Humour writer David Sedaris’s books are filled with self-deprecation that borders on self-abuse
David Sedaris sits down to talk about writing, skeletons, smoking and semen
To say that author David Sedaris looks like Eugene Levy is unflattering, so I won’t do that. But imagine that mug, shifted into more handsome features and you have a sense. Sedaris isn’t a heartbreaker, he isn’t fashionable or dashing, but he’s captivating. He’s funny without being a clown. He’s intelligent without being pompous. He’s damn friendly and he likes to talk.
If you aren’t familiar with his stories (often appearing in magazines before they’re collected into books), they’re mostly of everyday events, largely based on his experiences and those of his family and his boyfriend Hugh. Sedaris takes the mundane and makes it funny. He could be accused of a certain amount of narcissism for writing about himself and those around him, but that’s unfair. His books are filled with a self-deprecation that borders on self-abuse.
Sitting in the high-ceiling lounge in the Palliser Hotel, wearing a plain blue-and-white-striped button-up shirt, Sedaris says it isn’t hard to find inspiration. “Sometimes life just feels like a story. I have a story coming out in the New Yorker in a few weeks. I was in Australia and I was feeding this kookaburra. My life felt like a story. I’m on the other side of the world, I’ve got this kookaburra on my arm, I’m feeding it strips of raw duck meat, but it wasn’t just that. It was connected to an hour before that, and it was connected to the entire day and it was connected to something in my childhood.”
Sedaris manages to make you laugh out loud while reading his work, something difficult for any writer to do. But just when you think it’s all fun and games, he manages to nail you with that linear history and the insight that comes with connecting one thing to another. Your smile momentarily disappears as you discover the bastard’s actually teaching you about humanity —the pain, the variety, the beauty and, yes, the humour.
In his latest book When You Are Engulfed in Flames , Sedaris runs the gamut from buying a full skeleton for Hugh (and the resulting meditations on death brought on by the skeleton’s imagined taunting), to befriending the village child molester in Normandy, to wearing a fake padded butt his friend gave to him for Christmas, to his struggle to quit smoking.
In our interview, the topics are equally as varied: the taste of semen (liquid Comet apparently), transporting skeletons across borders, accuracy in creative non-fiction and fact checking, and whether he’s a happy person.
But one topic dominates. Somehow, on this book tour, breast milk has become the unofficial theme, and so it seems fitting to share a story with him. I tell him about a flight attendant who is forced to repeatedly tell a passenger to put her cat away. On the fourth visit to the woman, she is sitting with a blanket draped over her and the cat’s tail is sticking out from the bottom.
The flight attendant, now thoroughly peeved, pulls the blanket off and there sits the cat, nursing at the woman’s breast.
Breast milk is the focus of our conversation for a good 10 minutes after that. Sedaris says he’s heard that men can produce breast milk (or something like it).
“I didn’t know we had holes either. Do women… I have no experience with that, do women have holes?” he asks.
“They do, but you don’t really see them.”
“Maybe ours are just microscopic, too.”
“It’s true. Maybe you just have to be a special kind of man to pull it out.”
“But, a cat!?” he says.
Just the other day, a woman at a book reading came up with a bottle of her own milk so that Sedaris could sign it for her infant son. Sedaris recounts, “I said ‘Can I smell it?’ And she said ‘Sure.’ And then she said, ‘We both know where this is going,’ and I said ‘Yeah.’ And she said ‘Hold out your finger,’ and I held out my finger and she sprinkled some breast milk. If it had been room temperature instead of refrigerated, I would still be throwing up. I would have been throwing up since… Tuesday, I guess.”
“It was sweet and thin, like skim milk. Blue almost.”
Sedaris isn’t sure if he’s still comfortable with this theme, though. It’s been going on too long. “You know, it was just by accident, this just sort of became the theme of my tour and I’m thinking about changing it because it’s one of those things that you look at it, and one second it’s a maiden brushing her hair in the mirror and the next second it’s a hideous skull.”
“It goes from being a cheerful, acceptable topic to just being hideous. I’m signing books and I say ‘Were you breastfed?’ And I just think, ‘Is this really the conversation I want to be having with people?;”