Humorist David Sedaris Culls Decades Of Essays Into 'The Best Of Me'
Editor’s Note: This segment was rebroadcast on Oct. 25, 2021. Click here for David Sedaris’ tour dates.
If you’re looking for some comic relief, look no further than David Sedaris.
The humorist has picked his best essays from nearly 30 years of work and published them in a new collection called “The Best of Me.”
There were a lot of pieces to choose from, but Sedaris says he narrowed it down easily.
“It was originally just going to be an audio collection. So I chose things that I always looked forward to reading out loud,” he says. “It was that simple.”
He included many of his favorites over the years, but one adored story that many know and love — the “Santaland Diaries,” an essay about Sedaris’ time as a Christmas elf at a Macy’s department store — is noticeably missing from the collection. Even though the “Santaland Diaries” introduced him to NPR listeners around the world in 1992 and helped him become a recognized author, he “just can’t bear it.”
“I’m grateful that I wrote something that people enjoyed, but because it was my choice what went into this book, I was so happy to exclude it,” he says. “I actually excluded it and I wanted its feelings to be hurt.”
On one of his fictional essays, “The Motherless Bear,” which generated a lot of anger from readers
“Well, a number of years ago, I started writing, I guess you could call them fables. I was substituting animals for humans. And I wrote one about a bear whose mother dies and who just goes around trying to elicit sympathy from people talking about how her mother died just so she can take extra food and she can harvest pity. And this bear winds up like in a wretched, kind of small circus where it kind of wears a skirt and dances around and has all of its teeth pulled — and people were just furious. And I’ve never gotten so much hate mail. And the thing is that it was a fictional story and a woman in England wrote and chided me. She said, ‘How dare you mock these intelligent and sentient creatures?’ She demanded that I donate money to a bear rescue.”
On taking issue with the phrase “friends are the family you choose”
“You hear that all the time now. And I feel for people who aren’t accepted by their family or who just simply dislike their family. And I think it’s great that they found a group of friends that they can share everything emotionally with and that’s fantastic. I just wouldn’t call it a family. To me, the thing about a family is that you can’t choose it. It’s a hand that you’re dealt and you’ve got to play that hand. I really lucked out in that department. I mean, I’m crazy about my family.”
On taking tissue with readers who call his family “dysfunctional”
“I just feel that’s a lazy word. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been signing books and someone will say, ‘Oh, I love your dysfunctional family.’ And I’m really grateful that they bought a book and grateful that they want it signed. But the second I hear that, my back goes up and I say, ‘What’s dysfunctional about them?’ When you really think about dysfunction in a family, I mean, me anyway, I’m thinking incest, abuse. I’m thinking torture. I’m not thinking of hiding bananas under the sink in your bathroom. That’s just gently crazy at best.”
On shopping with his sisters
“Well, the problem is that, I mean, I went shopping with my sister Amy … and tried on a blouse. OK. I mean, it was just clearly a blouse. And I had suggested it for her and she said, ‘I don’t know. You know, it’s roomy. Why don’t you try it on? Try it on! No one will know.’ And, you know, the buttons are on the wrong side. And it kind of came to my belt in the front and had a Peter Pan collar.
“I did consider it. But the point is that she can talk me into anything and then I try to do the same to her. Clerks are delighted when they see us walk into a store together.
“I mean, I have siblings who don’t care to shop. And I have to say, I love them and I love spending time with them, but it’s just easier to spend time with the shopping ones because I quit taking drugs, gosh, I guess it was like 20 years ago. I worried about that because my family, we’ve always taken drugs together and it was just a beautiful way to spend time. I don’t mean, we weren’t shooting up heroin. It was like LSD. And I mean they’d be followed by everyday drugs. But, you know, the main force was a psychedelic. And when I quit taking drugs, I worried that I’d lost a very important way of connecting with my family. And because we fundamentally like each other, it works out fine. But, you know, it’s easier in stores.”
On writing about personal stories such as his mother’s alcoholism and his sister Tiffany’s suicide
“Well, writing’s never been cathartic for me. It doesn’t fix anything. It doesn’t necessarily make me feel better, but it helps me make sense of my world. And sometimes something happens and I think, ‘Gosh, I’m going to need a long time to figure this out or to find a way to make it funny, really.’ I mean, what is that? Comedy is tragedy plus time. And I don’t care to write something that’s not funny, that’s not going to get some laughs.
