David Sedaris knows more than any author should about his readers. He knows, for instance, that more of his German fans have seen their parents naked than any other nationality. He knows that women with cirrhosis tend to be embarrassed by their conditions, but boys with tiny, shriveled limbs can be easily coaxed into medical discussions. He’s also learned that some people will suspect him of being a racist just because he likes stories about monkeys. He has the angry letter to prove it.
Sedaris hasn’t come across this information easily. It’s taken years of touring, meeting his devoted followers in bookstores across the country. He’s made it his life’s goal to visit every state, and at press time, only North and South Dakota remain on his “to do” list. He prefers, however, to visit small towns and out-of-the-way places, particularly those that involve, in his words, “two airplanes and an hour-long car ride.”
It’s all part of his quest to amass a staggering collection of factoids and stories and random minutiae on every conceivable subject. One might suspect an ulterior motive. He has, after all, made a career of writing stranger-than-fiction accounts of his life. Over the course of five books, from Barrel Fever to Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, he’s told stories of family-friendly hookers and midget jazz teachers and an older brother named Rooster with a penchant for the word “motherfucker.” But Sedaris insists that he’s not looking to his readers for grist for the mill. He’s just… curious.
I spoke with Sedaris by phone while he was vacationing in Normandy, France. He has a home there that he visits every year, where he can dabble in arachnology and, time permitting, the occasional essay.
I. “EVERYBODY WHO WORKS IN RETAIL HAS A STORY ABOUT SOMEBODY DEFECATING IN THEIR STORE.”
THE BELIEVER: You spent the better part of last year traveling the country and doing bookstore readings. Do you actually enjoy book tours or are they just a chore?
DAVID SEDARIS: I always look forward to book tours, mostly because I like staying in hotels. I never stayed in a nice hotel before I started writing books. When my first book came out, I’d been in a hotel maybe four times in my entire life. It never occurred to me that I’d ever be able to travel for work or stay in a hotel. There’s nothing better than 24-hour room service.
BLVR: What about meeting your fans? Is that a positive experience, or would you prefer that they keep their distance?
DS: Oh, I love it. That’s the best part. At these readings, I have to tell stories about myself and answer questions about myself. After awhile it’s like, well, enough about me. When I sign books, I always ask people questions. There’s no better time to be sick than when you’re on a book tour. You just say, “If there’s a doctor in the house, I’ll sign your book first. Just answer a few simple questions for me.” And they’re happy to do it. When I’m not on tour, I don’t normally talk to that many people. I’m not averse to it; I just don’t have the opportunity. It’s worse when you’re living in another country, and sometimes you scare people with your accent or they don’t understand what you’re saying. It’s such a treat for me to be back in a place where I speak the language and I can ask people things. And when you’re signing books, you can ask people whatever you want.
BLVR: Do they ever try to give you story ideas?
DS: All the time. And that’s exactly what I want. I collect stories. On my last book tour, I was collecting stories about people defecating in public places.
BLVR: I’m sorry?
DS: There are dozens of them. I’ve met people who work at the Gap, and they tell me about customers who go into the dressing room and defecate on the floor. That kind of thing happens in all kinds of stores. At Target, they crawl into those circular clothing racks and defecate. They defecate in the stock room of shoe stores. It’s amazing how many public places people use to defecate.
BLVR: Do you actively seek out these stories?
DS: Not really. I mean, I don’t ask a crowd, “Does anybody have any stories about public defecation?” I just talk about it during my readings, and afterwards people come up to get their books signed and they tell me things that’ve happened to them. I’ll mention something about people defecating in the dressing room of a Gap, and 97% of the audience will shake their head. “No, you’re lying.” But 3% will be nodding, and they’re usually the ones who work in retail. Those are the people you want to talk to. Every one of them has a story about somebody defecating in their store.
BLVR: Do you think they’re more likely to talk to you about public defecation because of who you are?
DS: Oh, sure. If you go into Banana Republic and ask the cashier, “Do people ever defecate in your dressing room?” They’re not going to tell you. They might be afraid that you’re a reporter or that you’re planning to defecate in their dressing room. But get those people in another situation, in another environment, and they’re happy to talk about it.
BLVR: Do you have a favorite defecation story?
DS: Oh god, there are so many good ones. A librarian told me that she’d built a castle out of cardboard to decorate the children’s section of her library and somebody defecated on the drawbridge.
BLVR: Wow. That’s horrible. What is wrong with the human race?
