He’s got a voice that’s naturally impish and wry and redolent of keen insight into human foibles. So try, for a moment, to imagine that you’re listening to best-selling humorist and NPR star David Sedaris — who grew up mainly in Raleigh, N.C., and still has a Southern tinge to his locutions — while having tea with him in his London town house. (It’s the 51-year-old author’s third household abroad, in addition to homes he maintains in Paris and the French countryside with his longtime boyfriend, painter Hugh Hamrick. But please, don’t begrudge these men their largesse, since aspiration is entirely American, even if they no longer are.) On the eve of a North American book tour for his new collection, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Sedaris had smart things to say about addictions, recent scandals involving autobiographical memoirists, and all the juicy personal details he has yet to reveal.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your new book has a painting by Vincent Van Gogh on the cover of a skeleton smoking a cigarette. How’d you pick that?
DAVID SEDARIS: I got a postcard of it when I was in Amsterdam. I kept that postcard for a long time, and I kept pulling it out and looking at it.
Did you go see the actual painting itself in Amsterdam?
I like museum gift shops, not the museums themselves.
Because in the gift shop you can walk out with something. In the museum you can’t. [Laughs] Anyway, I think people will be shocked to know that it’s a Van Gogh painting. Best thing he ever did. Army bases don’t want to carry the book, or don’t want to display it. Because they think it’s a joint the skeleton is smoking. The publisher at Little Brown had to explain to them that this was before joints. This is just what cigarettes looked like. What’s funny is the idea, Oh, we don’t want to corrupt those Army men. [Laughs raucously]
You write, in an extended 80-page chunk of the new book, called ”The Smoking Section,” about giving up cigarettes a short while back. Were you scared to swear off a vice that you’ve always associated with the act of writing itself?
My editor at The New Yorker reminded me, ”You’re certainly not the first writer to give up smoking.” Everyone feels the same thing. Everyone says, ”Oh, now I won’t be able to write again.” Just wait it out and it’ll happen. That’s how I felt with drinking, too. I always thought I couldn’t write unless I was drinking.
On your book tours, you read material aloud to audiences and sort of test-drive it. You’ve been performing a number of animal fables in the past few years. What made you start writing those?
It was like a lazy way of getting back into writing fiction. Because if you write about two people, say Jim and Suzanne going out to lunch — I have to explain what they look like. But if I say, squirrel and chipmunk? Everybody knows what those look like. It’s just kind of a shortcut. I’ve been working on this story about an ugly fox. And he’s really, really ugly. I just came up with an ending for it, just before you came here. I thought, Okay, that feels better than any of the other endings I had. But I have absolutely no idea what it means. I didn’t sit down and plot it. When I sat down to write, it didn’t occur to me that a suicidal mouse and a suicidal deer would be involved, or that the fox’s mother would offer to have sex with him. It also involves a lot of senseless death.
NEXT PAGE: ”When I write fiction, it always tends to be way over the top…. I’m always amazed at people’s ability to hold themselves back, and not to think, Okay, well as long as I can make stuff up, I’m gonna make up like huge, huge stuff!”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where do these ideas come from?
DAVID SEDARIS: It doesn’t have anything to do [with me]. It’s not like I took anything in my real life and disguised it. It’s completely made up. When I write fiction, it always tends to be way over the top. I always wonder about people like, I don’t know, like Ann Beattie, who writes short stories in which people are reasonable, and they do things that we all do. I’m always amazed at people’s ability to hold themselves back, and not to think, Okay, well as long as I can make stuff up, I’m gonna make up like huge, huge stuff!
Of course that’s fine with fiction. What about with nonfiction? Have you been finding the fact-checking of your essays when you write for The New Yorker any more rigorous in the wake of all these allegations against James Frey and Augusten Burroughs and others?
I feel like it’s always been the same. My sister [Amy] e-mailed me something that was in the New York Post the other day. Some gossip item saying [that] the fact checkers at The New Yorker have gone into overtime ’cause of me. But they’ve always been thorough. I don’t think I have it any differently than anybody else.
A year ago, The New Republic ran a piece accusing you of fabricating certain details in early essays. The article didn’t seem to get much traction at the time — a lot of people dismissed it as overheated, and irrelevant to the work of a humorist. Has there been any fallout?
