David Sedaris on âWhen You are Engulfed in Flamesâ
Comic genius David Sedaris is in town to read from his latest book of essays, ‘When You are Engulfed in Flames’, and other pieces. Time Out spoke to him about living in London, sex and Connecticut-based epileptics
Posted: Fri Sep 5 2008
What are you going to be doing at the Bloomsbury – do you know yet what you’ll be doing?'No I don’t – I’ve never been in that theatre before. I don’t know how it will work out. I did something in a bookstore. I have absolutely no idea what to expect.'
I’m sure it will have a responsive audience. When do you decide what to do?'I would imagine – you know for a book tour generally you just read for a short time and answer questions. It always seems to make sense to read from the new book, but I was sick of that book a while ago. So probably what I would do is I would read one story from the book and then read something new I couldn’t put in the book because it doesn’t work on paper – some pieces I’ve done on radio my editors felt wouldn’t work written down. The words needed to be pronounced a certain way to work. A friend came to stay with us in Paris and we got into pissing contest as to who could do the accent the best. It was really irritating. Then I generally read something from my diary to close the evening.'
When you read out loud how responsive are the audiences to the bits that aren’t funny.'There’s a sensation where you can feel people listening or feel them drift away. When you read comic material and people aren’t laughing how do you know they’re listening. I used to panic but now I find if I pay attention I can tell if they’re really listening or not. Also when you read comic material people decide they’re going to laugh before they left the house.'
So would you avoid reading the bit in your book about your mother’s death, for fear of inappropriate laughter?'I generally don’t think of laughter as being inappropriate – if they want to laugh at it I think well, knock yourself out, but the only time it’s got me into trouble was when I wrote about some people in the village in Normandy we lived in. There were 12 houses and at that time retarded people lived in three of them. Pretty high rate of retardation. As part of the set-up of the story I had to mention this. So when people laughed – I didn’t say that to get a laugh – but people are sensitive about that word and in the Q&A afterwards someone asked "What makes you think it’s okay to get a laugh from mentally retarded people?" and that wasn’t the laugh part of my story. People wanted to laugh and the word ‘retarded’ got in the way and they just laughed over it.'
Will you have a Q'I don’t know. I saw a distinguished American author read in London and it became apparent from what he said that he thought the audience was English but they were mostly American. I would imagine that will be the audience I will get at the theatre.'
I think you’ll have a lot of British people.'I don’t know. I’ll be very happy to have British people there but I think the majority will be Americans.'
Could you get them to tick a box on a questionnaire so you can find out?'I’ll look at their shoes.'
Although you live here a lot of the time now, London doesn’t feature as much as Paris or Tokyo in this book. Why’s that?'I think it’s partly because I read out loud so often and so much of what I find funny here is to do with the way things are said. I can’t sustain any kind of an accent. Nothing looks worse than doing that poorly. When I’m on stage and I’m reading a French person I read it exactly in my voice – I don’t do it like zat or anything. The New Yorker has an audio version and the guy who read my story did an accent. He sounded like a Spaniard. There’s a filthy mouthed taxi driver in the book but I didn’t give him an accent. I wrote a different rhythm to his speech.'
This is the taxi driver who kept saying ‘Fucky fuck’ until you felt carsick?'Yeah. I never game him an accent because I couldn’t work out where he was from. The problem with writing about London is that the fact checkers for American magazines are so incredibly relentless. One story I had is about a guy who has been in prison and they probably don’t want that kind of attention.'
Part way through the book is ‘What I learned’ a fantastical essay about a prehistoric Princeton. You haven’t written any fantasy stories for a while – why now?'I gave the commencement speech at Princeton a couple of years ago. I thought about not including it because it was so obviously fiction. I didn’t attend Princeton and I especially didn’t attend Princeton in the Stone Age but I also think it’s the truest thing I’ve ever written about my relationship with my father.'
One effect it had on me was when I read the next chapter it took me some time to start believing what you were writing. The subject, Helen, a vitriolic, cursing neighbour in Manhattan, is larger than life, of course.'In fact I had to tone her down as she was pretty mean sometimes and I didn’t want to alienate people. I just got a letter from a guy who very quickly realised that Helen was his aunt. I’m not skilled enough to make people forgive her – she did some really heinous stuff, I mean some really first-class mindfuck stuff to me – and I forgave her because she was so entertaining. Plus if someone is that miserable, what is your disapproval going to add to it really?'
Once you said you were never interested in writing a coming-out story but ‘Road Trip’ is kind of that, isn’t it? You’ve accepted a lift from a couple twenty or so years older than you and the man asks, ‘How’d you like to eat my wife’s pussy?’ so you say, for the first time, that you’re gay. Then later another guy gives you a lift who keeps suggesting a blowjob to you. It’s not a conventional coming out story, of course.'I had been wanting to write about that guy for some time. That story doesn’t work out loud because I realised the audience is afraid for me. Even when it happened I thought it was funny – a one-track mind like that always is funny. You change the subject and they change it back. I mean there are anthologies of coming out stories and everyone thinks it’s very special – but that doesn’t make it a good story. I never felt my story was any more interesting than anyone else’s.'
