Laughter is the Best Medicine

David Sedaris  – On His Life as a Writer, Humor, and His Public Persona (2013 Interview)

KC : My favorite stories in this book talk
about your childhood. Do stories just come to you out of the blue when you’re thinking
about something? How does that process work, recalling those memories? DS : It just all of the sudden seems the time
to write about it. Often, I’ll try to write about something and it won’t work out and
I realize I’m not the right distance from it. I had a story in the last book about my
neighbor, Helen, who lived down the hall from me in New York. I tried to write about Helen,
probably about ten years ago, and it just didn’t work. I would put it into this graveyard
file and try it every summer. It just didn’t work. One day, I was exactly the right distance
away from it and I could make it work. So when a story isn’t coming together, I keep
it and I’ll turn back to it later and think ‘oh, maybe now.’ You need the right perspective
on it, I suppose. For me anyway, even when horrible things happen
I think, ‘well, one day this will be funny… One day.’ You know, sitting in the doctor’s
office in the waiting room of the hospital, in my underpants and everybody else comes
into the room fully dressed, but I’m there in my underpants–and they’re not boxer shorts,
they’re briefs–and people are looking at me out of the corner of their eye and I’m
just thinking, ‘one day, this will be funny and I’ll be able to write a story about it.’
I just have to wait until that day. KC : You’ve mentioned before that your father
compared you to a lot of other people growing up; that you never measured up. Does being
a bestselling author change things? DS : No, my dad doesn’t really understand.
When I told my dad my book was number one on The New York Times bestseller list he said,
‘well, it’s not number one on The Wall Street Journal list.’ So, my publicist last week sent me The Wall
Street Journal. Who’s number one on The Wall Street Journal list? Me. But I talked to my
dad the other day and I didn’t mention it. I didn’t mention anything about the book.
It’s just better not to talk about it, because my dad doesn’t understand. I can’t expect
that. I don’t understand anything about engineering. So he doesn’t’ understand about writing and
why would I expect him to? He’s ninety years old. It’s just funny to me now that I would
ever have expected him to understand. KC : It seems such a strange paradox that
your stories are known for being vulnerable. You’re talking about moments when you don’t
feel like you measure up or you feel like an outsider, or you come across goofy or misinformed,
and yet, at the same time, you’ve parlayed this over many years into an enormous success.
Do you think about that paradox? DS : Gosh. I don’t for the life of me understand
my success. When I see people buying my book, I just want to say, ‘are you sure?’ or ‘are
you doing this to make me feel good?’ So I don’t understand, KC : You can’t let it register? That you have
done well? DS : When your books do well, there’s obviously
a natural guilt that comes along, you think about all the people who are much better writers
and who don’t sell as many books. You think how unfair that is and ‘why I am selling these
books and they’re not?’ I don’t let it destroy me, but I do think
about it. Just because your book does well doesn’t’ mean that it’s a good book. I mean,
I look at The New York Times bestseller list, and I see lots of books that are just crap.
What am I going to say– ‘my book’s not crap, but that book by the person on the reality
TV show, that’s crap, but my book’s not?’ There’s always somebody else saying that my
book is just as crap as the guy who’s on the reality TV show, so I actually don’t concentrate
on stuff like that too often. KC : Do you follow the results of how many
books or tickets have been sold? If it wasn’t doing as well as the last book, would you
worry about it? DS : When I go on tour, at the end of every
night I go back to my hotel room and I write how many people were there, what I read, in
what order, and how long it took to me sign books, and then I’ll go back and I’ll look,
‘okay the last time I was in this town, how did I do?’ If I sold 200 fewer tickets than
the last time I was in East Lansing, Michigan, I will lay awake all night and say, ‘oh, it’s
over. It’s over.’ KC : Do you actually feel like that? DS : Oh, yeah. KC : Really? You actually feel like maybe
your career as a writer is over? DS : If you’re lucky you have a little bit
of time that you do well. It doesn’t last for anybody. But if you’re very lucky, you
have a little brief period of time. But it doesn’t last. And so I’m always thinking,
‘is this the moment that I’ve started my downhill?’ Has it started yet? But on this last tour, generally ticket sales
were up. We sold 1200 more tickets in Toronto this time than last time, because we moved
it to a different place. So that’s great. 200 down in East Lansing–who cares? I’m up
1200 in Toronto! So, yeah, I do think about it. It’s only been out for two weeks, but
