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The tragic family story of US humourist David Sedaris

David Sedaris. Photo/Alamy

Sussex-based American writer David Sedaris is noted for his humour, but finds that, in scratching beneath the surface of his feelings, he has the power to shock himself.

Bestselling humorist David Sedaris’ 16th-century cottage is tucked away in the bucolic idyll of a tiny West Sussex village, an hour’s drive south of London. It’s an unlikely place to find one of the most astute chroniclers of modern American manners, but he’s lived here for a number of years with his partner, painter Hugh Hamrick. In fact he’s become such a pillar of the local community that, in recognition of his anti-litter campaign (he walks miles each day picking up roadside rubbish), the district council named a waste-collection truck after him.

It’s one of the pleasing ironies in which Sedaris specialises that a man with such an obsession with cleanliness exults in filthy humour. Before we start talking at his kitchen table, he tells me about recently collecting a literary award at a starry gathering in New York. He’d assumed that it was just a matter of accepting the prize and saying thank you, but he was told at the last moment that a speech was expected.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

In the audience were such luminaries as Don DeLillo, Tina Brown and Gay Talese. So he went up to the podium and, in the absence of a prepared speech, told a joke, which he repeated for me. It’s unpublishable. It’s so shocking it’s not even possible to outline a bowdlerised version. All I can say is that it was quite short, it featured a grandmother, and at the end of it both of us were in hysterics.

“How did that go down?” I ask, when I recover.

“Fortunately, they laughed,” he says.

Laughter is a sound that surrounds Sedaris, whether it’s his own infectious high-pitched chuckle or that of the huge audiences he reads to around the world, particularly in North America.

From left, Amy, David, Gretchen, Paul, Lisa, and Tiffany. Photo/Sedaris family collection

It’s a gift that, in common with all his siblings (his sister Amy is a well-known comic actress), he inherited from his mother. Sedaris honed his act during some long wastrel years of obscurity and alcohol and drug abuse (he quit both in the late 1990s), when odd jobs on building sites and in cafes were his only livelihood. It wasn’t until a few days before his 36th birthday that he got his breakthrough, when National Public Radio in the US broadcast his “SantaLand Diaries” story, based on his experience of working as an elf in Macy’s department store.

His first collection of stories, drawn from his life, was published two years later, and there have since been a further eight, plus his diaries, Theft by Finding.

Sedaris, who has sold 10 million books all told, writes in a highly naturalistic, almost conversational style that lends itself to being read aloud. But it is his keen appreciation of the bizarre and his unfailing ear for the amusing that really bring in the crowds.

His new collection, Calypso, has plenty of the bizarre, including the wonderful title story, in which he gets a fatty tumour, called a lipoma, removed from the side of his chest by an untrained surgeon he meets at one of his shows, so that he can feed it to a snapping turtle near his North Carolina beach house. I ask him if he was immediately aware of the narrative possibilities for one of his anecdotal stories. He gives me a thoughtful look.

The author with his sister Lisa and their mother, Sharon Sedaris. Photo/Sedaris family collection

“Well, I had been thinking for a while that if you have your tonsils removed, a cat would like to eat them.”

I nod, while wondering if anyone else in human history has ever had that thought. But Sedaris continues as though it was an obvious starting point for rumination.

“Then I thought, well, I have this tumour, and I’d been hanging out with these turtles, and I thought, well, a turtle would really like to eat one. So I decided I was going to feed my tumour to a turtle. And I was surprised by the things that got in my way, like the surgeon who said it was against the law to give me anything he removed from my body. That seemed unfair to me. So when that woman came up and said, ‘I’ll cut it out of you’ …”

He didn’t think, “This woman is not a professional surgeon.” Instead, he readily agreed, curious about what would unfold.

“I guess I thought, well, feeding a tumour to a turtle – I mean if someone was going to pitch me that story, I would have said okay. But there would be no guarantee that the person who took my tumour out would be a good character.”

Sedaris slyly pretends to carve a rubber turkey as his amused partner, painter Hugh Hamrick, looks on hungrily, 1997. Photo/Getty Images

Luckily for Sedaris’ devoted readers, she was.

In another story, Little Guy, Sedaris, who is 165cm, lists the various epithets that journalists have employed to describe him: diminutive, Lilliputian, elfin – “as if I sleep in a teacup” – and one went so far as to depict him as “bonsai-size”.

He’s not above making fun of his own appearance, but in person his compact stature seems to perfectly complement his excess personality. He’s also grown more distinguished-looking with age: his younger goofiness has been replaced by a certain man-of-letters substance.

