According to Time Out New York, "David Sedaris may be the funniest man alive." He's the sort of writer critics tend to describe not in terms of literary influences and trends, but in terms of what they choked on while reading his latest book. "I spewed a mouthful of pastrami across my desk," admitted Craig Seligman in his New York Times review of Naked.
Sedaris first drew national attention in 1992 with a stint on National Public Radio, on which he recounted his experiences as a Christmas elf at Macy's. He discussed "the code names for various posts, such as 'The Vomit Corner,' a mirrored wall near the Magic Tree" and confided that his response to "I'm going to have you fired" was the desire to lean over and say, "I'm going to have you killed." The radio pieces were such a hit that Sedaris, then working as a house cleaner, started getting offers to write movies, soap operas and Seinfeld episodes.
In subsequent appearances on NPR, Sedaris proved he wasn't just a velvet-clad flash in the pan; he's also wickedly funny on the subjects of smoking, speed, shoplifting and nervous tics. His work began appearing in magazines like Harper's and Mirabella, and his first book Barrel Fever, which included "SantaLand Diaries," was a bestseller. "These hilarious, lively and breathtakingly irreverent stories... made me laugh out loud more than anything I've read in years," wrote Francine Prose in the Washington Post Book World.
Since then, each successive Sedaris volume has zoomed to the top of the bestseller lists. In Naked, he recounts odd jobs like volunteering at a mental hospital, picking apples as a seasonal laborer and stripping woodwork for a Nazi sympathizer. The stocking stuffer-sized Holidays on Ice collects Sedaris' Christmas-themed work, including a fictional holiday newsletter from the homicidal stepmother of a 22-year-old Vietnamese immigrant ("She arrived in this house six weeks ago speaking only the words 'Daddy,' 'Shiny' and 'Five dollar now'. Quite a vocabulary!!!!!").
But Sedaris' best pieces often revolve around his childhood in North Carolina and his family of six siblings, including the brother who talks like a redneck gangsta rapper and the sister who, in a hilarious passage far too dirty to quote here, introduces him to the joys of the Internet. Sedaris' recent book Me Talk Pretty One Day describes, among other things, his efforts to learn French while helping his boyfriend fix up a Normandy farmhouse; he progresses "from speaking like an evil baby to speaking like a hillbilly. 'Is thems the thoughts of cows?' I'd ask the butcher, pointing to the calves' brains displayed in the front window."
Sedaris has been compared to American humorists such as Mark Twain, James Thurber and Dorothy Parker; Publisher's Weekly called him "Garrison Keillor's evil twin." Pretty heady stuff for a man who claims there are cats that weigh more than his IQ score. But as This American Life producer Ira Glass once pointed out, it would be wrong to think of Sedaris as "just a working Joe who happens to put out these perfectly constructed pieces of prose." Measured by his ability to turn his experiences into a sharply satirical, sidesplittingly funny form of art, David Sedaris is no less than a genius.
Good to Know
Back to Top
Sedaris got his start in radio after This American Life producer Ira Glass saw him perform at Club Lower Links in Chicago. In addition to his NPR commentaries, Sedaris now writes regularly for Esquire.
Sedaris's younger sister Amy is also a writer and performer; the two have collaborated on plays under the moniker "The Talent Family." Amy Sedaris has appeared onstage as a member of the Second City improv troupe and on Comedy Central in the series Strangers with Candy.
"If I weren't a writer, I'd be a taxidermist," Sedaris said in a chat on Barnes and Noble.com. According to the Boston Phoenix, his collection of stuffed dead animals includes a squirrel, two fruit bats, four Boston terriers and a baby ostrich.
Back to Top
In the spring of 2004, David Sedaris took some time to talk with us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
I guess it would be Cathedral by Raymond Carver. His sentences are very simple and straightforward, and he made writing seem deceptively easy -- the kind of thing anyone could do if they put their mind to it.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Among the Thugs by Bill Buford -- This is a nonfiction account of English football hooligans. At one point a drunk guy actually sucks the eyeball out of somebody's head.
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore -- Her stories read like a collection of one-liners, yet at the end, you're devastated. How does she do it?
Collected Stories by Flannery O'Connor -- No one writes dialect better than Flannery O'Connor. No one should even try.
An Obedient Father by Akhil Sharma -- I love any book in which monkeys break into the women's bathroom.
Is There No Place on Earth for Me? by Susan Sheehan -- This is a nonfiction book about a paranoid schizophrenic named Sylvia Frumpkin.
A Prison and a Prisoner, A Welfare Mother, Life for Me Ain't Been No Crystal Stair; I love all of Susan Sheehan's books. Her writing is clean, and while it's sometimes technical, it's never sterile.
A Violent Act by Alec Wilkinson -- This is a nonfiction account of a mentally ill man who killed several people in the Midwest. Most crime stories focus all their attention on the criminal and those who attempt to catch him, but this comes back to the family of one of the victims, and conveys their relentless grief.
In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff -- His stories are like parables, and after reading one I always vow to become a better person.
The Barracks Thief by Tobias Wolff -- It breaks my heart when the dad tools around on the little folding bicycle.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates --This was his first novel and I read it once a year. Aside from its word-by-word construction, I love how his characters deceive themselves.
The Easter Parade by Richard Yates -- This novel follows the lives of two sisters, and while it is incredibly depressing, the writing is magnificent.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
It's hard for me to think in terms of favorites, and even harder to articulate why I liked something. I go to the movies at least five times a week, and after a while everything becomes a blur to me. The last thing to leave a noticeable impression was a revival of Hard Eight by Paul Thomas Anderson. I especially loved the scene where John C. Reilly explains his vendetta against matches.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I like books on tape, and will listen to just about anything. My current favorites are the Agatha Christie Miss Marple novels read by Joan Hickson, and Allen Bennett's Talking Heads, which I listen to over and over.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I tend to just get up and go to work. In the afternoon, I eat lunch and go out, usually to the movies. At around eight I go back to my desk for an hour, and if I have a deadline I'll stay up late or work through the night. Aside from an ashtray, I don't keep anything special on or above my desk.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take you to get where you are today? Any rejection slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I started writing when I was twenty, and my first book came out seventeen years later. At some point in between, while I was a student at The School of The Art Institute, my teacher, Jim McManus, suggested I send a batch of stories to his publisher, which at the time was Grove Press. I've never been very good at submitting things -- it feels pushy to me -- but at his urging I sent them a half dozen stories and received in return a very kind rejection letter.
After graduating, I started reading out loud. There used to be this little club in Chicago, Lower Links it was called, and my friends and I would often perform there. One night, Ira Glass heard me read, and he called a few years later asking if I would like to be on the radio. That pretty much changed everything for me, and after my first broadcast an editor from Little, Brown called asking if I had a book. I did, and they published it. I was 37 when Barrel Fever came out.
What tips or advice do you have for writers?
The only real advice you can give anyone is to keep writing. Eventually, hopefully, you'll be published in a small literary journal and can work your way up from there. I don't think pushiness helps at all. It's unbecoming and bespeaks a talent for self-promotion rather than for writing.
Back to Top