I already think, ‘well then the next book will be the end,’ so I’m already suffering. KC : I think this is amazing to a lot of people.
I mean, if you, David Sedaris, can’t relish success; if you can’t feel like you can let
your guard down at least for a bit, then who could? DS : The confidence that I do have, I think
got from writing for The New Yorker. The New Yorker doesn’t have to take my stuff. Like
I always say, if something’s published in Esquire Magazine, and you don’t like it, then
it could be a bad story. But if something’s in The New Yorker and you don’t like it, there’s
something wrong with you. And so that’s given me what confidence I have. But seeing your name in The New Yorker, there’s
nothing like it. And I thought it would wear off, because I’ve been in The New Yorker for
twenty years now, but it doesn’t wear off. Whenever I have a story in The New Yorker,
I open it up to the title page and I keep it open on my kitchen table and I walk by
and I think, wait a minute, is that my name? Is that my name in The New Yorker? I want
my 20 year old self to see it, because my 20 year old self would die if he knew that
he was in The New Yorker. KC : When you were starting out in your twenties,
if someone else got something published or did something successful, would you feel jealous
of them? DS : It was interesting, I dropped out of
college. Then I was going to be a visual artist, so I was living in Raleigh and everybody submitted
their work to the North Carolina Art Museum. I got in and no one else in our little friendship
group got in. That was the first time I ever saw what happens then– it was decided that
it was a sell-out to be in a museum. All of the sudden, it was better to have not
gotten in to the museum, because getting in to the museum meant that you were a commercial
sell-out basically. That was the first taste I ever got of that. I realized that if they
had gotten it, I probably would have felt that same way. They were all my friends, but
basically we were all competing with each other. That’s why I don’t like to have friends
who are writers. Gosh, I don’t know that I have any. KC : Because it would be hard to not compare
yourselves to each other? DS : Yeah. Plus, I went to Yaddo for a while
for a month. Yaddo is a writers’ colony in Saratoga Springs, NY. I went when I was working
on the book, Naked. It was the first time I’d really been in a group like that. You’re
lumped together with fifteen other writers and you have to have dinner every night together.
It’s a horrible idea. Someone would tell a story and I’d reach for my notebook and they’d
say, ‘I’m already using that.’ I want to be with people who have amazing
stories to tell and are like, ‘really? You want to write that down? Great! Because I
don’t even know how to spell.’ That’s who I want to be hanging out with. Writers aren’t
necessarily good friends. I don’t know if they’re good friends to have in the first
place. I just like having friends who are just normal people. [00:20:13.08] Kevin Caners: You said something
interesting in your most recent interview with Terry Gross on NPR, where you said you
know how you don’t actually – even though your stories are vulnerable and about some
of your past failings or when you haven’t felt like you measure up you don’t actually
feel that sense when you are performing them or are talking about them. And then, of course,
as an aside you say, you say there’s the persona that we all present to the world and then
there’s the real you and then hopefully they are as close as possible. And I find that
really i nteresting because, you’ve done such much self-inwardly looking work in radio and
in your writing, so you have this persona and people have an expectation of who you
are, do you find that – I guess first, how close are the two would you say between who
you are and the persona you have to the world in your artistic work, and do you find it
constraining at all to have such a public image and such sort of a way that people think
of you. [00:21:25.12] David Sedaris: Hmm…. well
I mean, when you write about yourself you become a character. I mean there’s a real
you – like my boyfriend hugh – there’s the real hugh and then there’s the character of
hugh and after a while hugh can’t do things that are out of hugh character or I’m just
not going to write about them because people would say “wait a bminute that doesn’t make
sense, Hugh is supposed to be the sensible capable one, he can’t be doing that” and consequently
I would never write – you know I tend to put myself down when I’m writing about myself
right… I would never write [00:22:02.17] Kevin Caners: that day when
you did everything right and you felt like the life of the party [00:22:07.02] David Sedaris: Right… I probably
wouldn’t write that about myself. Um… [00:22:13.03] Kevin Caners: So you do feel
like that, like you do – you do have parts of you that would not be reflected in your
work and in what comes across as the David Sedaris in sort of the public imagination [00:22:22.29] David Sedaris: Oh sure, I mean
