David Sedaris, THE BEST OF ME

David Sedaris, THE BEST OF ME

“If I’m going to be reading something in front of an audience, I wouldn’t want there to be no laughter. I’m not interested in that.” David Sedaris talks owning who you are as a writer and explains why “publishing isn’t writing.” He also tells Zibby why he doesn’t read internet comments and discloses how he expresses love (hint: it involves Christmas!)


Zibby Owens: Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” especially to talk about The Best of Me, your latest collection of all-time great essays, which is fantastic.

David Sedaris: Usually when a book comes out, I go on a book tour and it feels like, oh, a book came out. Because of everything that’s going on, I couldn’t really go on any kind of a book tour. I didn’t feel anything.

Zibby: So it’s almost like it’s didn’t happen?

David: Yeah, it’s a lot like it didn’t happen.

Zibby: I’m sorry to hear that. I’m sure you’ve been entertaining a lot of people as they’ve been at home even if it doesn’t feel that way to you.

David: I don’t know. Usually, I go on these lecture tours, read things, hear their response. It’s like publishing something in a magazine now. I don’t have any idea if it works or not. I never got to hear anybody react to it, or not the reactions that I’m used to. I’m not interested in a reaction on Twitter. That doesn’t interest me, or in the comment section. You couldn’t pay me to look at any of that. I was looking at a book. It was a book that I really enjoyed, an audiobook. I love audiobooks. William Maxwell, who was an editor at The New Yorker for years and years, I remembered a story that he had in the magazine in 1979. It came out in three different installments. I just couldn’t wait for the magazine to come out so I read more of it. It’s called So Long, See You Tomorrow. I just realized there was an audio recording of him reading it when he was in his eighties, him reading it. Gosh, he coughed sometimes. His voice is really weak. It trails off. He’s a perfect person to read it. He’s not overly dramatic. He doesn’t do different voices for the characters. That’s the kind of thing that drives me crazy. Anyway, it was such a fantastic book and so wonderfully read. I was kind of shocked. I started looking at the comments and people giving it one star. “They got an old man to read it.” Well, yeah. Actually, he’s the author. “The story meanders.” Not really. It goes back and forth between different points of view, but that’s not called meandering. I just couldn’t believe how off the mark most of the comments were. Then I thought, you know what, I’m going to write a comment. Then I thought, no, that’s like calling into talk radio. The second you do it, you become a crazy person.

Zibby: Now you just don’t ever read the comments?

David: I don’t read mine. I don’t read any comments pertaining to me. Sometimes you go into a store. There’s a store that I love to go into. The people who work there are just — I guess I think of them as friends. Actually, more realistically, I pay them to be my friends. I’m a customer. I go in there and I buy things. Then I hang out talking to them. I looked on Yelp one day. The customer comments were like, “The people who work there are snobs. They follow you around the store. They think they’re better than you.” I thought, that’s something you bring into the store with you. If you walk into the store thinking that you’re not good enough to be there, that’s how you’re going to feel. The people who work there are fantastic. With any comments, half of it is baggage they’re bringing in with them, something they’re bringing in .

Zibby: It’s true.

David: Have you been watching that Fran Leibowitz show on Netflix?

Zibby: Which show?

David: Fran Leibowitz, Pretend It’s a City.

Zibby: No, I haven’t.

David: It’s Martin Scorsese. He’s just kind of following her around while she talks. There’s a woman in The New York Times who wrote a negative review of it. At one point, Fran Leibowitz says, “Now there’s the Tenement Museum. What’s in there? Tuberculosis?” This woman in The Times writes, “I brought my children there. It was a group of sitting there and looking in a space like that. I don’t think she’s very funny.” It’s like, oh, come on. What’s in the museum? Tuberculosis? That’s just funny. It was a situation where I think Fran Leibowitz had really accurately made fun of the woman who was writing this article. Sometimes somebody makes fun of you and you think, wow, you did a great job making fun. I have to hand it to you. You did a really great job making fun of me. Even though it hurts or something, you have to think, wow, well done.

Zibby: I have not actually thought about things that way. I think I’ll have to change my point of view. Why not? I think you’re right. You have to find the humor in everything, which is obviously something that you take pretty seriously.

