After recently discovering that he had a rare gum disease, David Sedaris asked his dentist if he should quit smoking. Her response: "Don't be so drastic." That attitude, he says, is why he lives in France.
When PW arrives at his apartment in the Latin Quarter of Paris, a stone's throw from Notre Dame Cathedral, we find him fussing with his new iMac laptop. It's a gift from his boyfriend and an enigma to someone who has only used a typewriter his entire writing life. "Should I close this?" he asks. "Will it turn off?"
There is something impish about Sedaris, a judgment that might annoy him. His laugh, which comes easily, is mischievous. As we talk (and smoke) at a round wooden table in his spacious but cozy dining room, he rocks in his chair, occasionally jumping up to find something to show. He is irrepressibly boyish.
Living in Paris as he has for the past two years, Sedaris documents his attempts to learn to speak French in his new collection of essays, Me Talk Pretty One Day (Little, Brown). The language barrier, he admits, can be daunting, not to mention socially prohibitive, with his dinner conversation being limited to "I saw a bird today. There are many birds in the sky...And in the trees, sometimes." Adding, "Who wants a friend like that?"
The title essay of the collection, which was published in Esquire, details Sedaris's experiences at the hands of a sadistic French teacher at the Alliance FranÃ§aise in Paris. Its publication provoked the Alliance to contact Sedaris and demand a retraction.
"A woman from the New York Chapter telephoned me. 'We had a recent meeting,' she said. 'Your attack was brought up later...Over white wine.' "
In addition to the phone call, the Alliance sent Sedaris a letter that included photos of the entire staff, stating, "These are the people you've hurt." It's gone so far he's actually had to write a letter in defense of the teacher to prevent her from getting fired. "Every time I think that's the end of it," he says, "they call me." But he defends his essay, stating, "She did behave that way and it was bizarre. It's bizarre to poke someone in the eye with a pencil and never apologize. It's bizarre to throw chalk at someone."
Sedaris, 43, is a native of North Carolina. After dropping out of Kent State University he enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where, at 20, he began writing, primarily in diaries. "I knew that I wanted to write, but I thought if I went to Iowa I wouldn't be able to compete and I would be discouraged. At the Art Institute, they didn't have a writing major but they had writing teachers who were great and they had so much to give but no one wanted it...So I thought: if I want it, maybe they'll give it all to me. Which is pretty much what happened."
After the surprise success of a reading of diary entries at a friend's party, Sedaris began reading "to get attention" at performance spaces throughout Chicago. Though he dreamt of putting out a book, he confesses that he is terrible at promoting himself. "I've never sent a story out. I've always waited for people to ask me." It was this tactic that prompted Sedaris to move to New York, where he hoped that someone would ask to be his agent or, better yet, his publisher.
While waiting for something happen, Sedaris supported himself through a variety of odd jobs, including stints as a mover, a housecleaner, and an elf at Macy's during Christmastime. And he continued to write in his diary every day.
Also living in New York at the time was Ira Glass, host of NPR's This American Life, who at the time was working on the station's program Morning Edition, and his own show, The Wild Room. Glass, familiar with Sedaris's work from seeing him read, was putting together a holiday-themed program for The Wild Room. He called Sedaris to see if he had anything appropriate. He did.
"The Santaland Diaries" began as just that--diary entries from the holiday season that Sedaris worked at Macy's as an elf in Santaland. Its debut on Morning Edition in the winter of 1993 caused a sensation. It is by far Sedaris's best-known work, something that he attributes not to the essay's merit, but to it being on the radio.
"When you read a book, you don't necessarily remember where you read it, but when you hear something on the radio, it's tied up in where you were at the time: in the car, at the office. It becomes personal. It becomes yours in a way that reading a book d sn't."
And: "It seems that everyone in the world was listening to the radio that day."
Little, Brown editor Geoff Klosky (now with Simon & Schuster) certainly was. "He called and asked me if I had a book and I just so happened to have Barrel Fever in a drawer--I'd been waiting my whole life for that call."
Sedaris was signed to a two-book contract. After the release of Barrel Fever in '94, (which has a total of 188,500 copies in print) that was changed to a three-book contract. When his second collection, Naked, came out in '97 (335,000 copies in print), it became a four-book contract. Me Talk Pretty had an initial print run of 75,000 copies. It's since gone up to 100,000. As for sticking with Little, Brown (which also publishes his paperback editions), Sedaris explains: "I always liked them because of their logo. It just seemed classy."
Despite his success with the written word, Sedaris hasn't lost his desire to read out loud. In fact, he says, he writes to read out loud. He edits his material by reading it aloud, often trying new pieces on an audience to see how they work. "You can fix things by reading them--you can speed things up or you can...slow... them down to suggest an ending....And people fall for it."
He's influenced, then, by people who read well--who know how to engage the listener. He credits Ira Glass for showing him how to edit for reading and how to listen to a story. "I saw him once do a presentation in San Francisco and it was great to be in that audience and to see it from the other side."
