“Drinks With” is an interview series started in 2009 by Skip and Timshel Matheny, currently songwriters in the band Roman Candle. The interviews are almost always done in person and typically discuss the creative process.
Timshel Matheny met up with David Sedaris this past May at The Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, Tenn. Mr. Sedaris was touring on the release of his newest book, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls.
Paste: I’ve read that you have a very specific process that you go through each day, in order to gather content and then write. You have notebooks, and a diary, and more notebooks. Would you mind describing that for us?
Sedaris: Oh gosh. I just get up right in the morning and go right to my desk first thing. And I keep a notebook. I’ve been on this tour since April 2. A different city every day. I was in New York for two days, and then I was in Toronto for two days, and then I had four days off. But it has been work. Like an event every night. So I just carry this notebook and I just write down things. Like, I don’t know—the fellow who picked me up from the airport. I never learned to drive, and there’s a driver who brought me in from the airport. This guy—I’m guessing he was 80? And he was a trial lawyer. So we started talking about hotels and he said, “Oh, did you ever stay at The Carlyle?”
And, you know, I like to stay at The Carlyle in New York. So then you think, “Okay, this guy’s a lawyer. He stays at The Carlyle. Am I really gonna give this guy $10 for giving me a ride to the airport?” How do you tip in that situation? Because it just feels weird. I mean, he’s just doing this because he doesn’t want to sit at home every day. So, that’s always a weird thing to navigate for me. Like, I never know. I mean what does 10 bucks mean to a guy who is a member of The Princeton Club in New York? [laughs]
He’s driving me and his hands were like an orangutan’s hands on the steering wheel. Because the hair on his arms were red and he was so, kind of, old and he was driving like this [clutches a fake steering wheel]. And his hands just looked like a monkey’s hands on the steering wheel. And he was kind of giving me a lecture on “voir dire,” you know legal terms and stuff, and I just pulled out my notebook and tried not to make a big deal of writing it down. Acting like “Oh, voir dire”—[pretending to scribble]—”right.” But really I’m writing “Orangutan hands—Carlyle Hotel.” [laughs]
Paste: Has anyone ever been offended or asked to see what you were writing down?
Sedaris: No, but sometimes it feels—I mean, one thing that I’ve noticed is how now people take your picture like you are a statue, you know? Like get up in your face and not even ask your permission but just take your picture. And so I sometimes worry that the notebook is like that, you know?
I try to do it like—if you were talking to me [and you said something I wanted to write down] I’d be like, “Oh, right”—[takes out notebook and writes while talking]—”the car is coming at 4:30. Right. Let me get that down.” Which would suggest that I’m not really listening to you [laughs]. But that’s how I tend to do it. Or sometimes I actually will say to someone, “I’m sorry, but do you mind if I just write that down because that is just too—?”
A woman the other night—she came to the reading and she said, “You got me to put my bra back on.” And I said, “I beg your pardon?” And she said, “Someone put it on Facebook that you were gonna be here. I’d gotten home from work and I’d taken my bra off. And when I take my bra off, it’s off for the night.” She said, “But this time I put it back on so I could come out.” She said, “NO ONE does that.” So I started asking women “When your bra is off, is it off for the night?” And they were like, “Hell yeah.” And that’s just something I never knew about women. It never occurred to me that women would have a “bra policy.” That they’d be like, “Sorry. I can’t. It’s off for the night.” It’s like, “You called me. You need a sober driver to pick up up from the bar?” And they’d have to say, “My bra’s off. I can’t. You have me mistaken for someone else…”
I sit down every morning, I look at my notes, and I think “What’s my lead story? What is my lead story from everything that I’ve got written down?” And then I write my lead story. And after I write that, I go down the list with everything else. Or sometimes, by the next morning, it doesn’t seem important anymore. It’s just something I wrote down and I think, “I don’t know why I ever wrote that down in the first place.” But that’s just my notebook. And then I write in my diary every morning. And I turn to whatever story I’ve got.
Paste: When you’ve finished a notebook, do you throw it away?
