Interview with David Sedaris

Posted by Goodreads on October 3, 2010
American humorist David Sedaris calls himself a magnet for crazy people. He's attracted to the bizarre in life, perfect fodder for his wry observations about the quirky people who populate this world. A frequent contributor to National Public Radio, Sedaris is known for his best-selling collections of autobiographical essays, including Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day, and When You Are Engulfed in Flames. His new book, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary, is a compilation of fictional short stories with illustrations by Ian Falconer. The vignettes star dogs and cats, rats and mice, pigs and chickens, and an assortment of other animals at home in the meadow, on the farm, or—as imagined by Sedaris—attending Alcoholics Anonymous, explaining the "birds and the bees" to their kids, cheating on their spouses, even raising pets of their own. Sedaris chatted with Goodreads about his favorite nature videos on YouTube and what kind of animal he'd like to be.

Goodreads: This is a big departure from your usual personal essays. What was the genesis of writing a book of animal stories?

David Sedaris: I wanted to write fiction again, and this seemed like a good way to get back into it. If you were to tell me that your friend Thomas had been going out with Vanessa for two weeks and they ran out of things to talk about, I would say, "Yeah, well it happens." But if you told me that it was a squirrel and a chipmunk who had been dating for two weeks when they ran out of things to talk about, I would say, "Really? Then what happened?" I don't know why. I suppose there is a child or a nitwit trapped inside of me who is interested in that.

GR: Did you draw upon reading fables as a child?

DS: I hesitate calling it a collection of fables because fables have morals, and these don't necessarily all have morals. I didn't want to impose or force morals on them. I think we don't live in such a black-and-white time. That's why I called it a bestiary, because a bestiary is just a book where animals do things that people do. I didn't want to read any [fables] over again while writing the book, so I stayed away from Aesop.

GR: Where did you find inspiration for the stories?

DS: Sometimes they were motivated by animals, and sometimes they were motivated by events. Ira Glass did a radio show, and the theme was "cat and mouse," so he wanted me to write something. I wrote a story about a cat in an Alcoholics Anonymous program in prison. For some reason that just came to me. I read in The New York Times that there is a certain kind of leech that only lives in the anus of a hippopotamus. I wondered what that leech's life must be like, so I wrote about that. We have a neighbor in Normandy who is a sheep farmer. He told me that you always want your lambs to be born in the lambing shed. You don't want them to be born in the field because crows will come and eat the eyes of the newborn babies. So I thought I'll write something about a crow and a lamb.

GR: So if you could choose, what kind of animal would you be?

DS: I met this guy in France a couple years ago, and he wanted to be friends. He liked to ride horses, so he showed me the stable where he keeps his horses, and he asked me, "If you could be any kind of animal, what would you be?" Maybe I said a squirrel or something, and he said, "A squirrel? I see you more like an oyster." And I thought, "Why would you want to be an oyster's friend? An oyster has nothing going for him."

I'd like to be an animal that doesn't get preyed upon too much. We spend our summers in Normandy in this little village. Every morning I write in my diary, so my headline story for years when I was in Normandy would be, "I saw a centipede attack an ant." Just little nature dramas. But everybody wants a piece of a mouse. Everybody wants to eat a mouse. Those poor things. I saw on YouTube recently a bullfrog eating a mouse. Just go on YouTube and look at animals eating mice. I saw last week a giant Vietnamese centipede named Father Christmas eating a mouse.

GR: There is a wealth of weirdness on YouTube.

DS: Like Komodo dragons. There are any number of videos on YouTube of Komodo dragons eating things that are still alive. Komodo dragons are dinosaurs basically. I like animals that way. I like reading about them, but I don't feel the need to have them as pets or to march in support of them. I've never thought of myself as an animal person particularly.

Did you see that footage of—this is going to seem like all I do is look at YouTube, but I fall into these holes sometimes—the dairy farm in Ohio? This guy was beating cows over the head with crowbars and punching newborn calves in the face. It was all on tape, and he didn't know he was being recorded. Then he would blame the cows for getting his blood pressure up. He was a bully...but of cows. Thank goodness it turned into this big case and he was sentenced, but not for long enough. There are lots of cows in Normandy, and they are pretty defenseless. All they can do is run away, but they can't run that fast. They're clumsy, they're big, they don't have sharp teeth, and they wouldn't know how to attack you. It wouldn't be a fair fight.

GR: So not a mouse, not an oyster, and not a cow. We're doing process of elimination here.

DS: [laughs] I would like to be some kind of very tiny insect. That way you could spy on people. If you were an insect of any size, you would be eaten, so I'd want to be something pretty small. I wrote a story that didn't end up in the book about an ant and aphid. I did some checking afterwards, and I didn't realize that ants and aphids are friends. Ants milk life-giving nectar from the anuses of aphids. Aphids are like a cow being milked. They're happy to have that nectar out, and the ants are happy to drink it. That's something I started thinking about with the book, too. Like I wrote a story about migrating warblers. Before I chose warblers they were another kind of bird. So I thought I'd check and found out that that other kind of bird doesn't go to Guatemala. The first letters you get when a book comes out are from grammarians who want to point out every typo in your book. Then you get them from the people who say, "No, warblers don't eat horseflies."

GR: Since you often read your work aloud, both for live audiences and for radio, when you craft a piece of writing do you give much attention to what the performance could be like? How a phrase will play out loud?

DS: Yes, I read something out loud, go back to the hotel room, rewrite it, read it, and rewrite it. Before I turned the book in, I spent a week at the Steppenwolf Theatre and a week at Berkeley Rep, shows billed as a book in progress. I read these stories for an entire hour, so I'm good and sick of all of them. Even the newer ones.

