February 1997

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Sedaris gets naked

part 2

by Robert David Sullivan

[David Sedaris does not suffer from excess pride. For one thing, he can't stand to hear his own voice. He describes the process of submitting a radio piece to NPR producer Ira Glass: "Ira will have to make cuts, and he'll call me on the phone and say, `I cut the piece down to six minutes. Let me play it for you.' So I'll put the phone down for six minutes, walk away, then pick it up and say, `That's great.' " Fortunately, Sedaris sleeps through Morning Edition, so he never hears the finished product.

The defiantly low-tech Sedaris has managed an uneasy relationship with recording equipment, but he has never learned how to operate a car or a computer ("I'll be the last person with a typewriter," he says. "I'm going to be making Wite-Out at home.") He also shows no interest in that modern media concept known as synergy. Other authors increase their book sales through talk-show appearances and movie deals, but Sedaris seems genuinely baffled by Hollywood's tentative knocking.

"It doesn't make any sense to me, but I get these calls to audition for things," he says. "There's some Jack Nicholson movie they're working on now. They sent me this script and said, `We want you to audition tomorrow.' " I said nooo. Somebody my sister knows went to audition, and they described the character as a `David Sedaris type.' It seemed so foreign to me. How could I be a type?

"One time I went. This woman called and said, `Your audition's scheduled for tomorrow at two.' I said, `I'm not an actor.' And she said" -- Sedaris turns on his insincere Christmas-elf charm -- "Well, you will be tomorrow at two!

"It was some situation comedy." Sedaris also holds this phrase at arm's length. "The character was a temperamental clothes designer. He was described as 'festive.' I don't know why they couldn't use the word gay. `Can you be a little bit more festive?' is what they kept saying. And it was so unfunny. Harvey Fierstein ended up getting the part."

Sedaris prefers a medium that's more ephemeral than film or television. About once a year, he and his younger sister, Amy Sedaris, write and produce an off-Broadway satirical play, billing themselves as "The Talent Family." Amy regularly acts in them; for David, once was enough.

"We did a play about four years ago, and this guy got sick the day before we opened," he says. "So I took the part. I was on-stage with my sister -- who is the funniest girl in America -- and she would fuck with me. You know, she started improvising. And I was terrified. I looked at the people around me, and they were having so much fun. They were just prepared for anything. All I was thinking was `What should I do with my hands?' "

Sedaris's feelings about career diversification showed up in the Talent Family's 1995 effort, One Woman Shoe.

"The premise was, if you were a woman, you couldn't get any public assistance until you learned to put on a one-woman show," Sedaris says. "These women lived in a housing project called Hubbard Terrace, and all the houses were designed by an Italian architect so they resembled shoes. It was a parody of a `Let's put on a show' thing. You know, that everyone's got a `special' talent. And the women in the play all did. But according to the person who was planning the performance art festival, it didn't work. `You can't get up there and tell a story or sing a song. Maybe you should shave all the hair off a tennis ball.' So they were sidetracked. They had their natural gifts, but no one ever considered those."

Sedaris knows what his natural gifts are, and he doesn't think they include playing an elf. Of all the surefire means of self-promotion that he refuses to consider, putting that Macy's costume back on is at the top of the list.

"It would never happen," he says, adding that when "Santaland Diaries" was turned into a play last year, he had no interest in playing himself. "No way I was going to stand up there in front of people in an elf costume. No way."

When he did publicity for Barrel Fever, he says, a lot of photographers moved on to their runner-up idea: an acclaimed writer on the job as a house cleaner, "kneeling over a bucket of suds." That concept is off-limits as well.

David Sedaris is not likely to turn up in a volume of photographs by Annie Leibovitz.

Sedaris isn't stumping for any gay-visibility awards either. He may be described as a post-Queer Nation writer in that he simply assumes his readers are used to a gay voice. In a letter to me before our interview, he explained that he's reluctant to appear on gay literary panels in part because of an incident at an OutWrite conference.

"I heard that Edward Albee got booed off the stage a few years ago when he said he didn't see himself as a gay writer but rather as a writer who was gay," Sedaris explains. "They booed him for that? I don't get it." (On the other hand, Sedaris is happy to participate in next month's "Off the Page" reading series sponsored by the Bromfield Street Educational Foundation, the organizers of OutWrite.)

"Sex positive" is another term that Sedaris says he doesn't understand. Gay sex occasionally appears in his work, but he's clearly not trying to get the reader too excited to finish the story. (In "My Manuscript," in Barrel Fever, he writes, "We'd be doing it and I would whisper, `Talk to me, talk to me,' and he'd start telling me about his summer job as a page at the state legislature building. That was not the kind of talk I was after.")

