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David Sedaris Talks About Corduroy and Denim

Sedaris is the author of the bestselling collections Barrel Fever, Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day. His new collection is Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Sedaris essays appear regularly in Esquire, GQ and The New Yorker. His radio pieces can be heard on This American Life. In 2001 he became the third recipient of the Thurber Prize for American Humor.

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Transcript

DATE June 15, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: David Sedaris discusses his writings and latest book,
"Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Count me among David Sedaris' millions of fans. Like many of his fans, I
first fell in love with his writing when he read his story "Santaland Diaries"
on NPR's "Morning Edition." That now-famous piece told about his experiences
working as an elf in Macy's Santa Land. Ira Glass produced Sedaris for
"Morning Edition," and when Glass started his own show, "This American Life,"
Sedaris became a regular.

Now Sedaris is a literary phenomenon. He's written several best-sellers
collecting his humorous personal essays and stories. He reads to sold-out
theaters around the country. His bookstore appearances often have lines
around the block. When he got famous in America, he moved to Paris, where he
could barely speak the language. Now he also has a place in London where it's
a lot easier for him to understand what people are saying.

Sedaris has a new best-selling book of stories called "Dress Your Family in
Corduroy and Denim." Before we talk, here he is reading one of his stories
in the new book. It's called "Hejira" after the title of a Joni Mitchell
album.

Mr. DAVID SEDARIS (Author, "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim"):
(Reading) It wasn't anything I had planned on. But at the age of 22, after
dropping out of my second college and traveling across the country a few
times, I found myself back in Raleigh living in my parents' basement. After
six months spent waking at noon, getting high and listening to the same Joni
Mitchell record over and over again, I was called by my father into his den
and told to get out. He was sitting very formally in a big, comfortable chair
behind his desk, and I felt as though he was firing me from the job of being
his son. I'd been expecting this to happen, and it honestly didn't bother me
all that much. The way I saw it, being kicked out of the house was just what
I needed if I was ever going to get back on my feet. `Fine,' I said. `I'll
go. But one day you'll be sorry.' I had no idea what I meant by this. It
just seemed like the sort of thing a person should say when he was being told
to leave.

My sister, Lisa, had an apartment over by the university and said I could come
stay with her as long as I didn't bring my Joni Mitchell record. My mother
offered to drive me over, and after a few bong hits, I took her up on it. It
was a 15-minute trip across town, and on the way we listened to the
rebroadcast of a radio call-in show in which people phoned the host to
describe the various birds gathered around their backyard feeders. Normally
the show came on in the morning, and it seemed strange to listen to it at
night. The birds in question had gone to bed hours ago and probably had no
idea they were still being talked about. I chewed this over and wondered if
anyone back at the house was talking about me. To the best of my knowledge,
no one had ever tried to imitate my voice or describe the shape of my head.
And it was depressing that I went unnoticed while a great many people seemed
willing to drop everything for a cardinal.

My mother pulled up in front of my sister's apartment building, and when I
opened the car door, she started to cry, which worried me as she normally
didn't do things like that. It wasn't one of those `I'm going to miss you'
things but something sadder and more desperate than that. I wouldn't know it
until months later, but my father had kicked me out of the house not because I
was a bum but because I was gay. Our little talk was supposed to be one of
those defining moments that shape a person's adult life, but he'd been so
uncomfortable with the most important word that he'd left it out completely
saying only, `I think we both know why I'm doing this.' I guess I could have
pinned him down; I just hadn't seen the point. `Is it because I'm a failure,
a drug addict, a sponge? Come on, Dad, just give me one good reason.' Who
wants to say that?

My mother assumed that I knew the truth, and it tore her apart. Here was yet
another defining moment, and again I missed it entirely. She cried until it
sounded as if she were choking. `I'm sorry,' she said. `I'm sorry. I'm
sorry. I'm sorry.' I figured that within a few weeks I'd have a job and some
crummy little apartment. It didn't seem unsurmountable, but my mother's tears
made me worry that finding these things might be a little harder than I
thought. Did she honestly think I was that much of a loser? `Really,' I
said, `I'll be fine.'

The car light was on, and I wondered what the passing drivers thought as they
watched my mother sob. What kind of people did they think we were? Did they
think she was one of those crybaby moms who fell apart every time someone
chipped a coffee cup? Did they assume I'd said something to hurt her? Did
they see us as just another crying mother and her stoned, gay son sitting in a
station wagon and listening to a call-in show about birds? Or did they imagine
for just one moment that we might be special?

GROSS: Jeez, David, thanks for reading that. It's a great story.