DS: I know, I can’t wrap my mind around it. I met a guy in Las Vegas who does maintenance for a casino. He told me that some people are so reluctant to leave a slot machine that they’ve put a lot of money into that they’ll defecate in their pants. When the police try to drag them away, they’ll put up a fight. They would rather sit there in a puddle of their own shit than stop gambling. Isn’t that fascinating?
BLVR: And a little disgusting. Do you ever collect stories that aren’t scatological?
DS: Oh, sure. On one tour, I was collecting stories about pet monkeys. You’d be surprised how many people have stories about monkeys. The problem is, most monkey stories end tragically. There was a monkey that was owned by an alcoholic grandfather who took it to a swamp and threw it out of the car. There was a monkey who lived on Pepsi and candy bars and died of dehydration in someone’s yard. There’s the monkey that ate a plastic mushroom and died.
BLVR: Do you just collect these stories as a hobby, or are you hoping to use them in your writing?
DS: I’d love to, but I’m not sure how I could make it work. In most cases, the fact that they’re telling me these stories is more interesting than the stories themselves. I might be able to do something with the grandfather one, but it’d probably have to be fiction. Unfortunately, it wasn’t my grandfather. I would have given anything to have an alcoholic grandfather who drove a monkey to a swamp and kicked it out of the car. I’m so jealous.
II. “IT TAKES YEARS FOR A MONKEY TO LEARN HOW TO EMPTY AN ASHTRAY.”
BLVR: It just occurred to me that you’ve written quite a few stories involving monkeys. In “Dinah the Christmas Whore,” you wrote about your fantasies of traveling the country with a proboscis monkey named Socrates. “Baby Einstein” deals with your sister Amy’s possible monkey child. “Old Faithful” was about your boyfriend Hugh’s childhood monkey. Is it safe to assume that you have an obsession with monkeys?
DS: I guess I do. And those are just the stories I’ve published. During my last tour, I read three new stories and every one of them had monkeys. They weren’t always about monkeys, but they had the word monkey in them. Then I read some things from my diary, and a few of those were about monkeys as well.
BLVR: Have you ever thought about adopting a monkey as a pet?
DS: No. I’m doing work with monkeys right now, but I’ve never owned one.
BLVR: You’re doing work with monkeys? What does that mean?
DS: Well, there’s an organization that trains monkeys to work as slaves for quadriplegics. They’re called Helping Hands Monkeys, and I’m doing some fundraising for them. They brought a monkey to my book signing in Boston. I don’t know if you’re ever shared a podium with a monkey, but there’s really no point in reading. Nobody is paying attention to you.
BLVR: Did the monkey sign any books for you?
DS: Oh, sure. She couldn’t write her name, but she knew which end of the pen to use. It’s adorable. We’re going to do another reading together next April in Boston, as part of a fundraiser for Helping Hands.
BLVR: You say that Helping Hands trains monkeys to be slaves. Are you sure that “slave” is the right word?
DS: Well, they probably wouldn’t call them slaves. The politically correct term is “helper monkey.”
BLVR: How did you become involved with them?
DS: Well, I was signing books one night, and as I said, I always ask people questions. I asked this woman, “When was the last time you touched a monkey?” And she said, “Four hours ago, why?” She worked at Helping Hands, and she invited me to visit their training facility. It was amazing. I could not believe what these monkeys are capable of.
BLVR: How does it work, exactly?
BLVR: A quadriplegic has a flashlight in his mouth and he points a red beam at what he needs. Like, say he wants to listen to some music. He just points the red beam at a particular CD, and the monkey will go get it and put it into the CD player and press play. They know how to do everything. They can take food out of the refrigerator and put it in the microwave. It’s quite remarkable.
BLVR: So what’s involved in training a monkey to be a, uh…?
DS: A slave?
BLVR: Okay, sure, a slave.
DS: It’s not easy. They take the monkeys away from their mothers when they’re just a few months old and place them with a foster monkey family for five years. These are capuchin monkeys, the organ-grinder monkeys. They want the monkeys to live among children and pets and washers and all the things they’ll be around when they’re slaving later in life. When the monkeys are five, they go to school for two years and learn everything. Monkeys are smart, but they’re not natural servants. When people get a pet monkey, they think they’ll just be able to look at it and say, “Empty this ashtray.” But the monkey doesn’t do it. It takes years for a monkey to learn how to empty an ashtray.
BLVR: And how do they decide who gets a slave monkey?
DS: They have a list of quadriplegics and they just send the monkeys to them. They don’t charge them or anything. That’s why they need money, to keep the school going.
BLVR: Is there any chance they’ll give you a freebie monkey because of your fundraising efforts?
