David Sedaris Doesn't Give a Damn if He Ever Reads a Book With His Eyes Again
We talked with the 'Calypso' author about his favorite audiobooks, his love of listening, and more.
June 28, 2018
I recently had the privilege of speaking with best-selling memoirist David Sedaris, whose latest book Calypso may just be his most personal collection yet. We discuss his performance in Lincoln in the Bardo, his thoughts on what makes a beach book, our mutual love of audiobooks, companionable co-listening, and so much more. If you’ve ever listened to a book by David Sedaris (and if you haven’t, stop what you’re doing now and go do that!) then you know that his voice and his tenor add so much depth and insight to his already brilliant words. Needless to say, the very same wit and charm shone through in our conversation…
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
Emily Cox: Hi, this is Emily. I’m an editor with Audible, and I’m talking to David Sedaris. Welcome.
David Sedaris: Oh, thank you for having me.
EC: Thanks for being here. … It’s really so great to talk to you. I’ve had you in my ear for the last few days as I’ve been listening to Calypso.
EC: And it’s just, it’s marvelous. I’m really loving it. I actually grew up in Richmond and went to Emerald Isle every summer as a child, and I’m going back this summer, and it’s been really … Yeah. Really cool.
DS: Well, we just bought the house next to ours.
EC: Oh, you did?
DS: At Emerald Isle, you know, because they tear these places down and they build these … put in pools and then all you hear is, “Marco! Polo! Marco! Polo!” So we didn’t want them to do that, so we tore it down, but it … I mean, we bought it and we’re going to keep it, but it has a dumb name, and so we’re going to change it to either the Amniotic Shack or Canker Shores.
EC: Well, I loved that joke in your book about calling it the Conch Sucker, which I thought was kind of brilliant…. I wanted to ask you about Lincoln in the Bardo, because that just won Best Audiobook of the Year [at the Audies].
Even though we had two of our books up against it, I was still kind of quietly rooting for Lincoln in the Bardo, because it was my favorite book of last year. I just thought it was amazing, and I just wanted to ask you about your experience performing that and if it was … how it was different than reading your own works?
DS: Well, George [Saunders] asked me to do it, and I was flattered, because I love his writing, and he is the kindest man in the world. I’ve never met anybody who’s had anything bad to say about George. I don’t know how he finds the time to be such a great writer and such a great person. He really is. So he asked me to do it, and I was on tour, so I said, “Okay, well send me the galleys,” but when you’re on tour, you don’t … I’m usually working every moment that I’m on the plane. Right?
DS: I’m either rewriting something or writing a letter to my boyfriend or … So I didn’t get a chance to read it until about four days until I was supposed to record it, and then I was like, fuck, because it was like the biggest part in the book. I thought I’d have like 15 lines, and it was such an important part of the book. Right?
DS: And it was such a complicated character, and I was just devastated at the end of it when he’s talking about his suicide. It was just … I thought, how on earth am I going to do … I’m not an actor. How am I going to do it justice? …So I recorded my part in Portland, Oregon, so I couldn’t … It was a little bit difficult because I couldn’t hear the people I was conversing with.
EC: So you and Nick Offerman weren’t in a room together ever? It was stitched together?
DS: Yeah, no, I was completely in a room by myself. … My biggest concern, I think because I’m not an actor and because I’m a writer, is capturing the rhythm of George’s sentences. Because sometimes somebody, an actor doesn’t understand sometimes that a writer puts a lot of work into the rhythm of his or her writing, and to me, my general guess what that that was more important to George than emoting.
You know, I listen to a lot of audiobooks. I honestly wouldn’t give a damn if I ever read a book with my eyes again. I really wouldn’t. And I know I’m supposed to feel bad about that, but I don’t, because I got stuff to do.
DS: That was my guess, anyway.
DS: But the rhythm is so specific, right?
DS: And so I read the book over like three times before I went in there to record. I mean, I read the whole thing and then I just read my part, too, over and over again. Because a lot of them, they were really long sentences, and you don’t want to break in the middle of them, so you just had to, you know-
EC: Take some deep breaths.