My guest is David Sedaris, and he just read the story "Hejira" from his new
collection, "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim."

When this actually happened to you and your mother explained to you why you
were really thrown out of the house, did you think about the possibility that
your parents had just had this big fight about you and about how to handle
you?

Mr. SEDARIS: I did. And I suppose I was surprised that I was so unaware of
it happening. But I was just in the rocking chair in the basement listening
to that Joni Mitchell album, so all kinds of things could have been going on,
and I wouldn't have been aware of them. But I never felt that panic; that,
`Oh, my God, they're throwing me out of the house, and they're never going to
talk to me again,' because my father's a kind of guy who--you could have an
argument with him, and he can even throw you out of the house, but a couple
hours later he's forgotten about it. I mean, he doesn't have Alzheimer's or
anything, but he has a really--just this wonderful ability to put things
behind him. And I've always been very impressed by that. So my dad got upset
that I was gay, and he threw me out of the house. But I was back a few days
later.

GROSS: So how did he react to you being gay after that first reaction of
throwing you out?

Mr. SEDARIS: Well, I was never like a slut. You know what I mean?

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. SEDARIS: I was never like the kind of guy who dragged people home or wore
T-shirts--I was never that kind of a homosexual. And my dad--I thought that
he was used to the idea, but--I have a dear friend named Evelyn who lives in
Chicago, and, gee, I've known her for 20 years. She's 10 years older than me,
and when I got out of college, I lived in her house for a while. And five
years ago I was talking about Evelyn, and my dad said, `She's a great gal.
Why don't you marry her?'

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. SEDARIS: Well, A, I'm gay, and, B, she lives in--I mean, there were like
18 reasons why I wouldn't marry her, one of which is I've been with Hugh for
13 years. But he's making an effort. When my dad calls, he'll say, `Put Hugh
on the phone.' And then Dad didn't quite know what to say to Hugh, but, you
know, it's a nice gesture. But my dad was never--if my dad was super-Greek,
it would really be a problem. He's Greek, but he's not a super-Greek. So I
think that, hopefully, sometime before he dies he'll think--he won't be one of
those people that wears a T-shirt that says, `I'm so happy that my son likes
other guys'--he won't go that far...

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. SEDARIS: ...but he comes to accept it.

GROSS: You know in the story you just read when--you know, after your father
tells you you have to leave the house and you don't know why he's telling you
that, you don't realize it's because you're gay, you say you're thinking,
`Someday you're going to be sorry,' did you ever have the desire of throwing
that back in his face or saying, `Well, Dad, this is how unenlightened you
are,' or, `This is how mean you can be'?--you know, at an opportune time when
you needed to get even with him about something?

Mr. SEDARIS: I did, but I always it was third rate. I always felt when I
yelled at my father or if I said--I remember once I said, `You're going to die
alone.'

GROSS: (Laughs) Oh, very nice.

Mr. SEDARIS: And I felt like I was being so prophetic at the time. And now I
think back on it, and I think, `God, parents just must--it must be so
heart-breaking to be parent and hear your kid say something like that,
something so unoriginal.' I mean, if they said something original or
something thought-provoking or funny, it might be OK. But you just want to
say, `Oh, God, I said that same thing to my parents,' you know. And, you
know, surprise, you're going to die alone, too.

GROSS: You know, at the end of that story you're with your mother in the car,
and you're wondering how do you look to other people. `Do people have any
sense of what is transpiring here?' And this is especially interesting
because of, you know, the call-in show about birds that you've been listening
to, where everybody's observing and describing the birds. But, anyways, I'm
wondering if there's always a part of you that is wondering, `What are people
thinking? How do I look to them now?'

Mr. SEDARIS: I think that I've remained fairly--I don't think I'm so
self-conscious that it's a drag to spend time with me. But I often do wonder
what people might think. I recently developed a boil, and it's right on my
tailbone. And I went to a doctor in London because I had to take a 23-hour
flight to Australia, and the doctor said, `Well, it's too early to lance it,'
all right? So two hours after leaving London my boil popped, and I said to
Hugh, `You've got to go with me into the bathroom and squeeze the puss out of
this boil.' And he didn't want to be seen--two guys walking into the
bathroom. And in my mind I was thinking, `Well, they'll know it's a medical
matter. Why else would'--you know, because we're too old to be going into the
bathroom for any other reason.

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. SEDARIS: And our seats are next to each other, and so they'll know that
we know each other. It's not tawdry. But then I thought about it from his
point of view, and I thought, `Well, I guess it would look pretty strange.'
But I guess I do that...