I’ve been doing a lot of interviews for When You Are Engulfed in Flames. And I have to say, 95 percent of the people [interviewing me] have asked me about it. And when I’ve asked, ”Did you read the article?” I would say, 80 percent of those people said, ”No, I never actually get a chance to read it.” And so it snowballs. Like I was asked, ”So, about these plagiarism charges….”
But nobody has ever remotely accused you of plagiarism.
That’s what it turns into. So then, what do you do? If you get excited, that’s just interesting [to the journalist]. If you say, ”Oh y’know what? Actually, I’m not gonna talk about that.” Then you just sound guilty. I’d say most people [who ask me about it] haven’t read it, but they’re more than willing to write about it.
Of all the things you’ve written, you may be best known for ”The SantaLand Diaries,” which, of course, is about working at Macy’s as an elf. Do you ever get tired watching as that story is hauled out on National Public Radio and in bookstores every single year at holiday time?
I wrote that thing so long ago, and I think it’s really choppy, and it embarrasses me to read it. It got turned into a play, too, which never really worked. It’s okay for the radio, but…there’s no point in staging it.
But people love that story!
One is lucky if one has something that resonates and that works that way…but I turn on things once they’re no longer fluid, once I can’t change them any more.
NEXT PAGE: ”People say to me, ‘What’s it like to go out [on a reading tour] and have everybody know everything about you?’ They don’t know everything. I’ve never written about my sex life. I’ve never written about what goes on, like, in the bathroom.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You keep regular running diaries about your daily life in addition to your other writing, is that right?
DAVID SEDARIS: I do like one every season, so I’ve got like a hundred and twenty of them….Nothing is real to me until I’ve written it down. Often people will say, ”Is it therapeutic for you to write?” No! Writing stories is actually a lot of work. But in one sense I think writing a diary is sort of therapeutic. It just allows me to take a step back, and be a bit objective, and then realize, Oh, look at how silly I’m being. Or, Oh, I was really bad there. That was really bad behavior on my part.
Will anyone but you ever get to read those diaries?
A couple of places have asked for my papers, and I have a lot of papers that are just being eaten by mice. And so I think, Oh fine, just get rid of ’em that way. But with the diaries — I would never give my diaries to anyone. Say somebody tells me a story about a friend of theirs. And it’s really funny and good and I write it in my diary. Well, if I were to die next week, the somebody who told me the story wouldn’t want people knowing they’d told it. Plus, a lot of it’s just really bad writing. It’s just boring.
You write about your family a lot. And quite a few journalists like to theorize that this must drive your family crazy. But you always say it doesn’t.
People will say, ”Is your family still speaking to you after all those things you’ve said?” And I answer, ”Well what did I say?” I run the stories by my brother and sisters first, and say, ”Is there anything in here you want me to change, or want me to get rid of?” I think it’s just an illusion that it’s tell-all. Like people say to me, ”What’s it like to go out [on a reading tour] and have everybody know everything about you?” They don’t know everything. I’ve never written about my sex life. I’ve never written about what goes on, like, in the bathroom. I mean, I wrote a story about finding a turd in somebody else’s toilet. Somebody came up to me one time and said, ”Oh I love that big-turd story you wrote, cause one time I took a dump and it was —” And I’m like, ”Whoaaaa! I wrote about something I found. Not about something I made.” This person didn’t see that difference. And to me there’s a huge difference.
Does becoming well known make it more difficult to go through the world observing quirky behavior and collecting odd stories? Do people recognize you?
Even if I appear in person, if I go to read in a theatre, I can walk through the lobby and nobody knows it’s me. I’m on stage far away, and I’m not a big physical presence. I think when you’re on the radio, too — I’m recognized by my voice more than anything else.
Your sister Amy is a successful actress and comedienne. And, in a sense, you’re a performer, too. Would you ever take a part in a movie?
It’s interesting. I can be out with Amy and people are coming up and asking for her autograph. Part of me thinks, Oh that looks fun! But I know if I did that, it would ultimately just hurt me. If I did that, then I couldn’t be Harriet the Spy.
Would you ever want a gig on TV rather than the radio?
I went on David Letterman when I had a book coming out and they said, ”Oh, why don’t you come on the show all the time? Why don’t you go cover the Republican National Convention? Why don’t you cover the Super Bowl?” But I couldn’t be a writer and be doing all that. Truman Capote taught that lesson. If you become a ”personality,” you’re not a writer. There’s a difference. And when you write humor, it’s already hard to get any respect.