David Sedaris was "discovered" just over a decade ago, by National Public Radio producer Ira Glass heard him read in Chicago. A few months later, Sedaris made his national debut recounting the strange-but-true experiences of his job as a Macy's elf in the story "SantaLand Diaries" on NPR. Soon after, Little Brown publishers called and asked if he had a book, and the stack of stories in a desk drawer became a manuscript.
Ten years, two Grammy nominations, six books and millions of copies sold in 27 languages later, David Sedaris is one of the best-known, best-selling and hardest working authors in the world. Most recently, he has selected and edited an anthology of short stories entitled Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules, to benefit 826NYC, a writing and tutoring program for at-risk kids in Brooklyn.
I spoke to him by phone at his home in Paris last week, as he was finalizing preparations for the upcoming 30 day/30 city tour that brings him to Clowes Hall in Indianapolis on Thursday, April 6. What follows are a just a few of the exchanges over the course of the two-hour conversation, covering everything from Communism to Kool Milds. Insert laughter after just about every sentence, and you'll get the general idea of how we spent the better part of what was evening for me, and the earliest hours of morning for him.NUVO: Tell me about the anthology, how did you decide what stories and authors to include?
Sedaris: Originally, the idea was to publish an anthology of new stories, to ask a group of contemporary writers to contribute something specifically for this project. But I just couldn't bring myself to call up people like Tobias Wolff and say, Ã¢â'¬Å"Could you write a new story for me, and, by the way, you won't get paid for it." There was no way. Plus, people ask me to do stuff like this all of the time; I know what a pain in the ass it can be.
So, I just chose some of my favorite stories. The hope with any anthology is that you will inspire people to read more stories or books by these authors. A lot of the people who come to see me aren't big readers. I don't mean that as an insultâ š they tell me all the time that mine is the only book they've read in a year, or the only book they've bought in five years. And a lot of them don't even read my books - they listen to me on the radio. If I can introduce a few of these people to great writers like Alice Munro, or Lorrie Moore, or Tobias Wolff, I'm happy to do it.
NUVO: OK, but how could you possibly choose just one Flannery O'Connor story? Why did you pick "Revelation" over all the others?
Sedaris: I love Flannery O'Connor, I have since I was a kid. I think she does dialect better than anyone else has ever done it. But the problem is that most people can not get past the fact that she used the word "nigger." When I was teaching, it was the only thing my students could focus on. They were convinced she was a racist for using the word, and I was a racist for making them read the story. I couldn't make them understand that it was 1964, it was the South, it was the way people really talked then, and she was just writing what she heard.
NUVO: They weren't consoled by the fact that the characters who used that word, who were the most racist, were also the ones who died the most horrible deaths? They didn't get that she was all about Divine punishment for one's sins?
Sedaris: No! They acted as if I was the one who should get gored by the bull for suggesting they read the story in the first place!
NUVO: So are there any writers you don't like?
Sedaris: I don't like writers who are constantly trying to prove how smart they are. What's the point in reading something that hard? When I hear people say things like, "Oh, I've just spent the last six months reading Gertrude Stein," I immediately think to myself, "Why would anyone spend six months reading the same book?"
Flannery O'Connor is smart, but she is not a show-off. Her stories make me want to be careful. When I finish reading them, I think, "Im going to be a better person from now on!" Of course, that usually lasts for about seven minutes. But that's better than nothing right? If you read enough stories, those seven minutes can really add up.
NUVO: Speaking of being a better person "Hejira" [from Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim] is one of my favorite stories. I could not stop laughing at you thinking your dad was kicking you out of the house for being a college drop-out, slacker and drug addict; not having a clue that it was because you were gay.
Sedaris: Yeah, well, the funniest part is that I was back in the house two days later. But that kind of ruins the story.
NUVO: You're right. Because what stays with me is the image of your mother driving away when the story ends; you close the door, and she drives back home to your father, absolutely broken-hearted.
Sedaris: And that's what the story is really about, that's why I ended it the way I did. She was not a woman who normally cried, and it meant something that she was crying so hard in the car, but I had no idea what it was. I wrote that story for "This American Life." Ira [Glass] asked me to write something about cars, and that was the very first thing I thought of, seeing my mom cry like that as she drove away.NUVO: Your mom is my favorite of all of your characters. Maybe that's just because I'm a mom myself.
Sedaris: Really? That means a lot to me. My dad was really worried when the stories first came out. He didn't necessarily talk about her like she was a saint after she died, but I think he was worried about people knowing her bad habits, knowing that she smoked and she cursed.
My mom loved being the center of attention. If she were still alive, I'd give her five minutes at the beginning of every show to say whatever she wanted. She would love it! I think I'm just trying to give her some of that attention with the stories. But there are stories I know she wouldn't want me to tell, things she wouldn't want people to know. I haven't told those stories, I haven't told any of her secrets.
NUVO: I know that you use your readings as part of your revision process before you publish new material, but how much re-writing do you do while you're on the road?
Sedaris: I have 10 new stories this time, and they are all nearly finished. But I do take notes when I'm reading to get a sense of what works and what doesn't. It's nothing distracting, it's not like I'm furiously scribbling in the margins, but I have these little symbols I use. Then I'll go back to the hotel and rewrite certain things, and in the morning I'll read it and rewrite some more.
These aren't necessarily big changes; it's not like I start off reading crap. These are the ninth or 10th drafts of things that have already been revised and edited. But I do continue to make changes.
Sometimes it's something small. I'll think,"that's a lazy word, you can do better than that," and I'll spend an entire two or three hour plane ride trying to come up with a better one.
NUVO: I know you were doing some work with an organization called Helping Hands in Boston that trains monkeys to assist people with disabilities, and I heard you even did a reading where they had one of the monkeys on stage with you.
Sedaris: Yeah, it seemed like a good idea at the time...
NUVO: Isn't that one of the first rules of show business, never share a stage with monkeys or small children?
Sedaris: Yes. The audience kept bursting into laughter, and I thought, "Well, that's weird. I never got a laugh there before." And then I turned around and saw what was literally monkey-business going on behind me. I quickly learned that it doesn't matter what you are doing or what you are reading, if there is a monkey on stage, no one is paying attention to you.
NUVO: Any other tricks of the trade that youÃ�''ve picked up along the way?
Sedaris: Well, it's never a good idea to the let the audience see your papers. No one wants to see that. We've all been to readings where a guy walks up to the microphone with 40 or 50 pages, and you think, "Oh God, I'm going to be stuck here all night."
I've also learned that if you are going to read something with the word "pussy" in it, it helps if you're wearing a suit. It seems less offensive somehow.