Why's Everybody Always Picking On Him?
David Sedaris on nitpicky fact-checkers and spiders' thighs
David Sedaris is sitting at a provisional desk in a back room at BookPeople, appropriately engulfed by mountains of When You Are Engulfed in Flames, the new book he will be reading from in two hours. A few floors below, the bookstore is filling with some of the 3,500 who have prepurchased signed books and vouchers with the faint hope of catching a glimpse of the bestselling humorist. With the Chaplinesque rhythm of an on-task Santa's workshop, bookstore "elves" silently move books from the stacks lining the walls to Sedaris' pen and then onto carts, which are then whisked away and taken downstairs. Sedaris – cool, calm, and relaxed in a powder-blue shirt and madras tie, despite the oppressive heat and the fact that this is day 15 of a 30-cities-in-30-days book tour – is unfazed by the frenzy that his presence has generated. Maybe this is a perk of having recently kicked a three-decade nicotine habit, or maybe this is just how a writer deals with rock-star status.
More likely, this is simply David Sedaris. An unpretentious, 51-year-old really nice guy, who for 16 years has been writing hilariously about the silly, outlandish, scatological, and sometimes poignant in his everyday life. His fan base coalesced in 1992, when he read his "SantaLand Diaries" essay on National Public Radio and then became a regular on Ira Glass' This American Life. Today there are 7 million copies of his books in print – including Barrel Fever, Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day, and Dress Your Children in Corduroy and Denim – translated into 25 languages. It's been a breathtaking ascent for Sedaris, who used to clean houses to support himself. Along the way, we've learned all about his family and what it was like growing up in Raleigh, N.C., with six kids (including his sister, Amy Sedaris, the actor), two outré parents (his late mom was the tough-as-nails chain-smoker who launched her son's smoking career by offering him his first puff and then gifting him cartons of smokes on holidays), and Ya-Ya, the really annoying non-English-speaking Greek grandmother who sat cluelessly watching American television all day and then made a dinner of the weeds she'd foraged from the neighbors' yards.
These days, Sedaris is a regular contributor to The New Yorker, the ultimate writer's kudo. "Being in there is one of those things that doesn't wear off," he says. "Most things do, but that doesn't. It always feels good to be in The New Yorker."Just as it does to be, with partner Hugh Hamrick, in one of their three homes: houses in London and Normandy ("I know it sounds bad, but they're very small," he insists) and an apartment in Paris. Not too shabby for a guy who's been using a computer only since 9/11, when traveling with a typewriter became problematic.
It's immediately obvious that interacting with the public at booksignings (and his works-in-progress reading tours) is one of the best parts of the job for Sedaris: The previous night, for example, at the Baton Rouge Barnes & Noble, he could not have been more tickled when a woman presenting a book for signing happened to ask for his help in brainstorming names for the two donkeys she'd just received as a Mother's Day gift. "I came up with Joan and Stephanie – aren't those perfect?" he asks with childlike glee.
When You Are Engulfed in Flames is a collection of 22 essays, many of which first appeared in The New Yorker. The book is Sedaris at his unrepentant best: the now-familiar anthology of life's weird and odd, observed through an already skewed prism and articulated with honest, pitch-perfect humor, from the excruciation suffered in a French doctor's waiting room as a result of his bad French and his parents' demonstrated bad taste as art collectors to absurd standoffs with seatmates on planes and outrageous apartment neighbors. And then, the long story about his battle to quit smoking.
Austin Chronicle: Given your overwhelming popularity with the reading public, are you rocked at all by bad critical reviews – like the one your new book got last week in the daily New York Times, where Michiko Kakutani complained that the subjects of some of your stories suggest that you "simply might have too much spare time on your hands"?
David Sedaris: I don't read anything about myself – I won't read your article, so feel free to say whatever you want. I've decided you can either read all of it or none of it – I don't think it's fair to just read the good stuff. But the day Michiko Kakutani's review came out, I woke up with this feeling – you know those days where you just have this feeling that you just got a bad review in The New York Times? I woke up, and I felt it – so I called my agent. A publicist will put a good spin on anything – that's why I love my publicist. I love my agent because she won't. She said, "I read a worse review one time." But the thing is – I never read it – I thought, if the stories were in The New Yorker – and 90 percent were – how bad could they be? I always think, if something's in Esquire or somewhere else and you don't like it, there could be something wrong with the story. But if something's in The New Yorker and you don't like it, there's something wrong with you. Well, Michiko hates everything – maybe it would behoove me to read what she had to say; maybe I'd learn something. For the last book, I did read her review, because she said I was making fun of the Holocaust when I wrote about getting real estate envy at Anne Frank's house. I wasn't making fun of the Holocaust; I was talking about how cute her apartment was.
AC: So how do you get the feedback you need?
DS: When I go on these lecture tours and read out loud to the audience the pieces I'm working on, I know when something bombs, because the audience tells me. I always make notes on the page when I read out loud.
AC: I simply must bring up the recent brouhaha generated by Alex Heard's piece last spring in The New Republic, criticizing you for "embellishing" your stories and yet still calling them true. That must have been a little disconcerting – having this guy [formerly an editor at The New York Times Magazine, now at Outside] traveling around the country fact-checking stories you wrote years ago, like in Naked, and giving you the James Frey treatment.
DS: I don't understand why Alex Heard did this to me. I kept thinking, "What did I do to him?" I take a story, put it on a scale, and say, "OK, if this is 96 percent true, that's an acceptable ratio for ground beef, and it's more than acceptable for heroin and cocaine, so I'm going to call it nonfiction." There are the Alex Heards, I guess, who say you have to call it fiction, but I'm not going to call it fiction for that 4 percent, and I know the people who buy my books don't give a fuck. It's just the way I tell a story.
AC: I'd love to be a fly-on-the-wall during your fact-checking conversations with the notoriously nitpicky New Yorker fact-checkers.
DS: It's not too bad. Some things I give in on, and others I fight for. When I wrote a story about spiders, the fact-checker called the arachnologists at the Natural History Museum and then called me back and said, "Well, your story said you fed your spiders so much that they became obese and their feet tore holes in their webs, and [the arachnologists] said that wouldn't happen." I said, "No, of course, that wouldn't happen; it's a joke." She said: "Well, you need to say that it was a joke." I said, "No, I'm really not going to. If we get some letters from arachnologists, then we can just deal with it." I also said that the spiders' thighs chafed, and, well, I mean, that's not going to happen because they don't actually have thighs. Another time, I had written about a child molester in our village in Normandy who drove a little truck, and the magazine had a French-speaking fact-checker call these 81-year-old neighbors of mine to question them about who actually owned that truck. In another story, I said that a painting cost what the average person pays for car insurance, though to tell you the truth, I don't know how much car insurance costs because I've never driven a car, so this was just a guess – the point is that I didn't want to state the actual cost in the piece because it would have been a distracting bit of information. The fact-checker, who knew the actual amount I was talking about, came back with, "That's more than the average person pays for car insurance." I said, "OK, the average epileptic." And then he called back and said you'll have to make it the average epileptic in Connecticut because they have the highest insurance rates for epileptics in the U.S. I said, "OK, but the story is not really about epileptics and insurance – just make it a bumper-pool table." And then he calls back and says, "You may not realize it, but bumper-pool tables are not nearly that expensive – you need to make it 'high-end bumper-pool table.'" At that point, I said: "Pool table. Period."
AC: What's next?
DS: A book about animal stories.