Sedaris: For some reason I can’t get rid of them. I just finished a notebook the day before yesterday. I’ve gone through two notebooks since I started this tour. I put them in my suitcase and then I have a box at home. Like lots of stashes, and I just throw them in there. I guess I think that I’d want them back one day. But it did come in handy once. A couple of years ago I was on tour and my computer got stolen. I had printed out my diary up until Sept. 20, and my computer got stolen the day before Thanksgiving. And so I went through all of my notebooks. I went through my notes from that tour and reconstructed my diary.
Paste: What was that like?
Sedaris: With some of it, I would look through the notes and I would think, “What on earth does that mean?” And there were a couple of times where I just couldn’t get it, you know? I just didn’t understand what [the note] referred to.
And It would never have been the same, that diary. Because I was writing about something with the perspective of six weeks rather than it happening the day before. So I would look at something that happened six weeks ago—like if I were to do that now, a lot of the stuff that I wrote a month ago I would think—my priorities have so shifted in the past few days—it would just seem so petty to me if I looked back at it.
Paste: So was that the first time you’d written about things that were a few weeks old?
Paste: Did you enjoy the change or was it awful?
Sedaris: Well, the big problem was that I just type with one finger. I’m pretty fast with one finger. But, I had to jump on this. I had to get it done quickly because otherwise I would forget. Also, it was the first time I had—maybe it was carpal tunnel? It just ached all through my wrist. It was like a headache all through my arm. So that was the problem—typing like that for eight hours a day—when normally, when you put it all together, it’s normally just two.
Paste: No motivation to type with the other fingers?
Sedaris: I just don’t know how. I mean, they just sit there. Since I quit smoking, I’m able to ride on planes. And so every time I ride on planes, people say to me all of the time, “I just have to say, I’ve never seen anybody do that. I’ve never seen anybody type so fast with one finger.”
Paste: So you can write in very public places and it doesn’t bother you?
Sedaris: Now I can. Well I mean, you know, people have this idea. Like people would say “Oh you live in Paris? What cafe do you write at?” And I don’t live there anymore. But I’d just shudder. Do you know what I mean? Like this idea that you would go in publicly.
I started eating breakfast about a year ago. So, like this morning, I went in to the breakfast room and I ordered a bowl of oatmeal. And so I’m not just going to sit there. So I bring my computer with me and then I write.
But it’s tricky. Sometimes you go out and there is hotel music. Like the hotel I stayed at in St. Louis was a Four Seasons but it’s like a “Rock” Four Seasons. So they play music with lyrics. And I can’t do that. Sometimes it’s like—well, I was checking out of a hotel a while ago and [the concierge] was like, “How was your stay?” And I was like, “Well, you asked.” I said, “You have light jazz playing in the restaurant? It’s like someone farted in there.” That is just the worst. I mean the worst.
Paste: Oh yeah.
Sedaris: Makes me feel like I’m already at the airport. So I can’t. It’s really hard for me to listen to that while I’m working. I would prefer silence but—
Paste: Are you worried about being interrupted if you’re writing in a public place?
Sedaris: Well, it’s not ideal. I mean normally I would just be at home. I would be in my little work house.
Paste: You have a work house?
Sedaris: Yeah. It’s a separate house. Hugh and I live in a house together. And then he has a house and I have a house. It’s a compound that we live on. My house used to be a stable. It was a butcher shop, and then it was a stable, and then it was converted into a little house. And so, it’s nice. And then, in London, I just have my office that I go in to write.
Paste: Some writers have said that the more austere and minimal their environment, the better. Almost the least comfortable, the better. Has it changed your writing habit to have space now? A place that is actually comfortable and nice?
Sedaris: Well, when we were in New York, our apartment was really tiny and I just had a corner of the bedroom. I don’t know. I have to say that I am really spoiled now and my office is, like, really nice. And so sometimes I just sit in my office and I think about how nice my office is. And I never did that when I worked in a corner of the bedroom. But I think that I am more inclined to spend time in my office now. Because I think, “Oh, my office is so nice. I ought to spend time there.”