DS: … take in a big huff of breath and try to get through the sentence.
DS: But then when I got to that part where he sees his boyfriend with another guy and the guy has a look on his face that says, “That’s him? That’s who you’ve been going out with?” That was just so … That happened to me one time, and oh, it’s just the worst feeling in the world, and so at least … Like I said, I’m not an actor, but I just remembered when that happened to me and it was just … I mean, that’s the moment I think if I were listening to the book, if I hadn’t taken part in the book, that’s the part of the book that would be like oh, the most piercing, to me.
I’m not an actor. I wish … It’s sort of like when I listen to Nick Offerman read, then it was like, “Wow, that’s an actor.” I [could] never in a million years do what he did. But I feel the same when I listen to George read, and George is not an actor. You know, I listen to a lot of audiobooks. I honestly wouldn’t give a damn if I ever read a book with my eyes again. I really wouldn’t. And I know I’m supposed to feel bad about that, but I don’t, because I got stuff to do.
EC: I’m with you. I’m so with you on that.
DS: I’m out on the side of the road picking up rubbish in England anywhere from four to eight hours a day, and I don’t want to listen to music. You know, and I’ll listen to podcasts for a while, but then I turn to an audiobook, and I know it’s different, because when you read a book, you enter the world of the book, and when you listen to a book, the book enters your world, right?
DS: So the book is with you on the side of this or that road picking up trash, right? And you’re listening to the book-
EC: Well, and don’t you get flashbacks when you retrace your steps? You get book flashbacks? That happens to me sometimes, actually.
DS: I do. I do. I never think of where I was when I read a book. Oh, I remember reading Sophie’s Choice in Rome, okay. It’s not like I can recall the specific chapter in the specific location the way I can when it’s a book that I listen to. So I was aware of the pleasures of listening to an audiobook.
EC: Right. So I’ve listened to the essay about your Fitbit. Would you be picking up rubbish and listening to audiobooks if it weren’t for the Fitbit?
DS: No, I’d still be doing it. I mean, I’d still be listening to audiobooks. I wouldn’t be picking up rubbish, but I’d be doing other things.
EC: Yeah. How many footsteps are you up to today?
DS: So I’m only at half a mile, but I’m just pacing in my hotel room. When I’m at home on an average day, I walk between 18 and 22 miles a day.
EC: Oh, my goodness.
DS: And yesterday I walked 12 miles. It’s nothing to be proud of, but I’m on tour.
EC: Are you a plotter or a pantser? Have you heard that term, a pantser? Are you someone who writes by the seat of your pants, or do you plot things out?
DS: Oh, yeah, no, I write by the seat of my pants. I just accepted an offer to write something for some newspaper in England about walking in different parts of the world, and they wanted me to … my editor just wrote and said, “Oh, they want an outline,” and it’s like, I don’t write outlines. I don’t do that. I don’t want to … I feel like when you think ahead, right, then you think, “Oh, okay, I’ve got to get this person into the car, and I guess I’ve got to get the car started,” and it just seems, for me personally, like … I don’t know, kind of forced that way. I’d rather … I don’t even like to think about, like if I’m working on an essay, I mean, you’re writing about your life. Right? So you know what happens, but the question is, where do you start it and where do you end it, what do you put in and what do you leave out, and I’d rather do all that at my desk. Right? I don’t even want to think about it when I’m out on a walk. I don’t want to think like oh, what I’m going to write next when I get home, you know. I don’t want to think ahead of the next paragraph, even. I just do that at my desk.
DS: I had read somewhere that if you don’t surprise yourself, you’re probably not going to surprise the reader. So there have been a number of essays that I’ve written, like I wrote an essay called The Spirit World, and it was about my sister, Amy, going to a psychic after my sister Tiffany committed suicide, and so I wrote the essay, but I hit a wall and I just couldn’t … and I spent, I don’t know, a week stuck there, and then I thought, okay, go back a page and throw away everything after that, and then I found myself writing about the last time I saw my sister alive, and I had somebody close the door in her face, and I didn’t mean to include that in the essay. That is a really shameful thing. Every time I read it out loud, I can’t believe what I’m reading. I can’t believe I’m the person who did that. And I think a reader is surprised by it, too, because I was surprised that I included it. And then I kept it for a good reason, but it was just one of those instances when it’s not like fiction. It’s not like your character’s going to throw himself in front of a car. You’re writing nonfiction. You know what happened, but it’s a question of, wow, did I really just admit to that?
