One of the few writers in the world whose name alone can sell out Carnegie Hall, David Sedaris is widely considered America’s leading humorist. And though his new book, Calypso, does nothing but burnish that reputation, it’s not just fun and games. Set primarily in and around the Sea Section—the house Sedaris bought on Emerald Isle, North Carolina, to spend time in with his family—the book is an exploration of mortality and loss, as well as his compulsive habit of walking (up to twenty-five miles a day!) along the roadside near his home in West Sussex, England, picking up so much litter along the way that the district council eventually named a trash truck after him.
You’ve lived in Europe since 1998, but you grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina.What do you miss about the South when you’re away?
In most countries it’s the people in the south who are warmer than the people in the north, but in England it’s the opposite. Like when I walked today—let’s see, I walked 24,656 steps, which is kind of a bad day for me—only one woman came up to me and said hello. I’d say of everybody else I passed today, I was always the first one to say hello. And nine times out of ten, people would just look away. Whereas at the beach in North Carolina, it was exhausting, just saying hello to everybody. I mean, people were saying hello to me from inside their houses.
I think I would take that over how it is here. Especially after dark. When you see someone after dark on the street, saying hello puts them at ease, because it’s dark, and that’s a way of saying, “Don’t have to worry about me!” And it just kills me that you say hello to somebody and they wouldn’t say anything back. I just want to stop them and say, “What’s going on?”
Well…I guess it could be that I’m carrying seventy pounds of trash. And I have a grabber in one hand. And I look like I’m dressed for a Broadway play called Hobo.
You write about trying to feed a small tumor removed from your own body to an old snapping turtle at the beach. What a scene.
I had been saying for years that if you had your tonsils removed, your cat would be happy to eat your tonsils. I mean, a dog, you don’t even have to think about that. A dog would eat your tonsils—anything you throw in the air your dog will eat. But if you put your tonsils in your cat’s bowl, the cat would go over and sniff them and say, “Mm. Smells like tonsils,” and then she’d eat them and be perfectly happy. And so, I’ve just always been thinking that if you have something removed from yourself, there are a lot of animals out there who’d be happy to eat it.
Well, I had this tumor and it was worrying me. I knew I could live with it. I’d gone to a doctor in France who said, “You could live with this for the rest of your life, no big deal.” But then you go to the beach and you’re in a swimsuit and you have this tumor sticking out…that’s when I saw the turtle and thought, Gosh, I bet he would like to eat my tumor, and that’s when it came together and I thought, Oh all right, I’ll take the tumor out and I’ll feed it to a turtle.
The book in many ways is a love letter to your family. Yet at the same time you don’t shy away from looking at some of the more complicated aspects. You write about the death of your sister Tiffany, for one thing.
Somebody said the other day, “Is writing cathartic?” And it’s not. But, that said, it’s how I make sense of the world. So, when Tiffany committed suicide, it just felt natural for me to write about it. That’s the only way I know how to deal with things. And it’s not like I resolved it. It’s not like I thought, Oh, everything makes sense now that I have that story under my belt. I could rewrite that story every day. In one regard it’s like any death. You think, A year from now, it won’t be so bad. But then a year from now it’s just bad in a different way.
I remember listening to her and thinking, Wow, she really got to the heart of it. You’d hear her on the telephone and she’d be telling the story, and then she’d call somebody else and she’d tell the story, and then she’d call somebody else and she’d tell the story, and then we’d go to the dry cleaner and she’d tell the story, and by the end of the day it was just polished. It was just a little gem. And you’d think, Yeah, but you left out this and this and this. But she knew she had people laughing and she had people following her.
The way that Hugh, my boyfriend, would tell a story—you’d want him in the witness box. He would give you every single detail. But you know, every single detail is way too much.
You also recount shopping excursions with your sisters in Japan where you purchase some of the strangest clothing imaginable. When do you wear this stuff?
I just got back from Tokyo, and one of the things I got is a stocking cap. It comes down to, you know, a little bit below my waist. It looks like a nightcap. And the salesperson said, “No no no, that’s not how you wear it.” And then he tied a knot in it. And so it stands on top of my head—this hat, with a little tassel—it stands like a foot from the top of my head. And I thought: Sold!
So I wear these clothes onstage, and the audience just howls. But what they don’t know is, I’m up there thinking, I look good.