David: I don’t look for it in what I read, necessarily. I don’t demand that of something that I read, that it be funny.

Zibby: That’s good.

David: I’m always happy to laugh.

Zibby: You also, in your writing, you don’t only talk about funny stuff. You are able to put a little bit of relatable humor into the saddest of stories, when you wrote about your sister’s suicide, for example. The loss of your mother and how you used to go to your home in North Carolina or you rented a cottage or something and you didn’t come the year that she died, you made a joke like it was really because she was the one who paid for it, not because you didn’t want to go. How do you find these little nuggets of relatable humor when you’re really going through lots of loss? Especially now, people are really longing for some humor in the face of this global sense of loss.

David: If I’m going to be reading something in front of an audience, I wouldn’t want there to be no laughter. I’m not interested in that. There are people who do write that way. Joan Didion probably doesn’t get a lot of laughs when she does a reading, but I’d be right there in the first row happy to hear her. For me personally, that doesn’t interest me. The book I’m reading now is the new George Saunders book, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain.

Zibby: How is it?

David: It’s about writing. It’s sort of like a course. He takes five Russian writers and takes short stories of theirs. The short stories are there. Then he asks questions about the short stories. There’s a lecture of his about the short story. Then he talks about his own writing as well. I thought it was so true. I thought it applied to everyone’s writing. If your talent was a hunting dog, you send it out to find a beautiful pheasant and it comes back with the lower half of a Barbie doll and you think, this is what my writing is. My writing is the lower half of a Barbie doll. It’s like, yeah, because it’s who you are. It’s what you’re interested in. You might start off trying to be this person or that person. After a while, you realize that you’re never going to be Joan Didion. Maybe you could imitate her sentence structure. Maybe you could fool a beginning writer, pass something off as the beginning of Joan Didion thing, but it’s not you. It’s never going to be you. This is actually who you are. This is what you’re interested in. This is what you write like. That’s the beginning of your life as a mature writer, not discovering who you are, but accepting who you are.

Zibby: Also, accepting it and then putting it into words, which can be challenge for some people. I think some people think they have to write a certain way, or if it’s not literary enough, for what you were saying. When did you realize that you were able to put who you were as a person onto the page?

David: When I was twenty-seven. I’d been writing for seven years by that point. When I was twenty-seven, I kind of accepted myself as the writer that I am. I thought, there’s no point anymore in trying to be anybody else. This is who I am. This is what I’m interested in. This is what I sound like. I’ll try to improve the writing of it. I’ll try to improve the craft, my craft, and try to tighten things up and try to make the word-by-word writing better, but this seems to be who I am. I remember when I had just moved to Paris. David Remnick over at The New Yorker, he came to Paris and met with me. He asked me if I would write for the magazine. I’d had some shouts and mummers in the air, but that was all. I said, “I don’t think I have a New Yorker essay in me.” He said, “I’ll be the judge of that. I’ll be the judge of what’s a New Yorker essay.” When I sat there and I tried to think, I am writing a New Yorker essay, I just froze. We’ve kept it that way. I send them everything I write. They decide what’s a New Yorker essay. I don’t have a clue. If it has the word cunt in it, it’s probably not a New Yorker essay. Other than that, I really don’t have a clue.

Zibby: I know your whole life you’ve been very open — maybe not your whole life. Maybe since age twenty-seven. You’re just super open about your family and your relationship and all the things that come in and out of your mind and inside and out. How does everyone around you feel about that? How did you get up the, I don’t know if it’s courage or what to be able to say, you know what, I’m going to just write about all these people?

David: When I write about somebody in my family, I give it to them first. I run it by them. Not my father because he’s ninety-seven. I always figure he’ll be dead by the time the book comes out or the article comes out. Why bother him with it? Everybody else, I run it by them first. My brother lately has a lot of stuff he doesn’t want people knowing. He had said to me a while ago, my boyfriend Hugh, he said, “You need to write that anyway.” No, that’s crossing a line. If he doesn’t want people knowing those things, I can’t. Why would I destroy my relationship over that? I’ll just wait until he dies.

Zibby: I feel like you might have to be a little worried to be a part of your family these days. You’re just sitting there waiting for people to drop over.

David: I kind of am. They cough, and I’m on the edge of my seat.

