A Man in Full
David Sedaris dishes about quitting smoking, using the Internet, being unemployed and homophobia
Interview by Molly Zapp
We caught up with author David Sedaris during his swing through the Bay Area this week in support of his latest book, the paperback edition of When You Are Engulfed in Flames (Black Bay Books; 336 pages; $15.99).
METRO: How's not smoking coming along?
DAVID SEDARIS: I haven't thought it 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 the story 'The Smoking Section' from 'When You Are Engulfed in Flames,' 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. The month of April I went to 30 cities—a city every day—no, 29; I was off on Easter. I could actually see my audience. I try to have it dark when I do the reading; I try to have it light for Q and 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.
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 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.
ELF LIFE: Sedaris in Santa's helper uniform, as depicted in the perennial NPR holiday tale 'SantaLand Diaries'
How do changes in technology, changes in the speed and ways in which people communicate and share information, affect your role as an author and entertainer?
It's interesting to me now how you can be onstage and you can see people in the audience, you can see their lights come on and it's their telephones, or maybe they're tweeting or blogging. For me, especially when I'm on the lecture tour, I don't really—I can't control it and I can't stop it, but I don't want people in the next town to know what I'm going to do. I don't want them to know what the next story is about.
I used to write people letters and didn't really think about what was in them until they started being sold on eBay. Now I don't write anything too juicy. I would never get onstage and say anything bad about another writer, but sometimes in talking with an audience member in the booksigning line, I would say, "Actually, I can't stand such-and-such." I don't do that now, because I don't know if they'll blog about it.
The publishing industry is in turmoil. Oprah is using the Kindle. Where do you see the future of the printed word going?
When they told me about the Kindle, I thought, "Yeah, right," but I travel a lot, and now I see them on planes. Then my publisher just sent me a letter saying they're aggressively going after these file-sharing sites. I don't know how to get free stuff on the computer. I know how to download songs on iTunes, but I don't know how to get them for free, and I don't want to, because then I couldn't feel so self-righteous about paying for them.
Generally if I'm going to buy, say, a movie, I buy it new, because if it's used the people involved don't get any money, and I don't see why they should do it for no money. When a book comes out, I buy it in the bookstore. I'm happy that people get stuff out of a library, but when people come up to me and say that they got [my work] on tape and made copies for everyone they know, I think, "Why would you say that?"
Publishers are coming up with all sorts of things, coming up with these electronic book contracts they want you to sign. Somebody sat me down for a meeting about Google books, and five minutes in, I said, "Here's what I hear from you: meow, meow, meow."
Many of your essays hark 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.
How has your considerable shift in wealth affected your writing and self-image?
Opportunity changes a lot, right? To have opportunities is probably the biggest change in my life. In the past week, say, a French newspaper asked me to write something, a French magazine asked me to write something, an American magazine asked me to write something, I'm closing my story with an editor at The New Yorker, I met today with an old editor at Esquire who now works at GQ. I never could have contacted those people and said, "Could I write something?" They contacted me.
I tend to think of all the people who are much better writers than I am and don't have those opportunities. It doesn't make me think that I'm great or anything; it does make me think that I'm lucky. One thing that hasn't changed since I've been writing is that I haven't tried any less. I haven't gotten to the point when I think, "Yeah, that's good enough." I haven't written anything for money. A French magazine asked me to write [what essentially added up to an advertisement]. It didn't feel right to me. I've never written that way before, and I don't really see the point, and I'm not in a position where I have to start.
Often strangers will give me their writing. This guy in Manchester, England, he worked in a bookstore where I was giving a reading, and I talked to him off and on all night. It took him a long time to admit that he wrote, and then I pestered him some more and I finally got him to agree to send me something.
It was fantastic; it was original and surprising, it was just as if he had reinvented language. I kind of knew it was going to be. Compared to people who come up and say, "'Here's this thing I wrote. I took a creative writing class; how do I get this published?" and I already know it's going to be no good. It was shocking to me when I moved to New York, went to a play and half the audience had invitations for their own plays—you can see people just promoting themselves. I was just so appalled and sickened by that self-promoting behavior. You're going to get a lot further when it's someone else's idea that you're good. Let yourself be someone else's discovery.
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. Often, they want to sit in a room and feel like they hate the same people their neighbor hates, and they want to hear John McCain being made fun of.
I just got a letter (regarding a New Yorker essay on the 2008 presidential race) saying, "I was going to come see you in Zurich, and then I read that garbage in The New Yorker. To make fun of a patriot and a soldier who gave so much to this country. ..." But that's not the reason that I don't write political things. I'm not an original thinker that way.
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.
That was a period when I think every gay man I know felt particularly like he was being watched, being judged more harshly than in years. It's amazing to me—interesting watching that movie Milk as well—just how much things have changed in my life. 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, North 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.
You can have those 3,000 people in the theater, and 10 percent of my audience is gay. It's interesting to me that those other people are relating to me as a human. When I write about [boyfriend] Hugh, they're relating to it as a way to connect with another person. Perhaps it's because of the way I write about it—maybe if I did write about sex, people would think, "No, I can't relate, you've lost me there." But I don't not write about sex because I'm afraid of losing them.
Other writers who are gay are almost always referred to as 'gay authors' instead of 'authors'—that is, always with the modifier. Though you often discuss your relationship with Hugh and write about coming out in your latest book, almost all articles written about you refer to you as simply 'author' or 'American humorist.' As a writer, what is the impact of being labeled or not being labeled as a 'gay author'?
Twenty years ago, I would be in the gay section of the bookstore just because I used the word "boyfriend." No offense, but that's not where I wanted to be. I wanted to be with the other books: I didn't want to be with that ghetto. It's always interesting to see where people put my book. Sometimes somebody puts my books in the gay and lesbian section; that's the decision of the bookstore. Again, it doesn't bother me in any way to be called a gay writer. I mean, I'm gay and I write. I don't know what the difference is between a gay person who writes and a gay writer—is it just that gay writers write about sex? I don't know, really.
Last time you were in the area, you read 'Undecided' from The New Yorker, where you compared the then-presidential nominees to an airplane food selection between 'the chicken' or 'the platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it.' Since his inauguration, how has 'the chicken' been faring so far?
I was talking about that at lunch. My dad—you can't say anything about George Bush: George Bush never make a mistake. ...
There are things that Obama has done where I thought he could do better, like his appointment of [Chicago political fundraiser Louis Susman as] the ambassador to the United Kingdom. But how quickly he changed the perception of Americans abroad. How quickly he improved the life of every American living overseas. People hear your accent at a store, and they give you a thumbs up: "Obama!" It was instantaneous.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.