The gay content in Naked ranges from the reflective to the ridiculous. A chapter called "I Like Guys" describes Sedaris's initial difficulty in admitting to himself that he was gay. ("When a teacher or a classmate made fun of a real homosexual, I made certain my laugh was louder than everyone else's.") Later in the book, Sedaris describes some rather harrowing incidents from his days as a hitchhiker. ("Drivers began picking me up with the idea that I had more to offer than my gratitude.") There is a priceless scene in which Sedaris goes home with a guy and flees after glimpsing an extensive collection of butt plugs. He reflects afterward:

Would things have been any different if I'd found him attractive? If he looked like, say, William Holden in the movie Picnic, would I have put up with his overheated trailer and hokey stories? I recalled his collection of artificial penises and understood that the answer was definitely no. After taking on one of those monsters, the next step would involve sitting upon a greased fire hydrant. Before I knew it, I'd turn into one of those middle-aged men who wore diapers and walked with a limp.

"I was absolutely mortified," Sedaris says now. "Here he lives in a trailer with his mother, and they were like trophies on the wall. They were on shelves, they were everywhere. Oh man, I just had to get out of there. . . . You know, no one has one that's the size of their own penis. They're all huge exaggerations. And it's one thing if you look at it sculpturally. But if you think of where it's supposed to go, there's just no way -- no way that's going to happen."

Sedaris claims he didn't omit any steamy sex scenes with truckers and other road characters; they simply weren't there to begin with. Referring to the dildo king, he says, "I can look back sometimes, and I'll think, `Why didn't I do something with that guy?' I was young, I had a. . . . " He lets the sentence trail off intriguingly. "But no, I never did anything with any of these people."

It turns out that Sedaris isn't quite as daring as the protagonists in some of his short stories. "All I do is fantasize about things and hope they happen," he says. "I don't promote myself in any way. I don't do anything to make those things happen. I just think about them real hard."

In "Something for Everyone," in Naked, he describes the day after his college graduation thus:

I found fifty dollars in the foyer of my Chicago apartment building. The single bill had been folded into eighths and was packed with cocaine. It occurred to me then that if I played my cards right, I might never have to find a job. People lost things all the time.

Sedaris does a convincing job in this essay of portraying himself as a person utterly without ambition, willing to trust his future to fate -- until you realize that he had already spent years writing diaries and perfecting his skills as a storyteller.

It's late afternoon, and Sedaris has just called Hugh to confer about dinner, which will require a jaunt to the supermarket. Walking down to the street, he remarks that he's made few close friends in New York, since he spends most nights writing by himself, collaborating with Amy, or staying in with Hugh. He avoids venturing into the Village on weekends because of all the out-of-towners jamming the sidewalks.

He stops at a taxidermy shop, where he admires the latest squirrels and picks up some incense (another way to combat his cigarette smoke). At the Grand Union, Sedaris eyes the chickens cautiously, taking a good five minutes to make his selection. He leans over and says in a low voice, as if passing a good tip, that all New York City supermarkets are "filthy."

Back on the street, he mentions that Hugh wants to move to Normandy, where they already vacation a few weeks a year. He says he wouldn't mind the rural setting, especially with Paris nearby. (I'm not sure I like the idea, and hope he'll change his mind. Maybe if those damn casting directors stop pestering him. . . .)

Sedaris suddenly stops walking, distracted by someone raising his voice to a sidewalk vendor. "There's nothing more rude than someone yelling at a cashier," he says sympathetically (if incongruously), and I'm reminded of all those horrible parents abusing the elves and Santas at Macy's.

Is this a key to Sedaris's popularity? Is he really a defender of the defenseless, an unflagging champion of respectful behavior in an increasingly mean-spirited society? I look back at the first sentence of Naked: "I'm thinking of asking the servants to wax my change before placing it in the Chinese tank I keep on my dresser." Whew. David Sedaris is a nice guy, but we're happy that he doesn't always write like one.

David Sedaris reads on March 12 at 7 p.m. at the Boston Living Center, 29 Stanhope Street, Boston; on March 13 at 5:30 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle Street, Cambridge; and on April 17 at 7 p.m. at We Think the World of You, 540 Tremont Street, Boston.

Click for an excerpt from Sedaris' Naked.

Robert David Sullivan is a freelance writer living in Boston. He can be reached at Robt555@aol.com.

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