David Sedaris, 61, is a bestselling US writer and humourist who has written 10 short story or essay collections. The 11th, Calypso, has just been published. His books draw on his life and the people he meets, with particular regard to his large, colourful family. He lives in West Sussex with his partner, Hugh Hamrik.
Is it fair to say there is a lengthening shadow of mortality hanging over this collection?
Not intentionally. I mean I always use my life as material and as I’m getting older I suppose it just makes sense that there would be. I don’t sit around wondering how many years I have left to live. But I do notice, like, what do you mean, another root canal?
Why is your family so important to you?
From the very beginning the way we hung out with each other was, I noticed, different to other families. In high school, when everyone was going to soccer practice or doing something else, none of us had anything, because it would have meant not being together. On Saturday night, nobody had a date. That would have been betraying the family. It just felt like the centre of the world, my family. I knew we weren’t important, but I knew we were important.
Do you find that people become self-conscious with you, as though they’re either trying to get in or stay out of your books?
Most often when someone says: “You can’t write about this,” it never would have occurred to me to write about it. It’s not that interesting. I hear it more from people I don’t know well. I think I have a pretty good idea of what people want known and what they don’t want known.
And are you immediately aware of a situation that you’re going to write about? For example, when you found yourself with a small tumour in the vicinity of snapping turtles, did you think, here’s a story?
I’d been thinking for a while that if you have your tonsils removed, a cat would like to eat them. Then I thought, “Well, I have this tumour, and I’d been hanging out with these turtles,” and I thought, “Well, a turtle would really like to eat my tumour.” And I was surprised by the things that got in my way, like the surgeon who said: “It’s against the law to give you anything I remove from your body.” That seemed unfair to me. So when that woman came up and said: “I’ll cut it out”, there was no guarantee she’d be a good character, but she was. I guess I thought if someone was going to pitch me the story of feeding a tumour to a turtle, I’d have said: OK!
Your writing flows from your life. Is there ever an anxiety that the well is drying up?
When I was younger, I wrote stories that you might tell if someone didn’t know you, and you wanted to give them a general idea of who you were. Now it’s more of an exercise of making something out of nothing, which doesn’t bother me. It’s harder to make something out of nothing, but the story can often be better. That’s where you’re really writing. I remember after I got out of college I had a boyfriend and he said: “Do you think someone’s just going to call and offer you a job?” And I said: “Yeah.” And do I think a story is just going to come to my door? Yeah.
You write about your sister coming to see you at a gig, and you had someone close the door on her backstage, shutting her out of your life. It was the last time you saw her before she killed herself. Was that difficult to write about?
I didn’t mean to write about that. I thought: “Oh my, am I really doing this?” I thought it was important to do because anything that makes a story more complex is good to do. What I didn’t say in that story was whenever you talked to Tiffany it took you weeks to get over it, because she’d say something so disturbing or make you so angry, you couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Does it make you think you’re a heartless person?
When I read that out loud on stage, I can’t believe I did it. I can’t believe I’m reading it. It is just as bad as it sounds. That you’re going to have someone close the door on that person’s face, and they’re going to commit suicide and you’ll never see them again... there’s not a way to make that funny. I read someone saying you can’t surprise a reader without surprising yourself, and in your life what surprise is there? But there are things, admissions that you can make, or scratch below the surface and say how you actually felt, and you can be there at your desk and you’re just shocked. So I think that was a situation where the reader can be surprised the exact way that I was surprised. I think the audience thinks that I’m monstrous.
Your mother is very present in this book. It seems as if your storytelling comes from her. What do you think she would have made of your success?
My mother died when she was 62 and her health wasn’t great. She couldn’t walk because she smoked so much. If my mother had lived I imagine she’d have had an oxygen tank or something. But if that weren’t the case I’d have said to my mother: “Would you come on tour with me? Would you come on stage and introduce me?” She’d have loved it. Because she deserved attention.
There’s a growing concern in publishing about cultural sensitivities. Do you make a point of ignoring them?
A lot of times people will say after a reading: “I can’t believe what you said”, and I’m literally thinking: “What did I say?” I feel like so many of those issues are really just the enemies of comedy. After every show it’s something. There’s an essay where a woman shits in her pants on the aeroplane and I said it looked like she’d taken her skirt off a long-dead Gypsy, because I want people to see the colour of the skirt. I read that in Edinburgh and this young man comes up and says: “I have a bone to pick with you. I’m one-tenth Gypsy. I really don’t appreciate you using that word.” I’m like: “Call me when you’re nine-tenths Gypsy.” I mean, who isn’t one-tenth Gypsy? Writing isn’t propaganda.
You live in England but America is the centre of your writing. Do you find it helps to have a distance from it?
Yes I do. I mean, Donald Trump said recently that America is finally being taken seriously in the world again and so, not that it helps, when I’m arguing with his supporters, I live in the world and it’s actually not true at all. It does help to be away from it. You know I wrote something recently about guns, how difficult it is to get one here. And I was saying, despite the fact you can’t buy guns here, British people feel free. Is it that they don’t know what they’re missing or is the freedom they feel the freedom of not being shot to death in the classroom or movie theatre?
What books are on your bedside table?
There’s a new novel by Ottessa Moshfegh coming out called My Year of Rest and Relaxation and I can’t wait to read it. And then Rick Bass, a short-story writer, he came here a couple of years ago and made dinner for me, part of a book about going around the world and making dinner for other writers [The Travelling Feast]. Someone just delivered it today. I get a lot of books to blurb. I just got one, this essay collection by this British woman, Rebecca Front, Impossible Things Before Breakfast. I opened it up and was completely captivated by it.
What’s the last really great book you read?
Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh. I can’t remember the last time I laughed that hard at a book. Also Hunger by Roxane Gay. It opened my eyes to another world.
Which genres do you avoid reading?
I’m not a mystery reader. I’m not a big thriller reader. I don’t want to say never to either of them. You know when you read a really good book, you get so excited about writing and you think: “Wow, look at everything that’s possible.” And from a bad book you learn a lot. It’s easier to learn from a bad book because with a good book, if you knew how to do it, you’d be doing it yourself.
Which classic novel did you read recently for the first time?
Moby-Dick. About 15 years ago, Esquire asked me to pick a classic I’d never read, and I started it and thought there is no way I’m going to finish this book, so I told myself I could not take a bath or wash my hair until I finished the book. I hated that book.
Which books do you feel are the most overrated?
Moby-Dick. And Joseph Conrad. I’m like: “Oh my God, can we please get to the point?”
Which book/author do you always return to?
I always return to Richard Yates, and I read Revolutionary Road once a year. I usually read The Easter Parade once a year as well. Flannery O’Connor I return to again and again. She’s such a good comic writer.
–Guardian News & Media Ltd
Calypso by David Sedaris is published by Little, Brown (£16.99).