I think it is easy for me to answer you question if I look at other people right, like people
think – like my sister Amy – they see her on TV and they have this idea that she’s wacky
and she’s zainy and she’s nothing like that. She’s – if they met her what would surprise
them is how inquesitive she is, and what a good listener she is, but they would expect
her to be – you know and when you’re on TV you kind of play this kind of super version
of yourself, like a charactured version of yourself – and that’s not who she is at all
really. [00:23:00.19] David Sedaris: Um…. I don’t
know, I mean I – I don’t feel like I’m that…. I don’t – I don’t feel like I;m that different
than who I am., well I don’t know again because it’s me I can’t really tell, I mean were you
disappointed when you met me? did you think, were you expecting something more? Did you
think that my clothes would be different or did you think… [00:23:28.20] Kevin Caners: No not at all,
but I know for me, I remember the first time I went travelling after university I found
it just enormously freeing because suddenly there was not expectations for me, and not
that there’s anything negative expectations of me before, but I had never even felt what
it was like to be in the absence of those expectations of “who kevin is” you know – and
I just found that really rewarding and empowering in a way, and for me, and so I would expect
of course everyone is different from the self we present to the world, but for me I would
be nervous about getting too stuck in that, or I would feel constrained almost even if
it was one of my own doing. [00:24:13.07] David Sedaris: Ya… I know
what you mean. But I guess – [00:24:14.25] Kevin Caners: So like do you
feel like that at all? Like when you go on tour people meet you – does that come across
that people expect you to be a certain way and if you’re not then they’re not as enthralled
as they should be? [00:24:24.09] David Sedaris: Well I think
sometimes people just see or hear what they want to. I mean there have been times in my
life where I have said to people that I grrew up in North Carolina, and they say ‘I hear
that in your accent because you have that southern twang’ and I say ‘no I don’t, you’re
just saying that because I told you that I told you i grew up in NC’ but when I’m on
tour, it’s different. I mean, you know it’s like I have an on switch under my shirt and
when I flick the on-switch on then I’m on, when I’m on tour, and then I go home and it’s
not a part of my life at all. My neighbours have no expectations of me, I’m just the foreigner,
and when you’re the foreigner you’re really the lowest lifeform. Poeople just – you know
they’re thinking either you’re taking their benefits or you’re cheating them out of money
or you’re have no right being here, or you’re taking their job, or – [00:25:17.16] Kevin Caners: But do you like
that? [00:25:18.21] David Sedaris: I love it. I
love it. [00:25:19.19] Kevin Caners: You find it freeing? [00:25:21.06] David Sedaris: Ya. Very. Very.
And I think too when people are thinking that you don’t really count, they’ll be themselves
in a way that they wouldn’t because they think ‘oh you wouldn’t really understand, you wouldn’t
get it’ and I love that. Absolutely love it. Even in english, they think ‘well you don’t
really understand our ways, like we can talk freely in front of you because you’re not
going to get it. [00:25:46.16] Kevin Caners: RIght, it’s like
talking infront of a young child or something [00:25:48.17] David Sedaris: Well you know
it’s the way that americans talk infront of mexican bus boys, is what it is. Like ‘I guess
you’re human, *laughs*’ That’s what it is like ‘technically you’re a human’. Bus boys,
mexican bus boys, man, they need, they’re the ones who – I want to read their book.
Because, they’re invisible. They’re…. they’re ghosts. um… no one sees them, no one hears
them, I was somewhere – It was shocking – I was at a hotel I think it was in California
last week and, the, guy whose job it is to clear things away – well it was a bus boy,
he spilled something on my friends purse, and he said ‘oh I’m just having that kind
of a day’ and he mopped it off of her purse, and he made himself real, you know, he made
himself – because normally – I don’t know, [00:26:58.17] Kevin Caners: It doesn’t even
register [00:26:58.26] David Sedaris:Ya… they wouldn’t
even say, anything at all – and it was just fascinating to me, just fascinating. I mean,
ya people just expect them to do their jobs and keep their mouths shut and they’re just,
– invisible people and you think ‘well they probably snuck into the country’ – I don’t
know. Like, I just always wonder about them and I always just think ‘the things that they
must see and hear’ because people are exactly themselves around them, and that’s really
the judge of your character, how you treat people who don’t, who just have to suck it
up. You see that in hotels all the time, like you see people screaming at maids or having
meltdowns at the front counter and… and you know if you have a job like that, you
can’t say what’s on your mind. you have to act – you just have to suck it up. I mean