EC: It’s amazing how you pivot from one element in an essay to another, and it just always strikes me as so incredibly organic…When you read things like that, you wonder, Oh, it can’t be organic, it’s just so perfect.
I’d love to talk about some of your favorite listens. Could we dive into what do you consider to be a beach read or a beach listen or an un-beach read? I’d love to just hear about some of your favorites.
DS: Sure. Well, one of my favorite audiobooks is True Grit, read by Donna Tartt. It turns out, Donna Tartt was put on earth to read True Grit. I mean, you know, she has her own books, and she’s a great writer, but she reads True Grit, I can’t imagine anybody doing a better job of it. I don’t know if it’s … She’s not an actress, but she can act.
And she just has the perfect voice and the perfect pitch for that story, and I didn’t … I think I saw the movie when it came out and I thought, I’m not really a big fan of westerns, but it’s so much bigger than that, right?
EC: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
DS: This story is so much bigger than that, and she really understands it. I was just so … I think that’s the best instance I can think of an author reading somebody else’s work, is her reading True Grit.
I think you learn more from a bad book, but I’ll listen to a good one and then just get so excited. It’s not like I want to write like that person. It just renews my enthusiasm.
DS: Another book I thought, this is an author reading her own work, was Ms. Pat reading Rabbit, which was her memoir that came out last year. It was easy to believe, while listening to it, that she learned to read just so she could do this project. I mean … and there are certain points where if you’ve ever recorded an audiobook, they’ll have you do pickups, but there’s so many words she seems to have a problem with pronouncing, and you imagine the producer saying, “Can you do that again? Can you do that again? Can you do that again? Can you do that again?” Until what you wind up with is, “Then I got a job in manufacturing before I could …” She’s just really spitting the word out, but it really serves her story. Her narration really serves the story. And her life was-
DS: … awful, and she makes it really funny. I’ve recommended it to so many people.
EC: Have you actually converted anyone to audiobooks through your recommendations?
DS: They’re either that person or they’re not. One of my best friends, Dawn, she came to England last year, and she’s also a Fitbit person, and she and I walked 91,000 steps in a day, so we walked 43 miles. We started at midnight, and then we came home at six in the morning, slept for three hours, went out again, came home, went out again. We’ll talk for a while, and then we’ll say, “Okay, back to our books,” and then we put our headphones on, and then we just walk silently with each other. We spend a lot of time like that, just alone together, listening to books.
But Hugh, my boyfriend Hugh, I’ve said, “Hugh, you have to listen to this.” Won’t do it, won’t do it, won’t do it. Yeah, no, I’ve never converted anyone. I’ve tried.
EC: I know. I try constantly. I have a good gateway book that I always throw out at people.
DS: What’s your gateway book?
EC: My gateway book is Little Princes by Conor Grennan. It’s a memoir, and he goes to Nepal to volunteer at an orphanage and he discovers that the children there are not orphans, they’re trafficked children, and so he tries to reunite them with their families. It sounds super dramatic. It’s not, it’s actually just very … He does a great job reading it himself, so I definitely recommend that. But yeah, I’ve converted about two people to audiobooks with that but it’s tough. I think people have to come to it on their own. They have to see the utility of it in their life, whether or not this is how you’re going to get books in.
DS: Right. Some people resent being told what the voice is, the narrator’s voice is, because they want to decide that. It’s funny, people will come up to me and say, “That’s exactly the voice I imagined when I was reading this book,” or “I can’t read everything you write, I hear your voice,” because they had heard me on the radio reading something. And then somebody listened to Theft by Finding in the car with their 86-year-old mother, and they listened to a part of it and they got to their destination and the 86-year-old mother said, “Does the whole book continue this way? Is it all this woman reading her diary?” And then I met a teacher who had students listen to part of my audiobook, I don’t know what book it was, and he took comments and one person said, “I just feel sorry for that old lady,” and he said, “What old lady?” And the kid said, “The one they hired to read the book.”