But I always made my space. I mean, if all three of us had to live in this hotel room for the rest of our lives, I dare you to try and get near that desk. [Points at desk in corner of his hotel room, laughs]. I would fight you for that desk. Or, you know, if you insisted, I could make one.
Paste: You’ve said before—regarding the frankness and honesty of your journals—that if someone you love was reading your journal and they came across something bad about them—“Keep reading. It’ll get better.”
Paste: Oftentimes in your books you may start out by describing a raw or grim detail about someone close to you—say, your father for example. But instead of things escalating into a personality roast, it’s more of an entry point by which the reader can get to know them and even come to respect them. How do you approach writing so candidly about the individuals in your books?
Sedaris: Well, I think that fakeness is evident. Do you know what I mean? There is this fake talk that people have [for example] about race. Like, “And I really believe that we’re all alike under the skin.”
But if you want to really talk about race in America, it’s just really—like when you read a story and there is a black character that’s not Morgan Freeman in every movie that he has ever been in—the audience gets so conflicted. And it’s a white audience. They get so conflicted and they think, “Do I laugh at this? Is the person next to me gonna think I’m a racist? Is this a trick?” And they are so conflicted that they can’t follow the story. You know?
But there’s a fake way of talking about it and everyone seems completely happy with the fake way. It kind of just assuages everybody. But it’s fake. It’s just fake. And I always recognize that as fake when somebody else does it. And so I think that stuff only stands out to me.
I think people aren’t fools. And I think that they can tell if you’re—you know—like sometimes someone will come and get a book signed and they’ll say, “Can you write this to my mother. She has stage four breast cancer…” Now, that’s something I’m gonna make fun of. I mean, I’m not gonna make fun of stage four breast cancer—well, no—it’s just because they’re putting me on the spot. What am I supposed to say? So that’s not a good example.
Paste: [laughs] Sounds like a good example.
Sedaris: But there are other examples where if I didn’t make fun of this it wouldn’t be who you think I am, or—there is a story in the book where I go and get a colonoscopy and then I tell my father that I had cancer, right? And this woman in the audience was like, “Did you really tell your father you had cancer?” And I said, “Of course I did. That’s why I’m up here and you’re down there.” [laughs]. “Because maybe you wouldn’t have done it, but you may not have noticed that we’re different people. People didn’t come to see you. They came to see the guy who would tell his father that he has cancer.” [laughs]
Paste: While writing ideas from your notes in your diary, are you ever surprised at where a particular details ends up in a story?
Sedaris: Yeah. I mean, like I’m thinking something through in the course of a story. I never liked the kind of story that—you hear it a lot—[where] you tell the story and then at the end you just sum up what you have just told people. You have just said something for the past 12 pages and then you just sum it up again with a little lesson tacked on to the end. And I so rarely learned the lesson. I’d always think, well, why sum it up? You were with me the last 12 pages. Why do we need to sum it up now? And tell you, in other words, what you’ve just been listening to? You know what you’ve just been listening to. You know what you’ve just been reading. If you learn a lesson that’s great but…
One of my books came out in Israel. And I had written a story about going to the Anne Frank House and getting real estate fever. ‘Cause it’s really nice—the house is. People don’t know that, but it is adorable. It’s a triplex apartment, and it’s right in the center of town. And so, at the end I see this Primo Levi quote written on the wall, and it’s just so sobering. It’s just such a beautiful line. And I say at the end of the story that I looked out the window, I saw my face reflected back at me, and then beyond that, across the way, I saw the most beautiful apartment. Meaning that I was sobered by this and then I looked out the wind and—
And the Israeli translator said, “Can we get rid of that line?” And I said, “No. Because without it it makes it sound like I learned the lesson of a lifetime…” And I said, “I didn’t. I learned a lesson. I had some water thrown in my face. But I’m still me. I’m still the selfish person who wants yet another place to live.” So it would just be false of me to get rid of that last line. “I mean, I’m sorry you don’t like it. You’re not my editor; you’re my translator.”
