David Sedaris: Unsentimental Journey

One of the reasons Sedaris skillfully avoids the formulaic or sentimental is that he reads hard, and he reads well. For a writer of nonfiction—yes, apparently, the stories he tells actually happened—David Sedaris is uniquely celebrated for his characters. Novelists would lean back in pride, having created any one the characters inhabiting Sedaris’ previous books. Mister Mancini, the “perfectly formed midget” jazz-guitar teacher who advised the young Sedaris that yes, he could name his guitar “Oliver,” but traditionally a guitarist chose the name of a heartbreaking woman. Or Dinah, “the Christmas whore.” Or The Walrus, Sedaris’ peer in elfing who acted “as though SantaLand were a singles bar.” Or of course the author’s own family—his salty, chain-smoking mother; his grandmother Ya Ya, saddened by the suicide of her goldfish (“Is pretty, the fish. Why he want to take he life away?”); the legendary Rooster, Sedaris’s black-sheep brother whose response to financial counsel from his father was this gem: “Quit the stock talk, hoss, I ain’t investing in shit.” Even the minor characters in the author’s stories are richly drawn. Clarence Poole, the “plum-colored” orderly whose “nose lay practically flat against his cheek, causing him to look like someone from a Picasso painting”; the two Polish Annas from his French-language class; the “jittery, bug-eyed typesetter” from whom he scored his bohemian-phase drugs.

These characters now have company. This month, after four years of some major recollecting, Sedaris unloads 22 new stories in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (Little, Brown). (To promote the new book, Sedaris will give a live reading at Powell Hall June 11.) For we readers and listeners, this new book means a new round of characters: great aunt Monie—“a cross between moaning and money”—“who was great because she was rich and childless.” Brandi, a little-girl neighbor who adopts Sedaris as her playmate then savages his artwork (greatly improving it, he admits—“this girl was the real thing”). And nervous, sweating Martin, who mistakes the author for an erotic housekeeper. (You’ll have to read it.)

Speaking from London, where he and his boyfriend Hugh have been living for a year and a half, Sedaris said that the arrival of a new book usually make him “gloomy,” wanting to talk the publisher out of going through with it. But he feels differently about Corduroy and Denim. “I’m not so much that way this time,” he said, “which means it will probably flop.”

Don’t count on it. The new stories are again funny and at once both outlandish and Sedaris-familiar—they make sense only because they’re coming from him. And while the author’s delivery has a non-urgent, as-long-as-you’re-listening tone, what one learns when speaking with him is how much of a craftsman he is with each of his stories before it finds its place in a book.

Or not. Sedaris pulled six stories from Corduroy and Denim—three of which had already been deemed fit for publishing in magazines—because he couldn’t get them right for himself. One of these stories, “Working Stiffs,” had appeared in Esquire, whose editors had assigned Sedaris to visit a medical examiner’s office in Phoenix and report back on the macabre hilarity that would no doubt ensue. While the story may have pleased that magazine’s editors and readers, the author himself felt so uneasy about it that he yanked it from the new collection. “It was hard because I was sent there almost as a reporter, and I don’t do very well under those situations,” he said. Talking of the friendly employees at the facility, Sedaris said. “I was very conscious of making them look good, and it was sort of at the expense of the story. It was like being commissioned to paint a portrait—to honor your subject.”

Sedaris said he prefers to “stumble” on his subjects himself, and while that verb may give off a cavalier air, the author’s approach to the writing is anything but. He’ll work the stories over line by line—adjusting a phrase in a hotel room after he’s read it aloud to an audience—then go through the process again with a few editors he trusts.

Take “Monie Changes Everything,” about whose oddly sad ending I asked Sedaris; on the last page, the story moves from a comic tale of the author lying naked on a bequeathed bearskin rug to that rug being passed along to his sister’s roommate, who soon after died in a car accident. “On hearing the news,” Sedaris writes in the story, “I imagined her parents, this couple in their mind-boggling grief, coming upon the bear in the trunk of their daughter’s car and wondering what it had to do with her, or anybody’s life.”

“ That was one of three endings for the story,” Sedaris said, sounding like a novelist discussing his craft. As he explained, he wrote one ending that followed how his parents spent their share of the great aunt’s bequest; a second ended with Sedaris stretched out on the rug in the buck. “It was just one of those stories where I thought, ‘You’ve come all this way, and you don’t really have an ending,’” he said. “All I can say is that when I wrote that ending”—the one with the young girl’s car crash—“I thought, ‘I don’t know why, but that’s the end of the story.’ Sometimes it just feels right.”

The more I’ve read Sedaris’s stories, the more I notice how well he treads the line between the off-the-wall humor and almost pleasant mockery he’s famous for, and the tenderness and sadness that sometime surface. While Sedaris’s book Naked was certainly fueled by humor, one of the most memorable moments was when his sister—attempting to play some old videotapes the late Mrs. Sedaris had left her—presses “play” and learns her father had taped over Double Indemnity with professional golf. Sedaris’s new book has its share of these moving moments—the author, in the rain with his mother, realizing that his father had kicked him out of the house not for being lazy but for being gay—and I asked him if he approaches the comic/sad juxtaposition in any particular way. “Usually it just happens by surprise,” he said. “It happens by surprise writing it. I think there usually comes a point when I’m working on a story and I write something, and I think, ‘Oh, that’s not really how I felt.’ Or, ‘That’s not really what happened.’ So I think, ‘Well, why don’t we just skip the laugh there and go into a little bit more detail.’ I think that’s where most of those moments come from. I don’t ever want to be formulaic about it. And I don’t want to be sentimental. But I worry about that.”

I think one of the reasons Sedaris skillfully avoids the formulaic or sentimental is that he reads hard, and he reads well. Flannery O’Conner, Raymond Carver, Alice Munroe, David Foster Wallace, Richard Yates… It’s hard to be sentimental if one of your favorite writers is the late tortured novelist Richard Yates, who’s near the top of Sedaris’s list. “I love Richard Yates,” he told me, and he wasn’t kidding; he rereads Yates’ The Easter Parade (“God, that book sinks me every time”) every year, and had done so again since turning in the stories for Corduroy and Denim.

As for his own book, Sedaris, in the second half of our interview, returned to his almost resigned happiness about it. “If I’m positive about it for any reason, then it’s because a majority of the stories appeared in The New Yorker,” he said. “And it’s always been my feeling that if you don’t like something in The New Yorker, there’s nothing wrong with the story, there’s something wrong with you.”

Of these growing magazine readers, I’ve wondered if they, like me, have wrongfully assumed that Sedaris was making his stories—or at least part of them—up. They’re too wacky, the characters too colorful, etc. When I asked Sedaris about this, he admitted that, yes, he hears the plausibility question quite often.

He went into a long response that began with a nod toward his most recent writing, saying, “I think what I’ve tried to do is hold myself…back…” He took a moment to think. Then he continued with a writing-decision story that seemed to say he understands the plausibility question—‘Did your brother really say that?’ his readers might ask—but hey, he’s filling these characters in with each new story, with each new book.

“In Naked, say, whenever my mother spoke, it was like a smart-ass kind of a line. And there’s this story in the new book about buying a beach house. We’re looking for a name for the beach house, and my mother says, ‘What about something with the word “sandpiper” in it? Everybody likes sandpipers, right?’ It’s just such a naked thing to say. And it’s not funny. It doesn’t get a laugh. But it tells you so much more about her than some jokey line. And there’s just something so sad about somebody saying, ‘Everybody likes sandpipers, right?’”

Here, Sedaris laughed into the London line. “I don’t know why it makes me so sad. I don’t know. I’m happy with that line.”

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