GROSS: I hate to tell you that for anybody really paying attention, you've
just made it look really suspicious, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SEDARIS: But I guess, I mean, just the same way as, let's say, if your
car broke down and you were walking along the side of the road in the middle
of the night, you would think, `Oh, gee, do people think that I'm a
prostitute, like that woman in "Monster," or do they think, "That poor woman's
car broke down"?' So I don't know that I think about it any more than other
people, but I think at the time, as a character in that story being stoned,
it's the kind of thing you would think about if you were stoned.

GROSS: My guest is David Sedaris. His new collection of stories is called
"Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is David Sedaris. His new book is called "Dress Your Family
in Corduroy and Denim." He's a frequent contributor to the public radio
program "This American Life" hosted by Ira Glass.

David, a lot of the stories in this book are set in your children or in your
teen years. And I'm wondering if it was like a conscious choice to spend some
time writing about that part of your life or whether this is more
coincidental.

Mr. SEDARIS: I think it's more coincidental. I'd been writing a lot for
Ira's show, "This American Life." And he throws out a theme for every show.
And so sometimes the themes just, if I looked over the scope of my life, they
happened to work best in childhood. And then, for example, The New Yorker
asked me to write something about winter, and I was going to write about a
winter in Chicago in the 1980s, and then I found out that George Saunders was
writing about winter in Chicago. So I remembered this time that we had a
freakish snowstorm in Raleigh, North Carolina, and I remember my mom standing
up to her midcalf in the snow. And my mom never owned a pair of pants, and it
just looked so weird to see her bare-legged in the snow like that. And so
that was a story that took place in childhood. So a lot of times it's just an
assignment and then trying to find an edge that fits that assignment. But I
didn't consciously--I think if I was conscious about it, I would try to get
away from that. I think there are so many traps to fall into when you write
about childhood if you don't...

GROSS: What are the traps?

Mr. SEDARIS: Well, I think there's a tendency to make yourself seem more
clever than you were. And I was not a clever child at all. I was not a
well-read child. I think I was just a--I was the kind of a child that I think
you'd think, `Damn it, that's my son?'

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. SEDARIS: `That has to be my son?' You know like sometimes you see
someone with an ugly baby and you think, `They must look at that baby
sometimes and think, "Damn it, I wish I'd slept with somebody else."'

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. SEDARIS: And I always felt like that--you know, like an ugly boy who's
not necessarily clever and not athletic in any way and just a general,
all-around--you'd just think, `Oh, maybe he'll grow up and move away from
home.' That would be the most that you could hope for.

GROSS: You know, you're talking about how "This American Life" is always
asking you to write on a theme, and sometimes magazines will suggest a theme.
That seems to me like it must be really useful. I don't know about you, but I
think for some people it's hard to just sit down and figure out what to write
about. So if somebody gives you a theme, does that focus you in a way that
you might not otherwise be focused?

Mr. SEDARIS: Well, I think if you can write about everything in the world,
everything in the world is too much. So any process of elimination that comes
my way, I'm more than welcome to accept. So it does help me. I finished the
book, and then I was thinking, `OK, now what do I do?' And I had agreed to
contribute a story to an anthology called "Committed" that was about being in
a relationship. And so that made it much easier; then I could write about
Hugh rather than just sitting there for weeks trying things that wouldn't work
out.

GROSS: As somebody who is already self-conscious, does it make you
self-conscious to call attention in your writing to exactly the things that
you don't want people to know in real life? Like, in real life you don't want
people to know you have that boil; that's why you're sneaking into the
bathroom to take care of it. But in your writing, you're going to write all
about it, and you know--or at least I hope you know--that people are going to
identify with you because everybody has had their equivalent--maybe it's a
pimple and not a boil, but everybody has had that thing on their body that was
not wanted and that eventually did something very obnoxious, in the way bodies
sometimes are prone to be.

Mr. SEDARIS: (Laughs)

GROSS: Do you know what I mean?

Mr. SEDARIS: I think that those are sort of the best things to write about,
though, because people can relate to them. Because I go on these lecture
tours, I read out loud a lot. And I find just from being as a stage
consideration or a show business consideration, which I guess is the laziest
form of show business there is--but, still, because they put me in a dressing
room, I'm entitled to use that word.