if you’re the women… [00:28:04.22] David Sedaris: One thing I just
realized is that like when people are checking in an the airport, you can curse ans much
as you want, as long as you don’t meet someones eye, like if you’re at the ticket desk checking
in, and someone says your flight is overbooked, you know is delayed or was cancelled, you
can say whatever you want, but if you look the women behind the counter in the eye and
say it, then she’s going to call her supervisor. [00:28:29.00] Kevin Caners: You’ve been writing
your journals since 1977, I was curious for you is writing – do you think it makes you
a better person to write? And not even publically just your journal? Becuase you said before
– you get that distance and it doesn’t feel as you know ‘one day this will be funny’. [00:28:50.29] David Sedaris: I think it makes
me a better person to re-read what I’ve written because sometimes I re-read something and
I think ‘oh I don’t like this peron at all! look at this person on this page from Feb
5, 2001, I don’t like him at all’ and… that’s good, it’s good to think ‘well if I don’t
like that person, I should probably not be doing that stuff, or be talking like that
person did’ so… [00:29:22.01] Kevin Caners: and then do you
try to incorporate that? [00:29:25.01] David Sedaris: Sure… I don’t
know how successful I am but I think it’s always good to… [00:29:27.11] Kevin Caners: Say you had written
down, how you yelled at the bus boy, then you would – say I’ll try to be nicer to the
people who work at the hotel [00:29:36.11] David Sedaris: Well like Hugh,
if, – I’ve never been mean to a bus boy – [00:29:36.11] Kevin Caners: Laughs [00:29:36.11] David Sedaris: Hugh, if hugh’s
unhappy, he’ll say “I haven’t been happy in 3 years” and then I just pick up my diary
and say ‘look at here! you were happy here and you were happy here” Diariy is good for
that too. You can say, actually no… I… it isn’t as drastic as I’m making it out to
be. But it can be, you know by the same token you can say ‘my left foot has been hurting
me for 3 years’ and you can say ‘oh that’ when my foot started hurting me, it’s 3 years
ago my foot started hurting me’ [00:30:20.20] David Sedaris: I, most of what
I write in my diary is just crap. You know I get up this morning and I write, you know,
just a million petty things, and then there are some really fascinating things and some
people I met last night and some jokes and like I said, it’s just – I’m not going to
qualifiy it now, you know, I just kind of put it down there and who knows maybe one
day I’ll write a story about hotels of the world and I’ll need that description of my
hotel room that I wrote this morning, or I’ll have a joke roundup and I’ll need those jokes
that I wrote last night, or maybe I’ll never need any of it, but I just got to do it. [00:31:06.18] Kevin Caners: Is the vast majority
of what you write – like almost all of it – would it be for because you’re thinking
someday I may be able to use this, or do you also write in your journal if you’ve been
worrying about something, just as a way to get that comforting distance from yourself. [00:31:21.29] David Sedaris: Ya. I mean I
started writing a diary before I ever knew that I would be using it for anything, so,
but alot of it is, that it helps me make sense of the world, like I write it down on a piece
of paper, and then I can kind of see it and I can often see my part in it, like I have
the story and in the verbal story, it’s all someone elses fault, and in the written story
I write it down, and I think ‘that is completely myfault, I owe that person an apology’ [00:31:52.17] Kevin Caners: So it’s suddenly
like when you’re friend tell you how they’ve been wrogned, when you’re listening to the
story you can sort of say ‘well you know, I don’t know if it’s entirely they’re fault
‘ by doing that you can sort of be that person to yourself almost. [00:32:03.20] David Sedaris: Ya. Ya. In a
way I can’t with other people because it’s pretty hard – if – let’s say someone else
get’s a divorce and they’re saying “I can’t believe that he left me” that’s not really
a good time to say “well actually you cheated on him 2 years ago, and you never had a good
thing to say about him, so actually…” – You always hope that someone will say that in
your defense, when someone’s saying bad things about you, but Hugh’s mother does that. It’s
maddening! Maddining… She always takes the other person’s side. [00:32:37.03] Kevin Caners: Well… I mean…
I interviewed Jonathan Goldstein a while ago. [00:32:42.04] David Sedaris: Oh I love Jonathan
Goldstein. [00:32:43.03] Kevin Caners: Ya me too, and
you know – you both seem to have a similiar sensibility, in that a lot of your stuff is
reflecting on being self-conscious or trying to normalize yourself in the world, and one
story he tells is being really young and starring into a mirror and trying stare at his image
until he escapes his sense of me-ness. Like who he is, like escapes the prison of the
self. First does that relate to you as well, like do you feel imprisoned by the self, and
