The Outsider Art of David Sedaris – Short Stories for Sharp Attention Spans

By Jamila Pomeroy

Photo by Ingrid Christie

VANCOUVER – David Sedaris is en-route to El Paso to visit the woman who cut out his tumor — the one he fed to his pet turtle. This story is actually one of many featured in his latest book, Calypso, in the chapter of the same name. While Sedaris is happy to be tumor-free and touring again, he explains his deep regret in a missed opportunity to have a veterinarian take it out on stage on his last reading tour. “I always regretted not getting him to do it, but I didn’t have a way to get to his office,” says Sedaris, who often uses a bicycle as his main mode of transportation, having never learned how to drive. The veterinarian, later, was the one to back out of the operation, but Sedaris stresses in his signature dry tone, “I probably could have done it and gone on with the show.” This absurdist tale of his unusual reality is a great example of his ability to turn the otherwise mundane into pages of brash, sometimes cringe-worthy comedy that makes your belly hurt from laughter. His very matter-of-fact, cool and calm responses, only echoing the author’s warped cynisism in text.

His new book, Calypso, is the 11th in the authors anthology of infamous stories and essays. Sedaris is known for his dark, sardonic and often self-deprecating, comedic stories; stories, which are often personal, addressing the human condition and connections. He has contributed to the likes of the New Yorker, Esquire, BBC Radio and the Guardian to name a few. He’s a New York Times best-selling author and Grammy award-winning comedian with a career that spans from writing to radio, comedy and playwriting. Despite his grand accomplishments, Sedaris has remained unbelievably humble.

“I write about my life, and nothing big ever happens to me,” he says rather nonchalantly over the speakerphone from his car. Sedaris is quite disciplined in his practice, writing everyday, explaining he never has to pressure himself to write. “I just write about my life and then every four years I turn it into a book.” He explains that he doesn’t necessarily get inspired by environments, in their physicality; describing living and writing in Paris as “fine,” the creative spark perhaps instead coming from daily interaction.

Sedaris currently lives in the Horsham District of West Sussex in England, with his partner Hugh Hamrick. He explains his enjoyment in being an outsider and how greatly it contributes to the generation of stories. “I like being, you know, sort of an outsider. I mean, not fitting in is fine with me. In England, if I were to keep my mouth shut, who is to know that I’m from somewhere else but when I don’t, they do. I like (being an outsider), because sometimes it means you get treated differently.” Sedaris explains this treatment of being different, whether negative or positive, makes for good story content. “I always like to be treated poorly, it’s like somebody handing me money.”

Sedaris, when not writing or contributing to BBC Radio 4, can be found cleaning the streets surrounding his home. “In England, everybody just throws things out the car window,” he says. “The place where I live is just so beautiful, it drives me crazy.” On any given day, he spends four to eight hours cleaning the streets, on foot. He counts his steps using a FitBit and estimates he walks about 15 to 22 miles per day. Sedaris’ environmental contributions have been documented in form of his town naming a garbage truck after him, which he further explains in Calypso. “The people where we live, they think i’m crazy, and you know, maybe they’re right. There is a great amount of support though.”

Sedaris and his partner have moved around quite a bit; and while they love their home, he says he’s open to change, especially if it provides good content. “I wouldn’t mind moving. I like everything about it. I like packing, and I’ve never had to sell a house or anything. We just kind of keep acquiring them, and then rent them out after we leave. I wouldn’t mind moving to Germany, or maybe Switzerland.”

While Germany, and Switzerland could perhaps be the locations of perspective stories, Calypso, primarily takes place in West Essex or back in the U.S. with his family. His stories are almost always personal, but Calypso features a much more intimate side of the author. Sedaris talks about about his youngest sister Tiffany’s death, a suicide which happened just before she turned 15, as well as the trials and tribulations of aging. He explains how tightly-knit his family has become since the purchase of a beach house on the Carolina coast, and the regular pilgrimage there, a sort of resurgence in tradition of vacations organized by his late mother, Sharon.

“I got that beach house so my family started spending time together,” he says. “Then we all started getting together at the same time. Pretty much every time we’ve gotten together I was able to write a story about it.” Sedaris paints a beautiful picture of the beach house in Calypso, which features a collection of mid-century modern furniture, something which he said was for the purpose of depicting a house that “fussy homosexuals lived in.” Sedaris’ particularities, fussiness and behaviors that have been described as obsessive, lend greatly to his style and general mood of his writing. With family members aging, specifically his father, he says there’s something more special with each time they’re able to spend time together.

“When I see my father I never know when it will be the last time, and so every conversation you’re thinking to yourself, ‘Should I remember this for the rest of my life? Is this the last time I am going to talk to him?’ It makes me, in a way, more observant. Just thinking, every time we are together, it may be the last time we are all together.” This level of observance around love and aging in his family can be felt in every story, perhaps rendering his best work yet. “You know, my siblings are some of my favourite people,” he says. “I know plenty of nice, good people, but they aren’t characters. There is a difference between just a good person and a good character.”

Stories surrounding family, and friends seem to be the focus of Calypso, but Sedaris explains that he finds stories anywhere there is absurdity, or the opportunity for it. “If I can see something as absurd, or something that seems funny to me…” he laughs and begins to tell a story of a situation in an elevator. “I was with a friend of mine. We were at the airport, going to get the car and we get in the elevator and this woman screams ‘Wait!!, HOLD ON!’ and two little girls run into the elevator, and this woman – their mother – walks in. She’s got a luggage cart, and she’s looking behind her and there is her husband and the elevator doors begin to close […] and as the door begins to close I say…” We won’t spoil the rest of the tale, as Sedaris says this may become a story in his next collection; and if it does, we are all most definitely in for a good laugh.

Sedaris has this unbelievably engaging ability in storytelling. He transforms the most mundane tasks into adventures that have you holding onto the arms of your seat in anticipation. His ability to do this will surely grant us with many more prospective stories in the future, in his many mediums. “I have a 12-page attention span, so these essays seem to work for me. I don’t think i’ll ever write a novel.” he says. “Who knows. I have written three novels so far, but they are all 12 pages long; they’re all the first chapters of novels and then I lose interest in them.” While there’s a possibility of perhaps releasing a full-length novel in the future, Sedaris says that should his writing career run dry, he would become an abortionist at sea. He stresses, “Not on land, but at sea — on the high sea.” He explains it needs to be at sea to avoid laws and regulations. This would all be done on a vessel he would name Row v. Wave. “That’s R.O.W-V-W.A.V.E, and i’m going to perform abortions at sea,” Sedaris laughs. It’s unclear whether a career change to full-time abortionist and activist at sea is in the cards for Sedaris, but until then we’ve got a plethora of his short stories to entertain us.

David Sedaris will be reading excerpts from Calypso and other stories at the Vogue Theatre, May 13 and 14. Calypso will be released May 29 via Little, Brown and Company.


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