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Austin Chronicle Him Write Funny

The Fine Art of Being David Sedaris

By Sarah Hepola

JUNE 19, 2000:  "I wound up in Normandy the same way my mother wound up in North Carolina," David Sedaris writes in his new collection, Me Talk Pretty One Day (Little, Brown, and Company, 224 pp., $22.95). "You meet a guy, relinquish a tiny bit of control, and the next thing you know, you're eating a different part of the pig."

This kind of deadpan humor, mixed with wry social commentary and shameless bitchery, has led critics to place the bestselling author in the same breath as Mark Twain, James Thurber, and Dorothy Parker. "It's very nice of people to say that," Sedaris remarks in his trademark, helium monotone, "but I certainly don't take it seriously." What he does take seriously is comedy -- Sedaris writes every day, revises his published texts for readings, and admits discontent with all his stories but one. ("And next week, I won't like that one either.")

But the truth is, you'd never know it. David Sedaris is admired for taking absolutely nothing seriously -- not his bizarre pedigree, his childhood tics, or the world's insistence on general stupidity. David Sedaris is beloved because he is an honest-to-god goofball, a soap opera fanatic who dreams of saving people's lives in the ER. David Sedaris is worshipped because he writes about his neuroses, observations, and experiences without a shred of self-pity and with such vivid honesty that we can immediately embrace his truths as our own. David Sedaris is like you and me -- only funnier and more successful (dammit). On the first day of his book tour, I spoke with him on the phone while he was in Manhattan, where he was staying with his sister Amy, an actress whose spoof on after-school specials, Strangers With Candy, airs on Comedy Central.


Austin Chronicle: Do you have a favorite story in the new book?

David Sedaris: There's this story called "Picka Pocketoni," and I like that story. I like the way that it moves along, the way that it's structured. And I read it, and I forget that I know what happens next, which is basically nothing. I mean, it's very anticlimactic. These tourists on the Paris Métro thought I was a pickpocket, and they had this conversation about it in front of me, and I never said anything to them. Later, I thought of things I wished I'd said, but the truth was that I never said them. And I just tried really hard to hold myself to telling the truth in this book.


AC: Was that something new for you?

DS: Yeah, it was. But then I thought, well, if by any chance these people should read this story, I didn't want them to be able to say that's not what happened.


AC: In your story "Nutcracker.com," you write about your dislike of computers. ("I hate computers for getting their own section in The New York Times and for lengthening commercials with the mention of a Web site address. I hate them for creating the word "org," and I hate them for e-mail, which isn't real mail but a variation of the pointless notes people used to pass in class.") Do you ever use computers?

DS: I'd never touched one in my life, but my boyfriend gave me one in March. It's one of those iBook things. And I never asked for one, and I never wanted it, so I just put it away. And then I was working on something, and it wasn't going anywhere, and I wondered what it would be like if I tried it on that ... thing. And so now I really like it. I'm shocked. It sickens me to say this. It really does. And then you always hear people having these elaborate conversations about their computers and offering their advice. So when people have conversations like that, I say, "Every now and then, you should press apple save." That's the extent of my advice.


AC: Do you ever use the Internet?

DS: No, I don't know anything about it.


AC: I was wondering if you'd ever looked at any of the fan sites devoted to you.

DS: No, I wouldn't really want to. I mean, I know they exist, and people have offered to show them to me before. But I don't even like to read my reviews and articles. I had to go to Amazon to sign some books, and they gave me all these reviews that had been written by people, and I just threw them away. I didn't see the benefit in reading them. I just get confused. If I read reviews and somebody says they like something, then I think, "Oh! Oh! Then I guess I should do that more." You can't listen to everything. 'Cause see, I just want to please everybody. If somebody hates me, I just go to pieces. I mean, it doesn't really seem fair that I've made my career making fun of people, and if someone makes fun of me, I fall apart. But that's the way it is.


AC: In "Twelve Moments in the Life of an Artist," you open up about several ill-fated attempts at performance art. So when did you discover that you could write?

DS: I started writing when I was 20. I'm 43 now. But I didn't think I could write, and really, I look back and I just die I'm so embarrassed over that stuff. And I still don't think I can write. I mean, I know I can type (laughs). ... I guess I started writing and I wrote every day, hoping that I would improve, and I still write every day, hoping that I'll improve.


AC: Are there authors you admire, that you try to emulate?

DS: There are a lot of people I admire. But I'm very susceptible. I try not to read anything while I'm working on something, because I'm such a sponge. And I can just soak up anything, and I can start writing like that person. And it's just too dangerous for me. So I try not to read anything while I'm writing. I listen to tapes of This American Life, and there's this guy who lives in Salt Lake City, and I really like his voice a lot. He'll have a story on there, and I'm just fucked up after I listen to it. I don't know who I am anymore. And I wish that I could write the kind of stories that would make people not know who they were anymore, but I don't think that I do. I'm not saying that everything I write is completely worthless, but I don't have the power to do that. I'm not a very good salesman for myself (laughs). But I think there comes a time when you have to say, 'Okay, this is what I do. I don't do these other things, but I do this.' Because I can admire people who write really serious stuff, that's really shattering and great. But I can't do that, and I know I can't do that.


AC: You tried your hand at writing one-act plays in New York with your sister Amy. How was that experience?

DS: Great. We have a play that's going to open in October. We don't know anything about it. We don't know the title; we don't know anything. So we're starting to panic. But this is normal for us. My sister Amy casts the show, and she always picks really funny people who are good sports, and then we get together with them, and we read through what we've written. And then we pretty much throw it away.


AC: Do you ever watch Strangers With Candy?

DS: Yeah, I watch it when I come to the states, because the VCRs are different in France, and I don't have a VCR anyway. So I watch it when I come here. It's really funny. I can't believe the stuff they get away with.


AC: Do you get to watch any soap operas in France?

DS: They get The Young & the Restless and Santa Barbara. But I never believed in those West Coast soap operas. To me, they should be set in small towns, on the East Coast, outside of New York or Philadelphia, and they should stay indoors. They should never go out to a real beach. They should never go to a real location. And on the West Coast, they all have names like Storm -- the really goofy names. And they tend to be younger characters. Although Mrs. Chancellor's been around forever on Young & the Restless.


AC: So what would you like to do that you haven't done yet?

DS: I'd like to operate on somebody (giggles).


AC: Really?

DS: Yeah, I would like to be able to do that. I always think maybe I can retire and go to medical school. But my grades were really awful. I don't know. It would have to be like a medical school in Tijuana or something.


AC: You're not squeamish at all?

DS: No, as long as it's on other people. If it's on me, it's awful. I had to start going to a periodontist, and if I had been going with someone else -- like if it had been their appointment -- I would be all over those tools. I'd be like: "What's this? What do you do with this?" And this time, I looked at the tools on her tray, and I went completely white. I looked like I'd just stepped out of the shower. My hair was completely wet; I was stuck to the chair. I didn't even want to know what they were doing in my mouth. I have to go every week in July, too. I don't ever want this book tour to end.


AC: What kind of doctor would you like to be?

DS: I'd like to be the kind of doctor that just saves people's lives, and everyone's really grateful, and everyone just thanks him all the time and thinks he's a god. But what I would do for people would be really simple, you know? But they would think it was more complicated than it was. Like I'd cure cancer but just by making them eat a certain kind of toast.


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