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. SEDARIS: And those kinds of stories work the best; that said, there are
limits, like I can't write about sex because I don't want people to imagine me
having sex. I mean, if you are on stage and you read about having a boil,
people will imagine that boil on your tailbone, and I can live with that. But
I don't want them--it would be unpleasant for them to imagine me doing certain
things in bed, you know? I mean, with somebody else it would be--oh, like
with that guy who wrote "The Perfect Storm." You know, it would be fun to
imagine him naked and doing things, but not me. So I don't ever write about
sex.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Sedaris. And he has a
new collection of stories called "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim."

There was an article or--I forget if it was article or review--in
Entertainment Weekly a few months ago. I presume that you saw this. And it
was a terrific photograph of you. And I know that you hate being
photographed--it makes you very self-conscious--but this was a really such a
great photograph. I mean, you kind of looked like a movie star in it. Do you
know the photograph I mean?

Mr. SEDARIS: I never look at pictures of myself. I remember I went to have
my picture taken, and my sister Amy tried to trick me because she put
something over that photograph. And it was something like a book on skin
disease, I think it said.

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. SEDARIS: `You know, look at that book there. It's great.' And I picked
it up, and (gasps). You know, for a split second, I saw the picture of myself
underneath it. But I've never seen the photograph, I mean, except for that
split second. But I haven't looked at it.

GROSS: Well, the photograph in your book jacket was taken by Hugh, your
boyfriend. Is it easier to get photographed by him than by a kind of
professional photographer who is a stranger to you?

Mr. SEDARIS: Yeah, I think it's always easier, like, with Hugh because he
knows me better. You know what I think the embarrassing thing about having
your picture taken is that the photographer would think, `Oh, my God, he
thinks he looks good'...

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. SEDARIS: ...you know, or they could see you, like, maybe sucking your
cheeks or doing any of the tricks that must be so common that people do to
make themselves look better. I think as a writer I never signed up for a
visual representation of myself. I'm just so uncomfortable with--like, if I
could just be hair, I'd be fine with that. I really would. If they said,
`OK, from now on it's just your hair; that's all of you that's going to exist,
but, I mean, the rest of you would be invisible,' I wouldn't mourn at all. I
mean, I would wear clothes, and people could see, `Oh, he's lifting his arm
now.' And they could see...

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. SEDARIS: But they would miss nothing by not seeing my face. I mean, it
would actually make me happy. I mean, there are tons of people out there
would think--that would be their worst nightmare because people wouldn't be
able to look at them and admire them and think about how handsome or beautiful
they are. And, to me, it would just be such a blessing, you know. So I
represent myself through words, and that's absolutely fine with me. And I go
on those lecture tours, but I don't think that really counts as--you're on
stage, and people are far away. And maybe they come and have a book signed,
but I think that's different than, you know, being photographed or being on
television all the time...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SEDARIS: ...or being in a movie. And I think Ira had pointed that out
one time, that there is no profession at all anymore that doesn't involve
having your picture taken. And it seems to unfair to me. I'm so
uncomfortable when--I hate nothing more than having my picture taken. I hate
it.

GROSS: David Sedaris has a new collection of stories called "Dress Your
Family in Corduroy and Denim." He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

Here's Joni Mitchell singing "Hejira," which is also the title of the story
David read.

(Soundbite of "Hejira")

Ms. JONI MITCHELL: (Singing) I'm traveling in some vehicle. I'm sitting in
some cafe, a defector from the petty wars that shell shock love away. There's
comfort in melancholy when there's no need to explain. It's just as natural
as the weather is in this moody sky today. In our possessive coupling so much
could not be...

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, David Sedaris' new obsession: spiders.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with David Sedaris.

He's the author of several best-selling books collecting his humorous personal
essays and stories. He often reads his work on public radio program "This
American Life." Sedaris' new book, "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim,"
will be number one next week on The New York Times Best-Seller List.

You've said that when you were young, you didn't read a lot. Did you write?

Mr. SEDARIS: No. In high school I had to write papers, and it was just,
like, horrible for me. And I was like most people, and I put it off until the
night before the paper was due, and there was no sense of style to it
whatsoever. It was--I pitied the teachers that had to read it. And I wanted
to be a visual artist, but I don't have any talent for that, but I was still
giving it a try. And then I was 20 years old one day, and I just started
writing. Like, I didn't know the day before that I would do it. I just
started writing one day. And at around that same time, I started reading
everything that I could get my hands on.

So I wasn't one of those people that--I wasn't a child who thought, `I'm going
to grow up, and I'm going to be a writer.' It came as a complete surprise to
me. Maybe that's sort of heartening, because that can happen to anybody, you
know? Anybody can maybe tomorrow--like, a couple years ago, Hugh and I spent
the summer in Normandy, and I discovered--I say discovered, but they already
existed--spiders. And I am so incredibly interested in spiders now. And at
this moment at our house in Normandy, there's probably 800 spiders in the
house, and there's one huge--it's a kind of spider that's a shape the size of
an unshelled peanut with legs on it...

