David Sedaris is not the only writer in America who can sell out a 4,000-seat theater or sign autographs for 10 hours at a bookstore event, but he’s almost certainly the only one who’s achieved that level of popularity exclusively as a writer of essays. Famous for his appearances on NPR’s This American Life and his essays in The New Yorker, Sedaris is the literary equivalent of a rock star—so much so that he and his partner, artist Hugh Hamrick, moved to Europe years ago to give Sedaris more time for writing. He is currently on an author tour for his new book, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls.
Sedaris spoke about his upcoming reading and signing at Parnassus Books in Nashville, the difference between his lecture and bookstore tours, and the true meaning of Christmas.
Do you have any observations about your audience — specifically, people who read the books as opposed to those who listen to the audiobook versions?
I find that people who listen to the audiobooks tend to be apologetic about it, you know? “Oh, I’m so sorry, I don’t read your book; I listen to it.” And I’m a big audiobook listener, so I never quite understand what they had to feel so bad about. When you’re reading a book, you go into the world of the book. But when you listen to the audiobook, the book comes into your world and says, “What do you need to do today?” And you say, “Well, I need to go to the Laundromat.” And the audiobook says, “Oh, OK. I’m free. I’ll go with you.”
I listen to your books myself. Since I first heard you on This American Life so many years ago, I’ve always just enjoyed listening to you. When I was listening to this book, I heard “Atta Boy” and realized I had heard it on your BBC Radio 4 series, Meet David Sedaris. How did you come about to have a show on Radio 4?
I think I had just started on the radio in the United States, and I got a letter from a guy in England who was then working for the BBC. He had read something I had written and was wondering if I would ever consider doing anything for the radio. And I said, “Well, as a matter of fact, I’m already on the radio here.”
So he came over to New York, where I was living at the time, and recorded a few things that were then put on the BBC. And then, gosh, I think about three or four years ago he proposed a show to the BBC called Meet David Sedaris. In that show I record in front of a live audience, and it’s eight half-hour segments. You can say a lot more on the BBC than you can in the United States, but if you have, like, a particularly strong four-letter word on there, they’ll have a meeting about it, and then they’ll debate. If the line gets a laugh because of that word, then they’ll either try to keep it, or bleep it. But if it seems gratuitous to them, then they vacuum it out. I like how much thought they put into it.
I’ve heard that, at least in the standup-comedy world, the British audiences can have a lot of hecklers in them. How have the lectures gone?
If you’re reading out loud, people generally distinguish between a reading and a standup-comedy performance, I find. I’ve never been heckled in my life. Well, OK, once. I was in Chicago. But it didn’t count as heckling, really. I was doing a show, and this woman who seemed to be in her 80s started berating me from the audience. But I didn’t say anything back because she was so old and it just doesn’t look good to be rude to an older person. I don’t think she knew who she was coming to see, and I think some of my language troubled her. She sat in the audience and berated me for a while, and then, I don’t know, she just ran out of steam and just sat there quietly for the rest of the show.
So what’s the difference between a lecture experience and a bookstore experience?
Well, for a lecture, people bought tickets, so they get a comfortable seat and the lights go all the way down and I read for an hour, and then I answer questions or just kind of run my mouth for another half an hour. Usually in a bookstore the most you would read is for half an hour and then answer questions for 15 minutes. It’s hard to listen to something when you’re standing up.
And I tend to talk more in a bookstore than I would in a theater. The Q&A is more interesting, I think, because it’s engaging with people, and it’s more volatile. Not that anything bad ever happens, but it’s more engaging, I suppose. And book signings last longer in a bookstore than they do in a theater, I don’t care how big the theater is. In a bookstore it could be arranged in such a way that people can leave and come back. They know I’ll still be there when they get back.
And no pictures.
Night before last, in St. Louis, I signed books — not the reading part but just the book-signing part — for nine hours and 20 minutes. That’s just sitting on my ass, signing books for nine hours and 20 minutes. But if I did the picture thing, then it would have been like, I don’t know, 12 hours.
