David Sedaris Exaggerates For Us All

By
April 5th, 2007

David Sedaris

When our government lies to us, there are consequences. So maybe it’s the dire and surreal fictionalizing of the current US administration – the people who once ridiculed the press for dealing in a "fact-based reality" – that has our collective bowels in such an uproar over finding some exaggerations in the non-fiction section.

But if we start judging creative, funny storytellers by the strict standards we should apply to politicians, we will pay the price in tedium. Believe me: every interesting and amusing and exciting memoir you've ever read contained some exaggeration. Do you think every word written by Anais Nin is gospel truth? Shall she be booted out of the canon along with dozens of other writers who have inspired college girls and bohemians to ruin their lives? No wonder Hunter S. Thompson blew his own brains out.

In a New Republic cover story, Tad Friend Alex Heard has revealed that some of David Sedaris' very popular memoirs aren't completely factual. S.F. Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll, who must have actually read Sedaris' books, commented: "I am just amazed that anyone thought David Sedaris stories were literally true. I am even more amazed that the New Republic would publish a lengthy article 'proving' that David Sedaris' stories were not literally true."



Writers are desperate people. This is not the place to go into the depredations of the book industry, but those of us "content providers" who work within it have all heard this one from our agents: "They want memoirs!" Well, as far as I'm concerned, as long as it's good writing — wrap it up as a memoir, give it some lipstick and high heels and put it out on the street. As long as the reader has a good time, and as long as the writing is good, anything a creative writer does to get over in today's publishing environment is justified.

Friend opens his expose by quoting from an interview that appeared in 10 Zen Monkeys' progenitor webzine, GettingIt. Friend writes:
The Library of Congress called it biography, and Sedaris assured several interviewers over the years that the book was essentially factual. "Everything in Naked was true," he told GettingIt in 1999. "I mean, I exaggerate. But all the situations were true."

Here, in full, is the interview we published with David Sedaris in 1999. The interviewer was GettingIt contributor, Shermakaye Bass.

GETTINGIT: What makes a story?

DAVID SEDARIS: A few days ago I was going to the airport in Sacramento [California] with this woman who'd signed up to take me there. Within a few moments of being in the car, I learned that her husband had died and her daughter was confined to the wheelchair. But when we got to the airport, she seemed to have spent all her enthusiasm... We didn't see the sign for Alaska Air, and I asked her about it, and she said something like, "Oh, there are a lot of planes going to Seattle. You'll find something." And dropped me off at the curb.

I thought it was funny that someone would volunteer to take me to the airport and then end up just sort of dumping me off... On the way to the airport, we had seen a truck full of tomatoes that had overturned, and there were all these tomatoes — tens of thousands of tomatoes, miles and miles down the highway. And they were getting run over by trucks and the crows were picking at them. I don't know, there was just something there: all those tomatoes on the road, and her saying later that there were dozens of planes to Seattle. It was funny and it was sad, too... Ultimately, I found it funny that I wound up walking half a mile to the gate with my very heavy luggage.

GI: What's not a story?

DS: Often people will go out of their way to tell you things, thinking that perhaps you'd like to write about them. Then it's generally not that interesting to me. What's interesting is the fact that they're telling it. I suppose I have a hard time when people seem to kind of pitch things to me. There's sort of a desperate quality to it that gets in the way of the story. I can't quite hear the story because of the desperation.

GI: Do you find that people tell you really personal things when you're traveling? You meet a stranger on the plane, and they spill everything?

DS: It's when you travel on weekends. On weekdays, it's mostly people traveling on business, and they get on and off and they don't talk to you. The chatterboxes travel on weekends. They think that they're supposed to tell you everything. They think it's cute to videotape the baby's first steps through the metal detector.



GI: Is everything you write fact-based?

DS: There are some fictional things in Holidays on Ice. Everything in Naked was true. I mean, I exaggerate. But all the situations were true.

GI: What about your portrayals of your family?

DS: That's accurate. Like, my dad came to Paris, and I called him later and asked if I could write about him... He ate the brim of his hat while he was there.

GI: He ate his hat?

DS: He found this little brown chip in his suitcase, and he thought it was part of a cookie, and it was the brim of his hat — this hat he had bought in Kansas City right after the war. He was sitting on my bed and he was eating it, and then he realized it was his hat... My dad is really cheap and he'll never throw anything away. He's the same way with food... [The same evening] I thought the cat had defecated on the bed, and it was a shriveled banana he had brought from home.

GI: Did he see the humor in it?

DS: He laughed about the hat. He wouldn't laugh that he'd brought that hideous banana from North Carolina; I mean, that made perfect sense to him.

