Interview: David Sedaris finds the funny side of everyday disasters

The bestselling essayist talks about finding humor in aging and family trials, but not in being rich, and about why his book signings can last 10 hours.
Author David Sedaris’ latest book is “Calypso.” [Courtesy of Ingrid Christie]
Author David Sedaris’ latest book is “Calypso.” [Courtesy of Ingrid Christie]
Published May 9
Updated May 13

If you go to see David Sedaris perform in Tampa on Wednesday, be prepared for mordant and sometimes transgressive humor. Be prepared for a book signing that could last as long as a workday. And be prepared for culottes.

Although Sedaris is a bestselling author, his appearances aren’t readings from his published work. They’re a vital part of his writing process; he develops essays on stage, tweaking them in response to audience reaction, before they ever get to the page.

“Sometimes an editor will say, maybe you don’t need this line,” Sedaris says. “And I can say, that gets the biggest laugh in the whole thing.”

Sedaris’ latest book, his 10th, is Calypso, a darkly funny collection of essays that focus most often on his family, long the richest source for his humor.

Sedaris talked to the Tampa Bay Times by phone as he was being driven from Dallas to Austin, answering questions about writing on family, being funny while rich, signing books for 10 hours at a stretch and collecting culottes.

You’ve always written about your family, with humor but also with poignancy. In Calypso you address more directly than ever such issues as your mother’s alcoholism, your youngest sister’s suicide and your father’s aging. What pushed the book in that direction?

I think it just comes with being older. People die, you start to fall apart. I’ve always been writing about my life. It’s just all that stuff came along.

I just had my first cancer scare. I’m 62, so that’s right on schedule. I don’t have it. But there are just fewer cheerful moments. The stories I’ve written since then are darker than anything in Calypso.

In 2017 you published Theft by Finding, a collection of entries from the diaries you’ve kept most of your life. What made you decide to do that? And is a second volume coming?

I thought I would just release the ones that were funny. But my editor said, release the ones that aren’t funny, too. In the first volume, I think there was an arc. I went from someone who didn’t have anything to someone who did have things. In the second one, it would just be me having things and then having more things. So maybe the second one will just be the things that are funny.

Is it harder to write about being the person who has things?

It’s harder to be funny. I can’t really write about going to Sotheby’s and having them take the Picasso out of the frame to show it to me. I don’t know that it would work. Now if I dropped the Picasso and stepped on it and tore it, I might have something.

It’s hard to write about special treatment. Hugh and I were flying from Honolulu to Portland, and we were seated in first class. This woman got on and said, on her way to coach, “Lucky you! What a great spot for people watching.” I said, well, it could be, but we don’t really count you as people.

A friend of mine said, “Did you say that so everybody would hate you?” But I thought it was funny. Besides, I’ve sold 12 million books and been translated into 27 languages. Where do you think I sit on the plane?

Several of the essays in Calypso are about the Sea Section, the beach house you bought for your family in Emerald Isle, N.C. Did you also buy a second house there?

Yes, we bought the house next door. It was for sale, and people buy these places and tear them down and build McMansions. Then they put in a pool. Once there’s a pool next door, your life is over. All day long it’s “Marco! Polo! Marco! Polo!”

Our house was destroyed by the hurricane (Florence), the one last year. It tore the roof off. The water hasn’t been turned on for months, but the workmen defecated in all four of the toilets. Who does that? I just got that news from Hugh. He had to clean them. He’s pretty mad.

But there are so many people — hundreds of thousands of houses that people can’t go home to yet.

When Notre Dame burned, I felt nothing. There’s no shortage of 12th century churches around Europe. It’s just going to need some repair work. As for the artifacts, I didn’t really believe that was Christ’s toenail. I mean, it was probably someone’s toenail, but it would be pretty easy to replace.

In the same way, I couldn’t really care about our house. Hugh did; he was devastated. But I grew up in North Carolina. I knew it was just a matter of time. Every house we ever lived in there is gone.