do you still feel trapped if you are? Like do you still feel like you want to transcend
who you are and that sense of being stuck as an individual? [00:33:29.01] David Sedaris: No I think I
aged out of that. I’m 56 so I think I’m at an age now where I think there’s nothing I
can do about it at this point. [00:33:43.29] Kevin Caners: It’s made you
more easy going just with time? [00:33:46.06] David Sedaris: Ya. and plus
after a point you become invisible. You know. Um… It’s like being neutered in a way, after
a cetain point after your hair is grey, and if someone said ‘what did the guy look like?’
Like if I were to rob a bank and they said ‘what did he look like’? they would say “old…
he was old…” like that’s all they would say, because you just look like every other
old person. [00:34:08.11] Kevin Caners: you become a bus
boy in a way [00:34:08.27] David Sedaris: Ya. ya. Um…
except you know you’re still white so people are going to be careful with what they say
around you. But as you get older and you become invisible, ya a lot of those concerns just
sort of – you think ‘if I haven’t excepted myself Now….! Like really! At the age that
I am! Like I have inserts into my shoes and I haven’t accepted myself by now!?!” so no,
I don’t feel trapped. I still feel like I could reinvent myself if I needed to. Like,
That’s such an North American or maybe just american, idea…. you know that you could
do that. [00:35:09.27] Kevin Caners: Reinvent youself? [00:35:11.22] David Sedaris: Ya, that it’s
never too late, that you can keep doing it. It’s heartening, I think – I mean in America
it’s so big too, that it’s like Canada that you can move to the other side of the country
and no one is going to know who you are and you can start all over. you know wheras you
look at a country like England or Ireland, it’s like Good luck. So they can’t do it with
the ease that we can. But it’s always so nice to know that you have that safety net. [00:35:38.06] Kevin Caners: Right, and is
that why you move around so often? [00:35:41.13] David Sedaris: No no, I just
like moving. I just like the challenge of it and the newness of it, and I wanted to
move to germany but I don’t think – hugh won’t go to germany with me. But I really like it
there, and I just want to see, to test it, to see how much I like it. And the language
seems fun to me, hard to learn because everyone speaks english so beautifully you’d have to
move to a little town but, I used to think that I needed to live in a city, but I like
being in the country. [00:36:16.09] Kevin Caners: Well just to end
off, I mean would you ever, subvery your public persona, of David Sedaris, and come out, maybe
star in an action movie? or osmething like that? [00:36:25.00] David Sedaris: *laughs* an action
movie. wow! You know it’s funny, often, when I go to, when I’m on tour, I’ll be in America
and I’ll be in a public radio station and they’ll be like “we wrote somthing for you
to read for our funderraiser, would you read it? we wrote it in your voice”. And I’ll look
at it and think ‘that’s what I sound like? That’s how I come across to you?! Like there’s
never any way in hell I would read this thing outloud,’ it’s appaling to me, everytime I
think…- maybe it’s like someone doing a really bad imitation of you, or you hope it’s
a bad imitiation of you, you’re
just praying that it’s a bad imitiation of you. [00:37:14.16] Kevin Caners: Right… [00:37:15.21] David Sedaris: Let’s hear it
for Jonathan Goldstein. Isn’t that guy amazing? [00:37:19.05] Kevin Caners: Definitely [00:37:19.15] David Sedaris: I love his stories
on the radio, just absolutely love them. He’s such a smart guy and he doesn’t remind me
of anyone else. [00:37:28.17] Kevin Caners: Really? because
from the outside, you can see a thread form him to you, [00:37:32.14] David Sedaris: I don’t see it,
because he’s smart. [00:37:34.29] Kevin Caners: you don’t think
you’re smart? [00:37:34.29] David Sedaris: Not the way he’s
smart, I mean he’s/… Like you know if you were to test us both, and I don’t know remember
– I took an IQ test once, but I don’t remember if 60 is high if it’s 300, you know, I don’t
remember any of that stuff, but let’s say it was a scale of 1 to 100, just on raw intelligence,
I would be 30, and Jonathan would be like… 98 I think. He’s really, – I love something
he – his stories about youth are so interesting because I can’t imagine him – it’s so hard
to imagine him as a child because he seems just so smart and so fully realized, it’s
hard to imagine him any less intelligent than he is. And word by word, putting this word
in front of that word, behind that other word, he’s such a good writer. [00:38:37.06] Kevin Caners: Well I’m sure, He said he looks up to
you too. you influenced a lot of people through
This American Life, and through your books. [00:38:38.22] David Sedaris: I think
he would – he’s a little taller than I am,
I think
he would look down on me. [00:38:50.09] Kevin Caners: Well david sedaris
thanks so much for coming on
the show [00:38:50.13] David Sedaris: Oh thanks so
much for having me Kevin.