Zibby: That must make Thanksgiving lots of fun.

David: There’s so much fake writing about family. So often, I just don’t believe it. On television, I rarely believe a family, rarely. I love you, bro. I got your back, sis. Nobody talks like that. Nobody who I want to spend any time with would ever talk like that. I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone in my family that I loved them. Why would I do that? To say it on the phone or to say at Christmas, thank you for the gifts, but the greatest gift is your love — I think I show it, but I have a really hard time believing it when somebody says it.

Zibby: Are you the only one who doesn’t say I love you in your family, or does nobody say I love you?

David: Nobody does it. Nobody. You might put it at the end of a letter or an email or something, “Love,”. No, there would be no point. We would just laugh. If my sister Amy said I love you, I would laugh at her. I would hope she would do the same to me if said it to her. My sister went to LA the other day. She flew to Los Angeles. If her plane had gone down, I would not think, I never told her I loved her. That would never occur to me. I showered her with Christmas presents. If her plane went down and I hadn’t gotten her anything for Christmas, yeah, I’d feel bad.

Zibby: It sounds like love is taking the form of Christmas gifts.

David: Yeah, you show you love somebody. You don’t have to say it if you show it.

Zibby: Okay. It’s fine. I’m not being in any way critical. I was just asking.

David: I feel like it’s the same with children. My parents never said they loved us, ever. We just would’ve thought, what do you do want? If they had said it, we just would’ve thought, you’re manipulating me, but why? That’s what we would’ve thought.

Zibby: When my grandmother had dementia right before she passed away, my uncles and my dad were all together with her. One uncle said to my dad, “How is she?” He said, “Well, she told me how much she loved me.” They were like, “Oh, no. She must not be doing well at all.” I think they can probably relate to that environment. In terms of your writing, how much of this — obviously, you’re always thinking and reflecting on all sorts of funny stuff or just the way the world works and everything. How often do you sit down to write? How often do you write just for yourself versus with an eye towards publishing it somewhere?

David: I write every day. Every day, I get up and I go right to my desk and I write. I write probably from ten until one or one thirty. Then I go back to my desk at eight o’clock until nine thirty. Then I have dinner. I just spent a week working on something that just came to nothing. It just fell apart. It disintegrated. When I was younger, I would’ve thought, that line is funny and that line is funny, and then tried to build a scaffold around those two funny lines. Now I’m just old enough to admit defeat, and then moved on to something else. I moved on to something else. It’s not for anything, really. My agent will approach me and then say — recently, she said, “The Guardian,” the newspaper in England, “they want you to write a thousand words on the subject of home.” I said, “Give me a few days. Let me see if it appeals to me.” I don’t want to say yes and then be stuck. I’d rather just write it and then see if — that’s the thing that fell apart. I started on it. I guess I could take a different angle, but the deadline’s already passed. I thought, eh, I’m going to just leave it behind and move on to something else. I don’t expect everything to work. I’d like for it to. Sometimes I get bored with things and I abandon them because of that. I don’t destroy the file. I keep it. Sometimes a couple years from now, you turn back and then you think, oh, that’s what this is all about. Oh, it’s easy. Why didn’t I see earlier how to fix this? wrote that. You work every day without hope. Not without hope, but without expectation or without — that’s probably a fool. You should never quote a phrase where you can’t remember the two most important words in it.

Zibby: That’s all right. That’s funny.

David: Another interesting thing, too, that George Saunders said in his book, that if you sat down to write a story about two dogs fucking, you’re going to write a story about two dogs fucking. Sometimes you set out to write about something. Then you realize in the second paragraph, look, I’m going over here now. You need to try to rein it back and write about the two dogs fucking or you can see, what’s over here? I’m going to follow myself over here because maybe over here, there’s a much richer subject.

Zibby: I don’t know if you’ve seen, there’s a new movie out called Our Friend. It’s based on the National Magazine Award-winning article by Matt Teague called “The Friend.” In it, he writes about losing his wife, but the article ends up becoming about the friend. In the movie at least, when they’re talking about it, he says, “I thought that you were writing all this time about Nicole.” He said, “So did I.” The whole point is that it became all about the friend. That’s not what he even intended to do.

