|Photography by Anje Kirsch
David Sedaris is the author of Barrel Fever and Holidays on Ice, as well as collections of personal essays, Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and When You Are Engulfed in Flames, each of which became a bestseller. Seven million copies of his books are in print, translated into 25 languages. He was the editor of Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules: An Anthology of Outstanding Stories. Sedaris’s pieces appear regularly in The New Yorker and in “The Best American Essays.” A collection of fables entitled Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary (with illustrations by Ian Falconer) was published in September 2010 immediately hit the NYT Bestseller Fiction List. His latest book is entitled Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, published 2013.
He travels extensively though Europe and the United States on lecture tours and lives in West Sussex with his partner, Hugh.
One September afternoon, David came to Switzerland to read, sign and meet 400 of his fans. A sellout event. I met David beforehand for an interview and managed to cock up my recording device. A blessing in disguise. I am a massive Sedaris fan … so here are the words. Just the words. All snorts, howls and fangirl gushing mercifully deleted. – by JJ Marsh
Where do you write?
I have an office. Well, more than one. But my favourite is at home in West Sussex. It’s a separate building, one up, one down and it used to be a butcher’s shop, but we converted it. You know The Observer does that feature on writers’ rooms and they’re all chaotic, artistic and messy? Mine’s really neat and clean. When I get stuck for a word, I dust. My room is more Barbara Cartland than Ian McEwan.
Which was the book that changed your life?
Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt. It’s incredibly hard to get into the head of a child without being cloying or false. But he achieved that so well, he inspired a whole generation of memoir writers. People often react to this fifty-year-old upstart who burst out of nowhere, but Frank McCourt had done his time.
Do you have a word or phrase that you most overuse?
‘Fantastic’. But never ‘awesome’.
I hate the way Americans overuse the word ‘awesome’. In fact, I often fine people a dollar a time at events for using the A-word. I warn them first, because it’s only fair, but I can make pretty good money that way.
Have your expat experiences made you particularly attuned to cultural quirks?
Sure. Observing as a stranger makes you aware of your environment, because you want to adapt, to fit in, to do as the locals do. Years ago, I got off a train in Tokyo and lit a cigarette. Then I realised no one else was smoking. So I wanted to get rid of the goddamed thing, but there were no butts on the floor and no trash cans. Eventually I stubbed it out and put it in the cuff of my pants.
I know you’re serious about learning languages. What are your favourite foreign words?
One I learned this week – Drachenfutter. [Literally, dragonfood – a present to appease a pissed-off spouse]. I love that German has a word for every possible concept.
And Nacktschnecke [naked snail, ie, slug]. When I told my publisher that Hugh, my boyfriend, cuts slugs in half with a pair of scissors, he said ‘Der Todesschrei der Nacktschnecke’ [The Death-Cry of the Slug]. That will be the title of my next book. And it works so much better in German.
I’m so impressed that you study the language before going on a book tour.
It’s not always possible, but I took a month-long course in German because I wanted to be able to talk to people. A book signing means you can get hours of practice with native speakers. I did the same with Swedish. On planes, I often get excited when I recognise someone saying ‘delightful’ or ‘thirteen’ in another language. Once I got ticketed for jaywalking in Poland, and tried out my Polish phrases on those wardens. They found me so funny, and by that I mean ridiculous, they let me off. I can get away with a whole lot more now I’m older.
For me, learning some of the language means learning the way a culture thinks. Take Drachenfutter. The French don’t have a word for that. We taught our neighbours in Normandy the expression ‘in the doghouse’ and now they use it all the time.
Is there a book you were supposed to like but didn’t? Or a book you expected to hate but loved?
Lolita. I thought that would be hard work, but I really enjoyed it. Same with The Great Gatsby. I only read that about three years ago and have no idea why I waited so long.
The thing about books that are tough going … people say to me, ‘I’ve been reading Ulysses or that thing by Gertrude Stein for the last six months’ … and I think, ‘Life’s too short’.
Hugh’s different. He reads books covered with a thick layer of dust, with no cars in, because they hadn’t been invented back then. Then he gives them to his Mom and they talk about them at dinner, while I … [mimes falling asleep].
Are you still Wombling?
Yes! I collect rubbish all the time. Around two or three hours a day, I pick up the trash from the lanes of West Sussex. I can’t stop. It drives me crazy. All that beautiful scenery carpeted with crap.
Your writing is funny, endearing and has popular appeal. But I can’t help thinking you’re expressing a certain amount of anger.
I am full of rage. Really. Full of rage. It’s easier when you’re with someone else, but when I’m alone, I get so angry at so many little things.
Double strollers parked in the doorway of a shop. A shop I didn’t actually want to go into, but still.
Parisians. I can generalise in this case. Parisians are the worst when it comes to a complete lack of awareness of others. They step off an escalator and just stand there.
What, London is better?
Yes! I point out to visitors how they take manners and consideration for others seriously. Look at their escalators. Everyone obeys the rule. Stand on the right.
You mentioned Frank McCourt and spoke of yourself as a memoir writer.
The whole classification thing is difficult. I’d like to think of myself as someone who writes for The New Yorker. You don’t have anything quite like it in England, but that magazine, to me, represents some of the greatest humorists, political observers, satirists and wits for the last hundred years. When they first asked me to write for them, I said, ‘I don’t have a New Yorker kind of story.’ They said, ‘Send it, and let us decide’.
And bookshops make their own decisions about how to classify my work. In some places, I’m filed under ‘Gay’, simply because I use the term ‘my boyfriend’. I’m sure people are disappointed. I mean, it’s not like there’s a chapter on fisting.
I just finished The Happy Place on the train here. [David’s account of his colonoscopy]. There was one line, when you woke up, till high on the anaesthetic: ‘I gave her a little finger wave, the type a leprechaun might give to a pixie floating by on a maple leaf’.
I like that one too! But I’m worried I’m getting a little obsessed by leprechauns.
Have you managed to work out the hospital photographs yet?
No. I gave up on that. You know, I have my hands full worrying about the parts people can see. Hair, skin, this eye … so what my intestine looks like doesn’t really bother me.
Which writers make you laugh?
A lot. Jincey Willet. And George Saunders. Basically anyone who surprises you with the way they use language. We get so used to hearing the same patterns of words, we don’t realise how numb we’ve become. When’s the last time you heard ‘goblin’?
OK, bad example.
What I love is when someone uses an unexpected combination of words to create a perfect image. Like when Julie Klausner described Anna Wintour as ‘that cunt skeleton’.
And lastly, the title: Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. Where did that come from?
Some people can be very insistent about exactly what they want written in their books. One woman told me to sign a book for her daughter with the line, ‘Explore your possibilities’.
No. I’m never going to write that.
I kept the word ‘explore’ but wrote ‘Let’s explore … diabetes with … owls’. As soon as I’d finished writing, I knew I had the title for my next book.
But best be careful with demands. One young man asked me to sign his book with something shocking and outrageous for his mother. So I did.
‘Dear Barbara, your son Connor left teethmarks on my dick.’
By JJ Marsh – author, reader, Triskelite, journalist, Nuancer, reviewer and blogger. Likes: pugs, Werner Herzog and anchovies. Dislikes: meat, chocolate and institutionalised sexism. Short story collection out now.