Paste: When you are writing about these more serious or darker topics, you really maintain a type of buoyancy. You seem to stay above it. And yet without seeming flippant or insincere. I think I read somewhere that you called yourself an “unrelentingly cheerful person.”
Sedaris: I’m cheerful in person. I mean, like when I go to the bookstore today—do you know what I mean? I mean, it doesn’t often happen that someone comes up and it just really pushes your buttons. Usually it’s a kind of demanding person. Like I was doing these stickers a couple days ago—putting stickers in people’s books. Like, let’s say your last name was Swanson. I’d find a sticker of a swan and a sticker of a sun to put after your name. It was very particular.
And I had, like, eight books of stickers and my bag weighed so much. And I would go through the stickers on the plane and I would write little puns. Like there were stickers of pigs and I could put that in someone’s book and I could write “I like your [sticker of pig]-mentation.” Or if you are Catholic, a sticker of a cat and I could write “My [sticker of a cat]-lick friend.”
And so I’d go through the stickers in the book and I’d think what pun—what visual pun can I make with this sticker? And then other times I would draw on people’s books or whatever. And then this one time I drew in this woman’s book and she said, “Where’s my sticker? Why don’t I get a sticker?”
And I was like, “The sticker doesn’t go with the drawing. And one is not better than the other.” I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, you’re not good enough for a sticker.” But it was like, if I had put a sticker in her book, she would say “Well why didn’t I get a drawing?”
And I feel like—I looked at her and thought “I drew an owl in your book and I colored it in. And I asked you if you had swimming pool. And I asked you if it was bromine or salt water.” Do you know what I mean? For, like, three minutes. And—that’s about all I have to give today [laughs]. I mean, I didn’t say that. I wouldn’t say that. Do you know what I mean? Because you can’t say that. You can’t do that in front of people.
Paste: She didn’t deserve a sticker [laughs]. Having such a well-established routine in your writing life, how difficult was it, once you stopped drinking, to find new habits surrounding your work time every day? What worked and what didn’t?
Sedaris: Right. I thought, “well, I’ll try a new beverage.” And so I experimented with different juices and stuff. And it’s just not the same. I was on to apple juice for a while, but I would drink, like, six beers and have two scotches. You’re not going to drink that much apple juice, do you know what I mean? It just makes your teeth feel weird. And then I thought, “well, how ‘bout grape juice?”
What I did was that I switched over to tea. Like drinking PG Tips or Yorkshire Gold— English tea. At night I have two big mugs of tea. And then in the morning, I get up and I just have coffee. But it used to be—I mean there were a couple times when I had deadlines, before I quit drinking, and I would have to turn in something and I would think, “well, I can’t write unless I’m drinking.” And so you get up in the morning and it’s nine o’clock in the morning and you’re drinking.
And then something happens and you realize that you’ve ran out of typewriter ribbon and you have to go out at noon, and you’re on the street and you’re drunk. Do you know what I mean? You’re drunk. People are walking past you and they have jobs and stuff, and you don’t have a job and you’re drunk. And it’s just like, “Oh my God. This is me? This is who I am?” You know? It’s really scary.
So it was really kind of great to realize that I didn’t have to [drink] to write. But, you know, I started writing, smoking and drinking all on the same day, basically. So they were all tied up together. But now I don’t. ‘Cause, you know, like I couldn’t ride on an airplane or anything. Like, even a letter to somebody and I wanted to be smoking. So, it’s just freed me.
Paste: Those are some pretty big changes. Was that difficult?
Sedaris: It wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be. I mean, I was lucky. Because I was already in the habit of writing every day. When I sign books for people sometimes they say, “Oh, well how do I get my book published?” And I’m like, “Well, do you write every day?” And they’ll say, “Well, I try to” or “no.” And I want to say, “Well then you don’t have any hope.” You know? Or I meet people who say, “Well, I’m going to go to graduate school for writing.” And it’s like, “Well why would you? You’re just wasting your money.” If you don’t write every day then you’re just wasting your money. Graduate school isn’t going to teach you write every day. That’s something that has to come from inside you. And you either do it or you don’t. And if you don’t then it just seems particularly—there’s a big difference between writing and wanting to write. A huge difference. But it’s like that for any kind of art, really.
