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Daniel Day-Lewis spoke with poet, Eileen Myles in this 2002 interview. Photography by Terry Richardson.
 

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Alexander McQueen's 2003 interview with Bjork.
 
  JERRY HALL
STEPHANIE SEYMORE
MARC JACOBS
  ASIA ARGENTO
DENNIS HOPPER
ABEL FERRARA
BRIAN WILSON
WILL OLDHAM
DJ SPOOKY

David Sedaris, 1997

WITH DAVID SAVAGE
PHOTOGRAPHED BY CHRIS BUCK


David Sedaris is a tight little package, pardon the expression. Small and compact, polite and business-like with journalists, there isn't the slightest hint of the devastating satirist that narrates his books, writes his plays, or reads his diary entries aloud on NPR. Unless you tease it out of him. Once he loosens up with a kindred spirit, he'll lapse into that southern Kmart cashier, or the handcuffed wife beater on Cops with such precision that you know they aren't much of an exaggeration. They come from his suburban childhood in Raleigh, North Carolina, a locale he found himself dropped into when his family relocated from upstate New York when he was seven. He has ultimately made hay out of his life as an outsider, both as a Greek-American and for growing up gay in an especially gay-hostile corner of the world. His sharp observations of the people who populate his books and plays (the latter of which are co-written with sister Amy), from homo-mocking schoolteachers, to failed mimes and foul-mouthed Greyhound bus passengers, give his writing a hilarity that only true-life experience can impart, but also carry a familiar pang of disappointment and humiliation. There is the sense in both Barrel Fever, his 1994 collection of short stories, and naked, an autobiographical collection of more shorts published last March, that many of the characters' bitter humor comes from an inner conviction of being misborn into the wrong life. They are ignored, abandoned and disenfranchised, and painted in great detail against a background of cul-de-sacs, grocery stores and golf courses. They form a territory unexplored in most contemporary fiction, a genre Sedaris has created by default: Suburban Gothic.


SAVAGE: Are you an outrageous humorist?
SEDARIS: I don't think of myself as being outrageous, I don't think of myself as being a humorist, and I'm not — no, I don't think of myself in either one of those words.

SAVAGE: That description of you comes from a headline on one of your press clippings. When you read something like that, is there a jar of inaccuracy for you as a writer?
SEDARIS: Well, it's just a bit of an embarrassment. I wouldn't want anyone to think that I sit around my house calling myself that. I'm always surprised that people expect me to be outrageous or something, and I don't know where they get that impression. Somebody called a while ago and they wanted me to go to review five nightclubs for this magazine and I said, "I've never gone to a nightclub in my life," and she said, "Oh, but you're so hip." It's so foreign to me. I don't know where she got that notion at all.

SAVAGE: With Barrel Fever, you were propositioned by a lot of people when the book received favorable notices. How did you react to being thrust into that publicity mill all of a sudden.
SEDARIS: It's something that as a child I always dreamed of. And I didn't mind it, all I minded was having to have my picture taken, but it's odd because you might work for years doing whatever it is that you do, and then when something happens it's made to appear as if you've sprung out overnight.

SAVAGE: Out of nowhere.
SEDARIS: That you went in your apartment at 8:00 in the morning and came out the next morning and had a book and a personality you didn't have before.

SAVAGE: So how long did it take you to get Barrel Fever published?
SEDARIS: I was writing stories and I would just stick them in a drawer and it didn't really occur to me that anyone would ever publish them as a book, and I have no ability to promote myself whatsoever. So when I started on the radio, three publishing houses called and asked if I had a book and it was convenient because I just happened to have one in my drawer.

SAVAGE: Tell me about the first time you realized you wanted to read your diaries in public.
SEDARIS: I was in school, and we were asked to perform in a class and other people were like — you know how terrible performance art can be — people were shadow boxing or singing "Itsy Bitsy Spider" for forty-five minutes and I just thought I would prefer to read some things from my diary. But the day before I did it, if anyone had told me that I would have ever done that, I wouldn't have believed them.