17 thoughts on “David Sedaris – On His Life as a Writer, Humor, and His Public Persona (2013 Interview)

  1. Thanks for the "you need distance from a situation" comment, It's exactly what I needed to hear at this particular time. In time, every thing will be, if not alright, better.

  2. At beginning… Please, ASAP do change the lame image of the writer with a Marlbore light on right ear. It's so sad. Kiitos, anyhow

  3. Mr. Sedaris is a genuinely pleasant, nice man. I was lucky enough to meet him once, very briefly, and he made a very positive impression. He's one of those people you'd want at your ideal dinner party.

  4. I just found out about David when someone compared my thoughts/comedy to that of David's. I find his stuff very funny now that I have heard it so I guess it's true.

  5. I love that after 20 years David still gets such a thrill out of seeing his name when he's published in The New Yorker, and that he wants his 20-year-old self to see it.

  6. in his diaries, David talks about a book tour when a woman who picked him up at the airport to take him to the booksigning noticed the bookstore was packed, and said, "Goodness, they must be having a sale." There were 400 people there and he signed for more than 3 hours. Afterwards, driving him back to the airport, the same woman said "it was nice that so many people happened to be in the store." Amazing that someone could be so clueless.

  7. Kudos to the interviewer for getting such a great interview out of David and asking really great questions as well. I also appreciated finding out about Jonathan Goldstein because I don't even know who that is but I'm about to go look it up!

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