A Conversation With David Sedaris
By Carl Kozlowski
May 10, 2012
In the mid-‘90s, David Sedaris exploded onto the scene when he joined host Ira Glass on NPR’s This American Life to read from Santaland Diaries—his account of 45 days spent toiling as an elf at Macy’s. Since then, Sedaris has gone on to share the most awkward, intimate and hilarious moments of his life with readers and listeners in a string of New Yorker essays and books (including Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, When You Are Engulfed in Flames and Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk). He’s chronicled his family’s deepest secrets and his most crippling neuroses, which at turn are hilarious, cutting, cynical and touching.
Tonight, Sedaris rejoins This American Life and a slew of other guest stars as the radio program goes live for a special on-stage event broadcast in theaters around the country. Before you tune in, here’s what happened when RELEVANT sat down with Sedaris to talk about being an expatriate in Paris and England, how he got his start and why he doesn’t share his parents’ Greek Orthodox faith.
You found your success a little later in life. You were an apartment cleaner and did odd jobs, including being a department store elf. Do you feel your writing came out better from having all these experiences?
I started writing when I was 20. My first book came out when I was 35. But I never expected that it would happen quickly. I’d been reading out loud on the radio since I was 28, had been doing it for six or seven years by the time I had a book. The largest audiences I’ve had, in Chicago, I was sometimes performing at [the popular Chicago variety show] Milly’s Orchid Show with 900 people listening. Then Ira put me on the radio for an audience of 10 million.
All of a sudden, when you’re exposed to a large audience like that, I think they think you just started writing that day, but I started years before. I look back at things I wrote then and I’m so embarrassed—the writing seems so blocky and choppy to me, and I wouldn’t have wanted success any sooner because the writing was even worse. I’m not embarrassed by the stories, but the writing itself seems choppy.
You used to live in France, and now you live in England. How has living overseas affected your perceptions of America?
It does make you see the United States differently. It makes you aware of how American you are when you’re living in another country. When you go to that other country, you realize that in France and in England, you don’t ask somebody what they do for a living when you meet someone. A lot of the obvious things, the shortcuts we take in America—in America you can talk about money all you want. You can ask how much they make, rent they pay, how much their house costs and how much their car costs, and they’ll feel comfortable telling you. But it’s scandalous to ask anyone in England or France a question like that.
In America, if your next-door neighbor has a Rolls Royce, you want one, too. But in England, if your neighbor has a Rolls Royce, you want him to die in a fiery accident. That’s a quote from someone else, but there’s something about American optimism, that feeling you can do anything if you’re at least middle-class in America. If I can have a writing career, anyone can. There’s nothing special about me.
You were raised in the Greek Orthodox church. How did that upbringing shape you, and how do you feel about God today?
I never got the idea of a punishing God, just a really boring one. To see people growing up in the Carolinas who were Baptist, I knew there were others who felt God was going to send them to hell for any little thing, but not me. I didn’t feel like it, or like it influenced my writing style.
It’s rare to have two siblings who become offbeat pop culture icons. But that’s what happened with you and your sister Amy. What gave you such unique voices?
We’re not unique in our family. We’re more ambitious, but we’re not special. I’m not funnier than anyone else in my family. It’s just that we wanted more than Raleigh had to offer. If my brother wanted more than Raleigh had to offer, you would know his name. My sister Lisa has a really unique and different voice, but she doesn’t want that. She was a fine writer but never said, “I want a book. I want that kind of attention.”
I’m not an actor, and I don’t even feel like saying, “Let’s give it a try. I’m free next Tuesday.” I’m not comfortable in television at all. When a book comes out, you have to do some television, but I dread it.
Sometimes a magazine will call and say, “We want you to stow away on a ship.” I say it’s hilarious, if it happens organically. I don’t like to put myself into [a] situation unless it happens organically. I’ve had five essays in the New Yorker since Flames, so I haven’t stopped. I don’t know what else is next, and that can be great.
This article originally appeared in RELEVANT magazine.