- PHOTO BY ANNE FISHBEIN
- NOTHING CAN NOT BE IN YOUR LAP : David Sedaris talks bedbugs and unicorn-shaped uteri with New Times.
The author and humorist—whose work includes Barrel Fever, Naked, Holidays on Ice, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and When You are Engulfed in Flames—is coming to San Luis Obispo. It’s a night you won’t want to miss.
NEW TIMES Is it all right if I tape this interview?
NEW TIMES Awesome. Firstly I wanted to ask you …
SEDARIS Did you just say awesome?
NEWTIMES Yes, I did. I’m sorry. I’m from California—it happens.
SEDARIS Everyone in the United States says awesome all the time now, don’t they? It didn’t exist when I moved to France. Like 11 years ago, you didn’t hear it that often. Now, everybody says it. Flight attendants say it. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you self-conscious. I’m in the most depressing hotel room I’ve been in in years.
NEW TIMES Why is that?
SEDARIS Well, I’m in Cincinnati, bedbug capital of the United States. And they made it sound great, like we upgraded you to a junior suite. What it means is instead of one big room, it’s two little depressing rooms. It’s just really ugly and it makes me sick to look at it.
NEW TIMES So you’re already on tour right now?
SEDARIS I started two weeks ago.
NEW TIMES And from what I’ve read, this is an exciting time for you.
SEDARIS I like going on tours. I do. That said, a lot of it comes down to hotels. That’s what I remember of tours. Well, not always. But often. That’s what I always think of when I think of cities: the hotel. I always write a review of the hotel when I get up in the morning, you know, in my diary. And this hotel, it’ll be scathing. No one will read it but myself, but I can’t wait.
NEW TIMES Do you have a favorite hotel in some odd unexpected city somewhere?
SEDARIS I actually think it’s a really good idea to go to places like Fargo, where people don’t normally go on book tours, because you’ve got people who, there’s nothing really for them to go to. In Fargo, for example, the hotel was really kinda great. My favorite hotel, it’s the Biltmore in Santa Barbara because it’s landscaped in such a way that your room is a little house and it looks like rich people just ran out the front door. And it’s got its own little private beach. And it’s got a huge swimming pool that no one’s ever in, and they give you bicycles that you can ride.
NEW TIMES So, when you’re on tour, is it difficult signing books for hours?
SEDARIS On this trip, I’ve been asking people to tell me jokes. It’s just easier sometimes to hear a joke in the dark. When someone’s telling you a joke to your face, you get that worry where you think, “Is that the punchline? Should I be laughing now?”
NEW TIMES Yeah, there’s a pressure to perform in response to the joke.
SEDARIS Yeah, and there are jokes you’ve heard before, but you fake it and pretend you’ve never heard.
NEW TIMES Yup. Or even if you don’t think it’s funny, generally there’s an obligation laugh.
SEDARIS Last night, I just fake-laughed all night, which I’ve got to stop doing because I hate myself when I do that. But you don’t want to embarrass anybody saying, “I’m sorry, I’ve already heard that joke before.” Maybe that’s the way to go about it. But, “What is the last thing you want to hear when you’re giving Willie Nelson a blowjob? I’m not Willie Nelson.” Get it?
NEW TIMES I did. And that was not an obligation laugh, I swear.
SEDARIS (laughing) I doubled over at the table. I loved that. And, “What’s the horny pirate’s worst nightmare? A sunken chest and no booty.” I thought that was nice, too.
NEW TIMES I like the other one better, but that is a good one, too.
SEDARIS I like the other one better, too. So I’ve been writing them down. The good ones. But then sometimes you say to people, “Oh, do you have any good jokes?” And then the joke’s really long. (sighs)
NEW TIMES I’ve been guilty of that before.
SEDARIS Well, sometimes I like a really long joke. It’s just that what happens sometimes is someone will come up, and they’ll start to talk, and then I hand them the book back, and then they say, “Oh, I have a joke,” and it’s like, I wish you told me that joke while I was drawing that turtle in your book. You know, but you don’t want to say that. You don’t want to embarrass anybody. Then sometimes their joke is really long. So that can be a problem. But I could solve it by just saying, “Do you know any short jokes?” When someone tells me a joke, I write it down in my diary. But then a lot of the time I just forget it. And I’ll come back years later and look in that diary, and I’ll find the joke again and I’ll revive it for a few weeks, and then it goes back into its tomb.
