Books + Comics

David Sedaris Is As Awesome As Everybody Hoped

One of the greatest writers of our time weighs in on eating buttons and dispensing free condoms.

Illustration by Minna

David Sedaris is one of the funniest human beings on the planet, one of the greatest writers of all time, and the neatest member of my Sims family of favorite writers that I once made (WHILE SURROUNDED BY MY MANY FRIENDS AND BOYFRIENDS.) I mean, have you heard him on This American Life? Have you read any of his books? Holidays on Ice? Me Talk Pretty One Day? Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk (original title: Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls)? Because if not, please do. But first, read this interview. He talks about growing up and writing and all that “life” stuff, but also about his favorite Japanese clothing designers and giving condoms to teenagers. He also mentions—multiple times—that he doesn’t know how to drive a car. I think it’s a plea of some kind. In the future, people will look back on this interview and say, “If only we’d gotten him that car, his would’ve been the BEST Sims family ever.”

Do you ever find yourself playing up a certain side of your personality to get a better story later on?

I was just thinking about this the other day. I never learned how to drive a car. And so I never really developed aggression skills. And so I’m not very good at saying no. I think that saying yes, or being afraid to say no, leads to a lot more stories than playing up a side of myself. Most people, something starts to happen and they’re able to say, “No, I don’t want this to happen,” and, “No, you’re going too far,” and, “No, I don’t like the way you’re talking to me.” But I’m afraid to say that.

You write a lot about your family, and your childhood sounds unpleasant at times. But you and your sister Amy obviously turned out great. How did that happen?

Amy and I are not exceptional. I think the only reason that things worked out for us the way they did was because we were ambitious, whereas some other people in my family weren’t. I just spent some time with my sister Gretchen and I thought, How could I have ever forgotten how funny she is? And I saw my sister Lisa earlier this month and thought the same thing. Lisa writes as well [as us], but she’s never been interested in showing it to other people. The only difference with me and Amy is that Raleigh [North Carolina] was too small for us, and we wanted to get out of there as soon as we could. Whereas my brother’s content to just be a funny guy at a party.

What compelled you to share your writing, unlike the other members of your family?

I don’t know, I’ve always wanted everyone to pay attention to me! When you come from a big family, you’re always competing for attention. In our case, we were always competing for our mother’s attention—our dad’s attention was negative. Nobody really wanted it. In high school, I was in the drama club, but I have all these nervous tics and so, when I got a part, all my nervous tics went into overdrive. It was just horrible. And I realized, OK, that’s out. So then I tried visual art. That was OK, but that wasn’t right either. And then I started writing, and it seemed right. When I’m writing, I’m just alone in a room, and then going on tour is my reward for spending all that time alone in a room.

Have you gone back to Raleigh? Is it as bad as you remember?

Yeah! [Laughs] I never learned to drive a car, so my world there was very small. And I still don’t know how to drive, so when I go back, my dad picks me up and gives me rides. I’m still 14 in that regard. And so I still have a 14 year-old’s view of it. And Raleigh has grown a lot, but it hasn’t grown in a way that interests me. It’s another Target, another T.J. Maxx, another P.F.Chang’s. And I could never live with that kind of heat again. So I think I made a right decision.

Are you ever surprised by the kinds of people who come to see you on your tour?

Yeah, I am. I went to 42 cities in 43 days on a lecture tour and, in that case, people are buying tickets, so you’re getting people who can afford a 50-dollar ticket. Now, I’m on a book tour because I think people should be able to come for free, so that introduces me to a completely different kind of person. A truck driver came to one of the readings, and that made me feel really good. Last night I met a nurse and she had just that day had a patient who defecated a button. [Laughs]

Oh my god!

Yeah! A button came out! And I said, “But did he eat it off his clothes?” And she said, “Yeah, I think that’s what he did.” Every now and then, someone comes down the line and I think, God, I’m so grateful to have you as a reader.