SAVAGE: Because diaries are so personal, or the act of being on a stage?
SEDARIS: If you go to any readings it's a little bit scary because you can see how easy it is for people to be mistaken when they get up there and read. They're mistaken that the audience is going to care, that the audience is going to be paying attention, and if they're mistaken, you could be mistaken too.

SAVAGE: Did you ever experience a twinge of shame or anything related to that when you read a diary entry that you had never told anyone else before?
SEDARIS: No, I don't read those things.

SAVAGE: You don't?
SEDARIS: In terms of reading out loud, I would not read some tearful diary entry about breaking up with my boyfriend. Maybe I could do that in the future, making fun of it. It deserves to be made fun of, because most of the stuff I write in my diary is just garbage. But then there are the things that you save, like, my brother lives in North Carolina and I saw him over Christmas. He had gone out and gotten drunk with his banker a couple days before Christmas, and he had told his banker a story and the banker said [in a redneck twang], "That's as fucked up as a nigger's checkbook." I wrote that down and I know one day that will come in handy, so I just put it all down.

SAVAGE: Tell me about growing up in Raleigh. Did you in fact move there from Upstate New York as a character does in naked?
SEDARIS: The stuff in naked is all true. We moved there when I was in the second grade. I always admired people like Bailey White, who grew up in southern Georgia and lives there and has never left. And she's really rooted to a place and that is her place. When we moved to Raleigh, IBM and General Electric had just transferred people down there, and Raleigh went from being a small Southern town because all these people were suddenly coming in and changing everything, so there was a lot of hostility — justifiable hostility. I sort of liked growing up outside of the culture a little bit. It suited me.

SAVAGE: I get the sense from your writing that you felt Raleigh was sort of generic, or homogenous to you, that you could have been anywhere.
SEDARIS: When we moved to Raleigh, it felt like a definite place, but now it's become just like anywhere else in the country, you know, here's your Long John Silver's, here's your Kmart, it could be anywhere. The newscasters don't have accents. You can see that happening everywhere.

SAVAGE: I almost got transferred down there at my last job but I said I wouldn't go. I just don't know what lurks down there.
SEDARIS: It still retains something. I was in North Carolina for a visit, we were at the Kmart, and everybody writes a check for everything in North Carolina. You could buy a carton of milk and write a check. And the line was just not going anywhere, so we finally get up there and the woman in front of me is writing a check and the cashier looks at her I.D. and says, [now in a syrupy Southern female's voice] "You know I think I like your hair a lot better now. It's much better for your face. It brings out the …" And I thought, "This woman has been talking to everybody this way, that's why we're in this long line." But you can't complain, to complain or to pitch a fit, that's bad manners.

SAVAGE: Well your characters aren't quite eccentric in a Southern Gothic tradition, they're more suburban-strange, aren't they?
SEDARIS: Well, when I was in school I would see all these people in class who … you know, they wanted to be raised by wolves. They had a suburban experience, but in their minds that was something to be ashamed of. Nobody would own up to it. You're supposed to think that if you grew up poor with nothing, you're supposed to be ashamed of it. But most of the people I know who are ashamed of their pasts grew up middle class or upper middle class. If you're writing, that's just as rich as any other experience. It doesn't matter if you were raised on a pirate ship or raised in a condominium development in Sarasota, you still had a life.

SAVAGE: I understand you were courted briefly as a soap opera writer at the very beginning of your career, but it didn't work out because of creative differences. If you were to create your own fantasy soap opera, what would it be?
SEDARIS: Somebody called me a couple of years ago about that show Loving. They wanted me to watch it and tell them what I thought. You know how every soap opera has two filthy rich families that control the whole town? I just thought that they should be really filthy, like filthy hair, filthy clothes, but no one would ever comment on it. And to replace the ingenue with Shirley Stoller. And she would be just who she is, this woman in her mid-fifties who isn't thought of as traditionally attractive, and men would just go crazy for her, and never point it out or anything. Just shake it up a little bit. You know a couple of years ago those serials people were doing?

