When the phone rings, David Sedaris is writing his partner a letter and needs to print it out. “Hugh likes real letters,” he tells me, and then asks if I know what the message “printer offline” might mean. “How is the printer offline?” he wonders aloud. “Was it online at some point? Doing what?” After a brief explanation of this admittedly ambiguous overlap in computer terminology, the author and I settle into a steady conversational groove. Huh. David Sedaris, still computer illiterate, but fighting it, and amazing to talk to. OK, the second part is not much of a stretch. He is a Grammy winner, after all (for best audio book), and a celebrated raconteur not only of the airwaves, but also onstage. Sedaris will appear at the Arlington Theatre this Friday, courtesy of UCSB’s Arts & Lectures.
Currently embarking on an epic 58-city tour, Sedaris has had a novel experience with his most recent book, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. While it has sold well and received good reviews, the Squirrel remains a puzzle to some of Sedaris’ most devoted fans. A set of 15 wonderfully clever and beautifully written animal fables, the book displays a side of the author that some have taken as misanthropic. He told me that his point of departure for the project was a desire to move away from the first-person point of view that his readers have found so addictive. “I was ready to stop writing ‘I, I, I’ all the time,” Sedaris explains, “and I wanted to do something in the third person for a change, so this genre worked for me.”
Then Sedaris reflects on his own words for a moment, and it’s like I can hear him deciding to step a little deeper into this question of the reception of the Squirrel stories. It’s a subject to which he’s clearly given some thought. “I’ve got new material now, so what I’m doing in the shows is just reading one of the stories from Squirrel right at the beginning, and then moving on to the new stuff.” I ask Sedaris if he can understand what people are responding to, and he says, “Yes, because in a way that’s why I chose to write them — I used animals to get into some of my issues with people. For instance, let’s say that I was really bothered by this woman who comes onto a long plane flight reeking of perfume. I mean not like some normal amount, but a huge dose of scent, as if she had filled a birdbath and then got in it. And it’s not just that this stench sets off my allergies, and gives me these instant and painful flash headaches that won’t go away — although it does — it’s that there’s nothing I can do. All I can do is sit there and dream of clever things that would be fun to write about it; like in a story the name of the perfume would be “Oblivious” or something. But then I realize that, if I did ever write about it in that direct sort of way, then if the person ever read it, they would be shocked and offended. And from that point they would just have their guard up and no communication would be possible ever again. So, what I thought was that if I tried this with animals, and got people interested that way, and sort of led them beyond the potentially unflattering criticism, then maybe they would let their guards down and learn something about themselves. Not that it is any of my business, but still. I had the urge.”
“Did this work out?,” I wonder aloud. “Yes and no,” says Sedaris, who admits that it may be that the critical impulse was insufficiently hidden by the cute animals. “Last night, during the Q & A, this guy got up and told me his wife’s book club read Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk and they didn’t like it,” he recalls. “So that got me started doing something that I ordinarily never do, which is read reviews. But instead of reading the professional reviewers, I did something really odd, which is I went on amazon.com and started reading some of the comments people left there about the book. I mean ordinarily the last thing I would ever consider doing is to read a review by some random person, but I was intrigued, and I wanted to understand more about what was bothering these people. And in the end, you know what I discovered? I found out that I don’t care! Whatever these people want to think is fine, because they aren’t even interested in the writing, they are just aggravated by some perceived critical or negative aspect of the characters, and honestly, that just doesn’t bother me. It’s like when someone calls a movie ‘depressing.’ For me, that’s my cue to say ‘when is it showing?’ So on that score, my attitude is actually that I defy you. If someone were to say that the writing is bad, that might be different — I might respond differently to that. But on this, I don’t care. You say it’s depressing, well, that’s actually a good thing to me. How do you like that?”
Of course the book is far from depressing; in fact it’s hilarious. I tell Sedaris this, and then ask him to talk about a few of the characters. “The Vigilant Rabbit is based on this airport security lady I ran into in Wisconsin. She was so mean that I had to turn her into a rabbit! I hate people who can’t see the big picture, who never let go of whatever little power they have over you. So the Vigilant Rabbit was kind of payback.” When I ask about another character, the Grieving Owl, who is very sympathetic, Sedaris acknowledges that he often gets ideas and inspiration from the fans he meets at book signings and performances. “Originally I was writing about the owl and I was working with the idea that he was wise, but then I met this woman at a signing and she said, ‘oh no, promise me you won’t write about a wise owl — that’s such a cliché, and it’s not even true! A clever crow, maybe, but a wise owl is unlikely. Most owls are pretty stupid.’ And that’s what gave me the idea, because, although I kept the grieving owl smart and sensitive, I gave him a whole family of dumb relatives, to make it more accurate I suppose, but in reality just because it made it a better story.”
When I ask about what he was working on now, Sedaris mentions a recent trip to China, and tells me that reading his work in front of an audience has become an integral part of his writing process. “Whenever I go on tour I write, and I also revise a lot based on audience reactions. I listen to hear what gets the big laughs, and if there’s something that makes me laugh but doesn’t get a response from the audience I might rephrase it. Some of my audience members are really quick, and they even help me with ideas and lines. This guy the other night was amazing. I was talking about a woman whose job was to cut people’s hair in a mental institution, and I was using the name “Hairbrained” for her salon, but he fired off two in a row that were better. First he said “the Shampoony Bin,” which was pretty funny, but then he paused and said “Astyle ‘em,” and that killed me, so sometimes I get real help from people who come to the shows. Another night I was telling this story about a woman who ate dog and someone piped up with the question, ‘Was it a Char-pei?” and I thought that was hilarious. The thing is now I will get to the seventh or eighth draft before I submit my work to my editor at the New Yorker, and then she and I will go through another seven or eight drafts after that. And it all helps.”
But writing so many drafts wasn’t always his way, according to Sedaris. He explains that, in the beginning, he couldn’t wait to move on to the next piece, and didn’t spend any time on revision. “Early in my career, I used the impending live performance as a deadline. I would force myself to write something so that I would have something to read, but then I would just move on to the next thing without going back. Now I listen and revise based on the response. If I hear a lot of coughing, that’s death. Coughing is like they’re throwing skulls at you. They’ve zoned out. So when that happens, I go back and work it over.”
With David Sedaris, sooner or later you know things are going to come back around to his family. This time it’s his dad, yet he’s still thinking about his audience, and about how urgently he needs to feel that connection. “I had this story about my experience being on a swim team as a child, and I was sure that everyone could relate to this type of situation. My dad would come to swim practice, and he was constantly noticing and talking about another boy — Greg Lakis — and I remember thinking ‘he likes Greg more than me — he’d rather have Greg as his son.’ And this I was even more certain would be the kind of universal experience that everyone relates to. Well, what can I say? That was not the case. I read it in front of an audience and… nothing. So the readings are good for me in that way — they keep me on my toes.”
To participate in the massive worldwide project underway to keep David Sedaris on his toes, get to the Arlington on Friday, April 29. Maybe you’ll contribute something.
David Sedaris reads from his work at the Arlington Theatre on Friday, April 29, at 8 p.m. For tickets and information, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.uscb.edu.