Look out, world, David Sedaris is back. After a long pandemic hiatus, the famed writer is returning to the road with a new collection of essays and he’ll be swinging by the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Tuesday, November 22 for a reading.
You may know him for The Santaland Diaries or Me Talk Pretty One Day; or his new book Happy-Go-Lucky or 2021's A Carnival of Snackery, which just came out in paperback. Or you might’ve seen the fuss over a recent CBS Sunday Morning musing in which Sedaris takes a winding path to avoid the word “queer.” Over the last 30ish years, Sedaris has staked out a position as one of the world’s foremost humorists, mixing wry, deadpan observations with pathos and heart.
Ahead of his visit, Sedaris spoke to us about what he’s been up to. Our conversation swerved between topics that included his travel plans, how he helped his sister Amy learn her Star Wars dialogue, and what he considers “the scariest thing ever.” He also shared his fondest Thanksgiving wish, which is to find a human body.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Is there stuff you’re looking forward to doing when you come to town?
Mostly I just go to the Target near my hotel and watch people shoplift.
What do you like about watching people shoplift?
It’s just shocking to me. I always like watching people shoplift because they thought they were so stealthy. But now you don’t even have to be stealthy, so it’s fascinating to me. The Target near the hotel, it’s just insane. People just walk in, fill bags, and walk out of the store. I just can’t watch it enough.
Now that you’re back on the road, have you had to re-learn certain skills?
I just jumped right back into it. I was really sad when everything shut down. I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself. I think I missed out on three or four tours altogether. So last fall I went to 70 cities and then 45 in the spring and then a 20-city US book tour and a 20-city UK book tour. It’s funny, it didn’t take any getting used to at all. I was just dying to do it.
I’ve read that live audiences sometimes help you hone your writing.
That’ll be interesting on this tour because I have something new that I read in England. … It worked really well, but that doesn’t mean it’ll work in the United States, because in the US, when you talk about race in any way, the audience freaks out. They get super self-conscious and think it’s a trap of some sort, or they worry that if they laugh at something, that makes them racist. If all that’s going through their mind, they can’t follow the story I’m trying to tell. It’s not really a problem in England, that sort of thing.
It’s something I wouldn’t even have thought about ten years ago. It’s really an essay about when you mention somebody’s race in your writing. Sometimes it seems really important.
I mean, I’m more apt to notice something than I would have been five years ago as well. It’s not like I’m that Sex in the City update, like I woke up saying, “What happened?” The changes happened slowly and subtly and I think it’s something that everybody’s noticed.
That said, you never can tell what’s going to set somebody off. Somebody was set off recently because I put out a diary book and said my sister Gretchen fed her turtle crickets. A person at a pet store said depending on what kind of turtle you have, it’s best to cut the legs off with scissors. But she didn’t have any scissors, so she just pulled the legs off.
I got the angriest letter from some guy, furious. I wasn’t the one tearing the legs off the crickets! You’ve got the wrong person.
What did you spend your time doing when all your tours were canceled?
I still traveled as much as I could. I was going a lot between North Carolina and New York, which is like going between the North Pole and the South Pole. Well, I don’t know. I’ve never been to either pole. And aren’t they both kind of cold?
I imagine they’re similar.
North Carolina and New York are not similar at all. So it was interesting to go from one place where you had to wear a mask on the street to a place where if you wore a mask you were suspect. I liked going from one extreme to another. But God, when I think back on that… it’s funny, I wrote a couple essays about it while it was going on but now that it’s in the rear-view mirror for the most part, it’s just such a dark time.
Dark subjects are often what you explore in your writing.
Yeah, but when I was in the middle of it it didn’t seem that dark. It was a drag, but it didn’t seem like a dark time in history. I mean it was an inconvenient time in history. But when I look back on it I’m so grateful. I haven’t worn a mask since… mid-June? I mean, I’ve been in England and Finland and Norway and Denmark and Sweden and Austria. And I haven’t worn one once. I don’t know what it’s like in the United States right now. Are there places around town that make you wear a mask?
A handful—a bookstore near me requires masks, but not the gym. I still wear one because I don’t want to get sick. But people are pretty mask-off these days.
On my spring lecture tour, I got COVID in my last city. It was the perfect time to get it because I had a week off. I had to take a test to go on television and the test came back positive. I was shocked. I didn’t know I had it.
Have you seen your sister Amy on the Star Wars TV shows?