Are you ever perplexed when certain people like your stuff?

Well, I imagine it’d be the same for you. Whether you have a book or a blog, the audience is kind of invisible, for the most part. I’d like to think that I could stand in front of these people, and talk to each one of them, and know how to make them happy. But I would have no idea how to make them happy. The crazy part is realizing that being yourself is the key. For some insane reason, people like you.

I just realized my question was basically, “Are you surprised that people even like you?”

No, but I am! I actually am! I wanted to give something away to the audience, so I thought I’d print up a joke book and give it to people as a little souvenir. It was gonna cost me $20,000. Instead, I decided to print up these postcards. One was a photograph of the skull of a Pekingese. One was a book cover that I’d hired a designer to make when I was going to title my last book Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls. And then the other just said, “Abortion, $3.” I got to this theater in Memphis and they said, “You can’t put this card on your table. The people who come to this theater are very conservative.” And I said, “But it’s a really good price for an abortion!” And they said, “No, you don’t understand.” And I said, “I would be ashamed to look a child of mine in the eye and tell him or her that I passed up a deal like this.” My whole schtick was that it was just a really good price so I said, “I really need those cards on the table.” And not one person complained. A couple of years ago, I offered priority signing to smokers because smokers never get anything. Everyone’s down on them all the time. And a man filed papers to initiate a lawsuit saying that I was discriminating against nonsmokers on California state property. To me, that’s like, What are you doing in my audience? I don’t want you.

Do you see a lot of teenagers at your shows?

Yeah, I do, and I always have gifts for them because I’m always so honored that they come. If I run out of gifts, I give them money. A couple of years ago, I gave condoms to teenagers because I wanted something that was light and easy to pack. Perfect, right? And then I got a letter from a woman in Chicago who said, “I came with my daughter to see your show and she’s 15 and you gave her a condom and told her you didn’t want to be responsible for her losing her virginity so she could only use it for anal sex.” Yeah, that’s exactly what I said! I don’t know how she could’ve been offended by it. I mean, I was nice to her daughter. And then I wrote about it and people would come up and say, “Where’s my condom?” And then that kind of ruined it. So now I take like the shampoos and conditioners from my hotel. And I have these little cards that I got at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the gift shop there, which I think is fantastic. They’re these little cards and they’re really beautifully printed on nice paper and they say, “STOP TALKING.” They don’t say, “Shut up,” so they’re still polite, but they have a trillion uses.

What’s so special about when teenagers come see you?

Everybody says that they have better things to do, but teenagers are the only ones who really do have better things to do. When I meet a teenager, I think, They could be getting high in a car. And instead they came to hear a middle-aged man read about going to China. I’m just so honored. And I always write teenagers back. But I don’t like it when they put their school address as the return address. Like, if they give me their home address I’m gonna stalk them or something. Or when they say, “Thank you in advance for answering this.” I still write them back, but I scold them for saying that because that sounds like something a teacher told them to do. That’s a dumb person’s idea of how to get somebody to write them back. Or how like a really, kind of fluffy, uninteresting…like a state worker’s idea of how to get someone to write you back.

Were there any people like that that you wrote to or admired as a teenager?

There was an author I started writing to — I wasn’t a teenager, but I was in my early 20s — but I would just write him anonymously, and when I look back on it, it must have been…he just must have taken those and thrown them straight into the trash can. [Laughs] And he’s somebody who I always admired and who I still admire and when I was in California a few weeks ago he introduced me. And I’ve never told him that I used to write him anonymously.

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40 Comments

  • christinachristina January 10th, 2012 3:10 PM

    “And I said, “I would be ashamed to look a child of mine in the eye and tell him or her that I passed up a deal like this.” My whole schtick was that it was just a really good price so I said, “I really need those cards on the table.” And not one person complained.”

    lovelovelove.

  • ShockHorror January 10th, 2012 3:15 PM

    I found out about him from his radio show on 7.

