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November 2, 1998

An interview with the 'wickedly funny' David Sedaris

By Barbara McKenna

David Sedaris is talking about what happened in his French class that day. "We were working on verbs. The teacher picked me to stand up in front of the whole class and act out what they told me." It started simply enough, Sedaris says, but by the time they were done with him, they had him dancing, acting like a chicken, committing other unspeakable acts. "Once they smell your fear, you know, it's all over," he concludes.

David Sedaris will present a reading at UCSC November 8

Sedaris, who spoke by phone from his Paris home, is a best-selling author and has become one of public radio's most popular commentators. Called "wickedly funny" by the Washington Post, his work has been featured on This American Life, and an eight-week series by Sedaris on life in New York is currently airing on NPR's "Morning Edition." Sedaris will be in Santa Cruz on November 8 to present a reading of mostly new works. His reading here, which is sold out, is part of a nationwide tour this fall and is presented by Arts & Lectures.

With Sedaris, known for his keen-witted humor, real life is the basis for most of his work. His three collections of short stories--Barrel Fever, Naked, and Holidays on Ice--are rich with such moments. "SantaLand Diaries," one of Sedaris's most popular pieces, is his account of his experiences as a Macy's Christmas elf.

Q: You mentioned that your sister is visiting you right now. That's good to know, it shows you're on speaking terms with your family. I wondered if they had hard feelings about being main characters in your work. How do they react to this public exposure?

A: They're really good sports about it. I let them look stuff over before it's published. Usually they don't have any objections. The only time I can remember any problem was with a story I wrote about my brother. I sent it to him and my dad and my dad was concerned about something in the story. But it wasn't a big deal, I just changed it.

Q: Writing about your life is a very personal act, something that you seem to acknowledge by titling your second collection Naked. Is it difficult to expose yourself so completely to the world?

A: I don't worry about being exposed. When I'm writing about myself I think about myself as a character. There is a ton of stuff going on in my life that I don't write about. If I need to write that stuff down, I write about myself in my diary.

Q: How did you start writing?

A: I started when I realized what a terrible artist I was. I started writing at about 21 and before that it didn't occur to me that I would ever write.

What I wanted was to be a visual artist, partly because one of my sisters was good at it. I went to the Chicago Art Institute. Now I write every day and when I was in my "Little Artist" period, I did something every day, some kind of art. I've created stacks and stacks of some of the worst crap you've ever seen. I was always very determined about it, but my work never improved and when I was at the Art Institute I could see there was a profound difference between me and those who are talented.

So I began reading more and more and it snowballed. I started writing more. And as I went on, I found that I was really affected by stories and by the power of words. I realized that the written word affected me much more profoundly than any visual art. When I was trying to be a serious artist, there was a point where I could pretty much name the artist date of every work in the North Carolina Museum of Art. But I never looked at the art, only the tag. Every time I go to any kind of a museum or art exhibit I leave thinking I need a haircut or a shave because what I wind up doing is looking at myself reflected in the glass.

Q: Can you name some of your favorite authors.

A: Susan Sheehan of the New Yorker. Richard Yates, who wrote Revolutionary Road and Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. Tobias Wolff, who wrote The Night in Question, which should be a book every schoolchild has to read until the end of time. (I'm always suspicious of people who can't think of a book they like.)

Tobias Wolff I love because his characters are so real. My inclination is always towards the ridiculous. I can't help myself. I can't hold myself back.

Q: What are you writing about these days?

A: I'm writing about coming to France, starting school. What's interesting about being here is that everything is so new that my senses are so heightened. I regularly experience feelings of terror, joy, and joy and terror mixed together. The more I learn and the more I find my way around, the less it will be that way.

It makes me think of all the people in New York who can't speak English and who must be terrified of the guy who comes to read their gas meter or desperately hope the clerk will show them how much they owe instead of just telling them. I've never thought about those people and now I'm one of those people.

Q: What are your plans for the near future?

A: The plan for the next year-and-a-half is to stay in Paris and write and learn the language and spend more time with my Polish friends. Isn't that funny? I'm in France and I have no French friends, but I have a Polish friend and a Brazilian friend now. This happened just the other day when this Polish woman in my class asked me out for coffee along with another guy in our class, a Brazilian guy named Milton. So I have friends. We can barely speak to each other and they're not French, but they're also not American.

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