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. SEDARIS: ...the Tegenaria gigantea. In feeding these spiders and
recording their habits and studying them under a microscope, it's changed my
life. But I didn't know the day before--the day before I saw a fly fly into a
web and be eaten by a spider, I didn't know that this would be a huge passion
in my life. And I just think that's so exciting, that we have that ability to
embrace things that we don't even see coming. I mean, it really sounds kind
of corny, but it's a reason to live. And who knows what it might be next? I
mean, I'd be surprised if all of a sudden I got into that foot boxing, you
know. Like, that would be a real surprise to me. But who knows? There could
be something tomorrow or--well, actually, I have my hands full with the
spiders right now, but something could happen 10, 15 years from now that might
cause me to look at the world in a completely different way.

GROSS: Oh, I know what you mean, and that's wonderful to see it that way.
What is it about spiders?

Mr. SEDARIS: I think that I--we have these webs hanging almost like a
campaign bunting...

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. SEDARIS: ...throughout the house, and it's a three-story house. And you
never really saw the spiders because they're back in their little--they live
in a little cavity at the back of the web. But then I saw a fly, and then I
saw this spider come out and grab it, and it was fascinating. And then I just
started catching flies to feed to the spiders. And at first I caught them
with my fingers. The best place to get a fly is against a windowpane. They
get confused there, and so you can grab them. So for a while I was catching
them with my fingers, but it was more practical--I started catching them in a
jar. And then I'd shake the jar up like it's a cocktail, and I'd pour the fly
into the web. And the fly lands, and he's sort of punch-drunk for a moment;
hes like, `What happened? Where am I?' And then the second he starts to move,
the spider comes out. And I'm just--you know, it's like rooting for the Nazi
in a Holocaust movie. It really is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SEDARIS: It makes me feel bad sometimes. But, you know, these are
flies, so I'm not going to--you know, they go out in the yard, and they walk
through feces, and then they come in and dance on the furniture. I mean, if
anyone has it coming, it's flies. And I think more than the spiders, it was
catching the flies. It just fit into this obsessive--it was like an obsession
that has been waiting for me all my life. I mean, it fulfills me completely.
I will spend six hours at a stretch catching flies, and When we run out of
flies in our own house, I go to the neighbors' and ask if I can borrow some of
theirs. So even more than the spiders, it's catching the flies. And the
spiders in our house are full, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SEDARIS: You know, they're like, `Oh, not again.' There's only so much
that they can eat. But I love catching flies. Love it, and I'm good at it.
And that's another thing; I'm good at it. There aren't that many things that
I'm good at. But if you took, like, five guys--and they could be
athletes--and you said, `First one to catch a fly wins,' I would win.

GROSS: (Laughs) So has this kind of extended over into, like, reading about
spiders and reading about flies and going to, like...

Mr. SEDARIS: Yes.

GROSS: ...science museums that have big insect collections?

Mr. SEDARIS: Yes, it has. And where we are in Normandy, there aren't that
many bookstores. So I got books that were in French about spiders, and then I
got some books in England. And now I want to join the Tegenaria society in
England. And that has got to be the most--to the common person, that's
probably the most boring group of people that there are. But, you know, you
go out into the country, and you look under logs and you, you know, go into
abandoned houses. And, you know, you don't kill the spiders. You just kind
of look at them. But you're with other people who feel the same way you do,
and it sounds great to me. I will have--because Hugh and I, we sort of moved
to London, and I don't have any friends. But this way, I don't know, seems as
good a way as any to meet people. You wouldn't want to have them over for
dinner with other people, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SEDARIS: It's like you wouldn't want to have, like, four of the spider
guys and then, you know, a fun person who you met, you know, somewhere else at
dinner. I don't know that they'd mix that well, but I'm excited about
joining.

GROSS: My guest is David Sedaris. He has a new collection of stories called
"Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is David Sedaris. He has a new collection of stories called
"Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim." When we left off, we were talking
about his new interest: spiders.

Well, I know you see this new interest in spiders and flies as being, you
know, an obsession. And you have described yourself in your writing as being
obsessive-compulsive. And in one of the stories in your new book, you say
something really funny about that. You say, `The good part about being an
obsessive-compulsive is that you're always on time for work. The bad part is
that you're on time for everything: rinsing your cup of coffee, taking a
bath, walking your clothes to the Laundromat. There's no mystery to your
comings and goings, no room for spontaneity.' Did people try to break you of
your compulsions when you were young and see it as, like, just a real problem?