You said that unlike some earlier books you now sought to avoid exaggeration and be truthful in what you report. Is that still true?'Writing for the New Yorker – well, I’m not sure any English magazine would be comparable in their fact-checking department. Like I wrote in one of the stories that I had bought a painting and that it cost as much as the average person pays for car insurance. So the New Yorker fact-checker called and said, "Well, how much was the painting?" So I told him and then he called back and said "That’s more than the average person pays for car insurance." I said, "All right, more than the average epileptic pays." He called back. He said, "You’re gonna have to change that to epileptics in the state of Connecticut. Because they have the highest rates of insurance for epileptics in the country." It wasn’t a story about that. So I said, "Okay, more than the average bumper pool table." He called back."‘Bumper pool tables are a lot less expensive than you might think." So in the magazine it just said pool table and I changed it back for the book. But I mean, oh golly, I’m trying to think of another example. I’d written a story about spiders. I said that my spiders became so obese that their legs tore holes in the web. The fact-checker calls: "I spoke to an arachnologist and that would never happen." And I said, "Well, I said in that same sentence that their thighs were chafing together. Spiders don’t have thighs either. It’s a joke. It’s, like, clearly a joke and I think people will recognise it as a joke." But, you know, in that art-collecting story I talked about my mother had bought this grandfather clock made of walnut. They called my father and he said,"‘No, it’s cherry!" so I had to change it back to cherry.'I wrote a story about a child molestor in our village in France so they got a fact-checker who spoke French who called an 80-year-old sheep farmer and his wife across the street. They said, ‘Well, the plastic in front of their house, it’s not green and white, it’s green and milk-coloured.’ So, I can’t exaggerate nearly as much as I’d like.'
I remember that, I thought it was a beautiful poetic detail. Maybe it can help.'Well, they wanted to help. I wrote a line about Francis driving a truck that was as small and quiet as a toy. ‘It wasn’t his car!’ they said. ‘It was his brother’s car! They just let him drive it.’ But I think in earlier books I exaggerated a lot more and I think the end fact is that people didn’t believe me when I needed them to. I’m not a reporter but the New Yorker treats everyone like a reporter.'
When something happens to you that isn’t pleasant, like the nasty woman on the flight to Raleigh who is sleeping next to you when you accidentally sneeze a cough drop right into her crutch, when those things happen and people are horrible, is there a part of you that thinks, ‘I’m going to endure this because it makes for a better story’?'Yeah. I wrote a story years ago about two Americans on the subway in Paris who thought I was a pickpocket. So many people have asked me why I didn’t say anything, tell them I was American and understood what they were saying, but that would have ended what was turning out to be a delicious story. I certainly didn’t want to ruin it.'
What about topics that you just wouldn’t write about? Is there anything you would flat-out refuse to include?'I’m not very good about writing about sex. I don’t even write about it in my diary. Nor 30 years ago either, I don’t think it was because I thought someone was going to find my diary. It’s just not my subject. I suppose also I wouldn’t want anyone I’d ever slept with writing about it. I don’t write about politics but that’s because twice a year I go on lecture tours in the United States and I could say "George Bush is an asshole" in a 3,000-seat theatre and bring the house down. But I didn’t say anything clever – it would be preaching to the converted. It would be interesting to say that at the National Republican Convention. You know, then there would be a challenge. But unless it’s going to be a challenge it just seems like pandering. Plus, I’m not an original thinker that way.'
The title of the book comes from a Japanese leaflet in a hotel, advising you what to do ‘when you are engulfed in flames’. Can you remember what that advice was?'No I don’t. I was just laughing out loud by that point. I mean I Iove the idea that then you would be engulfed in flames and then you’d think, "Goddammit, why didn’t I finish reading that book?" I mean instinct would kick in at that point, I think.'
In the last section of the book you keep a diary of giving up smoking. Have you still given up?'Yes, I always love that though. That when you’ve quit smoking, people say, "Well, you smoke after dinner, right?" I say, "No, actually I quit smoking." They say, "But you smoke at a party or something?" "No, I quit." "But if someone offered you one now, you’d take it?" "No, I really did quit smoking." Sometimes I’ll dream, though, that I’ve left a movie theatre, and just out of habit I light a cigarette. And then I realise, oh my God, I quit smoking but here I am with a cigarette in my mouth. And then I always think, well, I might as well finish it. 'My editor at the New Yorker helped me when I quit. I couldn’t write for a time. He reminded me: "Everyone’s quit smoking and you’re nothing special." '
In an earlier book, ‘Naked’, your earlier obsessive compulsive distractions stopped when you took up smoking. Have they returned?'Not really, not in the same way. A couple of things came back and they were irritating for about two months. I think also when I wrote about all those tics, I was told that was like juvenile Tourette’s and people grow out of it. Maybe I started smoking when I was just at that age.'
You say your editor found an earlier book title wilfully obtuse. Were they happier with ‘When You Are Engulfed in Flames’?'Well, they were happy because I had an earlier title they hated. I’ve just been granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK. I had to take a life in the UK test. You know, what year were women granted the right to vote, what year could a woman divorce her husband… I don’t know if you realised this but 14-year-old children cannot deliver milk in the United Kingdom. There’s a test book, a book of quizzes. One of the multiple choice questions was "Why did large numbers of Jewish people immigrate to Great Britain from 1880-1910? To escape religious persecution, to blah blah blah or to invade and seize land." Anyway, so "Indefinite Leave to Remain" was the title. I thought that fits with the cover picture of the skeleton and the not-smoking theme. But when I told people the title they just looked blank. In America anyway, that’s just a bunch of words strung together. There isn’t anything to connect it to. So compared to that, my editor, was just delighted with "When You are Engulfed in Flames".'‘When You are Engulfed in Flames’ is published by Little, Brown. David Sedaris will be appearing at the Bloomsbury Theatre on Sept 10.
- Add your comment to this feature