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Death becomes him
David Sedaris, the gold standard for confessional writing, returns with his latest book Calypso. On tour in Toronto, he takes some time for a stroll down Philosopher's Walk where he considers the state of the essay, his ideal reader and more - all with his trademark eloquence
Special to The Globe and Mail

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Saturday, August 11, 2018 – Page P14

David Sedaris is, by all accounts, a warm and generous figure.

Yet, a conversation with the author seems like a terrifying proposition. After all, the past few decades have seen the author set the gold standard for an entire generation of confessional writing. His essays and approach to storytelling have paved the way for the type of first-person vulnerability that has fuelled conversations online and beyond. And his mix of humour, honesty and willingness to examine the best and worst parts of being alive have made his work both a source of comfort and, well, the opposite. He actively reminds us that perfection and its associated myths have no place in being a human. And that is rare.

So, to catch up with Sedaris on the Toronto stop of his book tour feels as though I'm approaching my own emotional precipice, with the man himself waiting at land's end. Especially since Calypso - his newest collection of essays - further delves into themes of mortality, death and the evolution of one's self alongside one's family. (All of the above feeling even more dire amidst our current social and political landscape.)

But then Sedaris shows up. He shakes my hand. We set off down Philosopher's Walk and roam the University of Toronto campus, and I immediately feel that aforementioned warmth and generosity I'd nearly forgotten about. Here, then, was our very generous conversation that day; about death and family and all those lighthearted topics. And yes, he had his FitBit on.

Has it surprised you the way essays, and books of essays, have exploded?

No. It used to be the personal essay was about some important thing, and now it's just using the important thing to talk about your divorce. You know what I mean? Which I don't have any problem with. Somebody introduced me the other day and it was a very little bit about me and mainly about him, but it was so clever the way he did it! And it came around full circle, and I went up to him afterward and said, "God, you did such a good job! And I learned so much about you." I learned so much about him in an introduction of me. But the audience is the important thing. They liked it as much as I did.

So when you're writing now, who are you writing for?

Gosh, I think my ideal reader ... I had a student for a number of years when I taught named Cindy House. And she's just kind of turned into my teacher. And when I'm writing something, I wonder what Cindy will think of it. I don't know if she knows that, how I live for her approval, but I really do. She's such a good reader. Not just of me, but of anybody. And she's so wise. And also, she's a generous person. And she's really thoughtful.

And when she does offer criticism, it's just perfect. I think, "Why didn't I see that?" I always think that when you're writing from a personal standpoint, there's always an audience in mind. But with me, and maybe I'm just a narcissist, I'm like, "This is for my enemies."

Do you think your enemies are going to read it?

No! When you write for your enemies - and I don't even know who they are - it's so no one can poke holes in what you write. I think they're the ones who would be the harshest critics, so I have to write a steel-clad argument. Maybe that's deranged.

Hm. Well, there are a few people I know who hate me. I mean, I'm sure there are a lot of them, but there are a few that I know who hate me, but I never think they're going to read what I write. This kid came up to me the other day and he said, "Our teacher asked us who we wanted to write like and I said you." And the teacher said, "You might want to aim a little higher." And I said, "What's higher than No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list?" That's a good question! What would that be? What's higher than writing for The New Yorker?

Could you tell me, please, what that would be? I wondered who the teacher was. And really, I was so hurt. But I understood what the teacher meant.

The teacher was wrong! But see, I'm like, "Oh, who? He said what?" That's me. Does criticism affect you the way it once did?

I don't read anything. But if you get a bad review in The New York Times, people love to tell you about it.

I don't understand that.

Oh, they love it. Nothing more! Then you think, "Well, I guess they need that." If I had a [bad] review in The New York Times, I think that's for my enemies. But if I got a good one, they wouldn't read it.

I liked the way you get into mortality and aging and getting older in Calypso. Does writing about death make you feel more comfortable about it?

Hm, no. I mean, I didn't notice that I wrote about mortality more. I think, when you have a dad who's 95, it's something you think about. You're around somebody who should've died a long time ago, and he hasn't yet.

And also you're an adult child. And if you have an adversarial reaction with a parent, you're taking that adolescent rage and anger well into adulthood.

And I feel like it deforms you. If my soul stepped out my body right now, it would be a hunchback. So I noticed that. I didn't set out to write about those things. But as you get older, they become more real to you.

