Good coffee and quips with David Sedaris
Trashing other books on the best-seller list . . . Teasing Dublin waitresses . . . There’s a sense of devilment about Sedaris, an arch humorist whose stories are a lesson in precision writing
‘Oh shoot, I have to do that.” David Sedaris takes out his ever-present notepad – the size of a police notebook – and scribbles something down. “To think I have to live this far ahead, but I’m going to Australia in January, and they just sent me a list of hotels and I have to choose.”
The problem Sedaris has with Australia – specifically Melbourne – is the coffee. He drinks brewed coffee, hates Americanos and, as an American, he feels uncomfortable saying the word. According to him, the only place to find a brewed cup of coffee in Melbourne is Starbucks. “And there is maybe one Starbucks in Melbourne. And when you go to it, and you walk back to your hotel with it? The look in people’s eyes? Scum.” So selecting a hotel will be easy. He’ll choose the one closest to the coffee chain. Here, in the Merrion Hotel in Dublin, he orders a pot of brewed coffee, the Merrion Blend.
Sedaris is one of the arch humorists of his generation, rising to fame with increasingly excellent short stories and essays. This American Life host Ira Glass cottoned on to his unique abilities early on, and Sedaris gained a cult following with an NPR broadcast of SantaLand Diaries in 1992, an extract from a diary describing his awkward adventures working as an elf in Macy’s aged 33.
Humour from darkness
The most blistering humour comes from a sort of darkness. Sedaris is damn good at it. His 2000 book Me Talk Pretty One Day resulted in him being named Time magazine’s Humorist of the Year. His stories are a lesson in precision writing, with humour unfolding delicately and dexterously until it explodes. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim hit the number one spot on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list in 2004. Earlier this year, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls was published. He pays attention to the measures of literary success.
“Every Wednesday, my publicist sends me the best-seller list in the US. So I have to say, I have to admit I do care about that.”
Sedaris’s eyes glint with devilment, going from nought to knowingly indignant far more quickly than his brewed coffee arrives. “Like, there’s this book, Lean In? It’s the bane of my existence. So I’m number three, it’s been out for 11 weeks, and then there’s some book called Happy, Happy, Happy, which is written by some guy who has a TV show about duck hunting I’ve never seen. There should be a different category for books with your picture on the cover. It’s like a celebrity book. Now, Lean In – I haven’t read it so it’s not fair to say, but I think it’s just full of advice anyone could figure out. Like, work hard. Be honest. Who buys that book? You know, I think she’s cheating.”
Right now, Sedaris is finishing a new story, which he will read and change every day for months before sending to the New Yorker. If the magazine accepts it, he’ll work with the editor there, and by the time it comes out he’ll have read it hundreds of times.
“It’s like math,” he says, “so when it gets to the point where the New Yorker with the editor says they’ll change a word, it’s like ‘No, that word is there because I chose that specific word, I chose the word ‘discover’ instead of ‘found’ because I have ‘round’ at the beginning of that sentence and I don’t want two words to rhyme. Sometimes an editor will say, ‘I don’t really need the last half of this sentence’ and I’ll say, ‘You don’t; I need it for the rhythm’.”
When he feels stuck, he turns to textbooks he is sent: his stories are published in lots of them. We are interrupted by a waitress: “The Americano.” Sedaris couldn’t have scripted it better. “The . . . it was a coffee, but I don’t think it was an Americano. It was, ah, I thought it was the Merrion Blend.” “Oh, okay,” the waitress says, “The Merrion Blend, that would be like a small pot of black coffee, so I mean: the same.”
Tumbleweed. “But, would you prefer that one?” “Yes please.” Sedaris is resolute. “I’m sorry, we were just having a talk about Americanos. We don’t believe in Americanos.” I’m dragged into it now. “We do not believe in them here at this table.” The waitress pours water in silence.
So the textbooks. “There will be an essay, let’s say, and then at the end of the essay there’s homework, right? Like, ‘Have you ever had experiences with an alcoholic parent?’ Or ‘describe in detail a shop clerk that you’ve noticed lately.’ And I think: perfect. So I just do homework when I get stuck, and a lot of times it leads to things. Other people’s homework. But then I’m really shocked at the questions they put at the end of my stories.
“I wrote this story once called Let It Snow, and that was anthologised a lot. And I was reading in a textbook one of the questions was: ‘Explain why David Sedaris’s mother was such a bad mother’. I never said she was bad.”
His sister’s suicide
Sedaris’s family are an occasional story topic. Unprompted, he drops a new instalment into conversation. “I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable, but right now, one of my sisters [died by] suicide last month, and so I’m trying to write about it, and I want it to be funny.
“Because if I just read about it, the essay starts off by saying ‘On May 24th, a few weeks shy of her 50th birthday, my sister Tiffany committed suicide.’ So that’s your opening line of your story, so you just pushed [your audience] into a deep hole. I don’t want them to stay there.
“I’m not writing about my sister, really, I’m just writing I’d made plans before she killed herself. I’d made plans for my whole family to get together at the beach for a week, and so we did. We got together at the beach for a week. So it’s a story about our week at the beach with this kind of hanging [over us], because she had left it in her will that we could not have her body or attend her funeral, so it was like . . . ” he laughs slightly nervously, “our hands were kind of tied. Because normally you’d be planning the funeral or just come from the funeral and you would have thought, ‘Oh, it was so nice to see so and so at the funeral’, but there was none of that.
“We used to go to the beach every summer when we were kids, and we hadn’t been in 20 years. So kind of revisiting that beach situation, but you’re not young any more, we’re middle-aged now and there’s a conspicuous absence. But I would still like it to be funny because there were things that happened that week that were funny, so it’s going to be interesting to see if I can pull that off.”
Dublin Airport story
Sedaris’s notebook goes everywhere, and he finds himself constructing stories in different places – such as Dublin Airport.
“When I was in line this morning, I thought about writing a story that would take place in line. But it’s really hard to pull that off, a completely interior story. I was in line this morning, deciding in which order I would kill people, basically. Like all the Americans who were in line, I was just thinking: can you say anything that’s not a cliche? And then the noise that people make? That laugh, that they feel like they have to make a sound or something? Like, oh God.”
He recalls an excellent interior story by Dorothy Parker, Shall We Dance. “There has to be a way to make that work. And because it’s a passport line too, I’d be killing people of all races and nationalities, equally, without discrimination.”
He laughs and goes off into the characters: “And you know the guy who just doesn’t . . . it’s like, he hasn’t advanced in 15 feet. What are you doing on your phone? What are you doing on your phone that you didn’t notice that? You’ve been standing here for over an hour and every time the line advances. Do you know what I mean? Like who are you texting? You have no friends.”
He cracks up. “You start hating everybody in that situation. So I made little notes.”