In his new book—Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls—bestselling author and sidesplittingly funny personality David Sedaris has again demonstrated the power of the short story collection (as well as his knack for creative book titling). The author, who is known for his unique storytelling style and unforgettable life encounters, was nothing short of a delight in his dapper bowtie and blazer when I sat down with him at The Book Passage in Corte Madera, CA. In twenty minutes, we covered writing, bird behavior, and his take on what really makes a true love story . . . and let me tell you, he’s a real hoot.
See below for our interview highlights, and be sure to check back for the full audio recording!
Reader Store: So, on your 56-stop book tour, which location have you found the most interesting?
David: Reno, Nevada.
Reader Store: Reno Nevada . . . and why is that?
David: Well, I’d never been there before, and I love going to places I’ve never been. I was there as a part of my lecture tour, which was what I was doing before my book tour. And the thing about a lecture tour is that people buy tickets and you’re in a theater. So, I was in the San Francisco Opera House and people bought tickets and they dressed up. I mean, they really dressed up. And I think they paid about the same in Reno . . . and they showed up in cutoff sweatpants and t-shirts (chuckles).
You know, and I had never been to Reno before, and it’s just interesting to me how that varies from city to city. Just like I’d never been to Fresno before. Maybe I’ll change my answer to Fresno. And I have to say, I’ve never seen hairstyles before like I did in Fresno. I mean, they are doing completely their own thing in
Fresno. Their hair . . . they don’t look like anyone else. They looked great. Do you watch Tabatha Takes Over? Well I asked someone one day, “What should I be watching?” And they said, “Oh you need to watch Tabatha Takes Over.”
So, Tabatha is an Australian hair dresser and she goes to failing hair salons and she kicks their ass and whips ‘em in shape. And she needs to go there just to observe, because they’re doing something right in Fresno. They’re completely their own look.
Reader Store: They’re innovative in the hair world.
David: They really are.
Reader Store: However, the folks over in Reno do have a style sense of their own.
David: Well, I’m afraid that Reno’s where we’re all headed. You know? I noticed that. I talked to a woman and said, “Please. Explain.” And I said, “Why? Why are you wearing that?” I wasn’t trying to give her a hard time. And she said, “Well I just didn’t think anyone would notice.” But, anyways, I was just curious. You don’t really have that so much in other places. Like, in Tokyo people don’t think, Meh, it’s just the grocery store. I guess because they feel like someone’s always watching. And I guess there’s something to be said about being able to feel free and do your own thing. When I see people on planes sometimes I just think, gosh, that’s just so . . . I don’t know that I would dress that way to go on an airplane. You can always just grab a sports coat and that would pull everything together.
Reader Store: A sport coat and cut-off shorts is always a good look (laughing).
Alright, so let’s go to this book title—because I absolutely adore it—and you wanted to use this for your previous book, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, but your editor put the kibosh on it. Did you guys ever have anything else in mind?
David: Nope. I had nothing else in mind.
And because I wanted to use if for something and my editor just said, “Look it’s kind of a long title and you’ve had a lot of long titles, so maybe just go with a short one this time.” So my last one was called Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk and I thought, Well that’s fine—that’s short. I’ll just save the long title for the next book. And frankly, it doesn’t mean anything. I wrote a title story, but then I pulled it. So, I don’t feel like it needs it—and maybe I’m wrong.
Reader Store: Well, I think it gives it character. It’s something that can pop out at people and they either say, “Gosh well I have to have that, or it’s not for me and I have to avoid it.”
David: I’ve been offering priority signing to people with diabetes. And this woman came the other day and said, “You know, this is great, because having diabetes never got me anything.” But I always try to do that on tour, I always try to offer a group priority signing—a group who never got anything special.
Once it was women with braces on their teeth, and men who were 5’5” and under, because they’ve never gotten anything before; and because I can do whatever I want. Like one night I had an Asian special: if you were Asian, you got special treatment and people were like, You can’t do that. And I said, “Yeah, I can actually. I’m not the federal government, it’s just me. I can do whatever I want.”
Reader Store:You sure can. That’s funny.
So with Let’s Explore Diabetes you jumped from fiction back to a collection of essays. Do you find that you prefer writing fiction or stories—stories about life?
David: I don’t have a preference. In this story there are six monologues really. They’ll take between seven and ten minutes to read out loud, and they were written for a lot of kids I met that are into forensics, which is kind of a cross between speech club and debate, and they read stories out loud in front of judges.
So I wrote six monologues for teenagers. But they were all written for tour—I go on a tour every fall and every spring, and I bring a monologue with me. And sometimes they don’t work, and sometimes they work rather well. And so I went through and chose what I thought were the best six; I chose three for boys and three for girls. And sometimes they just scratch an itch I have, but sometimes if there’s something in the news that I want to kind of poke fun of, that’s the best way to do it. Because when I go on tour, 90% of the audience voted the way I did—I’m sorry, it’s more like 98%. So to go on tour and preach to the 98% isn’t interesting to me. So I’d rather even toy with people more with this kind of thing so they think, Wait a minute . . . is that really him? Is that the way he thinks? So I’ll write more of those. But these were six of the eighteen or so that I chose.
Reader Store: So when you say you try to see if something worked or not, what do you mean by that? How do you gauge that?
David: I read it out loud and if the audience laughs and makes a lot of noise, I think, Well that worked.
If I read something and nobody laughs at all, there’s going to be a problem. But one time, I had a thirteen-page story and I was reading it and I got to page twelve, and I realized I had forgotten page thirteen in my hotel room. And I realized I’d wasted twelve pages on an audience, which is a nightmare. And someone said, “That’s okay, we didn’t really like it anyway.” And I thought, I didn’t really need you to tell me that—I kind of figured it out. I could’ve gone back to the room and re-written it, but it needed such major re-writing that I thought, well, I’ll bring it home this summer. I thought it was something everyone could relate to, but they couldn’t. So I just have to find a way to concentrate on an aspect of the story that everyone can relate to.