It becomes a constant instead of something in the future.

I think about someone my dad's age, where everyone in his address book is dead. And I'm not that far from people starting to get cancer and starting to have strokes - friends of mine. I'm sure my writing will just get more like that as I get older.

My dad just got put into an assisted living place. He put his mother into a nursing home, so there's no way he can not be thinking of when he put his mother into assisted living [and] probably thought, "Well, this is never going to be me." When we put my father into assisted living my sisters and I were all thinking, "Well, that'll never be us." But it will. It will be us in a little more than 20 years. Twenty years ago, I moved to France. It didn't seem like that long ago.

Has time started to make you see your family differently? The way you write about your dad, you seem to see him for the man he was and the way he is.

Or maybe I'm just projecting.

That's very nice of you to say that. I wrote something in 1997. My mother hadn't been dead for very long, and I wrote something about her dying.

And I was so mean about my dad there. And when I look back on it, I think, "What did I know about a longterm relationship?" Hugh and I had been together five years when I wrote that. Six years maybe. And now it's been 26 years, but still that's not as long as my parents had been. So what did I know? Who was I to judge how I perceived him in the marriage? I'm embarrassed by it.

But I think that's also growing as a writer who writes about themselves. It forces you to take accountability in a really strange way.

You're right. Part of it is maturing as a writer.

There are certain things I could write that happen - like I had a root canal. So I wrote this essay about getting a root canal. No problem, two weeks later.

And then there are other things that I kind of need to sit on for a while. I'm sure my sister's suicide will look different to me in 20 years as well. Because in 20 years, she'll have been a child when she died, comparatively.

Her birthday is tomorrow, and she would've been 54.

But when I'm 94, I'll think "She died so early." I don't know if I want to be 94.

I have a fear of being old, old, old, and my other fear is dying at all. I think that's why writing about death and reading about death is so important.

And you write about it in a way that makes it feel like we all have these thoughts. Or we all worry.

Well, I think I'm going to be hit by a car.


Uh-huh. I had a friend who was hit by a car when we were in college together. She was 18 and she got hit by a car and killed. Because I spend so much time on the side of the road picking up trash, and all I see is people texting when I look into cars. People aren't looking at all. It's only a matter of time before they plow into you.

I spent 10 days at the medical examiner's office, and I did it in 1994 or 1995 in Phoenix. That's the first time I'd ever written anything for a magazine. They said, "We'd love to have you in a magazine." And I said, "Well I've always wanted to see a lot of dead people." That's something I wish I could've sat on and just written about now. Because I mean, it was a lifechanging experience. And I saw dead people - a lot of suicides. And just how ugly suicide is. How messy.

You've had time to process your sister Tiffany's dying, but did writing about her for this book make you see her differently? Or understand her a bit better?

I haven't had that luxury yet, you know? It might come later. We couldn't have her body or anything.

She left everything to this woman she used to work for. And my sister Lisa went to this woman and said, "Can we have a handful of ashes?" And the woman said no. And I understand, that was Tiffany's wish, but time has passed. Now this woman is just stuck with all this stuff. She just sent us these notebooks that Tiffany had, and it'll be interesting to look through them. But when my mom died, she left us each a box of letters she'd written us and we'd written her.

And I never went through it. I just sold it to Yale, with all my papers.

And I can't bear to look through it. I can't. I don't know. I can't bear to look at it. So maybe it'll be like that with Tiffany's notebooks. We looked at one notebook she left, but the notebooks were so troubling. It was just so painful.

Do you ever feel sure of yourself when you're writing about something hard?

I do now. That doesn't mean everything I write works, but I was saying to someone the other day: that story about the last time I saw Tiffany. That wasn't in the first 12 drafts of that story. It just hit a wall every time. And I thought, "I'll throw away the last page that I've got here and take a different path." And then all of a sudden I was writing about shutting the door in her face the last time I saw her, and I thought, "Am I really doing this? Am I really admitting this?" And then it felt like I didn't have a choice. It would be dishonest not to.

And every [time] when I read that, I think "I can't believe this is who I am. I can't believe I'm the man who shut the door in his sister's face." I think, who are you? What kind of a monster are you? And I feel the audience thinking too. I feel the audience thinking, "Oh, you're the kind of monster I am."

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Associated Graphic

David Sedaris's latest book, Calypso, delves further into themes of mortality, death and the evolution of one's self alongside one's family.


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