SAVAGE: You mean TV movies?
SEDARIS: No, like serials on a stage. So many of the people doing them never watched soap operas, and they didn't know the pleasure of a soap opera. When I think back on it, I wouldn't be able to do it because in order to deliver that pleasure you would have to be able to write it seriously and I wouldn't be able to do that. If it was a comic thing, say a great show like The Simpsons — I love that show … But it's a different kind of pleasure that I get from watching a soap opera. When I was really caught up in soap operas what was interesting to me was that I didn't need to have a life of my own. You know Victoria Buchanan on One Life to Live, her life was more than I could deal with. I lived through her, I thought about her problems, I didn't think about my own.

SAVAGE: In one interview a few years ago you hinted at your work being sanitized and heterosexualized once it landed, hypothetically, a big Hollywood deal. Is that a threat to you if you are ever approached by a Hollywood producer wanting to make your book into a movie? How would you react to that?
SEDARIS: I think it's because of the radio that I'm contacted a lot by people wanting to propose movie things, and it's nice to be asked, but so far it's not something I've ever really thought of. I go to the movies four times a week. I'll go see anything, but I don't think about how it's done. The same way I might ride in a cab but I don't think about the engine or what's propelling us forward. My advice has been, if someone wants to make a movie out of something, then you should just sign the contract and not be involved at all, because you're going to learn everything you need to about resentment and heartache once you start dealing with them.

SAVAGE: What made you forego a more conventional career track as a writer, what drove you to be so migratory?
SEDARIS: I don't have any skills. It never occurred to me when I was growing up. When I was about 20, I started writing in my diary but that certainly didn't make me think I would ever make a living out of it. I think it's true that the older you get, if you don't have a fancy job resumé, the longer you go without those things, the harder it is to break back into the system. People pay you in cash, you spend the money … before you know it you're not filing taxes, if someone needs your tax records for something you don't have them, you don't have a driver's license. You know I never learned to drive a car.

SAVAGE: Really? In Raleigh?
SEDARIS: No, I just never learned. And once your teeth get crummy then it's really over. You know what I mean? You can't even pass as a good, middle class kid. Your teeth start going, then you have nothing to prove that you ever grew up in a house with a dishwasher, and if you tell people you did they don't believe you.

SAVAGE: It's funny how it all boils down to teeth.
SEDARIS: It does. And really, I don't know how this book will go over, but if it does, my money's going into getting my teeth fixed.

SAVAGE: Does revenge interest you?
SEDARIS: The idea of it. I like thinking that way, it's like a puzzle to me. One of my sisters called me recently, her boyfriend had left her and now he was with this other woman and the woman was going to Italy — "What can I do?" So I said, "Simple. You go over to her house, and you bring drugs with you. Tell her there's no hard feelings. You know, she's packing, getting ready to go, and you slip the drugs into her purse or suitcase and she'll be stopped at the airport in Rome, and … you'll be here." It's not that she would do it either, but I like the fact that people would call me for things like that. It's just problem solving.

SAVAGE: Is writing a form of revenge for you? I don't mean to make it sound nasty, but there is an element of "settling the score" in your writing.
SEDARIS: I think that would be really bad luck, and that would be something that would just turn around and come back to haunt me.

SAVAGE: In the story, "I like guys," you do explore the shame of growing up gay through treating it comically. There is that exorcism of shame and guilt, and that's not exactly revenge, but there is some kind of transformation going on in that process.
SEDARIS: It seemed to me that everyone has written their little coming out story. There are whole anthologies about coming out, and one of the reasons I wanted to write about it was that it has been written about so many times. So then I could go into it thinking, "Okay, I can't go here, I can't go there, I don't want it to be a poor-little-me story." It's the same thing about the story in which my mother dies, because anyone whose mother has died of cancer who has a typewriter has written about it. So I liked the challenge of that, writing those stories almost as if there was an assignment and I had to do them, that I could write about it and try to work it in a different way.

