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.”