EC: They made her curse and everything.
DS: And then somebody came up to me and said, “No, no, you don’t sound like a woman. You sound like a Muppet.” And then someone said, “You don’t sound like a Muppet. You sound like Piglet.”
Sometimes, I mean everybody knows what this is like, there’s some audiobook narrators and it’s like, never again. Never again. It’s like, there was a book I tried to listen to and it was as if they fed every line to her separately. You know what I mean? On a slip of paper. Like one line did not relate to the other, and then it’s the sort of thing where somebody’s voice goes like **that** at the end of every sentence, and they never vary that no matter what happens in the book, and you’re thinking, they must’ve recorded that at home alone, because a producer would’ve said, “You’re driving me out of my mind. You have to stop doing that.”
Another book that I really liked was Stoner.
EC: I love Stoner.
DS: Partly because I was so unprepared for it, and it was so sorrowful, that book, to me.
DS: And it’s not like anything big happens, and it’s nice and long. I loved that book.
EC: I loved that … I love that book.
DS: I love The Interestings.
EC: Oh, okay. Meg Wolitzer?
DS: Yeah, yeah. I loved that.
EC: What do you love about that one?
DS: I think there was just something about it… You know, that group of kids who … when you’re young like that and you get together with a group of other kids and really convince yourself that you’re so fascinating and that you’re really special and you’re going to be friends forever. In this case, it was sort of true, and I love a story like that, that takes people … You see them throughout the course of a lifetime, like Richard Yates’ The Easter Parade. It’s usually really sad when that happens, when you see them as children and then at the end of the story, you see them as people in their 60s and nothing quite worked out the way they thought it would. I like being depressed. I mean, The Interestings wasn’t depressing, but The Easter Parade is depressing, but I have nothing against that.
Oh, I loved Commonwealth.
EC: Oh, great.
DS: I sobbed at the end of Commonwealth, Ann Patchett’s novel. I recently loved Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh, and her novel Eileen was really good, too. You know, there are a number of books that I like that it’s like, where’s [the audio for] that? Like Birds of America, Lorrie Moore. I never understood why it’s not on audio.
EC: When was that one published? Was that sort of in the 90s sometime? I’m trying to remember.
DS: Yeah, maybe late 90s, maybe the year 2000.
EC: There’s a window of books, a time period, where everyone was abridging books because we had to burn them onto CDs, so only a very few books really got the abridgment treatment and then created into audiobooks, so there’s sort of this area in the … The classics were all done, but then in the 80s, 90s, early aughts where there’s sort of a gap in some of the great books. I mean, The Handmaid’s Tale was only made into a book a few years ago, into an audiobook.
DS: Well, one of the greatest audiobooks ever is Elaine Stritch reading Dorothy Parker, and it only exists on tape. It only exists on cassette tapes. Was never released on CDs, and it’s never been released digitally, and I don’t understand why. It is perfection. I’ve listened to so many people reading Dorothy Parker, yeah, yeah, yeah. Elaine Stritch is the perfect person to read Dorothy Parker, and she understands those stories perfectly. [Editor’s Note: This recording has since been re-released as downloadable audio. Parker: Selected Stories.]She recorded something for me. She recorded part of Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, and it’s hard to believe she’d looked at the stories before she got into the studio, but that was kind of later in her life, and this came out like in the 90s, the Dorothy Parker [collection], and God, she does that justice.
EC: Do you own these tapes? Or did you borrow them from the library? Or …
DS: I own the tapes.
EC: Oh, you do. Okay.
DS: I bought the tapes in Paris, I think, at a bookstore in like 1999.
DS: And listened to them over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.
EC: I know you listened to Ms. Pat, but are you more fiction oriented, or do you pick up memoirs pretty often, as well?
DS: I can honestly say I don’t have any genre. I don’t have any … I will listen to fiction or nonfiction or you know, there was a great book, Nothing to Envy, about people in North Korea, and a great book … Oh, that big, massive book about heroin in America that came out a couple years ago that just goes on and on and on and on and on, and then I’ll listen to Less, right?