In the new book you also talk about how you like to give little presents away, especially to teenagers in the audience.
I always have something. You know, sometimes people give me things and, you know, I take them to the next town and give them away to somebody else. I mean, some things I keep, but some things, they’re unwieldy maybe, or it’s not my thing. Like I don’t eat chocolate, and a woman the other day gave me a little box of chocolate. It was four chocolates in a box and it was a really nice box, and the chocolates were obviously very nice. So I said, “Thank you so much.” And the next night I gave them away to a teenager. I said, “I bought these chocolates just waiting for the exact perfect person to give them to, and you were so obviously that perfect person.”
So with the publication of the story “Understanding Understanding Owls,” do you get more owls?
I’ve gotten so much owl stuff on this tour. A woman in Memphis gave me a crocheted owl, and it’s pretty big. But I realized that I could put it on top of my head and then button my jacket around it so it would look like I had an owl head, and it’s just great. I mean, she made it herself, and it was really, really a nice present. That was a keeper.
There is one owl thing in particular I really want. I am hoping that Hugh — my boyfriend, Hugh — will get it for me. I mean, I’ve dropped enough hints. I don’t want to buy it for myself; I want someone to buy it for me as a gift for my book. I would feel like I really failed if I had to buy it myself. I’m pretty good about, you know, zeroing in on something and then harassing people until they buy it for me.
Do you think having so many siblings helped you out with the manipulation skills?
Yeah, actually I do. We work really hard on finding each other good gifts, and we take pride in it.
And you’re a creative bunch. What do you attribute that creativity to?
I don’t know where that comes from. My parents weren’t especially creative people. My dad, if he was going to push you in any direction, it was a direction that would get you out of the house; it would guarantee that you would not be living in his basement when you were 30 years old. So he was more, “You need to take a computer class.”
Computers and colonoscopies.
You know, my dad nagged me, nagged me, nagged me, nagged me, nagged me to get a colonoscopy, and so I got one. And I wrote a story about it in the book. And I talked to him the other day and he said, “When are you going to get your prostate looked at?” So he’s just moved on to that. That’s what he does in his old age: he just nags us. And the colonoscopy, OK, they gave me good drugs, and so it was worth every minute of it. But they don’t give you anything for your prostate. I went to a doctor in France, and they did an ultrasound, I guess, of my prostate. He said it looked fine to him.
The French doctors didn’t seem too concerned about anything you threw their way.
I had a lipoma, which is just a fatty tumor, but I didn’t know that; I thought it was cancer. And so I went to my French doctor, and he said, “Ah, that’s just a fatty tumor. Dogs get them all the time. I wouldn’t worry about it.” And I said, “Well, can I have it removed?” And he said, “You can if you want to, but …” He made it sound like I was just being vain. Interestingly enough, I wrote a story about my lipoma, and then I was on stage one night in the United States, and a veterinarian came and he said, “I’ll cut that out of you tonight. I’ll cut your lipoma out right here.” And I was so mad that I didn’t take him up on it. Wouldn’t it be fun to be operated on by a veterinarian?
Since you did live in France for a while, do you have any feelings about Dominique Venner, the right-wing historian who committed suicide to protest gay marriage May 21?
France is kind of getting a bad reputation over that. A lot of people heard about the protests in Paris that were against gay marriage, but they didn’t hear about the massive, massive protests in favor of it. I saw banners, you know, for people who work for the electric company, and people who are printers, and people who put money in ATM machines. They were all marching in support of gay marriage. They weren’t gay, you know. They were just regular French people. So it’s really a pretty small group that’s against it.
Well, we look forward to seeing you in a couple of days in Nashville.
Last time I was in Nashville I had some of that Jeni’s ice cream. I had the best ice cream of my life when I was in Nashville, and I’m looking forward to that. I want to go to Nashville and I want to sign books and I want to eat ice cream while I’m signing books. That’s what I want to do. Maybe I can give someone a few bucks to run out and buy some for me.
To read an uncut version of this interview — and hear a podcast of it — please visit www.Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.