For all its amusing oddities, Calypso is shadowed by a growing and at times mournful sense of mortality. At the core of Sedaris’ work is his family: his spiky, now ancient father; his beloved mother, who died from lung cancer 27 years ago, before her son had enjoyed any success; and his five siblings. One of those siblings, his sister Tiffany, committed suicide five years ago, a few weeks before she would have turned 50.

More than half the stories in Calypso have already appeared in various publications, and perhaps the most celebrated of them is Now We Are Five, written for the New Yorker, which documents the aftermath of Tiffany’s death. She was always the most troubled and estranged of the siblings, someone who marched to her own beat and, it seems, didn’t much care who got trampled underfoot. But if Now We Are Five is a poignant reflection on the nature of family, the sobering pay-off comes towards the end of the book, in a story entitled The Spirit World.

Sedaris and Tiffany, c1986. Photo/Sedaris family collection

Sedaris recalls that the last time he saw Tiffany was at the stage door of the Symphony Hall in Boston. He’d just finished a show and she called out to him. Their relationship was so strained at that point that they hadn’t spoken in four years. The reader expects some kind of reconciliation, but instead Sedaris coolly instructs a security guard to close the door on the woman. He writes:

“And so the man did. He shut the door in my sister’s face, and I never saw or spoke to her again. Not when she was evicted from her apartment. Not when she was raped. Not when she was hospitalised after her first suicide attempt. She was, I told myself, someone’s else’s problem. I couldn’t deal with her any more.”

It’s a devastating passage.

“When I read that out on stage,” he says, “I cannot believe that I did it. I cannot believe that I’m reading it. It is just as bad as it sounds. That you’re going to have someone close the door on that person’s face, and they’re going to commit suicide and you’re never going to see them again. There’s not a way to make that funny.”

He hadn’t originally intended to write about the incident. But he’d been struggling with a story that wasn’t going anywhere and he suddenly found himself returning to that haunting memory.

“I read someone say that you can’t surprise a reader without surprising yourself. And in your life, what surprise is there? But there are things, admissions that you can make, or scratch below the surface and say how you actually felt, and you can be there at your desk and you’re just shocked. So I think that was a situation where the reader can be surprised the exact way that I was surprised.”

I ask him what he thinks his audience feels when they hear him read that scene.

“I think the audience is thinking that I’m monstrous.”

To his credit and for the integrity of the story, he doesn’t explain in The Spirit World how things had got so bad with his sister. She’d become self-destructive and accused people of the most malicious acts – after visiting a “bad therapist” in the 1980s, who told her, says Sedaris, that “if you can’t remember being abused, it means you were abused”, she claimed her father molested her. He says that her life had taken a turn that meant she was doing things that “you don’t want to hear”.

He sounds forlorn and regretful, as though we’ve entered a realm of seriousness from which there is no apparent exit. But that phrase “you don’t want to hear” prompts a memory that propels him out of a dark emotional cul-de-sac and back to the more familiar territory of mouth-clasping comedy.

Sedaris with Amy, 2001. Photo/Getty Images
Sedaris tells me that at book signings, he likes to ask unusual questions of people who approach him. He can’t abide the banality of US service culture, with all its false politeness, so he takes a more random approach.

“I met a young woman at a book signing a couple of weeks ago and I said, does your mother want to be your best friend? She said, ‘Oh, my God, you have no idea. My mother recently told me, “I’d love to try anal sex but your father’s dick is too big.”’ That is two things in one sentence that you do not want to know from your mother.”

Once more, Sedaris is screaming with laughter. Quite how we got from his shunning his sister and her desperate suicide to this extraordinary exchange, I don’t know, but that’s the kind of confounding transition that Sedaris can pull off, leaving his audience simultaneously aghast and in fits of laughter.

It’s his own mother to whom he constantly returns, both in his writing and in conversation. I wonder what she would have made of his success. He doesn’t quite answer the question, but reverses it, to tell me how proud he was of her.

“Had she lived, I would have asked my mother to come on tour with me, to come on stage and introduce me. She would have loved it. Because she deserved attention. I feel that my job as a writer is to make people understand how great my mother was. So if people know who she was, I get a kick out of that.”

Sedaris is now a wealthy man, with homes in England and France, and a large beach house in North Carolina, the state in which he grew up. Unlike many successful writers, who prefer to project a modest image in keeping with the myth of the struggling artist, he is not interested in hiding his wealth or his enjoyment of it.

“I really expect everybody to be so delighted with my success,” he says as he shows me out into a radiant afternoon in the pristine English countryside. “I’m always puzzled when they’re not.”

CALYPSO, by David Sedaris (Little, Brown, $35)

This article was first published in the July 14, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.