The journey from panty-wearing Macy’s elf to best-selling international author continues with David Sedaris’s latest collection of comic yarns, When You Are Engulfed in Flames (Little, Brown and Company, $25.99). The outsider humorist asked that we call him in London at midnight, his time.
Time Out Chicago: Hi, David, how are you? David Sedaris: I’m shitty.
TOC: Why shitty? David Sedaris: I just got one of those new MacBook Air computers, and I spilled a cup of tea onto the keyboard.
TOC: I hope you keep backups. David Sedaris: Uh, yeah. I’ve never done anything like that, though.
TOC: Do you usually write this late? David Sedaris: I mainly write during the day, but then I work at night for an hour or so. And I was just sitting down and it just sloshes.
TOC: I understand from your latest book: no more drinking, drugging or smoking. David Sedaris: That makes it sound so dull. I quit drinking, like, nine years ago and then it made sense to quit taking drugs or else I would just be getting high more. Plus, I’d just moved to France so I didn’t know where to find drugs. It makes you realize that in America you can find anything drugwise. All you have to do is ask a teenager. But in France, kids don’t get fucked up as much.
TOC: Have you lapsed at all? Had a cigarette? David Sedaris: Oh, no. But it’s funny when you quit smoking and then people say, “Yeah, well, you quit smoking, but you smoke now, don’t you?” It’s like, “No, I quit.” “But every now and then you have a cigarette, right?” “No, I quit.” If I were to have a cigarette right now, especially since I just poured tea on my computer, there’d be no stopping me.
TOC: What’s it like to experience every moment knowing you might write about it? David Sedaris: I don’t do that many things thinking, Oh, if I can do that, maybe I can write about it. I prefer just to stumble onto stories. Like, my boyfriend likes owls, so I thought I’d get him a taxidermied owl for Valentine’s Day. So in this [taxidermy] store in London, the guy showed me a skeleton and it was, like, four feet tall. And he said, “It’s a pygmy. We English went to Africa and hunted pygmies like game 150 years ago.” I think that’s when I started writing the story in my head.
TOC: See, things like that never happen to me. David Sedaris: Well, maybe—another thing too is sometimes I’ll think, I know there’s something here. I mean, unbelievable things happened after I saw that pygmy. He showed me a teenager’s head he had in the back. It was 600 years old. I didn’t want to say anything to end it.
TOC: Have you read The New Republic article that claimed things you wrote hadn’t happened? David Sedaris: Yeah, I did read it about ten days ago.
TOC: What’d you think? David Sedaris: He called the nudist colony I went to and said, “David Sedaris writes as if a lot of the nudists are kooks and oddballs. Are you?” And this woman said, “No, and anybody who says different is a big fat liar.” But she was, like, in her 70s, naked in her trailer with her full-grown son. I’m sorry, but that’s not like everybody else. Everybody else has clothes on and they’re not nude with their grown children. He didn’t have anything on me.
TOC: Your writing is absolutely nonfiction? David Sedaris: I’ve never made up events, but I’ve always been a big exaggerator. It’s written on my humorist license that I’m allowed to do that.
TOC: Have you still not been on the Internet? David Sedaris: I started going on it in September. I didn’t really go nuts. I know people who, when their books come out, they’re obsessively looking at their rating on Amazon. I would never do that. No, no, no, no. Uh-uh.
TOC: Why not? David Sedaris: Well, a couple of years ago, Amazon gave me a big stack of [reviews]. And I didn’t know that civilians would review books. But I said, “Oh, thank you so much.” And I threw them directly into the trash can. Never. I don’t read the legitimate ones, so I’m not gonna read—you know, you get letters: “Dear Mrs. Sedaris, I got that book of yours and it was awful. You probably only hear from people who liked it. Well, I didn’t!”
TOC: Sounds eloquent. David Sedaris: Uh-huh. But I don’t have e-mail because that—my God, can you imagine? At least this woman had to put a stamp on this. But with e-mails, it doesn’t cost people anything to complain.