Speaking of Hugh Hamrick, your partner, you write in the book about supporting marriage equality but choosing not to marry yourselves. You describe your reaction as feeling like it’s being “entitled to wear Dockers to the Olive Garden.”

That line doesn’t get anything in England, because there’s no Olive Garden. Some people say replace it, but there’s no real replacement for the Olive Garden, is there?

(Marriage) never really felt that important to me. It doesn’t mean anything to me that would make our relationship stronger. I know that for some other people it means a lot. I have a friend who’s 30, he’s gay, and he’s really wanting a family. For people our age that’s insane. I might as well sprout wings and fly.

Really, do you think there’s any guy who wants to have babies? I mean, they want to have sex whenever they want it, so they figure that means a wife and marriage. But I think if there’s any guy out there thinking, oooh, a baby — he’d be a gay guy.

You’ve written about your own life, but has anyone ever wanted to write a biography of you?

There’s a professor at the University of Iowa who wrote one. He interviewed me. I said, go ahead, but I will never read the book. It’s kind of an academic book. Students want to write their papers or their master’s thesis about my books. But I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what I mean.

You know, people say things like, the character’s scar is a symbol of humanity, like the writer thought that out. No he didn’t. The UPS man came to the door, and he had a scar on his forehead, and he couldn’t remember exactly what that waiter at the IHOP looked like, so he said, I’ll give him a scar on his forehead. That’s how the scar got there.

I don’t look under my own hood. It’s the same when people ask me the secret to having a long relationship: Never talk about your relationship.

Can you talk about your book signings, which are legendary?

Yes, 10 ½ hours is my record. I’ve had several that were 10 hours and 15 minutes. Last night’s was four hours, and that’s about half of what I do on a (new) book tour. But my eyes cross after three hours. I go cross-eyed. I’m afraid to look up at people.

A lot of people show up with all of the books. That’s 10 books. I say, oh, you’re hard to like. But generally speaking I love signing books. It gives me a chance to talk to people in a way I don’t get otherwise.

If I go to a cocktail party, I’m worried that people might not like me, or I might not like them, and how do I escape? The book signing is perfect. I can just push the book back and say, “Thanks!”

Do you still give small gifts to some of your fans?

The other night I was thinking my gifts are getting sort of pathetic. It’s hard to carry them around in my suitcase. I thought, maybe I’m going to stop.

Then last night this high school kid came, all dressed up, he bought a ticket with his own money and came by himself. I would have felt awful if I didn’t have a gift for him. I was in Estonia and I bought these little pins. I don’t know what they say, I don’t speak Estonian, but I gave him one. He probably won’t treasure it forever, but maybe for a couple of months it will mean something to him.

Do fans bring you gifts?

People do bring me gifts. Somebody brought me an owl skull last night. But it’s still got a little bit of meat on it. I’ll probably pass that one along.

One guy said, I want to give you something, and it was a manuscript he’d written. He said, “I never read books, but I wrote this story of my life, and I want to get it published.”

I don’t want to destroy anybody. You can make folk art, go out in the woods and get twigs and leaves and make something beautiful. But there’s no such thing as a folk writer.

You don’t have to go to school for it, but you have to inhale books, study books, learn how to seduce a reader. I wrote for 15 years before I had a book published. If you’re not a reader, it’s not fair to expect other people to read what you wrote.

Are you still collecting culottes?

Yes, I now have nine pairs of culottes. I’ve been wearing them on this tour. I was wearing a black sequinned pair, but you can’t sit down in them. The sequins fall off.

I’ve been wearing lavender long pants with a jacket that’s two jackets sewn together. People think I made it, but I don’t have those skills. I really like it. I look like a clown who stepped on a land mine.

I go back to New York City for three nights before I come to Tampa, so I’m thinking of changing it up. I might wear the black sequinned culottes. It’s all good.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

If you go

David Sedaris will perform at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. A book signing with sales by Tombolo Books will follow; order in advance at tombolobooks.com. Tickets cost $35-$55. strazcenter.org. (813) 229-7827.

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