Mr. SEDARIS: Well, they sort of changed. As a young person, they were more
physical compulsions, more in terms of touching and making certain sounds and
arranging things. And then as I got older, when I was in my 20s, it was all
about time and doing things at the exact same time. And there was--a panic
would sort of set in if I thought, `Oh, my God, I'm not going to be at the
IHOP by 7:00. I'm going to be five minutes late to the IHOP.

Now no one was waiting for me at the IHOP. I would go to the IHOP every
night. See, in Raleigh, for a while, I lived next door to the IHOP and that
was easy. And then I moved to the other side of town, and I would ride my
bike to the IHOP every night and I would just sit in the exact same booth
facing the exact same direction and read library books but for exactly an hour
and then I would be home by a certain time, but I could not walk to my door
any earlier or any later than the prescribed time.

Then I moved to Chicago and I located the IHOP and then I found an apartment
within walking distance. And it wasn't just going to the IHOP. It was, you
know, doing laundry at exactly the same time and taking a bath at exactly the
same time and making my bed at exactly the same--everything was done by the
clock.

And I think what broke me of that was moving to New York, and they don't have
an IHOP here. They have a Howard Johnson's, but it wasn't the same, and I
didn't quite know what to do with myself when I moved here. I thought, `Well,
if I can't go to the IHOP'--So I tried sitting--'cause if you go to a
restaurant, it's not the same because then you have to shake the waitress down
for another cup of coffee, and at the IHOP, they just gave you a whole pot of
it and left you alone. And if you have to signal for a different cup, then
you're always anxious, like, is the waitress going to see you or, you know, I
can't drink this fast because she might not come around for a while, but it
was not having the IHOP in New York that slowly broke me of that. And then
it's just been a process over the years, and now I just do the laundry
whenever I feel like it, and I get out of bed whenever I feel like it, and I
take a bath whenever I feel like it. And it's--really, I never thought I
could do this.

GROSS: Now here's something that amazes me. If you are so involved with
routine and the kind of predictability of routine or the reliability of
routine, how have you managed to move to foreign countries? You know, you
moved to Paris. Now you also have a place in London, and in addition to that,
you tour a lot. You go on book tours and you do maybe a city a day for a
month or two, and, I mean, that is really serious change where, like, all the
cards in your hand are, like, thrown up in the air, and who knows where
they're going to land? How do you deal with that?

Mr. SEDARIS: Well, let's say, if my plane leaves at 7--Right?--then they're
going to come and take me to the airport at 5:30. Now I used to get up at 4
and I write. And as long as I can write every day, then that's something I
can do every day. I can take the other bits of it, right? So if I don't get
to take a bath tomorrow or if my suitcase is lost and I don't get to iron a
shirt, I can deal with it, because there's one thing that I can still do every
day.

I sort of like those tours. I mean, people always say you get off the plane
and then someone says, `Oh, you must be exhausted,' and you think, `Oh, I am.'
Then you think, `Wait a minute. I haven't done anything. You know, I just
took a half-hour plane ride. How exhausting is that in the scheme of things?'
So I like those tours because they feel like a business trip to me. They make
me feel like--I never had a real job, so it never occurred to me that I would
get to do that, and I just put it in my head that I'm a businessman and I'm a
businessman and I'm on a trip for a month. And that helps me get through a
lot.

GROSS: Your previous book, David, "Me Talk Pretty One Day," several of the
essays in there have to do with moving to Paris and trying to learn a new
language and what it was like for you as a person and as a writer to be in
this culture where you had a lot of trouble with the language. Well, now
you've gotten a place in London and you're spending a lot of time in London
where you're still a foreigner but you're a foreigner who speaks the language.
Why did you move from Paris to London?

Mr. SEDARIS: Well, I was doing some work for the BBC and I would go to
London from time to time, and the more I went, the more I liked it, but I
think one of the reasons I really like it is that they speak English there.
I've been in Paris for--What?--six years, and subtlety is lost on me there.
Like, when I'm in Paris, I think anyone who speaks French is French, and a
French friend will say to me, `That's Yugoslavian. Can't you hear that
accent?' you know, or, `She's Mexican. You want to hear mine?' And subtlety
is lost on me.