DS: No, but if you raise a certain amount of money for them, they’ll name a monkey after you. That’s my goal. The monkey who came to my signing was named Ayla, after a character in The Clan of the Cave Bear. I’d like a normal name for a monkey, like Hank or Philip or Cathy.
BLVR: Not David?
DS: I’m not that attached to the name David. I would just like it to have a regular human name. Or a name like one of the servants in Upstairs, Downstairs. It could be Pearce or Alfred or Lady Bellamy. That would be great. “Oh, Pearce, please empty this ashtray.” [Laughs]
BLVR: Are you sure that you wouldn’t like your own monkey slave?
DS: I know too well the difference between the idea of a monkey and the reality of a monkey. Monkeys like to throw shit. And they like to destroy things. (My boyfriend) Hugh had a monkey growing up. His family took the monkey on vacation to Beirut and when they went out to dinner they just left the monkey in the bathroom. A big mistake. It trashed the bathroom, and then proceeded to trash the hotel room. Hugh’s monkey also hated women. He was crazy about Hugh and his brothers and his father, but it would attack Hugh’s mother. She was a good sport about it, but it wasn’t like the grateful child that everyone assumes a monkey would be.
BLVR: People forget that monkeys are wild animals.
DS: That’s true. I read an amazing book by Akhil Sharma called An Obedient Father. It has a scene where a group of monkeys break into a bathroom in India and bite some women. That image just blew my mind.
BLVR: It’s not like they were camping and were attacked by a grizzly bear.
DS: That’s right! They weren’t out where the monkeys lived. The monkeys came to them. At one point, there must have been a monkey outside thinking, “We’ve got to get into those bathrooms! There are ladies in there!”
BLVR: And they attacked the women?
DS: Yeah, in the book they attack the women and bite their stomachs. Everyone I know who goes to India comes back with a story about being chased by monkeys. I don’t need to be chased by one. I’d be happy if I could be in a hotel lobby and talk to a group of people who’d just been chased. I want the details, but I don’t actually want to experience it first-hand.
BLVR: You want to admire monkeys from a safe distance.
DS: Yeah. And not just monkeys, all animals. I went to Alaska for my book tour, and the salmon were just starting to, I don’t know, it’s something they only do a couple times a year and the bears were very excited. And everyone was willing to tell me where you could go and come upon a grizzly. I couldn’t think of anything worse. Why would you want to do that? I live where I live so I will not come upon a grizzly.
BLVR: It’s like they’re begging for a mauling.
DS: It’s not just the big animals that scare me. There’s a park near our house in London, and the squirrels will put their front paws on your shin, like they want to climb up you. A lot of people bring nuts to feed them, and they don’t know who has a nut and who doesn’t. So you look down and some squirrel is trying to climb up your leg. That alone is enough to terrify me. But if a monkey was chasing me with a club, demanding my sandwich, I don’t know what the hell I’d do.
III. “I SPEND HALF MY DAYS CATCHING FLIES AND FEEDING THEM TO SPIDERS.”
BLVR: Given your paralyzing fear of most animals, I guess that rules out the possibility of having a pet?
DS: Well, I have my spiders.
BLVR: Pet spiders?
DS: I consider them pets. Our house in Normandy is like a laboratory of spiders. They’re mainly Tegenaria gigantea. We’ve had them in the house forever. When we started coming out here for the summer, I’d knock down the webs and not think anything of it. But a couple of years ago, I was sitting at my desk and I heard a fly buzzing and then I heard it buzz differently. I came over to check it out, and I saw this spider, as big as a baby’s fist, run out of the corner of its web and grab the fly. After that, I was hooked. Now we come out for the summer and I spend half my days catching flies and feeding them to spiders.
BLVR: Dead flies or living flies?
DS: A spider will only eat a live fly. A lot of scientists catch their flies in jars and put them in a refrigerator for a few hours. Then they drop the flies into the web, and when the fly gets back to room temperature, it starts moving around, and that’s what attracts the spiders. Cause spiders are basically blind. They know that they’ve caught something by the movement in the web. You can’t fool them, though. You can’t stick a pencil in there and jiggle it around. They know a fly when they feel one. So I catch the flies in jars and shake the jars up and down, like a cocktail. Then I pour the fly into the web, and the fly is kinda knocked out and it comes to in about 20 seconds. When it starts moving around, the spiders come running.
BLVR: Do certain flies work better than others?
DS: Not really. Spiders aren’t picky. They’ll take anything they can get. People in Normandy don’t have screens, so in the summer the house is full of flies. A farmer keeps his horses in our backyard, so we have horseflies in here a lot. A horsefly is good eatin’. I found a horsefly yesterday and I threw it to my biggest fighter.
BLVR: Do you consider yourself something of an amateur arachnologist?