    He’s so funny and wonderful, and this interview makes me like him evne more, thanks Rookie!

  • Susann January 10th, 2012 3:16 PM

    Such an interesting and inspiring interview! Great!

    http://fashioninpepperland.blogspot.com/

  • marimba_girl January 10th, 2012 3:27 PM

    I now love David Sedaris even more than I did five minutes ago!!! His books are so hilarious, I always think that people assume I’m crazy when I read them in public because I cannot stop laughing.

  • Mollie January 10th, 2012 3:57 PM

    I have the abortion postcard, but I’m too selfish to send it. I loved meeting him!

  • Claire January 10th, 2012 4:01 PM

    Holy crap. Just when I thought Rookie couldn’t possibly get any more awesome. David Sedaris is a frigging legend.

  • suburban grrrl January 10th, 2012 4:02 PM

    All of David Sedaris’s stories about his Dad and his yiayia are SOOOO true it’s hilarious. (I’m partially Greek too)

    The Sedaris family puts the “fun” in “dysfunctional”

    http://sub-urbangrrrl.blogspot.com/

  • Maddy January 10th, 2012 4:05 PM

    I would really like to see that book cover. I’ve never thought about diabetic owls before. This was a great interview! I like that he asked you a question.

  • cherrycola27 January 10th, 2012 4:07 PM

    Words can’t express how much I love David Sedaris. He’s so great.
    I met him last year and he was so much fun. I love his voice. He told us all that he was trying to get as many jokes as possible, so if we had one then tell it to him when we met him. I told him THE WORST JOKE and he had a little machine that made a “wah wah wahhhh” sound that he played for me, then he told me a funnier joke. :)

  • insouciant January 10th, 2012 4:14 PM

    First off, I LOVE DAVID SEDARIS SO MUCH so when I saw this I literally squealed with delight. All time favorite author. Second, I’ve gotten a gift from DS before!! I went to a free book reading that was promoting Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, afterwards I waited in line until midnight (over 6 hrs) to meet him. We exchanged jokes, played with a funny little noise making machine, he offered me some of his dinner because I was so hungry, told me I was “absolutely enchanting”, and gave me a little gift, which was just a little card that simply reads, “STOP TALKING”, which he told me to give to someone who I really wanted to just shut up :) He talked with my friend and I for a good 10 minutes, so yes, David Sedaris really is as awesome (if not more) as everybody hoped.

    • Claire January 10th, 2012 4:26 PM

      That is so awesome. I have to say, I’m a little jealous…but who wouldn’t be? (:

    • Maddy January 10th, 2012 8:53 PM

      That is really awesome. To have a cool, famous person offer me their food! (and not be creepy)

    • marimba_girl January 10th, 2012 10:30 PM

      Also crazy jellie!!!

  • Genevieve January 10th, 2012 4:26 PM

    Love this interview!! So jealous you got to hang out with him! Gave Holidays on Ice to a random friend for Christmas and he absolutely loved it. My family listened to the SantaLand Diaries online on Christmas together, it was wonderful. And I just introduced my friends to Amy Sedaris in Strangers with Candy last night! Everybody was cracking up the entire time. Brilliant amazing family.

  • BrandonF January 10th, 2012 4:36 PM

    Great article, Tavi. I can’t think of anyone better to interview David Sedaris than you. I’ve been a fan for many years and have read everything he’s written, but I actually learned a few things here that I didn’t know. Congrats!

  • Stewart January 10th, 2012 4:44 PM

    I love him so much…
    I went to one of his signings last year- by the time I got to the front of the line it was after midnight. We talked about personal hygiene and he gave me a bottle of shampoo from his hotel room.
    I have get to meet a cooler human being.

  • MissKnowItAll January 10th, 2012 4:48 PM

    Squirrel seeks chipmunk. SO EPIC!!!!

