David Sedaris had been writing for about 15 years before his big break arrived in the winter of 1992, when he was invited to read one of his essays on National Public Radio.
The now famous story, “SantaLand Diaries,” chronicled Sedaris’ experiences as a 33-year-old elf working at Macy’s department store in New York City. With his behind-the-scenes knowledge and laser wit, Sedaris skewered one of America’s favorite Christmas traditions, ripping away the silvery tinsel while portraying himself as effete and grandiose, every bit as ridiculous as SantaLand itself. Here’s an excerpt:
This morning, I worked as an Exit Elf, telling people in a loud voice, “This way out of SantaLand.” A woman was standing at one of the cash registers paying for her pictures while her son lay beneath her, kicking and heaving, having a tantrum. The woman said, “Riley, if you don’t start behaving yourself, Santa is not going to bring you any of those toys you asked for.” The child said, “He is too going to bring me toys, liar. He already told me.”
The woman grabbed my arm and said, “You there, elf. Tell Riley here that if he doesn’t start behaving immediately, then Santa is going to change his mind and bring him coal for Christmas.” I said that Santa changed his policy and no longer traffics in coal. Instead, if you’re bad, he comes to your house and steals things. I told Riley that if he didn’t behave himself, Santa was going to take away his TV and all his electrical appliances and leave him in the dark. All your appliances, Riley, including the refrigerator. Your food is going to spoil and smell bad. It is going to be so cold and dark where you are. You’re going to wish you never even heard the name Santa.
The woman got a worried look on her face and said, “All right. That’s enough.” I said, “He’s going to take your car and your furniture and all of your towels and blankets and leave you with nothing.” The mother said, “No, that’s enough. Really.”
Sedaris’ reading, done in his distinctive nasally voice, became an immediate sensation. His first essay collection, “Barrel Fever,” followed two years later. Several essay and story collections came later, including his most recent book, “Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls,” which recently was released in trade paperback.
Many of his stories focus on his family, including his sister Amy Sedaris, an actress who starred in the “Strangers With Candy” series and — in a bit of delightful synchronicity — played a spritely receptionist in the movie “Elf.” He is a master of observational humor, fueled in part by curiosity and outrage.
His early work reflects his discomfort with the world and his place in it, including his realization that he is gay. More recently, he has written about life in France and England and his experiences in other countries. Often he talks about his longtime partner Hugh Hamrick. But always, even when he addresses the most uncomfortable subjects, Sedaris is unflinchingly honest — with devastatingly funny results.
These days, Sedaris writes primarily for The New Yorker.
Sedaris is coming to Oklahoma City this week. He will read some of his work, sign books and host a question-and-answer session beginning at 7 p.m. Friday at Barnes & Noble, 13800 N May Ave.
He spoke with The Oklahoman in advance of his visit. Here is an edited transcript.
Q: How did you get your start?
A: I was living in Chicago and reading out loud in various places. I was reading out loud one night, and Ira Glass from NPR just happened to be in the audience. He introduced himself. We shook hands. I moved to New York. He called a couple years later and asked if I had anything Christmasy that would work for a local show he had, so I recorded a story about being an elf at SantaLand. He had it on his little show, and then he put it on “Morning Edition.”
Q: “SantaLand Diaries” is hilarious. When I taught college, I used it in my writing classes.
A: I’ve got to say, it doesn’t do a thing for me. When I read it now, I just cringe. The writing seems really choppy to me, you know? The sentences don’t have a rhythm. It’s actually very difficult to read out loud. I have to record it for the BBC when I get home in September. I don’t know. I’ll have to go over it, and maybe I’ll rewrite parts of it or string sentences together to make it more readable.
Q: Is there exaggeration going on in the stories that you relate, or has your life really been this extraordinary?
A: My job is to tell a story in an entertaining way. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you probably went from high school to college and that you probably know how to drive a car and that you can type with both your hands. I didn’t do any of those things. So that means I ceded control fairly early in my life. I mean, if you don’t drive a car, then you’re at the mercy of other people. If you don’t have any marketable job skills, then you’re really at the mercy of other people, too. And the less control you have, I think, the more interesting your life is. ...
There was a guy the other day on a plane. I was in first class, and he was chewing tobacco, and he was spitting his tobacco juice into an empty orange juice bottle. I was seated right across the aisle from him, watching the tobacco juice ooze down the sides of the bottle. I thought, “How much would he have to pay me to drink that?” Thirty years ago, I would’ve drunk it for $100. That’s all it would’ve cost. But then between 30 years and 20 years ago, my life changed, so I would’ve needed — 20 years ago, it would’ve cost like $5,000 for me to drink it. Now you’d have to pay me $100,000 to drink it.
I wrote all that down in my notebook so I would remember it and because I could write about it or I could tell it to people. I’m a professional, you know? I think that people think, “Oh, he’s not that different from me,” and I want them to think that, and in a very fundamental way I am no different than everyone else. But the difference is that I’m a professional nobody, OK? (Chuckles) I’m not just a nobody; I’m a professional nobody, and I act accordingly. (Laughs.)
Q: If you don’t like “SantaLand Diaries,” what are some of the pieces you’ve written that you do like?
