Interview: David Sedaris - StoryWorthyWeek

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For American novelist and comedian David Sedaris, laughter isn’t just a facet of life – it’s the quintessential lifeblood of it. Before his headlining show at the spoken word festival StoryWorthyWeek in September, Ysabelle Cheung speaks to the writer about his penchant for plucking out humour from horror, and his journey from private diary entries to stadium readings

What makes you laugh? What sends you into uproarious laughter, reduces your body to little else but muscle-rippling giggles? David Sedaris, humourist author of nine novels, might say he doesn’t have an answer to that, but to everyone else he’s an authoritative voice on humour. Gleaning material from his diary entries, Sedaris crafts darkly comedic short stories and essays that tackle, in no particular order, his family (his sister is the actress Amy Sedaris), drug abuse, bowel movements, compulsive personalities and death.

Sedaris’ voice, reminiscent of an endearing North Carolina grandmother, can be heard on US radio show This American Life and his writings can be found regularly in The New Yorker. At 57 years old, he still writes in journal daily, and each book he writes – the latest being Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls in 2013 – is as much a surprise to him as to anyone else. We speak to him about obsessive journaling and life’s best lesson (learning to laugh at oneself), just ahead of his debut talk in Hong Kong on September 18 as part of StoryWorthyWeek, a 12-day spoken word festival featuring various storytelling groups (in English and Cantonese), talks and writing workshops.

In Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, you write about China’s ‘quirky’ culinary delights and diverge into talking about… faeces. You tend to be drawn to the peculiar in life.
Well, that’s kind of what I have an eye for. ‘I just came back from Beijing and it was covered with turds’ – that’s the first thing I would tell somebody. Other people have an eye for other things like colour or noise, but what I have an eye for is disfigurement of human nature. I can walk into a party and say ‘someone here is missing a finger,’ and I’ll be right.

Kind of like a sixth sense for the uncanny. Before you turned to writing, you dabbled in visual art. How has that dictated your approach to fiction now? 
When I was 27, I went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I’d been making art all my life. But at this school I just looked around me and I saw these people who were on fire with the passion for what they were doing. I think you can probably be selling insurance and not be on fire and that’s fine. But with anything creative, if it’s what you are meant for, you are going to grow with it... you’ll change with it, and it will become richer and deeper. That’s when I first realised I had that fire with stories. I’d read a short story and I would be so profoundly affected by it, in a way I wasn’t with art – I would look at the world in a different way, I would understand something I never understood before. I would feel hope and joy because someone on earth was able to write this well.

And when did you start the process of journaling?
I didn’t start writing until I was 20, actually. I was travelling in the Pacific Northwest and I was picking apples there. I didn’t have an address, so I was writing to my friends and family, but they couldn’t write back to me. So I just started writing to myself one day. I remember it was September, 1977, when I was 20 years old. And I’ve done it every single day since then.

How often do you go back and read through all your diaries in one sitting? And what was it like?
The last time I did that was probably 10 years ago. It was painful, because the writing was so bad. I had a hard time with how phony that 22-year-old me was – such a poser, such a phony. I was trying to write like other people, other writers, and it was garbage. As a writer you have to be true. Sometimes I just hate that person writing in those diaries.

How does a fragment of a diary entry morph into a fully fledged short story for you?
It’s not like somebody punches you in the stomach with it. It’s sort of making something out of nothing, especially with the ending of the story. That’s the really hard part. How do you take a couple of incidents or diary entries and turn them into a whole story? I wish I had a formula for it, but unfortunately I don’t.

Your work is marketed as non-fiction, but I would assume that you elaborate in your recountings. Where does the line blur, for you, between fiction and non-fiction?
I write for The New Yorker, who fact check everything. For the story I am writing right now, they will call my father and ask about a bumper sticker in 1972.  They will call my boyfriend, who I mentioned. They will call the host of a television programme I mentioned. So they tend to treat everything like a reported piece even if you are writing non-fiction humour. You know, people now will say that I should not write about anything that happened when I was alone because there wasn’t anyone else there to verify it. And to those people, I just say: I don’t want to live in that world! I can still be writing a personal essay, and there should be allowances made for different types of writing.

You write about your father often. Do you worry that this source of material will eventually be exhausted?
No... for example, all my father ever used to say was ‘when are you going to get a colonoscopy?’ Anyway, I finally got one, and then he said, ‘when are you going to get a physical?’ So I scheduled a physical. Now I’m just dying to see what he’s going to move on to. So there’s always something else with him. I think it happens to any writer, whether they write fiction or non-fiction. There are always more moments they want to describe.

Do you find catharsis in the process of writing about darker stuff, like your drug addiction?
Well, I never think of writing as cathartic, really. Also, the world is so full of people who can write with grace about their drug addiction or alcohol addiction or cancer, and I’m not one of those people, you know? So I prefer to write about it in a funny way. It’s just a way I’m better at.

Were any of those incidents ever dark enough for you to think that there wouldn’t be a funny side to them?
When I look back on those diaries I wrote when I was on meth, I wouldn’t wish those years on anybody. It was torture reading that, because when you’re on meth you can’t shut up, but when you’re writing you can’t shut up either and you write diary entries that are like 10 pages long, theories about contemporary art and all that crap. Now, I can step back and say it was all pretty funny. I think it’s good to have that sense in you, otherwise life becomes so depressing. My sister [Tiffany Sedaris] committed suicide a few months ago and she had a lot of things going for her, but one of her things was that she could never back away. The rest of my family had that – we would sit around a table every night and laugh and laugh and laugh, and a lot of what we were laughing about was something that we’d done. But she wasn’t like the rest of us. That ability to take a step back and say, ‘wow, I was really out of line or out of control. I was stupid. I’m sorry’ – it’s important.

What are you working on right now?

Well, I’m always working on a book, but I never say, ‘I’m going to write a book about travel’ because I never have that much to say about anything. I just write something and put it on a pile, and eventually the pile gets to book length and I think, ‘Oh, I just wrote a book’.

Have you thought of a title for your new collection of stories?
A couple months ago I went to a show and there were two jars containing sparrows in formaldehyde and they were like a couple hundred years old. On one jar it said ‘the testicles of an old sparrow in winter’. And the other one said ‘the testicles of an old sparrow in April’. One of those will be the title for my next book.

We’re intrigued to see how that title relates to the stable of stories in that collection! Finally, what can we expect from your performance in Hong Kong?
I’ll be reading something from my last book [Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls]. And I always end up reading from my diary. But I don’t know what will happen between now and the time when I leave for Hong Kong. I wonder what stories I’ll have written then. Who knows? 

An Evening with David Sedaris KITEC, Thu Sep 18, 7.30pm.
Tickets: $420-$300; www.hkticketing.com. For more on StoryWorthyWeek, visit storyworthyweek.com.

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