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Author David Sedaris talks about writing, elves and Billie Holiday

David Sedaris, arguably the funniest essayist of his generation, is coming to Oklahoma City this week. He discussed writing, elves and Billie Holiday with The Oklahoman.
by Ken Raymond Modified: June 15, 2014 at 9:18 pm •  Published: June 15, 2014
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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.

by Ken Raymond
Book Editor
Ken Raymond is the book editor. He joined The Oklahoman in 1999. He has won dozens of state, regional and national writing awards. Three times he has been named the state's "overall best" writer by the Society of Professional Journalists. In...
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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.

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