That show doesn’t make any sense at all to her. She said, “The dialogue is just meaningless. How am I supposed to remember it?” So I helped her run lines.
She said [in character], “We must defeat ‘tie-ranny.’” And I said, “I’m pretty sure, I mean I haven’t seen the show, but I’m pretty sure it’s ‘tyranny.’” She thought “Tie-ranny” was the name of a character.
Have you watched the finished product?
No, I haven’t. She hasn’t watched it either. But the guy who made it, Jon Favreau, was a dishwasher when she was in Second City. Amy’s always super nice, especially to people on the crew or somebody who’s in the back washing dishes, and he never forgot it. He put her in so many things. We’re not Star Wars people, really. I’m not averse to watching it. But I don’t have… is it Disney+ that you need to have?
Yes. Is there anything that you have enjoyed watching recently?
Do you watch Indian Matchmaking? It’s on Netflix. It’s a matchmaking show, and it just seems to be, I don’t know this for a fact but it seems to me like a lot of the unmarried men on the show are gay. It just seems to me. Like if you have a picture of yourself on the doorknob of your walk-in closet… I don’t know, it’s a different culture, so what do I know?
And I’m watching that… what is it, the Lord of the Rings prequel, The Rings of Power. I’m not a fantasy person, but I love those Lord of the Rings movies, I just love them.
How do you feel the new show compares to the Peter Jackson films?
I guess they’re all built on a footnote, is that correct?
Yeah, the source is a little thin, so they’ve fleshed it out.
Well, it’s still really scary to me. I think orcs are the scariest thing ever. So I watch it for the orcs.
Do you enjoy being scared?
Yeah. Orcs scare me. And they’ve got to smell pretty bad I think. And you never see a she-orc. There are she-dwarves. One of them has a pretty big part in this new show. But you never see a she-orc.
Anything else you want folks to know about the tour as you’re coming through the Pacific Northwest?
I can’t think of anything. I think it’s going to be pretty close to Thanksgiving, isn’t it? Hugh [Hamrick—Sedaris' husband] has a brother who lives [northwest of Seattle]. I’m going to go there for Thanksgiving.
A human torso recently washed up on the beach near there.
Oh really! And there’s no head? Are there arms attached?
I don’t know how intact it is.
Wow. I spend a whole lot of time in England picking up trash on the side of the road, and that’s my dream, to find a human body. Whenever I smell a dead deer or something in the woods I get so excited. Oh, it’s finally my time!
I’ve said in print before that I want to find a human body, so if I do at this point I’m going to be the number one suspect. I spent ten days at a medical examiner’s office in Phoenix and every kind of dead person came through there and it was GRUESOME. If you never saw a thing like that and you saw a torso, God, that would just fuck you up for life.
When you were at the medical examiner’s office, did you get used to it?
I never got used to it. You usually don’t smell people’s insides. Your insides have a particular smell that we’re all protected from. I don’t know that it’s an awful smell, it’s just a new smell. Well, I’m going to say it’s awful. It’s just kind of a sour smell that tells you to run, to get as far away from it as possible. And that’s like if you die and in two days they do an autopsy, not if you’ve been lying on the floor for a week. People came in disinterred, just every horrible thing. People were shot, who were hit by cars. I thought that if you committed suicide, if you put a gun to your head, you’d have a little ladylike hole there, but if it’s a rifle your head’s just gone. It was chilling.
And for a while, there was a sheriff … making people convicted of drunk driving witness autopsies. And they had to stop because they didn’t have enough funds to clean up all the vomit. It’s not a bad punishment.
What inspired you to go to the medical examiner’s office?
Esquire hired me and said I could write about whatever I wanted to, and I’d always wanted to write about dead people but I knew I couldn’t get in on my own. So they called and got me in. And the article was a complete flop because I’m not a journalist. I think the worst thing for somebody in your position would be to write about somebody who’s never been written about before. Because they’re going to be all excited about it and tell all their friends about it. And I thought, well, I have to make them look good because they’re really looking forward to this.
It was a flop for that reason. And I always tell people, “Whatever you write here, rest assured, I am never going to read it.” Isn’t that such a relief? Don’t you breathe a sigh of relief when somebody tells you that?
For sure. That’s one of my great terrors. There’s one particular LGBTQ+ organization that I know I’ll hear from at length whenever I write about them.
What happened to gay people? We used to be so funny.
David Sedaris will be at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Tuesday, November 22.