David: I imagine that libraries are full of books that the author didn’t intend to write. I often feel like if I’m going to write about a specific incident, sometimes I just feel like you got to force somebody into the car. You got to get them over there. Then you’ve got to force them over here, like I’m moving pieces rather than following where the story goes, if that makes any sense. It’s interesting because you’re writing nonfiction. There’s a way that it can still be a process of discovering. There’s a way that you can be telling the story — you wind up telling the story you didn’t mean to tell. There’s a story in Best of Me about — my sister Tiffany is the one who committed suicide. I said in the story that the last time I saw her I was in Boston. I was Symphony Hall. I was doing a show. She showed up there. I had them close the door in her face. I didn’t allow her into the backstage area where I was. I did not mean to put that in the story because that makes me look really bad. The second that it was on paper, it seemed false not to include it. I seemed like a phony for leaving it out even though nobody would know but me. If I’d left it out, nobody would’ve said, oh, yeah, what about the time…? Five people knew about that. Once I put it in the essay, it revealed a truth about myself that I thought made the story more honest and therefore more believable. I knew that there were going to be a lot of people out there who’d be like, that’s what I did to somebody or I would do the same thing. My understanding is that there were even more people, of course, who were like, you’re a monster. I hate you. You’re a terrible person. When they get older, they’ll maybe see it differently.

Zibby: That was definitely my favorite essay in the book. Whatever you did, it worked. I know a lot of this talk has been about things that will help other writers. If you had to drill down some of the things you’ve learned to a piece or two of advice — I’m sure you get asked this all the time, but I have to ask again. What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

David: Not to mistake publishing for writing. They’re two different things. I’ll always remember this woman who was a friend of mine. She was older than me. She wasn’t in the arts in any way. We were close friends. I remember I moved to New York City and she wrote me a letter shortly after I arrived. She said, “Look, I’m just telling you this as a friend. You need to quit writing. You’re never going to make it. For your own good, you need to find a career. Before it’s too late, find a career and stick to it.” By that time, I’d been writing every day for fourteen, fifteen years. What was interesting to me about it was that she didn’t understand that I could never quit. Regardless of whether I ever got published or not, that didn’t have anything to do with writing. That’s not writing. That’s publishing. Those are two different things. I went to art school. Some of the best artists who I ever met never had a show, not interested in it. Their work is just private. They get up every single day and they paint. They’re not interested in going to parties where artists might be. They’re not interested in pushing their work on galleries. They’re not interested in promoting themselves in any way. All they care about is the work. The work is amazing to me.

Publishing isn’t writing. When people are like, if I don’t get published by the time I’m twenty-five or by the time I’m thirty, I’m going to quit, well then, quit now. You’re not a real writer if that’s your attitude. I do meet a lot of people when I go on tour. I’ll do a book signing. Somebody will come up and they’ll say, “Here’s some short stories I wrote. I’d love for you to read them because I’d really love to get them published.” I never would’ve done that. Never in a thousand years would I have done that. It’s a tricky thing to try to convey, but people like to help other people. They really like it. If you force yourself on somebody, you’re denying them the opportunity for it to be their idea to help you. I know that sounds very kumbaya. How are people even supposed to know that I — trust me, pushing yourself on people and hanging out and trying to meet somebody who works as a publicist or trying to intentionally befriend someone who’s an editor at a magazine, that’s not the way to do it. All that time you spent scheming and stuff, you should spend that time working and writing. It works out. With every writer I know, I don’t know, it just works out. I don’t know a single person who bullied people or passed their work onto strangers at book signings or mailed their manuscript to a published writer saying, can you help me get this published? I don’t know a single person who took that path and had it work.