  • fizzingwhizbees January 10th, 2012 5:26 PM

    Oh my god I’m in love with him. Now I’m sad that I’ve never been to one of his signings so I can get a gift!

  • Laia January 10th, 2012 5:31 PM

    i LOVE LOVE LOVE this.

  • Hedwig January 10th, 2012 5:32 PM

    ahahah best!

  • Avery January 10th, 2012 5:34 PM

    He is my favorite… Can you amazing people interview Amy? I can’t get enough of this family. He is better than pancakes.

  • GagaMcQueen January 10th, 2012 5:36 PM

    David Sedaris is my favorite author of all time. THANK YOU ROOKIE!!

  • caro nation January 10th, 2012 5:42 PM

    I first read Me Talk Pretty One Day on a roadtrip New York, and engaged in heated contention over the validity of Bonnie in City of Angels with my mother. Then we arrived, and met a woman in Manhattan who, if not exactly Bonnie, was very, very, close. Maybe even an exaggerated version. It was exhausting and intriguing at the same time, and I have trusted Mr. Sedaris ever since.

  • Jo January 10th, 2012 6:10 PM

    just in case i wasn’t already sure i loved rookie & david sedaris (jk, i was) this pretty much seals the deal. LOVE this article!

  • HBF January 10th, 2012 6:55 PM

    Perhaps too cliché to ask, but I’m DYING to know when I can plan to devour his next book!

    Also…saw a delightful one-man play of SantaLand Diaries in Boulder, Colorado a couple years ago. Sedaris’ awesomeness was well represented.

  • Louise January 10th, 2012 6:57 PM

    Ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod. I FREAKED OUT. David Sedaris is fantastic.

  • Guan January 10th, 2012 7:03 PM

    I love the part he talks about fashion. How fascinating it would be if This American Life has an episode on fashion! oh and when are you gonna interview Ira Glass?

  • fung-eyed January 10th, 2012 7:33 PM

    sick interview tavi !

  • hillarwee January 10th, 2012 8:23 PM

    This pissed me off. As much as I adore David Sedaris this was a little too much of a back and forth between between people needing justification for/feeling ashamed of feeling like they are the shit. Congrats for getting “cool” down to a science guys. Excuse me while I get my PF Chang’s takeout and become middle America enough to be your literary material.

  • Adrienne January 10th, 2012 9:39 PM

    CRUMPETS! It’s David Sedaris! Thank you thank you for this amazing interview. I’m listening to his narration of Santaland Diaries now. :)

  • Jamie January 10th, 2012 9:45 PM

    my heart is erect and throbbing with love for him

  • TravelShark January 10th, 2012 10:29 PM

    This interview makes me like YOU more! Can’t I subscribe to your feed? I don’t see RSS anywhere…help….

  • smilingrottenflesh January 10th, 2012 11:49 PM

    “for older people who like having a little secret: special lining inside their pockets, or really big buttons.”

    yes! those little details excite me also, always looking for special nuance in pieces.

  • lilghostie January 10th, 2012 11:59 PM

    i like that he says i thought art history was basically flash cards. that’s my major in college and sometimes i still think that

  • leraje January 11th, 2012 1:37 AM

    i like that at the end he admitted his fondness for tavi’s work. this interview had two-way fan action!

  • ghostworld January 11th, 2012 7:06 AM

    “surrounded by many boyfriends”. Tavi, you so kewl.

  • Izzy January 11th, 2012 3:01 PM

    I really need to read some David Sedaris now!

  • Eleonore January 12th, 2012 3:29 PM

    how can we write to him?

  • neon_rattail January 15th, 2012 9:34 AM

    Ugh, he is THE BEST. I love everything he does and I want him, his sister Amy and me to be triple best friends. So jealous you got to interview him!

  • back2thepast January 30th, 2012 6:59 PM

    Loooove me talk pretty one day!!!!! Oh my yes I love this man. I love reading rookie instead of doing homework