I can quote people but then you have to translate the quote and you just lose
so much in that translation. And in England, things are still lost on me.
Like, I often can't tell if people are being nice or not. Like I don't know
if--I can't tell when they're being sincere, but I can quote them and I can
use exactly the words that they used, and there are 10 daily papers in London,
and I can read the paper without a dictionary and I can watch television
without getting a headache. So that was a big part of it. For me, a big part
of it was the language, and for Hugh, he speaks fluent French, so language was
never a problem for him, but he just loves it there and there's a lot to be
said for the person that you're with, a lot to be said for seeing them that
happy.

GROSS: I don't know if I ever shared this theory with you, but I've often
wondered if your move to Paris--well, let me put it this way: I know when you
were young, you always wanted--I think I knew this anyways--that when you were
young, you wanted to be well-known, you know, as a writer. The idea of being,
you know, celebrated was something that you wanted, but as soon as you kind of
got it, you left town. You left the country and went to a place where people
didn't know who you were and you didn't even speak the language, and it always
seemed to me almost as a way of, intentionally or unintentionally, protecting
yourself from being too well-known, protecting yourself against celebrity.

Mr. SEDARIS: Well, I think--but that's something you can't really write
about. You know, like, if you write about somebody giving you--you know,
recognizing your name on your credit card and so giving you a free meal in a
restaurant. You can't write about that, because other people can't really
relate; it didn't happen to them, and you can't complain about it because
people think, `What the hell is he complaining about? You know, I had to pay
and leave a tip.'

So--and I think I tend to write better from the viewpoint of somebody who's
having to struggle for something, and so, therefore, moving to France, it was
just sort of starting over and having to--you know, asking for even the
smallest thing, and now, having been there for six years, it's so hard for me
to open my mouth. I mean, with our friends, I can, but, you know, in a store,
to ask where something is, in the post office--and I know how to say
everything I need to, but especially if there are other people around, then I
think of them listening to me and thinking about the mistakes that I'm making,
and I just become completely drenched as if I had just been pushed into a
swimming pool, sweat just pouring off my face.

And then I moved to England and I realized, `Oh, it's not about language.' And
the same thing happens to me in London. American English feels like such a
foreign language to me there. I didn't know what Americans sounded like until
I moved there, because we always think we don't have an accent, but when
you're surrounded, when you're listening to the BBC and you're watching
English television and then they have, like, American guests on, you think,
`Oh, my God, that's what we sound like?'

So I feel very foreign there, as foreign as I feel in France. And part of it,
too, is, I think, you know, you grow up and you think, `God, I would give
anything if someone came up to me and said that they'd read something that I
had written and that they liked it.' And then when they do, you just want it
to be over with. You know, you know they mean well, but, you know, I just
sort of dig the nails of my hand into my palm to make anything hurt more...

GROSS: Why?

Mr. SEDARIS: ...than this. It's just--I mean, you want people to read what
you've written, and you want them to enjoy it and you want them to tell you
about it. Actually, you want them to tell you about it. I think that you
want them to tell your younger self how much they liked it. Like the
20-year-old me would appreciate it and the 47-year-old me is just sort of
embarrassed by it. I mean, I know--I met somebody last night. I met--there's
a writer named Akhil Sharma who wrote a book called "An Obedient Father," and
it was the best novel that I'd read that year. Boy, it was just a magnificent
book, and he came to my reading. And I know that I embarrassed him because
basically I should have just gotten down and knelt from the ground before him.
That's basically what I did but with words. And I think that I embarrassed
him, but at the same time, I needed to say that. I needed to say that I think
that he is probably the most inventive writer that lives in American right now
and that one of the reasons that I do not kill myself is the possibility that
he'll write another book.

And so maybe when people say nice things to me, I understand that they need to
say it and then you need to be gracious and you need--I guess it's just being
embarrassed, I suppose...

GROSS: How...

Mr. SEDARIS: ...but still you want--I guess the best thing is for them to
write it down.

GROSS: So that you're not facing them?

Mr. SEDARIS: Yeah.

GROSS: My guest is David Sedaris. He has a new best seller called "Dress
Your Family in Corduroy and Denim."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is David Sedaris. His new collection of stories is called
"Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim." He's been living in France for the
past few years, but now he also has a place in London where he spends a lot of
time.

How are you spending your days now?

Mr. SEDARIS: It takes seven to nine years to get a visa for France--I mean,
seven to nine months, because everything has to be translated into French and
you need 14 copies, and if you only have 13, they won't let you use their
Xerox machine, and it's all done by hand and it's exhausting. And I got an
English visa in an hour. I got a writer's visa and then they gave Hugh a visa
as my boyfriend, and then I renewed my visa so I can apply for a passport in
2006.