Reader Store: I’m very interested in thinking up of different ways to storytelling. With Sony being a multimedia platform, we’re interested in how to tell stories in different ways. As an author, you take advantage of not only writing but the speaking aspect and oral delivery of it. And telling your story in all different ways, whether it’s a tour or a radio interview, etcetera. Do you think that always helps get your story across?
David: Well, I’d hope that they’d get enough just through reading the book. I mean, you know you have an unfair advantage—like in the United States I’m on the radio, and now I’m on the radio in England—so there’s an unfair advantage there. So that’s why it feels good when the books come out in a place and do well in, say, Germany, where it was translated (and they do very well), or Brazil—where I’m not on the radio. So, I mean I have to thank whoever translated the books for doing a good job and the publisher for having everything to do with the books success. But that makes me feel good. They don’t need to hear me on the radio and with that unfair advantage, they’re not missing out, and that means a lot to me.
On a lighter note, I wanted to play a game with you. You have themes of animals in your last few book titles. So, I call this animal instinct. I will give you a couple of weird facts about animals, and I want you to tell me the very first memory that pops in your head.
So first: A naked mole rat can run as fast forward as backward.
David: Wow. Gosh that’s a skill I would love to have. It doesn’t make me think of a memory necessarily.
Reader Store: That’s fair, which is why I have a couple of them.
Second: A bowerbird will decorate the interior of his nest and go as far as to destroy his neighbor’s if it looks better than his.
David: Well that’s great. A bowerbird?
See, I read this book that was full of interesting animal facts when I was working on my last book. But I was afraid to use any of that information because I thought, No one really knows what a bowerbird is. If you use a robin, everyone knows what that is. But with a bowerbird, you’ll have to explain what the animal is. Some of these stories I wrote for that book—like I wrote a story about groundhogs—and my editor said, “I think one of the reasons this story doesn’t work is because we don’t have expectations of groundhogs.”
We have expectations of a monkey and an owl, but you know. People don’t really know what to expect of a groundhog, just like they wouldn’t of a bowerbird. I mean, I love that idea, that you would destroy somebody else’s home—it’s just a human thing to do.
Reader Store: And last one: Blue whales have been getting deeper and deeper voices over the past 40 years.
David: Wow, I want what they’re drinking.
I would love to have a deeper voice. I wonder what they’re doing. Someone said if you go to the top of a mountain and if you scream really hard, then you’ll rip your vocal chords and you’ll have a better voice. So I’d even be willing to try that.
I guess I didn’t realize. I thought everyone hated my voice as much as I did, but I guess I have to say that it is pretty distinctive. But I was in, maybe England, and I was doing a reading and this guy comes up to me and says, “So I was listening and listening to you, and it hit me: This guy sounds just like a Muppet.” And I thought, That’s it. That is what I sound like.
Reader Store: Hey, that is an empire; you should run with that. So those are my animal facts, and you’re right, a bowerbird may not be the most relatable.
David: Well, no, because we don’t have expectations. At the same time I didn’t feel like I was playing into those expectations. A woman came up to me when I was writing my last books and said, “I hope you don’t do that wise owl crap. I work in a zoo, and owls are okay, they’re good at their jobs, but they’re not necessarily bright. If you want a smart bird, go with a raven.”
Reader Store: We have a whole lot of romance readers at Reader Store. So, I’m going to try to get them and say, “Hey romance readers, David’s got something for you.”
So, what would the premise and title be if you were to write a romance novel?
David: Gosh, I would say . . . Love’s . . . Ragged . . . and there would have to be an “r” word.
Reader Store: How about “rogue”?
David: Love’s Ragged . . . hm.
See, you know everyone thinks they can write a children’s book? I don’t. I don’t think I can write a children’s book. And a lot of people think, Oh I can write any kind of a genre book. But I actually think it would be really tough to do and really presumptuous if you haven’t read lots and lots of those books.
I’m going to imagine that Fifty Shades of Grey is kind of a fluke. I know there are all kinds of imitations of it, but that’s not what romance readers are really after: sex. They’re after love, because nothing feels better than being in love. And it’s awful thinking that you won’t be in love again.
My boyfriend is alive and I love him, but it’s not what it was like when I first met him—not in that state. That’s why they write songs about it, and why it’s so wonderful. I feel fortunate too that when people say, “How did you meet?” I don’t have to say online. And my boyfriend of 22 years was met because I was doing a painting job and I needed a ladder. So I went to his house because the guy I was working with knew he had a ladder, and he had an apple pie in the oven (because they tell you if you’re trying to sell your house to put an apple pie in the oven). And it worked. I thought, I want to live in the house that smells like this.
So, it would maybe be Love’s Ragged Pie Scent. That will fly off the shelves wouldn’t it? (laughing)
Reader Store: It’s funny you say that, because we actually just had a romance book where the editor described it with, “When you read this book, you’ll taste apple pie.” So maybe you can rip off that one-liner.
David: Or: The Crust Of . . .
Reader Store: The Crust of My Love . . .
David: (Laughing) I don’t really think crust is going to move romance books.
Don’t miss David Sedaris at Reader Store, and his newest book: Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls.
David Sedaris is a playwright and a regular commentator for National Public Radio. He is also the author of the bestselling Barrel Fever, Naked, Holidays on Ice, Dress Your Family in Corduroy, Denim, When You Are Engulfed in Flames and Me Talk Pretty One Day. He travels extensively though Europe and the United States on lecture tours and lives in France.