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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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.)

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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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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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