But I don't have a work visa. So I got a volunteer job and I think it's bad
to talk about volunteer work if you do it from the kindness of your heart, but
that was never my motivation. I just wanted to be tired at the end of the day
and I wanted people to be waiting for me because if you write, you're just at
home all day and no one ever looks at their watch and says, `Where the hell is
he?' But with a job, then it was the first time in years that I had people
waiting for me, and I took the subway and I looked around me and thought,
`Look at us. We're all going to work.' And at the end of the day, I could
say, `Boy, aren't we tired after our long day of work,' and it didn't matter
what that work is. I just wanted to feel that there was a place for me.

So it's been wonderful. I got a little job, and I just get up early in the
morning and I write and then I go to my job, which is sort of all over the
place. You know, like, one day I go and I help, like, an 80-year-old woman
move jars from one shelf to the other.

GROSS: This is working for the Red Cross?

Mr. SEDARIS: No, it's called Age Concern, and it's a charity in England,
just for concerns of older people. Then I do some painting and I do--you
know, when there's a drop-in center for people, and just little tasks, you
know, going around with a guy in a van and picking up things that people
donated, and that's just because I wanted to see people's apartments, you
know, to get across the threshold in a different apartment. So, again, it's
not that I'm thinking, `Oh, I want to enrich the lives of blah, blah, blah.'
No, I just want to set foot in people's apartments basically.

And, plus, it gives me a chance to talk to people, and again, I don't have any
friends there. I haven't made any friends, but if you can just talk to
people, then you can live without the friends. You know, you move your jaws
during the day and then you go home and you give them a rest, and that's
enough for me. Even if you're telling people, `Take a left here,' or, `Don't
forget to return your tray to the counter,' that's not friendship, but--I
don't know--at least it's exercise for your jaw, and then you can go home at
night and you don't feel so--you don't realize that you haven't talked to
anyone in days.

I mean, I talk to Hugh when he's there, but sometimes he's not there, and I'm
there for weeks at a time by myself, and, you know, I see people at an outdoor
restaurant and I think, `Well, what would happen if I just joined them and
said, "I'm so sorry I'm late"?'

GROSS: So...

Mr. SEDARIS: When I applied for my job, the receptionist wrote down my name
as Sid Harris. She thought it was two words.

GROSS: Oh, right.

Mr. SEDARIS: So then that's like my little alter ego there is Sid Harris.
And so then when I would see people outdoors having fun, I thought that I
could introduce myself and say that my name was Sid Harris and that we had met
and that maybe I could trick them into it and form little friendships that
way. It's so pathetic to tell people you're lonely. You know, so...

GROSS: But you're lonely by choice in a way. I mean...

Mr. SEDARIS: I don't know. I don't remember how to make friends.

GROSS: But you've intentionally moved far away from your friends. You have
intentionally uprooted yourself to a place where you know nobody. So...

Mr. SEDARIS: You're right.

GROSS: ...you've actually designed this for yourself.

Mr. SEDARIS: I designed it, and now I'm complaining about it, yeah.

GROSS: But that's part of why you designed it, so you'd have something to
brush up against. That's what you just said, right?

Mr. SEDARIS: Yeah. Yeah. Pretty much.

GROSS: Yeah. So it seems to be what you require.

Mr. SEDARIS: Well, plus--and I just like the act of moving. I really--if
someone said to me tomorrow, `OK, you have to move to Poland,' I'd say, `OK,'
and I would be absolutely fine with that. I really would. Now if they said
you had to move to Bangkok, I'd put up a fuss, just because it's too hot for
me there.

GROSS: I mean, the funny thing is, while you're, you know, quote, "lonely"
and in London or Paris, there are so many of your readers who would just kill
to have a meal with you or sit down and talk with you over a cup of coffee.

Mr. SEDARIS: It's a little bit different when you meet someone and it's not
even, right? Like, if they...

GROSS: You mean 'cause they feel they know you and you haven't read their
work or you don't know who they are, so...

Mr. SEDARIS: Right. Right. That's different than just--then I get anxious
or embarrassed or whatever, you know, that I don't have anything, that when
they say, `Oh, I've read your book,' and I can't say to them, `You know, I saw
that dance program you did in the eighth grade,' or, `I loved that housecoat
you made for your mother 17 years ago.' I don't--I can't...

GROSS: You can't reciprocate.

Mr. SEDARIS: ...reciprocate.

GROSS: David, it's just been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Mr. SEDARIS: Oh, thank you, Terry.

GROSS: David Sedaris' new book is called "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and
Denim." Next week it will be number one on The New York Times Best-Seller
List.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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