But I never had to force myself to do it [writing]. And so when I quit drinking and smoking, the desire to write and the discipline was still there. I mean it was hard. Like when I quit smoking I’d have to say, “Okay, I sat at my computer for 12 minutes today.” And then, “Tomorrow I’ll sit at my computer for 14 minutes.” You know? You had to build it back up. I tried rolling paper up into these little tubes, sucking on these little tubes—the house was littered with them at one point. But I didn’t do that for very long. I only did it for a couple of weeks.
Paste: When you were younger, growing up in Raleigh, N.C., what were the first types of art that you can remember?
Sedaris: I liked those Dutch still lifes of the fish market. And there are always a couple of cats in there. And there is like an eel that is still alive and a cat that’s hissing at it. The art museum in Raleigh had some of those. And there was a woman who had a gallery called The Little Art Gallery. And it was like little lithographs of mushrooms and trolls. Or a cricket hitchhiking. But what struck me more at the art galleries would be the posters. Like there would be a poster for a Paul Klee exhibit or—so that was—you know, people who—I mean, I really liked those still lifes because I felt like you could almost smell them. They were so visceral. But I also was attracted to artwork that seemed possible, that seemed like, “I bet could do that. That didn’t seem to take that much skill.”
And of course it does. Like, if you look at a Paul Klee painting you’d think, “Hmm, a couple of squares. Not that hard. Got it.” And then, of course you do it and you realize you have no sense of color or composition. But I was always attracted to things that seemed like I could steal them. Because then you would find someone that had never heard of Paul Klee. And they would think it was your idea. That you came up with it. [laughs]
Paste: When did you start writing? At what age?
Paste: Had you ever thought of writing anytime before that?
Sedaris: Hmm. No, never occurred to me. Because I think I was like a lot of people. You learn to write a certain way in school. And it’s just a chore. You have your topic sentence and it was generally believed that everything supports your topic sentence, and—it’s just not pleasant. You know? So I started writing and then nobody was looking at it but me and so I was under no pressure. I could write however I wanted to. And when I look back on some of it, it is just absolutely awful, what I was trying to write. But it doesn’t matter. Because it was just in my diary. And no one ever saw it.
I think it’d be harder now, you know? When you have a blog, and you have to get it out there. And then you get it out there and no one cares about it. And people think, “Well, I’ve tried that” and they walk away from it. Because they want an immediate audience.
Paste: I read that you used to have a job cleaning houses when you were first writing. And now I think you have taken on a job picking trash up off the side of the highway in England? Is that right?
Pastel: Other writers have talked about these kinds of everyday, sort of maintenance activities as actually being a real gift in the writing process. For example, tasks like ironing, cooking or cleaning the house for certain poets and songwriters. Or gardening for Eudora Welty and Richard Wilbur. Do you think that this other type of work affects your writing process?
Sedaris: I mean—I like activity. Before this when we were in France, you know, I would write in the morning and then I’d go for a 20-mile bike ride. Just to—because you want to be tired. You want to come back and think, “Oh good. Now I can sit down.” I’d go on a long bike ride and then I would go on a long walk. Because then I’d be really tired. And then I’d go back to work at night. You know for like, an hour and a half or so. I just like to wear myself out. So, it’s good for that.
I go pick up rubbish and stuff and then I wear myself out. And then I have made the world a little better place [laughs]. I mean, I do make the world a little better place. I can’t say that when I write a story—that I make the world a better place. Do you know what I mean? You can’t say that. But, I have made the world a better place while I have cleaned up a couple miles of roadside. I’d say that’s pretty much the definition of making the world a better place.
Paste: Yeah. I get that.
Sedaris: I mean, I can listen to Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” and I can say, “Yes. I’ll say.” [laughs].