NEW TIMES Do you have any idea what you’re going to be reading when you’re in SLO?
SEDARIS Well, I will read one thing from my new book and then play three minutes from the audio book of my new book of Elaine Stritch reading something. And, it depends. I saw my dad and my sister Gretchen yesterday in Raleigh, and I gave them each a copy of a new story that I’d written and I want their go-ahead. They’re both in the story, so I gave them the story and asked if there was anything they wanted me to change or get rid of. So I’ll wait till I’ve heard from them. I may need to re-write the story. If there’s anything they have a problem with, I’ll try to eliminate it.
NEW TIMES So you might be debuting those stories if they’re OK with it?
SEDARIS Yeah. And there were some other new stories I’ve brought out, too. One works really well, so I have no problem with that. And another one, I just have a problem with the ending. And the other one is about too many things. And the hard thing is finding time on tour to work, so this morning a car came to take me to the airport at 9:30, so I got up at 7:30. But I spent all that time writing in my diary because I had so much to say. And then writing a letter to Hugh.
NEW TIMES Writing a letter, as in a written letter? You correspond via written mail?
SEDARIS I think the last time I went on tour I went to 35 cities, and Hugh and I did not talk on the phone once while I was gone. And that’s fine by me. And I think it was fine with him, too. So we write to each other.
NEW TIMES It’s sort of funny that writing a letter just sounds terribly romantic and old-fashioned.
SEDARIS (laughs) It does, but then when you look at the letter itself, it’s like, “We have to do something about the tax situation,” you know? It’s not romantic at all.
NEW TIMES No, but it just conjures wartime romance, and all this could just be the product of an overactive imagination.
SEDARIS But sometimes my friend Ronnie, I worried that when she got e-mail that she would stop writing me letters because her letters are so nice, and I always like to have everything just so when I sit down to read them. I don’t want to read them, like, standing up at the counter, you know? I settle down to read her letters, and they’re so good. And I worried that when she got e-mail that she would stop, but she hasn’t stopped. So there’s some people that I write letters to. I write letters to my dad. A lot of people who are older, they’re good to write letters to because they never, they don’t know anything else, really.
NEW TIMES Yeah, when I was in college, I would write letters to my grandmother. She appreciated it.
SEDARIS Well, that’s nice. I was lecturing the audience the other night—not lecturing them, but I was at a college and I said, “Never underestimate the value of a thank-you letter.” Because, especially when somebody gives me something good, I write them several thank-you letters. I’ll even write them a thank-you letter a year later saying, “I was just looking at that thing you gave me and thinking how nice it is.” So you keep getting good stuff.
NEW TIMES It sounds like you don’t have a problem with technology, just that maybe people are diving into it at the expense of something more thoughtful.
SEDARIS Well, I have a computer now. I don’t have a telephone. The second you get those things, you forgive all the people who have it. I don’t have a telephone, but I have an iPod touch. The problem with an iPod touch is that you have to touch it all the time ’cause it turns off and you have to slide your finger across the screen to reactivate it. You don’t want to turn into one of those people who stop in the middle of the sidewalk. But the second you become one of those people, then all of your hatred of those people is kind of forgotten because you just became one of them. Does that make sense?
NEW TIMES Yeah. That happens with a lot of things. You’re annoyed with a certain type of person until you realize, “Oh, this is terribly convenient.”
SEDARIS Right. Like, I hated people with rolling suitcases. I hated them. I had a regular suitcase until about six years ago. And then they would say, “You have to run to the next terminal to catch your next plane,” and I would be traveling with enough stuff for a 30-day trip, and the suitcase is banging against my legs, and I would have light-colored pants on, and they would be filthy because the suitcase would be rubbing against them. But I just hated people with rolling suitcases. And then I got one. And then once I became one of those, I sort of hated people who didn’t. (laughs)
NEW TIMES Does traveling lose a little bit of its allure when you spend so much of your life in hotels anyway?
