David Sedaris: “I’d rather go to an actual shop. I want beauty in my life. I want charm.”

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Photo by Hugh Hamrick

Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, the latest essay collection from humorist David Sedaris, is now out in paperback. As we stacked it on the shelves last week, we remembered how much fun we had with Sedaris during his visit to Parnassus last year. We decided it was time to catch up with one of our very favorite authors. Here’s his conversation with Musing editor, Mary Laura Philpott.

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First off, I guess we should address the topic of the moment. What’s your take on the Hachette / Amazon situation and what it means for authors?

DS: Everyone chooses where they’re going to save money: it’s part of what makes you you. I, for instance, hate paying full price for printer ink cartridges. They’re the biggest scam there is, so if I can get one for $8 rather than $15, I will. When it comes to books, though, I’ve always preferred buying them in an actual store, preferably in a store with a bathroom.

Amazon wants to drastically reduce the amount they charge for e-books. In order for that to happen, they need my publisher to make concessions. My publisher, quite understandably, is resisting, and I’m behind them 100%. Lots of worthy people work at Little, Brown. I might write my books, but my editor’s the one who makes them readable. The design department makes you want to pick them up. The publicists trick you into buying them. Then there’s the sales department, the lawyers (hooray), the audio team, on and on. Why are these people less worthy than the people who work for Jeff Bezos? Why should they lose their jobs just so Amazon can further cut their costs? Is $3 or however much they currently charge, really too much to pay for an e-book?

The people I feel bad for are the first time authors, those who haven’t yet established a reputation. I have no idea how long this will drag out, but I hope for their sake that it will be resolved before too long.

Some people say that’s just how business is done — that sometimes you’ve got to strike a hard bargain.

DS: What do these people say when the “hard bargain” is their livelihood rather than the next guy’s? Maybe I’m out of touch, but I’d rather go to an actual shop — preferably a small one — than to a harshly lit superstore, or, worse still, a website. I don’t want to buy my books and my toilet paper and my clothing all under the same roof. I want beauty in my life. I want charm. I want contact with actual people. It is, for me, a large part of what makes life worth living.

Over the 20 years (wow) that you’ve been publishing books of your essays, I feel like your comic timing just keeps getting better and better. How much does performing and reading aloud shape your sense of timing and affect the rhythm in your writing?

DS: All of my published stories have been read before an audience, some as many as 60 times. I’ll read something out loud, mark up the manuscript, and then return to my hotel to re-write it. Read, re-write, over and over. At first the changes I make are major: I’ll often cut an entire page or completely re-work my ending. As time passes, I might simply move a comma, or trade one word for another. Timing is such a tricky thing. Sometimes it’s a matter of moving the words “I said” from the end of a quote to the start of it. I wish I could determine these things in the privacy of my own home, but I can’t. Therefore I consider myself lucky to tour as often as I do.

If I were to lay an entry from your daily journal — say, a description of a set of events one day — next to a finished essay about the same events, how much would one resemble the other, if at all?

DS: The diary version is obviously much rougher. I spend an inordinate amount of time writing it, but because it is by its very nature private — meant for my eyes only — I don’t fret over semicolons or repeated words the way I do with a published story.

The diary also tends to be more judgmental than a published story. I’m thinking of a piece I’m working on now. In the diary version the woman behind me was drunk. I had no proof of it, though, so in the story version she only sounds drunk.

Is there anything you absolutely will not write about — a line between private and public that you won’t cross?

DS: Readers often assume that I have no boundaries, but in fact I go out of my way not to reveal other people’s secrets. I don’t write about sex either. I don’t know if that’s a point of principle or simply the fact that it’s not my subject.

Favorite thing about the experience of shopping in a real-live bookstore?

DS: I left Raleigh in 1984 and moved to Chicago. Not far from my apartment was a small but perfectly stocked book store called Unabridged that frequently hosted readings. I remember meeting Richard Ford, whom I very much admired, and Tobias Wolff, whom I worshipped. I think I saw Ann Beatty there as well. It was the first time I’d been in a room with actual authors, and to be able to listen to them for free, and to ask questions, meant the world to me. The store still exists, and whenever I’m in Chicago I go and get the same feeling I had the first time I entered it all those years ago.

What’s the last thing you witnessed that made you laugh out loud?

DS: While signing books the other day a young woman approached my table saying, “On my way here this evening a strange man tried to sell me a coffin.” She handed me her paperback. “I told him it was the last thing I need.”

Had she said, “I have a joke for you,” I’d have probably fake laughed, because, I mean, it’s not the best joke in the world. Because she surprised me with it, though, and because she kept a straight face, I practically doubled over laughing.

Unrelated: Did you know some sunscreens can lift ink? A couple of summers ago, I was re-reading your paperbacks on the beach, and the cover of Naked tattooed itself on my skin where it was resting on my leg. It made a great conversation piece.

I think you were using too high a SPF. Next time try a 30.

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Stock up on David Sedaris paperbacks and laugh your way through summer. These, like all Hachette titles, are available to ship out pronto from Parnassus Books.

ISBN-13: 9780316776967
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Back Bay Books, 6/2001

ISBN-13: 9780316154703
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Back Bay Books, 6/2014

ISBN-13: 9780316154680
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Back Bay Books, 6/2009

ISBN-13: 9780316010795
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Back Bay Books, 5/2005

Naked (Paperback)

ISBN-13: 9780316777735
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Back Bay Books, 6/1998

ISBN-13: 9780316038409
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Back Bay Books, 10/2011

ISBN-13: 9780316779425
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Back Bay Books, 6/1995

Holidays on Ice (Paperback)

ISBN-13: 9780316078917
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Back Bay Books, 10/2010

ISBN-13: 9780743273947
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Simon & Schuster, 4/2005