A: I like a story called “Repeat After Me” that was in “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.” I wrote it to answer a question. People would always ask, “How does your family feel when you write about them?” You know, when I go on tour, there’s usually a question-and-answer session, and people would ask that. I wanted to write a story that would answer that question. That story is my answer. But it didn’t function, I guess, because every time I’d read that story, people would raise their hands and ask, “What does your family think when you write about them?” … I never have put out a book thinking this sucks. I always believe in it when the book is published. But then the more distance you get from it, you think, “Oh, I could’ve done so much better.”
Q: Is that a form of perfectionism?
A: I guess. I mean, plus you mature, and you see things that you were doing, maybe stylistic things that you were doing, that you wish you — I mean, in a fundamental way, I kind of grew up in public. I’d been writing for, I don’t know, 15 years before I was ever on the radio. I was 37 when my first book came out, and then my second book and my third book. I wouldn’t mind rewriting those books. If I could rewrite those books and have them recall the originals, I’d do it. But you have to move on. At some point you have to move on, otherwise ...
Q: You become George Lucas.
A: Exactly. (Laughs.)
Q: Do you feel a pressure to be funny all the time?
A: Only when I go on TV, and that’s why I try not to go on TV. I’m not a funny person. You know what I mean? If you give me a piece of paper and a deadline, I can come up with something, but I’m not quick on my feet. There are plenty of funnier people than me. … So I don’t feel pressure to be funny, but I feel it’s my responsibility to be turned on. You’re relating to people, and you’re responding to people. Every now and then, people are going to take things the wrong way. Ninety percent of the time, I can say it’s them and not me. Like this woman the other day wanted me to sing like Billie Holiday (as he did on one of his audiobooks). I don’t do that. It makes me feel like a trained seal. So when people ask me to do it, I just pretend like that question was never asked, and I say next question. ... So then this woman got really mad, and she wrote me a note saying I was rude to her. I didn’t finish the note; I threw it away. But I wasn’t being rude. I was just being evasive. There’s a difference. Rude is saying that’s the stupidest question I’ve ever heard in my life. Evasive is just pretending it never happened. (Chuckles.)
Q: It is very funny when you sing like Billie Holiday. I can understand why people request it.
A: I used to say, “OK, I’ll do it for $300,” and then pass the hat around. If they get $300 together, I’ll do it. And I might have done it that night, but the microphone wasn’t good enough, and sometimes people take that the wrong way, too. I think it’s funny to say, “I’ll do something for $300.” (Laughs.) But a couple years ago I went on a book tour, and I had a tip jar on my signing table because everyone else has a tip jar, and I figured I’m going to put one out, too. I made $4,000 in tips on my book tour. But some people misinterpreted it. And then it got out that I was charging people to sign their books. I wasn’t charging anything. You know what I mean? It was a tip jar. But people misinterpreted it, and I figured as far as a gimmick, I could only do it on one tour. Plus the problem was that I started hating people who didn’t tip me. I would think, “That cheap son of a (expletive). I just signed two books, and he didn’t give me anything.” You shouldn’t tip someone for signing books! It didn’t work out for me. I didn’t like it, so I never did it again.
Q: One of things that I think makes your work so special is the audiobooks that you do. You have a very unique voice, not just as a writer but as a speaker.
A: I wrote a book called “Squirrel Meets Chipmunk.” I got other people to do some of the reading on the audiobook, just because I wanted other voices on there. I thought people would be excited. You know, (actress and singer) Elaine Stritch was one of the people reading stories. I had Elaine Stritch on my audiobook. I couldn’t believe it. And people complained: “Why didn’t you read them?” I don’t see that at all. I’d much rather listen to Elaine Stritch than listen to me.
Q: Who do you read?
A: I just finished the new book by Lena Dunham. I read the galleys for that. I think it’s coming out in the fall. I loved that. It’s a fantastic essay collection. Her editor asked if I would read it and write a blurb for it, and I was happy to do it. Before that, I read “The Interestings,” which is a fantastic novel by a woman named Meg Wolitzer. Before that, I read Michael Cunningham’s “The Snow Queen.” ... That’s one thing that happens when you go on a book tour. People give you manuscripts and say, “I figured you’d need something to read on the plane,” and I’m like, “Did it never occur to you … just, you know, for one (expletive) minute, that I would want to read what I want to read?” But they give you their manuscripts, and you say, “Thank you so much.”
It happens to every writer I know. There are a lot of people out there who are really just desperate to get their book published. That said, most of the people who give you their manuscripts, you know, I read the first paragraph and realize that their talent is for self-promotion, not for writing. It’s sad. But see, I would never in a million years have done that. I would never have gone to a reading and given the author something that I wrote. ... Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I can forgive anything that I myself have done. So if someone wants to travel around with a paralyzed person and shoplift, I can forgive that, because I’ve done it myself. But if somebody wants to go to a book signing and give the author their manuscript, hoping they will help to get them published, I can’t relate to that.
Meet the author
David Sedaris will read some of his work, sign books and host a question-and-answer session beginning at 7 p.m. Friday at Barnes & Noble, 13800 N May Ave.