SEDARIS Sometimes I don’t like to research; [I] like try to control things too much. You can go online, you can look at a hotel and say, “No, that’s not what I want.” But there’s something to be said for walking into a hotel and being completely surprised by what you see. You didn’t look at pictures of it online. You just walked in and it just happened. Or to say, “I want to stay in room 721 because I stayed there last time, and I love room 721.” Well maybe room 634 is even better. I always worry when I try to control things that I’m just changing them for the worst.
NEW TIMES That you’re missing out on something potentially even more spectacular?
SEDARIS Yeah. That fate had something better for me, but I said to fate, “I don’t trust you.” (laughs)
NEW TIMES I understand that fear. Something completely unrelated: I just realized that you’re on the list Stuff White People Like.
SEDARIS Oh, yeah. That book came out a couple of years ago. I don’t think it meant anything bad about me. I think he actually put his finger exactly on a certain kind of person. The only thing that he got wrong is I think he said that people come and hear me read things that they’ve read 1,000 times, but the thing is, I try to read brand new stuff. I read stuff that people haven’t heard before. He didn’t mean to insult me; he was insulting people who like me.
NEW TIMES I certainly didn’t read it as an insult.
SEDARIS I mean, it’s the Sunday New York Times and bikes. But actually, I don’t think it’s about white people. I think it’s about a class of white people. Not all white people like those things.
NEW TIMES It’s kind of like a pretentious hipster thing.
SEDARIS When I was reading last night, a lot of the people that I met, they don’t fit with that. They weren’t hipster-y. They didn’t ride custom bikes. That’s sort of what I like. Sometimes you’re doing a reading and somebody comes along. I was in West Virginia the other day, and this guy came, and he drives a truck for Keebler, and he came with his daughter who was 22 years old. I just thought, “Boy, I must be doing something right.”
NEW TIMES Take time out from being a teenager and read.
SEDARIS Yeah. Go to the theater with their parents. And sometimes parents say, “You’re the only thing we can agree on.” And that makes me feel good.
NEW TIMES That’s a pretty amazing statement.
SEDARIS Well, that’s when I say, “You don’t agree on pot smoking?” Or, “You don’t agree on anal sex?” You know, I have to blow it. ’Cause it makes me uncomfortable.
NEW TIMES Compliments make you uncomfortable?
SEDARIS When someone comes up to you at a book signing, if you leave them to their own devices, they’re going to say, “Oh, I love this.” They’re being nice, but it just makes me uncomfortable, so I try to cut them off and then ask them a question so we can have a little conversation about something.
NEW TIMES Distract them. That must be a big dilemma for you, because I’m guessing you receive a lot of compliments from a lot of different people.
SEDARIS There are a couple of situations where you’re, like, sitting at a table and they’re praising you, and you’re thinking, “Please say something about someone else here.” But usually I can make that happen. I just interrupt somebody and say, “Do you know any jokes?” Or, “Have you ever eaten at the Old Spaghetti Factory?” Or, “What was the last wedding you went to? Did you have a DJ at your wedding?” So you can get them to talk about something else.
NEW TIMES Are there any compliments that are so good they’re worth the uncomfortable moment for you?
SEDARIS I think the very fact that people show up is a compliment. I don’t really need more than that. I saw my sister Gretchen last night. And she said, “God, I love your jacket.” And I thought, “Finally, finally someone noticed my jacket.” And I wear it every night when I’m signing books.
NEW TIMES What does it look like?
SEDARIS That’s the thing. I got it at this Japanese store. So it was really expensive. It was kind of crazy expensive. But it looks like I got it at a thrift store. It’s corduroy, but it’s just kind of a little bit big for me, and I have to roll the sleeves up. And it’s kind of an oyster color. And it’s just really nicely made, but it just looks kind of like a hobo jacket.
NEW TIMES Sounds a little like something a literary professor would wear.
