got 3,000 people in the theater. Two thousand, nine hundred and eighty voted just like I did. It's incredibly easy to get them to cheer, too easy. ...

  I don't reveal other people's secrets. Everyone in my family has things they don't want the world to know. I don't write those things. I try not to write those things about everyone — things that would prevent them from getting a job.

In your essay, "Chicken in the Henhouse," you essentially wrote about homophobia, both in larger society and internalized. Comparing yourself to a straight male stranger who casually spoke with a 10-year-old boy, you wrote, "Because he was neither a priest nor a homosexual, he hadn't felt the need to watch himself, worrying that every word or gesture might be misinterpreted. He could unthinkingly wander the halls with a strange boy, while for me it amounted to a political act — an insistence that I was as good as the next guy." That was published in 2004. How has the increased visibility of the queer rights movement in this decade, and its corresponding anti-gay backlash, changed the way you can conduct yourself in public?

  That was a time when the Catholic Church was in the news. This happens when pedophilia comes up. People tend to associate it with homosexuals. I was just watching Milk on the plane — in the 1970s they were trying to get gay teachers fired — that was just a particular period when you felt paranoid, just watched very closely. But that same group of people would say, "We need to protect our children," and yeah, you do need to protect your children from pedophiles, but not from me. And the majority of pedophiles are heterosexual anyway.

  When I was growing up, I don't think I believed that anyone was homosexual, that anything that bad could have befallen anyone besides me. There wasn't anyone gay on TV, you couldn't go to the library in Raleigh, N. Carolina, and read about homosexuals, except maybe in some book on deviant behavior. When I go on tour now, there are these college boys, and I say, "Where did you meet?" and they say, "We're high school sweethearts." [Growing up], the thought that you could be [same-sex] high school sweethearts — you would have felt the need to turn that person in to the police. There's no way you could have enjoyed yourself.

Many of your essays harken back to when you were younger, un- or underemployed, renting rooms, hitchhiking and otherwise fairly poor. At the time, did your days of being broke feel as amusing as you make them seem now?

  The worst feeling on earth is being unemployed and not doing anything about it. Maybe you got the newspaper and maybe you looked through the want ads, and after you take this nap, you're really going to call about that job, you really are. You really would have done it when you got up from the nap, but then somebody called and you rode your bike over and now it's past 5 o'clock. There's no depression like that, that unemployed depression on the couch, that imagining, "Even if I got the job today, I wouldn't get a paycheck for two weeks." When you get old you think, "I was young, you're supposed to do that when you're young." It would be worse to be that way at 52. I can look back on it now and sort of make fun of myself for it. No one was worse at getting a job than me.

Have you used the Internet yet?

  Yes. I got email last June because I was going on my book tour, and then at the same time I had to organize a trip to Brazil for a literary festival, and somewhere I was going after Brazil — it was going to be too complicated to do it over the phone, so Hugh [Hamrick, Sedaris' partner] set up an email account and showed me how use the Internet. I think that my world that way is pretty small compared to other people's. I do sort of see what the fuss is about, in good ways and in bad ways. I'm glad that I didn't have the Internet when I started writing. I started writing when I was 20 and didn't show a word of it to anyone until I was 28. I had the sense to keep it to myself. Now the temptation with blogs and such, they're just getting it out there; maybe it would have been best to keep it to themselves.

  I've never Googled myself, never read anything about myself or my sister Amy, but I know from looking on other things ... You can watch Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit," and there will be comments, and I'm like, "Comments? You can judge her?" And on these boards, it all degenerates to "You're a faggot!" "No, you're a fag, not me." Sometimes I think, "Do you honestly have an opinion of this?" Sometimes I think it gives people a sense of power. People will comment on the veins of Madonna from their home, and I wonder, "Do you really care, or does it make you feel powerful to be at home and say crummy things about people?"

  I like the trail that the Internet created. For example, I was watching one of those Douglas Sirk movies, and I noticed that Rock Hudson towered over everyone, and I typed in "How tall was" and I saw "How tall was Jesus," and I'm like, "Sure," and half an hour later you're somewhere you didn't expect to be. It doesn't work that same way in books, does it? Even if you have an encyclopedia, the trail isn't that crazy. I like that aspect of it.

  But I'm not on the computer now. I don't do that while on the phone. Generally, if I'm on the phone, I don't mind doing something with my hands. Ironing is good, whittling would be fantastic (I need to pick that up again), but reading or the computer, no.

click to enlarge David Sedaris has published six best-selling collections of essays, including his latest, When You Are Engulfed in Flames.
  • David Sedaris has published six best-selling collections of essays, including his latest, When You Are Engulfed in Flames.
click to enlarge PHOTO BY ANNE FISHBEIN
  • PHOTO BY ANNE FISHBEIN
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