DS: It’s just a layman’s interest, though I do have a microscope and a magnifying glass. Somebody sent me a subscription to the Journal of Arachnology, which is put out by the American Arachnological Society. It went way over my head. It was really boring and too super-scientist for me. I always open it hoping I’ll find a story that begins, “Late last summer, I discovered a spider that I named Jeremy.”
BLVR: I’m guessing that you’ve named your spiders?
DS: Oh yeah, all of them. There’s Curtis and April and Paula. Paula was my favorite. For a few years, I used to pin up index cards next to every web with their names written on it, just to help me tell everyone apart. But I didn’t need that with Paula. She had a personality. Paula would take down a bumblebee. She liked to dine al fresco. You could throw in five flies, one right after the other, and Paula would take ‘em all. I think she could’ve been entered in a contest or something. She was really exceptional. I’ve never seen a spider to match her in any way.
BLVR: It must be hard to leave the spiders at the end of the summer.
DS: It’s horrible. One time I brought April back to Paris with me. She was a mature spider and looked like she needed my help. It was much more difficult than I thought. Here in Normandy, I can catch 200 flies a day. But in Paris, I couldn’t find a fly in the whole apartment. I had to go to the park. Everybody’s watching you walk around with a jar in your hand. It’s easy to catch a fly against a window but snatching one off a garbage can is hard work. It takes all day. Then I discovered a pet store that sold crickets. I don’t know if you’ve ever caught crickets, but they stink. It’s an old guy smell. To walk into your office and have it smell like crickets is so depressing.
BLVR: It sounds like taking care of April became a full time responsibility.
DS: It was! Unless I fed her, she wasn’t going to eat. So after about a month I took the train back to Normandy and left her at the house. She could do much better without me.
BLVR: Parenting spiders must have its share of heartbreak as well. Don’t they eat each other occasionally?
DS: Only during the winter, when there’s no food in the house. But it’s always a drama. Even in the summer, somebody will leave their web and attack another spider. You’ll have this spider that you’ve been watching for months and you really care about her, and you come in to check on her in the middle of the night and she’s being eaten by somebody. I had my heart broken twice, and then I had to back off a little bit. I stopped naming them because I was getting too emotionally attached.
BLVR: But you continue to feed them?
DS: Oh, yeah. I can’t stop. It sorta changed my life in a way. It gave me something to do. It pleases me to no end. Sometimes it can become obsessive and I’ll think, “Just one more. Just one more fly. That’s it. Okay, one more. One more.” And then I end up feeding outside spiders.
IV. “I DON’T WANT MY DEATH TO BE AN INCONVENIENCE TO ANYBODY.”
BLVR: Your sister Amy has told me that you send her medical textbooks. You must have the most bizarre personal library.
DS: Not really. I have some books, but it’s not as impressive a collection as most people think. I have a lot of books about dead people. That’s kinda my forte. I can spend all afternoon in the medical section of a university bookstore. Probably my best find is a book called Spitz and Fisher’s Medical Legal Investigation of Death. It’s the bible of forensic pathology. It lists every possible way you could die, and then has a picture of it. Here’s what you would look like if your throat was slit and you were thrown into the ocean for two days, or four days, or a week, and so on. Here’s what you would look like if you were run over by a truck. Here’s what you would look like if you were run over by a tractor. It’s pretty good. But then I spent a week at a morgue in Phoenix, and they take photographs of every body that comes in. Some of their pictures put Spitz and Fisher to shame. Did you know that if you jump out of a building and land on your back, your eyes pop out of your head?
BLVR: I had no idea.
DS: It’s true. I just love reading about death and diseases, and I love any kind of case history. Y’know, how the patient felt weak, and then their shoulder turned purple, and their tongue got all puffy and white and they couldn’t fit it in their mouth anymore. I love things like that. I love the wording of it. Sometimes I think you could just add a few more details and it’d be a great short story. I have this book of photographs collected by a doctor who was working around the time of the Civil War. Some of the photographs are gruesome – soldiers who were horribly wounded after a bomb went off in their face and they had 27 reconstructive surgeries – and I like to look at them and invent a life for these people. It’s a skeleton for a story.
BLVR: Do you consider yourself a hypochondriac?
DS: To some extent. When I was on my book tour, I met a guy who had cancer of the eyelid, which I didn’t even know you could get. They removed his eyelid and built him a new one. When he walked away, I spent the next seven hours convinced that I had eyelid cancer. And then I met a woman who told me about her mother, who has cancer of the sinuses. They had to remove her nose! I said, “Please tell me she doesn’t wear glasses.” After hearing about the symptoms, I was certain I had cancer of the sinuses, but only for seventeen minutes. So I’m not a horrible hypochondriac.