EC: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
DS: Gosh, that novel, Less, that came out last year… perfect book, perfect reader. Had no interest in it ending. Never did I stray, never did my mind stray for one moment, and if it did, I would rewind it, like if let’s say a car, if somebody stopped me to ask me for directions, that happens sometimes, then I would rewind it to hear what I missed. But I was right there. I always figure when my mind wanders, that’s skimming. You know?
EC: Right. Yeah.
DS: Like if I was sitting down reading the book, I’d be skimming it then.
EC: Do you have any thoughts about what makes a beach read or a beach book? Or is it just whatever you’re into at the moment?
DS: Well, see, when I think of the beach, it’s 105 degrees, right, and you’re sweating so much that your earbuds keep falling out, and when you’re walking on the beach, the waves are so loud, you know what I mean?
EC: I know exactly what you mean, it’s just … It’s like the street is like a wave of heat. I don’t know.
DS: But I don’t like to walk … It hurts my back to walk on the beach. I’m going to walk on the street and I’m going to be really hot, and I’ll just read some of the books that … I know Ottessa Moshfegh has a new novel that’s coming out [My Year of Rest and Relaxation], so I’ll listen to that, and then I have … I want to listen to the new book by … Oh gosh, she wrote … Roxane Gay?
EC: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
DS: I want to read her new essay collection.
EC: Not That Bad, I think is … right? Is that the … Yeah.
DS: Is that what it’s called?
EC: Yeah, Not That Bad, I think. It’s-
DS: I like her.
DS: And I’ve got some books that I put on my wish list, so I’ll turn anything into a beach book. I don’t know, I think people like sprawling … Like The Interestings would be a good beach book, I think, because … Well, it depends. See, I like to get a tan, and I’m Greek, and so I think it’s okay for me to get a tan, right, so you want something that’s long, that’s going to keep you out there for a long time. Meg Wolitzer’s new novel.
DS: Yeah. I can’t wait to read it. But see, like right now, because I’m on tour, I don’t have any consistency in my life. So I’m not going to start it now, because I hate that, when you start a book and then you have to put it away for two weeks and then pick it up again. I don’t know, so I save them for times when I can concentrate. And it’s funny, like when you listen to … I always feel like you learn more from a bad book than you do from a good one.
EC: As a writer?
DS: Yeah, because then you think, “Oh, wow. That’s really a mistake to do that,” but I do it sometimes, so I guess I should stop doing it. But you can get … People always say at Q&As, “What inspires you?” and I always think of that, I think of something Don DeLillo wrote to David Foster Wallace. It was, “Inspiration is for amateurs.” Right?
DS: By which he meant that after a while, you’re just a writer and you get up and you write. You’re not inspired by anything, it’s just what you do. But sometimes I’ll listen to something, like a short story or an essay, and it just reminds me what’s possible, and makes me so excited to write. So I think you learn more from a bad book, but I’ll listen to a good one and then just get so excited. It’s not like I want to write like that person. It just renews my enthusiasm, I suppose.
DS: Sometimes I’ll hate listen to a book. You know?
EC: Uh-huh (affirmative).
EC: I just want to make sure that there aren’t any books that you haven’t talked about that you had on your list that you want to share with me or with the listeners?
DS: Sure. Lolita, read by Jeremy Irons.
EC: Yes, so good.
DS: That was amazing to me, because I like it when it’s a book that I’m intimidated by, right, like Lolita. I was intimidated by that book, but then Jeremy Irons reads it to you, and you’re just so into it, and you really actually enjoy it. It’s like liking medicine. And then somebody really great read The Great Gatsby, too. Somebody really good. It was an actor who read it. It was Tim Robbins. Was it Tim Robbins?
EC: Oh, yeah, it was Tim Robbins. He’s read Fahrenheit 451, if you still need some Tim Robbins in your life.
