The David Sedaris We Need: The world's favorite humor essayist on luck and loneliness
Asking an interview subject about their pandemic isolation journey is dangerously close to passé. But for a David Sedaris interview, it’s a requirement: The essayist’s entire brand is built on nonstop international touring, his best material flowing from his travels and his frequent — and often off-color — interactions with his fans. (On his last tour, he drew portraits of readers naked from behind instead of signing their books.) Anyway, his quarantine story: He spent the first part in his apartment in New York before decamping to his North Carolina beach house — dubbed the Sea Section — and then, ultimately, to his homes in the U.K. (Sussex and London), where he’s passed his days maintaining his diary and obsessively checking his Fitbit.
We’re conducting this interview in early August, by late-night (for him) phone call — Sedaris has a strict no-Zoom policy. He paces back and forth in the office of his Sussex home, nearly crossing the 18-mile mark on his daily steps as the clock strikes midnight. Asked for a visual — he’s an infamous clotheshorse — his description goes beyond what could typically be seen in the waist-up frame of a screen: “It looks like I’m wearing a white skirt, but it’s a pair of shorts,” he says. “The legs are so wide, I look like one of those Greek soldiers.”
If it seems like Sedaris, 63, has a very cushy pandemic setup — this bucolic pic was shot at his London abode — he’s more than earned it. Punishing schedule aside, he’s been publishing best-selling books for more than a quarter-century (his first, Barrel Fever, debuted in 1994), and this fall he’s set to release his inaugural greatest-hits collection, The Best of Me. He wrote every day for 15 years before Fever was published (“Most of those days I thought, ‘Wow, I suck’ ”), so he doesn’t take this point in his career lightly. The Best of Me encompasses a wide swath of his past work, from early entries in The New Yorker’s Shouts & Murmurs section to fan-favorite essays like 2000’s “Me Talk Pretty One Day” (in which he recounts taking French-language classes from a merciless teacher) and 2016’s “The Perfect Fit” (about shopping for outrageous clothes in Tokyo).
But that doesn’t mean he’s going to pander to the masses: It’s better you hear it here first that “SantaLand Diaries,” about his stint as a Macy’s elf, is not included. “That might have been other people’s favorite, but it was never even in my top 100,” Sedaris says of the 1992 story that plays on NPR to this day. “It’s what most people know me from, but I’ve kind of moved on — I think the writing is so clunky, even if others don’t see it.”
The Best of Me required far less work than an original book, so the author is already looking to his next one: a second diary compilation (following 2017’s Theft by Finding), expected in late 2021. The pandemic is providing plenty of time to comb through journal entries, triggering as they may be. “In so many of [the entries] I was on tour,” he says. “So even the hotels I was complaining about, it’s like, God, I’d give anything to be back in that s—y hotel.” Much of what Sedaris records in his diary stems from the human contact we all took for granted before our age of quarantine. But he’s finding new ways to drum up material: Recent visits to the grocery store featured the sighting of a shopper without a shirt (or a mask) and a man who told him, “The funniest thing you ever said was that you gave $1,000 to Hillary Clinton.”
And while Sedaris misses the collective laughter that a packed theater provides, he doesn’t miss it enough to get on an Instagram Live or join Twitter: “I just don’t want to live in that world,” he says. “I think it makes me a happy person that I’m not on social media.” It’s a stark contrast to many of today’s authors, who find it crucial to promote their books on every digital platform. But Sedaris sees himself as part of the last generation to have the luxury of getting famous without social media, and he credits his early start on This American Life, when the radio format limited criticism of his work, for his rise: “I feel fortunate to have come up in a time when people didn’t get the opportunity to see the cracks.”
A social media absence shouldn’t be confused for an immunity to public opinion — with every release, a self-imposed pressure to perform at his peak mounts. The Best of Me offers a bit of a reprieve, since everything but the introduction has already been published. “With a normal book, if it wasn’t number one on the New York Times best-seller list, I would berate myself,” he says. “I would still like for it to do well, but I don’t feel its success reflects on me personally.”
There’s no tour this time around, obviously, but Sedaris is getting back to another beloved activity from his old life: shopping. (See: “The Perfect Fit.”) He counts high-end boutiques among his favorite places, and shopkeepers as his personal friends. The author has ventured out to London’s Dover Street Market — he’s a regular — and to Bloomingdale’s, where a fittingly bleak interaction presented itself. “The clerk said, ‘Welcome in,’ ” Sedaris recalls with good-humored disdain. “Civilization as we know it ends, but ‘Welcome in’ survives? I realized I should have been grateful everyday I didn’t have to hear that.” His readers will just have to hope he wrote the whole thing down.
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