BLVR: Given your natural curiosity about diseases, I suppose it’d be difficult not to ask people about them.
DS: Yeah, but there’s such a fine line between being patronizing and being curious. A woman came up to me on my book tour and said, “You want to see my new foot?” She had bone cancer, and she lost her leg when she was 13. She bought a new foot and it cost $3,000. It was amazing, and she let me touch it. It was customized. The guy who made it looked at her other foot and said, “Oh, I notice you’ve got three moles. What do you say we add three moles to this foot, too?” With a hand, you would notice right away, because you expect a hand to move. But she had a sandal on and you don’t expect people to be twitching their toes. So when you looked at it, you wouldn’t know which foot was fake. I appreciated her pointing it out, and then she was willing to answer any question. She was proud of her new foot. You don’t want to pry or make somebody cry or feel self-conscious. But if you’re just genuinely curious and you don’t mean any malice, if you’re not laughing at them, most people are fine with it.
BLVR: See, I would’ve assumed that a part of you was laughing. If it’s not the comic absurdity of these horrifying diseases and physical deformities, why are you so curious?
DS: It’s an adolescent fascination that I never grew out of. It’s the same thing with defecating in public. Anything that a 12-year old boy would enjoy, I’d probably enjoy.
BLVR: Given how much you’ve learned about elaborate ways to die, have you given any thought to how you’d like to go?
DS: I’d like to have a massive heart attack and die in the waiting room of a hospital.
BLVR: Why a hospital?
DS: It’s just easier. And more convenient for everybody. The problem with dying at home is you don’t want to be alone. You don’t want to be left for any amount of time and have people find you. You don’t want the neighbors to complain about a smell. When I was at the morgue in Phoenix, there was a guy who didn’t have good air conditioning and he fell off a ladder. He was a retired guy. He was lying there for five days before they found him. He was just a puddle. Most people say, “I would like to die peacefully in my sleep.” That’s fine if you’re sleeping with somebody. If they wake up in the morning and see that you’re dead, that’s okay. The best-case scenario would be if you die and they wake up ten minutes later and realize that you’re dead. When people die alone and they have a dog or a cat, the dog or cat will eat them. They start with their nose or their cheeks.
BLVR: You know far too much about this.
DS: I read about it in Spitz and Fisher’s. It’s very, very common for people to be eaten by their pets, because the pets get hungry. The man who was a puddle after four days, if he’d had a dog or a cat, well, it wouldn’t have eaten all of him, but it would’ve eaten the soft, fleshy parts of him.
BLVR: You’re starting to make me a little woozy.
DS: I think the worst would be if you’re housesitting for somebody while they’re on vacation, and you die and you’re lying in their apartment for ten days until they get back. They’d have to move. If you died on the carpet, they’d have to get an entirely new wall-to-wall carpet. They’d have to get the floorboards pried up. They’re going to smell you for a long time. I don’t want my death to be an inconvenience to anybody.
BLVR: You’ve given this a lot of thought. Does that mean you’re not afraid of dying?
DS: I’m definitely afraid of dying. I have a huge fear of the unknown. When I was at the morgue, I had this foolish notion that the people who work there didn’t care if they died. They’re around it every day, they’re used to it. I asked them and they said, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Just because I’m around a lot of dead people doesn’t mean I want to join them.” They are just as afraid of death as anyone else. They still tell themselves that it’s not going to happen to them. When people say they’re not afraid of dying, I just assume that they haven’t given it much thought.
BLVR: Do you believe in an afterlife, or do you think when you die, you’re just gone?
DS: I kinda suspect that when you die, that’s it. You’re just dead. I’m not one of those who believe that we as a species are so meaningful, that we have this great energy that can never die and must have a repository somewhere. That strikes me as wishful thinking. Why would we be any different than a monkey or a spider? Their life is just as meaningful. Why is it that our energy can’t dissipate, but a slave monkey just disappears when it dies? They have more energy than we do.
BLVR: If there are no slave monkeys in heaven, I don’t want to go there.
DS: I don’t know, I’ve never been a religious person. I don’t really think about what happens after I die. Of course, like most people, every now and then I have this fantasy where I get cancer and die and everybody comes to the funeral and cries over my body and their life is a wreck. You don’t really think about… what comes next, y’know? You want to spy on your funeral and watch everybody crying and talking about how great you were and falling apart with grief. I guess you’d have to believe in some kind of afterlife if you’re going to be around to enjoy all that.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the October 2005 issue of the Believer magazine.)