Seven Questions for David Sedaris

The humorist on self-revelation, the art of not trying to be funny and what he once might have done for 50 bucks

Photo by Anne Fishbein

Photo by Anne Fishbein

Before you “made it,” your personal essays described your odd jobs, drug use and nervous tics—stuff that readers could relate to. Now that you’re rich and famous, has your writing changed?

I don’t feel like I’m a different person. Having money didn’t make me confident, didn’t make me brave in any important way, didn’t make me good-looking, didn’t make me talented. … I don’t know that it has affected my essay writing. When telling a story, you’re trying to write it in a way that people can relate. …

I actually thought about that [recently] when I was flying first class from Atlanta to Raleigh, North Carolina. Because I travel so much, American Airlines bumped me up. I wouldn’t have mentioned that except if I’d been in coach I’d have a different story to tell: The guy across the aisle was chewing tobacco and spitting juice into a soda bottle. I wondered how much you’d have to pay me to drink that. Thirty years ago, I’d have done it for 50 bucks. Ten years later, it would cost 10 times as much. And now … ? How’d I get so spoiled that I’d have to get so much money to drink that guy’s tobacco spit?

Does it feel awkward meeting fans since you’ve given so much of yourself for public consumption?

When I meet people, I don’t talk about myself so much, because it is so uneven. I usually ask them, “Why are you asking me so many questions? What are you doing?” I don’t feel like I have no soul left, that I’ve given away all my mystery. If I shit in my pants, I’d write about it. So why would I ask for privacy now? I don’t benefit from an aura of mystery. I would feel like some magic was dispensed with. People don’t know anything of consequence. They might know that I’ve bought an owl, that I grew up in Raleigh. But I’ve discovered the illusion of exposing yourself.

What don’t you write about?

I don’t write about sex. It’s just not my subject. I’m sort of amazed by people who write in detail about something they do with another person in bed.

How do you know what to reveal and what to hold back?

Sometimes you don’t want to hurt people. It’s always nice to keep a little something for yourself. The worst things I’ve done I’ve already written about. They are the things most people can relate to, because we’re not that different. If I’m talking about envy or stealing or lying or any kind of sin or any kind of horrible thought, 90 percent of people in the world have had that same thought. I was signing books awhile ago and this guy came up to me and said, “Have you ever had a rape fantasy?” I thought, you don’t have to answer every question that a stranger poses. But I went ahead and said, “Yeah, once or twice.” He said, “Me too. In my fantasy, I hold the guy down and I cut away the pants.” “In your fantasy, you’re the rapist?” Rapists! I just didn’t expect that at all. But I like being the person who people can tell that to.

Do you try to be funny?

I recorded “Santaland Diaries” for a BBC Christmas special. I hadn’t read it on a page in 17 years, and I was mortified by how awful it was, how obvious it was. I was straining to get a laugh. I couldn’t believe that no one stopped me from publishing it. Humor writing that’s straining for a laugh—nothing is less funny than that. I’d rather do without a laugh than get it that way.

You’re famous for picking up trash on these long walks in the English countryside. What’s the grossest thing you’ve picked up?

I found a deli tray—somebody had vomited in the cover of a deli tray and threw it out the window. Luckily it’s autumn, so I washed my hands with dead leaves. A couple of weeks ago, somebody used a plastic grocery bag as a toilet. There was toilet paper near it. That’s too much even for me. It’s the grossest thing I’ve come across.

In “A Plague of Tics,” you describe a childhood in which you felt compelled to make weird repetitive movements. Did you ever grow out of that?

You mentioning that, now I’m going to roll my eyes and jerk my head. It’s not going to last that long, at least a day. It wasn’t much fun being that kid, the kid who was jerking his head and rolling his eyes. But I look at it, and it all goes in to making you you.

I never learned to drive a car, but if I had learned I’d probably never be a writer. When I was young, I didn’t have any way to get [anywhere], so I stayed home and found ways to entertain myself. Not that nervous tics kept me at home, but I felt that home was safe. I think that some of my nervousness and anxiety have something to do with me being afraid to drive a car. I got trifocal glasses and this middle-distance thing was not working for me. They said, “You’ll get used to it.” I never got used to it. I never stopped being afraid.

An Evening With David Sedaris

Nov. 23, 7:30 p.m., The Smith Center, $46-$56,

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