“Like in the essay about my sister’s suicide, my family went to the grocery store. We were on the coast of North Carolina and we were in the produce department. And my brother took a bundle of parsley. And it was one of those stores where they moisturize the fruits [and] vegetables so they’re always damp. And he snuck up behind me and he said, ‘Achoo!’, while he whipped the parsley through the air. So I just felt this spray on the back of my arms and the back of my neck. And I thought that a stranger had sneezed on me. It was just such a good laugh in the story, you know, and it wasn’t disrespectful to include it. I mean it to me, it’s just kind of showing how we still have to go on. But that’s an especially good trick to play on people now with COVID, the parsley trick. .. You would do it to someone you know. I wouldn’t recommend that to a stranger.”
On his love of walking and how it feels to walk around New York City during the pandemic
“It’s interesting to be in the city without tourists because normally there’d be certain parts of town you would just avoid just because they would be clotted with people walking five abreast and taking pictures of everything. And those people aren’t here. …
“Also, normally, I felt like one out of every 500 people you passed on the street was crazy. And then it became one out of every two. And so I usually go out after midnight, in part because there’s nobody out, except one night I was walking through Times Square and a man said, ‘Look at that clown.’ And I looked at what I was wearing and I thought, ‘OK, it’s a little bit strange.’ But then I followed his gaze and there was an actual clown. There’s an actual clown with purple hair and a clown suit on. And it was like two o’clock in the morning.
“I go to bed at around 3 [a.m.] and then I get up at around 10 [a.m.]. Partly it’s because I want to wake up with four or five miles under my belt because you don’t know what might happen. What if I woke up and somebody said, ‘You’ve got to get on this plane to Australia?’ I had a perfect record. I have a Fitbit and an Apple Watch. And I had a perfect record on my Apple Watch for, like, I don’t know, two years. … And then I had to fly from Los Angeles to Australia and I crossed the international dateline and I lost a day. And I just start all over from scratch. So I live in fear of something like that happening.
“My record is 91,000 steps. That’s 43 miles in a day. I started at midnight and then I was with a friend and then we came home at six in the morning. We rested for a bit and then went out again and came home for lunch and then went out again and came home for dinner and then went out again. And she and I can talk about that any time, day or night. You can relive every moment — 91,000 steps.”
Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.
Book Excerpt: ‘The Best Of Me’
By David Sedaris
I’m not the sort of person who goes around feeling good about himself. I have my days, don’t get me wrong, but any confidence I possess, especially in regard to my writing, was planted and nurtured by someone else — first a teacher, then later an agent or editor. “Hey,” he or she would say, “this is pretty good.”
“Really?” This was my cheap way of getting them to say it again. “You’re not just telling me that because you feel sorry for me?”
“Yes . . . I mean, no. I really like it!” Still, I never quite believed them.
What lifted me up was writing for The New Yorker. While this had always been a fantasy of mine, I did nothing to nudge it along. I’d always heard that if the magazine wanted you, they’d find you, and that’s exactly what happened. I started my relationship with them in 1995, when an editor phoned and asked if I might write a Shouts & Murmurs piece on then-president Bill Clinton’s welfare reform proposal. I was given one day to complete it, and when I was told that it would run in the next week’s issue, something inside me changed. It wasn’t seismic, like an earthquake, but more like a medium-size boulder that had shifted a little. Nevertheless, I felt it. When the magazine came out, I opened it to my piece, arranged it just so on the kitchen table, and strolled past it, wanting my younger, twenty-year-old self to see his name at the top of the page.
“Wait a minute. . . . Is that . . . me? In The New Yorker?” Thirty- nine years it had taken the magazine to notice me. Good thing I wasn’t in any rush.
If you read an essay in Esquire and don’t like it, there could be something wrong with the essay. If it’s in The New Yorker, on the other hand, and you don’t like it, there’s something wrong with you. That said, you’re never going to please every- one. It’s hard to think of a single entry in this book that didn’t generate a complaint of one sort or another. And it could be anything — “How dare you suggest French dentists are better than American ones!” “What sort of monster won’t swap seats on a plane?” Many were angry that I’d inadvertently killed a couple of sea turtles. Granted, that was bad, but I was a child at the time, and don’t you have to eventually forgive someone for what he did when he was twelve?