GI: You're called a comic writer. But a lot of what you write has elements of sadness. What's the relationship between comedy and tragedy?

DS: I guess I've never thought about it that hard. I know I like getting laughs. And I'm very suspicious when I write something and I sit back and read it and get misty-eyed. Then I tear it off... But I like that mix of something being sad and something being funny.

GI: Tell me about Santaland Diaries [a story about Sedaris' experience working as a Macy's elf during Christmas; it has since been turned into a play].

DS: If there's one thing I could really take back in my life, it would be that as a play. I agreed to do it because Paul Reubens [Pee-wee Herman] was supposed to do it. And then he couldn't, and the guy who did it [originally] did a good job, but I don't think it really makes for a good play. Now, when you see something about "Santaland Diaries," you always see somebody dressed up as an elf, with a cigarette and martini, and there's nothing like that in there. It's like it's about somebody who hates Christmas. I love Christmas. I've already done my shopping.

GI: In "Santaland Diaries," you say that it breaks your heart to see a man dressed up like a taco [a promotional costume]. Why?

DS: Because I don't think it's anybody's plan to grow up and dress up as a taco — especially in New York. People move to New York to succeed. And your failure is more pronounced there. There's always that fear. I mean, I could be a taco a year from now. There's always that fear of ending up a taco. If I stay in France, at least I won't end up being a taco.

GI: What are you writing about now?

DS: I have a bunch of new stories I've been working on for another book. I went to [writing] school in Paris, and my teacher was a maniac, she really was, and I wrote a story about her. I thought she'd never see it. Well, it was published in Esquire, and I got thrown out of school. Now I don't have to worry about her being angry — because she already is.



GI: What should it say on your tombstone?

DS: Oh...oh. You know, maybe, like, "It seemed funny at the time." [Chuckles] Or "Maybe you just had to be there." [Chuckles harder] "Maybe you just had to be there" wouldn't be bad.

See also:
Neil Gaiman has Lost His Clothes
Santa's Crimes Against Humanity
Author Slash Trickster JT LeRoy
Interview with Erica Jong
Raising Hunter S. Thompson

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7 Responses to “David Sedaris Exaggerates For Us All”

  1. cintra wilson Says:

    Dude: speak for your own depraved-onna-counta-being-deprived-self.

    Some of us tell the truth, because the truth is more fun than selling your ass for the short dollar. Live it or leave it.

    xxx
    c

  2. NeonCat Says:

    @ cintra So you tell the truth all the time, without fail? You must not be a very good storyteller, or your life is really incredibly sensational.

    David Sedaris’s stories are funny. That’s all I care about. If New Republic has nothing better to publish than that David Sedaris doesn’t always achieve a courtroom level of truth, maybe they need to fold their tent. Did people say the same crap about Mark Twain? Does anyone but the most humorless churl talk smack about Shakespeare’s plays (granted, it’s not always good history but by god it’s a good story)?

    This isn’t A Million Little Pieces.

    You know what? Fuck it. I’m sick of internet comments. Every asshole, including me, has an opinion. For every one that is well reasoned, thoughtful and informative there are ten that are childish and stupid.

    If you don’t like David Sedaris, fine. Go read something else.

  3. Paul Herron Says:

    Part of the problem of expectations for writing comes from the terminology–“memoir”, “diary”, “biography”. These terms imply truthfulness, which in most minds means “facts.” Anais Nin’s diary contains an inner truth (as she put it), and several versions of it in various works. I’m sure Sedaris’s truth is not bare-boned fact, but when one calls a book “memoir” an automatic checklist of requirements come into place, and if they’re not met, then the nit-pickers have a field day. Perhaps we need to come up with a new category, such as “creative memoir,” not to be confused with “novel.”

  4. You Think You've Got Too Much Free Time? « Heather’s Poor Excuse Says:

    […] David Sedaris Exaggerates For Us All […]

  5. RU Sirius Says:

    From Slate.com:

    “RU Sirius … mistakenly identified Tad Friend as the author of the Sedaris piece…”

    That’s embarrassing. I transposed two writers both of whom I met once… And in an article about writers and truth! Ugh, the irony.

  6. Clay Says:

    I think it was William Zinnser who advised memoir writers to “lie to tell the truth.”

    Neon Cat, I’m with you. I generally wince at comments–and did at Neon Cat’s (what, is she 20 or something?)–but I cracked up when I read yours :)

    Moralists never seem to get art.

  7. Geprodis Says:

    David Sedaris is a humorist, and if you are reading a memoir by a humorist you shouldn’t be surprised if it isn’t entirely true. Memoirs are on the fringe of non-fiction.

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