Books on tape also influence his writing (and reading) voice. Recently, British dramatist Alan Bennett ("perfect") has impressed him, as has Garrison Keillor's work on The Best Short Stories of 1999 (Houghton Mifflin) audiobook. His initial interest in audiobooks was, however, self-preserving: "I got a Walkman before I moved to France. I didn't think I'd become this kind of person but every time I leave the house I put it on. It protects me from French people asking me questions."
Sedaris has plenty of opportunities to read out loud. In addition to his work for NPR, he g s on two lecture tours a year. On top of that, he is currently on a 30-city tour to promote Me Talk Pretty One Day. He d sn't mind. "I never thought I could make a career out of going out and reading to people. I can't tell you how happy that makes me."
As long as he's not asked to read "Santaland Diaries," that is.
"I have no idea why that went over the way that it did. There are about two early things I've written that I could go back and read again, and that's not one of them. It's confusing because you go to a reading and you choose things you think are coming along well and that you're proud of and people ask you to read 'Santaland' and a) It's June and b) I would never read that. Never. In terms of the writing, it's probably the weakest writing I've ever done. I can't say enough bad things about it. I really can't."
When he's not touring, Sedaris fills his days in Paris by going to the movies and people-watching in grocery stores. His knowledge of movie theaters and of grocery stores in the city is extensive. He also engages in his passion for collecting taxidermy, an interest he says is a direct result of his art-school background. "A taxidermied kitten," he explains, "touches a place in the heart. It provokes feelings you cannot provoke with a cube." PW d s not argue.
Touring or not, he writes in his diary every morning without fail. "When I go on a lecture tour, it's written into my contract that they have to provide me with an IBM Wheel Writer. Last October everyone had an IBM for me. This last tour [in April] I had two IBM's and then bullshit Canon typewriters and Panasonics...And in one town, they didn't have a typewriter for me.... They didn't have a typewriter, so I went out and tried to buy one but there was no place downtown that had them and I didn't know what to do. That whole day. It was like I was robbed of a day of my life because I couldn't write. I mean, I have to write in my diary every day."
He gets up then, and disappears into another room. A moment later he emerges with a stack of bound books, each with a different picture on the cover. His diaries. He begins to flip through one. Each page is typewritten on a piece of paper 81/2 by 9". On top of almost every entry is a picture, individually laminated and tied into the theme of that day. He fills four diaries a year and gets them professionally bound with a cover that's seasonally appropriate.
He opens to a page. "I got this picture from a book about a French school for the blind." he says. It's a black-and-white photo of a crazed-looking cat. In another diary: "In this one I just used pictures of clowns." "I was writing about meeting a British man this day, so I looked for a photo of someone who looks British." He shows me a photo of a man in a derby hat.
His diaries are source material. "I was in Key West and all Key West is, is people with gum disease and parrots on their shoulders and t-shirt shops. So I wrote two pages of t-shirt slogans. I know it will come in handy one day."
Mining his personal life for fodder for his writing is something Sedaris d s well, being able to find comedy even in the most humiliating, self-effacing or even tragic scenarios, including his mother's death from cancer (in Naked). Still, he scoffs at any implication that his work is profound. "My writing is just a desperate attempt to get laughs. If you get anything else out of it, it's an accident."
France is providing Sedaris with a watershed of new experiences to mine. He's careful, though, not to fall into the cliche trap that so many Americans writing in Paris stumble into. "The book on Paris has been written 800 million times. If I hear one more thing about "frogs" or about people smelling bad or about Parisians being rude or about people eating snails...I mean, I've lived here for a year and a half and I've never seen a Jerry Lewis movie playing anywhere.
"I've noticed, too, that when people write about France they will say something like ,'I went to the doctor's office and she said, 'Mettez-vous votre slip''. When writers burst into French all the time...When I didn't know French that irritated the hell out of me. You wouldn't just break into Slovenian.
"Also, when people use names like 'I was walking on the Blvd. St. Germain'“that d sn't mean anything to people who've never been to Paris.
"I wrote some things when I first came here and I never did anything with them and, looking back, I'm glad I didn't because they're just typical first impressions that anyone could have like 'Gee, there's a lot of dog crap on the street'."
Happily, Paris is providing him with many more original things to write about, including his recent dentist and doctor experiences. Of his visit to the dentist he says, "They weren't laughing with me. They were laughing at me." This after, due to his limited French, he described his gums as "The house where my teeth live" and told the dentist that when he was 15 he had a fence on his teeth. Also: "If a tooth budges today, can it live in my mouth tomorrow?" Upon leaving the dentist's, he dramatically remarked, "Today, my gums are sick but one day, I will have gums like yours."
Instead of being humiliated by this experience, Sedaris was inspired to seek treatment for other neglected ailments. He has since had a spot removed from his face, gotten new glasses and is planning to have corns removed from his feet and the hair removed from his back. In fact he admits that his experience at the dentist has just opened the floodgates. "I never know what's going to happen, but I can always write about it." He adds: "Here, it's an adventure."
Bergquist is a freelance writer living in Paris.