There is literally nothing you can print anymore that isn’t going to generate a negative response. This, I believe, was brought on by the Internet. It used to be that you’d write a letter of complaint, then read it over, wondering, Is this really worth a twenty-five-cent stamp? With the advent of email, complaining became free. Thus, people who were maybe a tiny bit offended could, at no cost whatsoever, let you know that they were NEVER GOING TO BUY ANY OF YOUR BOOKS EVER AGAIN!!!!
They always take the scorched-earth policy for some reason. Of all the entries in this book, the one that generated the most anger was “The Motherless Bear.” Oh, the mail I got. “How dare you torture animals like this!”
“It’s a fictional story,” I wrote back to everyone who complained. “The giveaway is that the title character speaks English and feels sorry for herself. Bears don’t do that in real life.”
That wasn’t enough for a woman in England. “I urge you not to mock these intelligent and sentient creatures,” she wrote, demanding that I atone by involving myself with the two bear-rescue organizations she listed at the bottom of her letter.
Just as we can never really tell what our own breath smells like, I will never know if I would like my writing. If I wasn’t myself, and someone sent me one of my essay collections, would I recommend it to friends? Would I stop reading it after a dozen or so pages? There’s so much that goes into a decision like that. How many times have I dismissed something just because a person I didn’t approve of found it enjoyable? Or maybe I decided it was too popular. That’s the sort of snobbery that kept my younger self slogging through books I honestly had no interest in, the sorts I’d announce had taken me “six months to finish” but were only two hundred pages long. If something is written in your native language and it’s taking you half a year to get through it, unless you’re being paid by the hour to read it, I’d say there’s a problem.
One thing that I would like about my writing is that so much of it has to do with family. It’s something that’s always interested me and is one of the reasons I so love Greeks. You could meet an American and wait for months before he begins a sentence with the words “So then my mother . . . ” It’s the same in France and England. Oh, they might get around to it eventually, but it never feels imperative. With Greeks, though, it’s usually only a matter of seconds before you hear about someone’s brother, or what a pain his sister is.
There’s a lot of talk lately about “the family you choose.” It’s a phrase often used by people who were rejected by their parents or siblings and so formed a group of supportive, kindred spirits.
I think it’s great they’re part of a tight-knit circle, but I wouldn’t call it a family. Essential to that word is that the people you’re surrounded by were not chosen. They were assigned by fate, and now you must deal with them in one way or another until you die. For me, that hasn’t been much of a problem. Even when I was a teenager, I wouldn’t have traded my parents for anyone else’s, and the same goes for my brother and sisters.
It bothers me, then, when someone refers to my family as “dysfunctional.” That word is overused, at least in the United States, and, more to the point, it’s wrongly used. My father hoarding food inside my sister’s vagina would be dysfunctional. His hoarding it beneath the bathroom sink, as he is wont to do, is, at best, quirky and at worst unsanitary.
There’s an Allan Gurganus quote I think of quite often: “Without much accuracy, with strangely little love at all, your family will decide for you exactly who you are, and they’ll keep nudging, coaxing, poking you until you’ve changed into that very simple shape.”
Is there a richer or more complex story than that?
I like to think that the affection I have for my family is apparent. Well into our adulthoods — teetering on our dotage, most of us — we’re still on good terms. We write one another, we talk. We take vacations together. I just can’t see the dysfunction in that.
The pieces in this book — both fiction and nonfiction — are the sort I hoped to produce back when I first started writing, at the age of twenty. I didn’t know how to get from where I was then to where I am now, but who does? Like everyone else, I stumbled along, making mistakes while embarrassing myself and others (sorry, everyone I’ve ever met). I’ll always be inclined toward my most recent work, if only because I’ve had less time to turn on it. When I first started writing essays, they were about big, dramatic events, the sort you relate when you meet someone new and are trying to explain to them what made you the person you are. As I get older, I find myself writing about smaller and smaller things. As an exercise it’s much more difficult, and thus — for me, anyway — much more rewarding. I hope you feel the same. If not, I can probably expect to hear from you.
From the book The Best of Me by David Sedaris. Copyright © 2020 by David Sedaris. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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