GR: How did the collaboration with illustrator Ian Falconer come about?

DS: I don't remember if Ian and I met at a New Yorker Christmas party or if we met when he was hired to do the set for the production of Santaland in New York in 1997 or 1998. We also worked together on a project for Art Spiegelman, and he did this book called Little Lit. They were comics for kids, and what he did was team up writers with artists. We did a little strip for that, and we wanted to work together again, so this seemed like a good opportunity.

GR: Goodreads member Monique writes, "With his natural storytelling ability, [David Sedaris] could make a trip to the DMV exciting. Does 'crazy' naturally seek him out or is he personally drawn to the odd and absurd?"

DS: I've always found that if I'm walking down the street and there is an insane person on the sidewalk and I'm with [my partner] Hugh, I'll always think, "That insane person is going to ask me for something or talk to me." Never to Hugh. I'm kind of a magnet because I'm nonthreatening. I'm not terribly large, and I look like I'll give you money. It also wouldn't be that hard to beat me up, and I wouldn't retaliate. I'm a good listener. I ask people questions. I think that's all it takes. I've always appreciated people who are passionate about something, whether they really love something or they absolutely hate it. When they're extreme like that, I always find them entertaining. I don't want them as my friends, but they are entertaining. Perhaps they can tell that I want what they've got. If someone is rude to me, I tend to think, "Oh, thank you so much. You've given me money, really, because I can turn around and write about it." It's beautiful. I often wonder for people who don't write, what do they do with it?

GR: Goodreads member Ariana would like to know which book you enjoyed writing the most.

DS: I noticed a definite change with Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim because that was a book I was touring regularly. So twice a year I was going on these monthlong lecture tours and had an audience for what I was writing. For Naked, a lot of those stories I never read out loud in front of an audience. It's one thing to write a story, and it's another thing to write a story and think two weeks from now I'm going to be in front of 2,000 people and have to read this story out loud. Maybe to some people that would be terrifying and crippling, but to me that's just fun.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing.

DS: I like to wake up at 10:30 a.m. Then I just get to work. I usually start by writing in my diary, and then I turn to whatever story I'm working on. I stay at my desk until about 1:30 p.m., and then I go back to work at 8 at night. I work for another hour, hour and a half. If I have a deadline, I'll stay up all night, but generally it's about four hours a day.

GR: Do you have any unusual writing habits?

DS: I don't write in public. There was a saying when I first moved to Paris, "Oh, what café do you write in?" I thought, " Ugh, writing in public." I did that when I very first started because I was writing my diary by hand. I'd go to the Pancake House and sit there in my big booth, but that was when I was 22.

Hugh told me I make a lot of noise, which I didn't realize. Apparently I make a steady stream of humming sounds. I was shocked when he told me. I had no idea.

GR: What are you reading now?

DS: Lately I love books on tape. Love 'em. There is something about listening to stories that is exciting to me. Whenever a new Alan Bennett audio is going to come out, I get very excited. I just love everything that he does. Something I love recently is called Pretending to Be Me. It was a one-man show that Tom Courtenay did about the life of the poet Philip Larkin. That's something I listen to over and over like a 12-year-old. Same with the Alan Bennett stuff. I listen to it over and over and over. Elaine Stritch did a compilation of Dorothy Parker stories. To me, Dorothy Parker has fallen into the category of old-fashioned, like she wore a bonnet or something. Then you hear Elaine Stritch read these stories, and they're so fresh, and you're just reminded what a great nuts-and-bolts writer Dorothy Parker was.

There's a podcast called Poetry Off the Shelf. I was out of school the day they taught us how to read poetry, so this is fantastic. They have recordings of James Schuyler and people like that. So James Schuyler will read a poem, and the host of the podcast will be there with some other poet or an expert, and they talk about the poem. And I think, "Wait a minute. I got 90 percent of that." I always thought that I couldn't understand poetry. It's like someone opens up a whole new world for me.

GR: What you are working on next?

DS: I'm working on another story: In 1981, when I was superbroke, I went to Washington with a friend. At the coat check at the Hirshhorn Museum, I gave the woman my ticket stub, and she handed me back a full-length mink. I turned it back in, but I did a little wandering before I turned it back in. [laughs] I just always wanted to write about that.

Comments Showing 1-7 of 7 (7 new)

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message 1: by Sari (new)

Sari Just picked up the new book and I'm lucky enough to be meeting David in December at one of his book signings - can't wait! Thanks for the interview.

message 2: by James (new)

James Isn't it interesting that David Sedaris and his fellow This American Life "alumni" such as Sarah Vowell and David Rakoff are bringing literature back to its roots of so many centuries ago -- the oral tradition. It's like a new age of Homer in which literature is meant to be read aloud. But this time it's prose more than poetry.

message 3: by Joann (new)

Joann When is the audio version out? Sedaris is meant to be listened to.

message 4: by Mary Ann (new)

Mary Ann Dailey Joann wrote: "When is the audio version out? Sedaris is meant to be listened to."

It's already out. I just picked it up at my library today.

message 5: by Joan (new)

Joan Waltz I recently bought "Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk." As soon as I finish "Journey" by Catlan Samuels (first time novelist) I'm anxious to start "Squirrel."

message 6: by Bobbi (new)

Bobbi Can't wait to read new book. If half as funny as ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY, I will love it.

message 7: by Kate (new)

Kate F Just saw D.S. in Cleveland. What a joy! I was on the verge of tears( the kind that come from uncontainable laughter) during most of his presentation. I was lucky enough to meet Mr. Sedaris and got my copy of "Squirrel" autographed. He was genuinely interested in connecting with his fans - a very pleasant gentleman. If you have a chance to see him in person, go for it !

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