SAVAGE: I was hoping you could say something on the subject of what you're allowed and not allowed to say on the radio, as far as content goes.
SEDARIS: It's always a mystery to me as to what can and cannot be said. Just before Christmas I did a story and it was about a maid we used to have. A kind of maid who would always hit us up, you know, hit my mother up for food every Thanksgiving. We were kind of amazed because we always wanted to be able to work our mother that way, get stuff out of her. And so I wrote a story about it for the radio and they said, "We can't do this because this reinforces every stereotype that a white racist would have about black people." And I said, "Well, the maid was white." "Great! Come into the studio tomorrow. But just write something to let us know that she's white." Or the story about hitchhiking with my quadriplegic roommate. They were afraid that people would be offended, and that turned out to be one of the most heavily requested tapes for rehab centers. I mean, I read it in San Francisco last month and there was this guy in the front row like that [contorts face and twists hand into body] and I planned to read this story, and I went out there and thought, "Oh good, he'll like it," and he was like [does a strangled laugh with contorted face], he was laughing as hard as he could. And I knew that would be the outcome.

SAVAGE: You know you're getting close to a nerve when you get those types of responses.
SEDARIS: There's a story that I've been dragging around for years when I go on the book tour — it's a diary thing. I was at this guy's house for Easter dinner, and we were eating in the back yard, and I went in to use the bathroom and there in the toilet was the biggest turd that I have ever seen in my life. It was huge. There was no toilet paper, just this turd. And it was eeenormous. Then someone knocked on the door and I started freaking out because they were going to think this was mine, and how do I get rid of it, right? It occurred to me to open the window and throw it out into the yard. I was willing to pick this thing up with my hands and throw it outside, but they were sitting just ten feet away and they'd see the window open and a hand reach out and drop something. I was so frantic thinking about this. Everything came back to me at that moment, that person pounding on the door, and there's this turd, and it's not mine, and if I deny it why would they believe me, and I got the plunger and I broke it up into lots of pieces and then I got rid of it and the woman at the door was like, "Well it's about time." And I went back to the table looking at everyone just trying to figure out, "Who would be capable of producing something of this magnitude?" And they won't let me have that on NPR. There's no dirty words in the story at all.

SAVAGE: And no scatological references I guess.
SEDARIS: There's no filthy language in it, and anyone would know what I'm talking about, everyone has been in that situation, and it's first thing in the morning, when people are having their coffee, I mean what better time? And I've tried every way you can think of. I even wrote it in a rhyming meter. I wrote a version that was a poem, thinking that would come across as gentler or something, but it didn't. But most things they take. There was a line in that hitchhiking thing that said, "I chose Kent State because people had been killed there," and they took that line out just in case there were people who had a family member there, that they might be offended.

SAVAGE: Do you think there's a fear of truth-telling going on there?
SEDARIS: Well the world is so ripe for a Kwanzaa parody, but you're not going to see one anywhere. It's just funny to me, things that are so ripe to be made fun of, but you can't. I mean you could, but you're not going to do it in The New Yorker or on the radio.

SAVAGE: Do you think you could ever make up anything funnier than true life?
SEDARIS: If I'm going to make fun of something, I need to find that in myself and then exaggerate it. But I find that if I don't start with me, with the honest truth of it, then it's not going to work when it's blown up. It's going to be empty. I'm supposed to write a novel, so I started on something about a Greek-American woman who's in her mid-'50s, paralyzed from the waist down, and who works as a locksmith. Wouldn't that be the worst job? Like, she's crawling up five flights of stairs and then she realizes she's left her tool belt in the van. That would just be the worst career choice in the world. I mean, it's hard to beat real life when you're thinking about really real absurdity.

SAVAGE: I'm assuming that you actually went to a nudist trailer park as the character does in naked.
SEDARIS: Yeah. And like I said, I don't walk around my house barefoot, let alone naked, and I went there for a week. By the time I left, someone had invited me to their house for breakfast, and I went naked, and they were naked, and it just seemed so completely normal to me. It really did work. I mean, I put my clothes on to take the bus home and they've been on ever since. I don't go around my house in my underwear now or anything. It didn't stick, but for the time that I was there, it was amazing that you could spend a week and it would almost be like, as if on a lark you were going to go to some Christian community and by the time you left you were on your knees, begging God for forgiveness.

 

 
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David Sedaris by Chris Buck, 1997

 

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