DS: Well, he did such a good job with it, and you’d listen to it and then you’d say, “Of course that’s a masterpiece. Of course it is.” And it was again, it was one of those books that … My boyfriend is that kind of a reader. If a book has two inches of dust on it, that’s the one he reaches for. And he’s read all Dickens and all of that.
EC: Oh, wow.
DS: But I’m like … I don’t know, I’m … I want to say I’m a lot more shallow of a reader than he is, but I’m not going to feel bad about my taste that way. I’m not going to. But anyway-
EC: I think if you love George Saunders, you’re not a shallow reader.
DS: Sometimes when you think, “Gosh, what book am I going to listen to?” And you think, “Well, oh, let me go back and look at the classics and see who they’ve got reading them, because they really do have … a lot of those classics have great readers, just to make the medicine go down a little bit better.
EC: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, they do. I recently listened to North and South, which is a tough read, but Juliet Stevenson is the narrator, and she’s just so lovely. It’s the best.
DS: I don’t know who could read Moby Dick and make me like it. I don’t know who that person would be.
EC: Everyone says Frank Muller is the master. I don’t know. I have not picked it up. That’s my hidden classic shame, that I haven’t ever read it.
DS: I did some volunteer work for the English Language Library for the Blind, and so blind people would say, “I want to hear this novel,” and so I would record it in my apartment in Paris-
EC: Oh, really?
DS: … onto cassette tapes, in a room. A novel I didn’t care about. And you know, one thing I learned is that blind people are so ungrateful. Never did I get any thanks, and it was just … Oh, my God, it was like, what have I gotten myself into? Oh. And then too, like a novel, reading somebody else’s novel, it gives you a whole new respect for people who do that, because they have to think ahead and have voices for people. Have you listened to like the British Harry Potter books read by Stephen Fry?
DS: That guy’s a genius.
DS: That’s another audiobook I pick up anytime, listen to any CD from any book, does not matter, happy to hear it. Love those Harry Potter books.
EC: Have you listened to the Jim Dale version? Because unfortunately, in the U.S., we have the Jim Dale … I mean, not unfortunately, Jim Dale is amazing, but the U.S. listeners can only get Jim Dale. The U.K. listeners can only get Stephen Fry, and never the two shall meet, or whatever the expression is, unfortunately.
DS: Well, I’m so married to Stephen Fry. I mean, I’m so married to Stephen Fry, I don’t know that I could hear the Jim Dale. I met him once, I think at the Audie Awards. He was a lovely guy, but I so … I have it in my head, I have the British version.
EC: Right. Yeah, and there’s a bit of an online debate. There are people in different camps, but I’d like to listen to the Stephen Fry. I haven’t even managed to figure out a way to hack it so I can download them, but I will at some point.
DS: Yeah, I bought the CDs. You know, I’d be there. That was a problem, though. Sometimes when the book came out, I’d be right there and then they’d be like, “The CDs will be out in six weeks,” and I’m like, “What are you talking about?” So I’d actually read the books and then I would get the CD so I could listen to the audio version.
EC: Yeah. Have you ever listened to Samantha Irby?
EC: No? She wrote a book called We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, and then I think her next one is Meaty. She’s an essayist, but I don’t know, I think you might enjoy her. She’s got a sort of a darker brand of humor, and yeah. I think you may enjoy her, so I would recommend that for you. She’s just got this, I think she runs a blog called Bitches Gotta Eat, and …
DS: Uh-huh (affirmative)?
EC: And she’s one of those memoirists or essayists, who I get her voice stuck in my head and I just feel like you sort of … Which is I think sort of what happens when I’m listening to your books, so yeah. I don’t know, I think I’d just love to hear what your perspective is on her. I think she’s super.
Well, good luck on the rest of your book tour. Are you away for many months? How long is this?
DS: I started a week ago, and then I go until the end of the month and then I go home, I go to England on July 1st, and I start my U.K. tour that day, and then that goes until the end of July, and then I come back to the United States to do some shows and then I go to Germany and I go to Italy and I go to the Netherlands and …
EC: Oh, wow.
DS: Yeah, it doesn’t really end.
EC: Happy travels. And all the best, and thank you so much again. I really appreciate it. It was lovely talking to you.
DS: Okay, bye.