SEDARIS No, it’s not professor-y, either. The Japanese are really good at taking these American things and then making them their own, and they do very subtle things to it. I thought when I got this jacket, because I got it especially for this tour, I thought, “All people are going to want to talk about all night is my jacket: Where did I get it and how much did it cost?” No one. And then if you really want to get depressed, you say to someone, “How much do you think my jacket costs?” ’Cause they’ll say $40. They’ll say, “You got it at a GAP, right?”
NEW TIMES You travel a great deal, and in my limited experience, smaller airports tend to be stricter.
SEDARIS Yeah. They’re drunk with power. Yesterday, we had a flight attendant who got on and said, “All of you who did not respond when I said good morning when you boarded the plane, I’m just going to pretend that you are asleep.” I was like, I’m sorry, but are you scolding us for not making polite small talk when we got on the plane? Like your feelings are hurt? I did say hello when I got on, because she said it to me and I said it back, but …
NEW TIMES People aren’t always paying the closest attention, either, at that particular moment. They’re trying to find their seat. They’re trying to make sure they’ve got their stuff.
SEDARIS She scolded us, too, for not watching the safety demonstration.
NEW TIMES I didn’t know anyone did.
SEDARIS The weird thing was she wanted to be like that, but her grammar was all messed up. One of the things she said, in terms of taking off, was, “Nothing can not be in your lap during take-off.”
NEW TIMES But you didn’t point that out to her, right?
SEDARIS Right, I live and let live.
NEW TIMES Not to mention: Taunting an air stewardess is just bad, bad news.
SEDARIS (laughs) Nothing can not be in your lap.
NEW TIMES So your family is probably pretty used to this, but it sounds a little terrifying, actually, being written about. And especially on such a large scale, in terms of the audience.
SEDARIS Right. And that’s the thing that none of us ever anticipated. My sister will go to a dinner party, and someone will say, “Oh, I know all about you. I’ve read about you.” And it’s like, what do you know? You know that I have a turtle. That’s what you know about me. I would hardly call that everything. I signed up for it. It doesn’t bother me. But for them, I could understand how that would get really, really tiresome really, really quickly.
NEW TIMES It really doesn’t bother you, personally, strangers feeling like they know you?
SEDARIS No. People know that I had a boil on my ass. People know that I dropped out of college. People know that I smoked a lot of pot, but they don’t know anything about my sex life. They don’t know who I hate. The important stuff, they don’t know.
NEW TIMES So do you have a list of “I’m not going to write about this, this, or this. It’s not happening.”
SEDARIS Well, the sex thing is just not my topic. Plus, if I wrote about it, it would just be fictional. But I’m not going to get up in front of an audience and talk about it. I’m too prudish for that. Plus, I don’t want anyone I ever had sex with to hear it. I wouldn’t want anyone to get on stage and say, “I had sex with David Sedaris. This is what he looks like naked, and this is what we did.”
NEW TIMES Do people tend to perform for you when they meet you or when
they talk to you, in the hopes of getting into a story?
SEDARIS Maybe. But the best stories, or the best anecdotes, I don’t think people had planned on in any way. I read this story about this rabbit and a unicorn, and I was signing books, and this woman came up and she said, “This was so crazy, because today I went to my gynecologist and he told me that my uterus is shaped like a unicorn.” That’s fantastic to me. And I don’t think she was auditioning. I think she was just being herself. I just love that she put these two things together.
NEW TIMES That’s the amazing
thing about being a writer, right? To you, that’s gold.
SEDARIS I thought so. It’s happened before that you feel like people are giving you a story, but usually it’s not a story you want to write about. There was something I was reading in my diary, and it was something a woman had told me about a cousin’s arms getting chewed off by a pig. And she didn’t know that I was a writer, and we were just having this conversation. And somehow the topic got to horses and horseback riding, and she’d learned horseback riding at her uncle’s farm, and her uncle had a son who had both arms chewed off by pigs right off to the nub. That was kind of fantastic, because she wasn’t auditioning in any way. We were just having a conversation. I was lucky to have a conversation with a really fascinating person. That’s the way I look at it.
Managing Editor Ashley Schwellenbach doesn't know any good jokes. Send some to firstname.lastname@example.org.