Everyone Gets Naked
David Sedaris Interviewed
Flying home the next day through white-knuckle turbulence, I pull out my book, again, though here I have to stifle my laughter, self-consciously dabbing my eyes with a balled-up cocktail napkin so as not to attract the attention of the MCI sales rep next to me. Sedaris' outrageous memoir -- a collection of essays about growing up in Raleigh, one of six kids in a John Waters-esque family and various outlandish experiences from the assembly-line job at an apple packing factory to the sojourn at a nudist colony -- is a welcome reprieve from the tedious "me, me, me" story so prevalent these days. Naked works because Sedaris is so good at nailing, through his own twisted prism, the characters that inhabit his world. He spares us the self-congratulations, concentrating instead on the telling gesture. The book is guaranteed to be mood-altering -- the funniest stories are still funny the second time around. That's why I had to meet Sedaris.
I shoved a copy of Naked into the hands of my visiting friend, writer Vance Muse, ordered him to read it, and meet me and Sedaris the next day at the Hyde Park Bar and Grill, just before Sedaris' appearance and booksigning at Borders.
Sedaris' sense of humor is in big demand these days -- his book quickly shot onto The New York Times best seller list -- and everyone from the Seinfeld writers and late-night talk show hosts to the twelve hundred people who showed up at his booksigning in Iowa City wants a piece of it.
But Sedaris wants none of any of that, he says -- and you believe him -- he's having too swell of a time these days writing one-act plays for his youngest sister, Amy, to perform this summer at Lincoln Center. And though he still does spots on National Public Radio (which he insists he never listens to because he can't stand the sound of his voice), he had to quit his much-publicized gig with the apartment-cleaning service in order to finish his book. ( Just for the record, he found the media's fascination -- which surfaced at the time his first book, Barrel Fever, came out -- with his chosen line of work more than a little annoying: "They'd say, `Get this: he's a writer and... he cleans houses!' You'd never hear them say, `Get this: he's a writer and... he's a college professor!'")
That cleaning job, he adds, was the "perfect job" and not just because it was such a good source of material, particularly for the potty humor ("so-and-so's toilet was so filthy it looked like the inside of a cave!") to which he's so partial. "I liked having a job, a place to go," he says. "Some writers are embarrassed to be a writer-with-a-job, embarrassed that they're not home writing all day. You can have being at home writing all day -- I had to go out of town to write this book -- to France, Chicago, Yaddo, and to the nudist colony."
David is as likable, funny, and self-effacing in person as he is as the dead-on narrator of his hilarious family history. Of course, it helps that he's got great material. Like his mom, Sharon, a quippy, tough-as-nails chain-smoker with a cocktail, who loves detective shows and can't stand Ya-Ya, her Greek mother-in-law from the Old Country. Ya-Ya, who speaks little English and refers to Sharon as "The Girl," comes to live with them, over Sharon's threats to move out. To her American daughter-in-law's horror, Ya-Ya picks sunflowers out of the neighbors' bird feeders and stews the weeds she's pulled from their yards for dinner. "That might play back on Mount Olympus," Sharon screams across the hall to Ya-Ya, "but in my house we don't wash our stockings in the toilet." His poor out-of-her- element grandmother, Sedaris writes, would sit in front of the TV for hours, "you could always change the channel while [she] was watching -- no need to ask -- she could go from the State of the Union address to a Bullwinkle cartoon without even noticing the difference."
Austin Chronicle: The reading public has two threshold questions about your book: One, how much of what you've written is actually true and two, how did your family react to what you wrote about them?
David Sedaris: I'm prone to exaggeration and there's no way I can remember what someone said to me 20 years ago. What I did was take my family, put them on stage, and tweak them a little bit, which was the fun part. My mother, however, is pretty much verbatim -- I wasn't hard on my mother because she and I were good friends. The parts about my father are basically true -- I've been keeping a diary for 20 years.
My sister Tiffany said she didn't want to be in the book and so I only mentioned her twice. Of course, then she wanted to know "Why didn't you put me in the book?" I'm close with all of my siblings, we talk on the phone all of the time. I think the only person who comes out looking bad is my father. He asked me, "Why didn't you write about the time I jumped in the pool and saved Tiffany's life?" I said, "Dad, it's not that kind of book and don't come to me with the one nice thing you ever did in your life." It's not that I disliked him, it's that I belonged to my mother -- in our family you belonged to one or the other. I don't have a problem with my father now. He's upset with me. He hasn't read my book -- he heard the book on tape. He's upset about how I portrayed my mother in the book -- although I know there is nothing that my mother would have objected to in there. If she was alive right now she would be on the book tour with me -- she would have loved it.
AC: The "Plague of Tics" chapter where you describe your obsessive-compulsive behavior as a child -- licking the light switches, counting the number of steps between your house and school, rocking back and forth constantly -- is that all true and how major of an influence was that on your life?
DS: That was all true. I used to violently jerk my head and rock all the time -- that was my whole life. It had a big effect on my life -- I just denied it. And I didn't mention it in each of the stories because I wanted each story to stand on its own. When I was on a radio show recently, a woman from the Tourette's Syndrome Association called in to say that the Tics chapter read like a textbook case of juvenile Tourette's, which comes on at age seven. It had a big effect on my life -- it lasted until I was 20 -- and went away little by little when I started smoking. (The woman from the Tourette's Association said that lots of Tourette's patients improve when they wear nicotine patches. So I think I'm entitled to have a medical statement that says that for medical reasons I need to smoke cigarettes in restaurants.) I didn't really think about the tics until I started to write the book. The compulsive behavior has gone away, too, but sometimes it's there. Like I'll get this idea that I have to touch the end of that table. Normally I can get my mind off something like that -- I don't have to go touch the table -- particularly with you being here. But, if I were here by myself, I would go touch it. But just once would make me feel okay, not the 15 times that used to be necessary.
AC: Your homosexuality is there in the book and yet no one would ever say this is a gay humorist's book, particularly.
DS: The Advocate says I never confronted my homosexuality. I don't know what that means. To me, the book was an honest reflection of the kind of homo that I am -- it's part of what I am but not exclusively what I am. To me, being gay has nothing to do with lots of my stories. I just want to get laughs -- that's all I care about. People will say to me, well, you had that opportunity on the radio, why didn't you talk about AIDS? I feel like yes, I know people who have died, but for me to get on the radio and talk about them, I would feel used. I want to say, you do it. I'm not denying that I'm gay but for me to get up in people's faces.... If you get people to care about you... like maybe they don't know who you are and they live in a place where they don't know any homos and then they hear about a homo being beat up and they recall, oh, yes, there's that nice homosexual on the radio, we like him.
AC: So what lies ahead for you?
DS: I could spend the rest of my life learning how to write a decent one-act play, like the ones my sister and I are doing together now. I get called all the time asking whether I'm interested in doing a movie. When I say thank you but I'm not interested, they think there's something wrong with the connection. But, if you had a chance to write a script that would be re-written by 18 people and that you'd be embarrassed to have your name on, or write a play that you're really proud of, which would you choose?