The important thing is just to work. That’s what you care about. Then the rest of it just comes if it’s supposed to. Again, I know that sounds like kumbaya, my lord. All I ever know is what worked for me. When people write me and ask me, I never gave anything to anybody. I never sent a story to a magazine. I never asked anybody. I was in college and I read something in class. Then somebody said, “I’m having a happening at my loft. Will you read something this Saturday at my loft?” So I did. Then somebody said, “I’m having a much better happening at my loft in two weeks. Will you read something there?” Then somebody said, “I put together this little variety show. Will you read something there?” One thing kind of led to another. I never asked anybody, can I read? Can I take part in this? I just waited for them to ask me. I don’t mean to sound like a jerk, but it also helped to be the best. Maybe not the best, but to care. I can’t tell you how many readings I went to and then people would act like they just had been mowing the lawn and then somebody said, you got to be on stage in five minutes. They would get up there. They would be dressed like they’d been mowing their lawn. They would say, “I don’t know what to read. Should I read this?” I would sit in the audience and I would think, how do you not know what you’re going to read? You’re disrespecting us as an audience. You’re disrespecting us by not being prepared. I just learned so much by sitting in an audience and realizing, oh, if somebody is late, this is how it makes you feel. If somebody goes on too long, this is how it makes you feel. I think a lot of people think their feelings are specific to them. They’re not. Ninety-eight percent of the people feel the same way about the same things. I can’t tell you how many readings I’ve done as a grown-up, as a professional.

They’re something at Lincoln Center called reading — gosh, what’s it called? Reading or learning — it’s this big thing they have at Lincoln Center every year. They invite eight or nine authors. It’s a black-tie event, literacy volunteers. It’s a black-tie event. The audience is in tuxedos and ball gowns. They say to us, “Ten minutes. You read for ten minutes.” You’re up there with people who all have written a half dozen books, at least. The time I did it, the first person went on for forty-five minutes. The next person went on for half an hour. They’re up there thinking, people want to hear me for forty-five minutes because I wrote the definitive biography of LBJ. I’m the last to go on, so I’m paying for everybody’s tardiness. I’m sitting there. I’m the only one up there who’s realizing, okay, the audience had drinks before the thing. They’re asleep. Eighty percent of the men in this audience are asleep by now. They were. I was the only one who kept it to ten minutes. I timed it and worked on it and cut it down so it was exactly ten minutes long. Oprah was there because they were giving an award to Oprah. Then Oprah came up on stage at the end of it to accept her award. I was the only author that she talked to. That’s because I was ten minutes long. Why didn’t Oprah talk to me? Because you went on for twenty-three minutes. That’s why Oprah didn’t talk to you.

Zibby: Mental note, stick to the time limit and Oprah will talk to you. Good to know.

David: It’s just being aware in all sorts of situations. When you’re reading something, when you realize, oh, I stopped listening, I’m skimming, and then to ask yourself, why am I skimming? Why did I stop paying attention? Realize that if you do that same thing in your own work — nothing, to me, is worse than a dream sequence. Nothing. If I write a dream sequence, I’m going to think mine is interesting? No, it’s not. It’s as boring as everyone else’s. It’s a time sequence. If I were a reader, I’d be skimming over my dream sequence. That’s a good thing about reading out loud for an audience. The audience tells you. You’re boring me right now. They don’t say it, but you can feel it in the room. If you’re in a two thousand-seat hall, you see those doors in the back of the theater open. There’s people going out. They’re going out to the concession stand. They’re going out to the bathroom. You don’t go out to the bathroom. If something’s exciting, then you’ll hold it. Then you read it the second night. You realize people are going to the bathroom and leaving at the exact same time in this story. I bet it’s boring. I need to work on that part of the story. Then you go back to your hotel room and you rewrite it. You read it the next night, and people remain in their seats if you’re lucky. It’s the same thing with an editor, if you have a good editor, and you don’t listen to your editor. That happened to me recently. I wrote something for — I don’t even remember what it was for. My agent approached me and said, “Can you write about this?” The subject interested me, so I wrote it. Then the editor got back to me. I just saw all these queries and all these changes that she wanted. Then my first thought was like, you know what, go to hell. This is like eight hundred dollars. I’m not doing this. Forget it. Then I read her notes. It was like, wow, these are really good notes. She’s a good editor. All editors, they all want the same thing. They all want to make it better. I was really super grateful I didn’t act like a baby because this is an editor, I’d love to work with her again.

Zibby: Amazing. David, thank you so much. It’s been such a pleasure talking to you. I loved your advice and all of it. I’m going to think about the salespeople in the stores who are not my friends who are nice to me because I’m paying them too. Thank you for all of your time. It’s really generous of you. I really appreciate it and have been a fan for so long. Thank you.

David: Thank you. Goodbye.

Zibby: Goodbye.

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