Summer Books

Living in Print: David Sedaris and Sloane Crosley in Conversation

How the two writers transformed awkward moments, strange experiences, and seemingly mundane anecdotes into literary gold

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We’ve all got a few stories in us — something to pull out of our back pockets during a lull in the conversation or when we’re meeting (and desperately trying to impress) someone new. But few are talented enough to alchemize those stories into literature. David Sedaris and Sloane Crosley are two of those people, writers who have built their careers transforming awkward moments, strange experiences, and seemingly mundane anecdotes into literary gold.

Sedaris first came to prominence in the early 1990s, when NPR broadcast his story “SantaLand Diaries,” about his experience working as a Christmas elf at Macy’s in New York City. Now 61, Sedaris lives in England with his longtime partner, Hugh Hamrick, who is a recurring character in his work. His ninth book of essays — his last book was a collection of diary entries — Calypso, is an intimate, sometimes somber collection of stories centered on family trips to a beach house in North Carolina the Sedaris clan dubs the “Sea Section.” Crosley’s third essay collection, Look Alive Out There, is a similarly meditative snapshot of the author’s circumstances. Crosley, 39, previously worked as a literary publicist before she landed a column in the Village Voice and began publishing personal essays, some of which — like one in which she confesses to being a bad vegetarian, or another in which the author recounts the worst Manhattan moving experience of all time — ended up in her 2008 debut, I Was Told There’d Be Cake. In her new collection, Crosley ruminates on a diabolical teenage Manhattan neighbor, the time she had a cameo on Gossip Girl, and the possibility of motherhood.

The Voice caught up with Crosley and Sedaris on a breezy spring day at the tail end of Crosley’s promotional tour for Look Alive Out There, and the opening stretch of Sedaris’s own tour, for Calypso. At a café in Greenwich Village, the authors compared notes on fan mail, how much to reveal about oneself in a personal essay, and social mores in the #MeToo era.  

How long have you two known each other personally, beyond knowing each other’s work?

David Sedaris: How long we’ve been here?

Sloane Crosley: I met you before.

DS: You sure?

SC: I’m slightly heartbroken, it was so memorable for me. We took that trip to Catalina in the Sixties, it’s just completely escaped you! No, when the hardcover of Me Talk Pretty One Day came out I went to Barnes & Noble and met you, but you wouldn’t remember that. I don’t know, you blurbed my book and you wrote me a very beautiful note.

DS: Don’t you kind of feel, though, people who know a lot of writers — they’re the last people you want to know. I went to [the artist’s community] Yaddo years ago and somebody would say something funny, and then say, “I’m already using that.”

SC: I was just at Yaddo for the first time and it was really interesting. There’s usually, like, a big-fish person there, and it was Laurie Anderson. There were a lot of composers there, and as lovely as Laurie Anderson was, I was so excited for her to leave because the composers could not function. But there were not a lot of writers so it was kind of freeing. I got the space and time to write and it was a wonderful experience, but I didn’t have to be like…I didn’t want to have conversations about Tin House with anyone.

DS: I don’t really like going to festivals and I only go if it’s in another country and Hugh wants to go. For me, anyway, they can just be agony, those things.

SC: I do like going to festivals because for me it’s a built-in audience. I’m still at the stage of my career where it’s touch and go — there could be 150 people or there could be 20. I’m going to a festival in Chicago and it’s nice to know there’ll be a whole bunch of people already there. But it’s a bunch of authors who have nothing in common hosted by people who think they should have something in common, because they’re authors. “You wrote the book about fly-fishing, you guys will have tons to talk about.”

It’s like your mom telling you, “You know what you should write about…”

SC: You must get that from fans. “I have the craziest story for you.”

DS: Don’t you get letters in crazy-person handwriting — “I want you to write my story, we’ll split the money.”

SC: Oh yeah, there’s always a deal in it.

Do you keep those letters?

DS: I keep a good crazy letter. But a good crazy letter has crazy-person handwriting on the envelope and you can recognize it right away.

SC: Also, jail letters are great. Prison letters.

DS: I get so many. I got a letter from this guy in prison, and then he wrote a book, and he asked me to blurb the book. And I said, “I’m not blurbing any more books this year.” Then I blurbed Akhil Sharma’s book. So this guy sends me the blurb, which was in the New York Times, of Akhil’s book, taped to a sheet of paper, and it just said, “WTF.” Luckily it’s a life sentence.

SC: That was my next question. I try to write everybody back. It’s the easiest thing to do to make someone feel good. The only time it’s weird, and I wonder if you get this too, because of the nature of your writing, and maybe the nature of mine — it’s so personal that the stories that people share are not just, “I really like your writing, it made me want to write.” Which is very lovely, but a lot of times it’s very, very personal and sometimes I feel like it needs to be handled with kid gloves.

Does that make you feel vulnerable, or does that ever get a little scary, to have people write you such personal letters?

SC: It would have to be a different brand of fame for it to be scary. I don’t get freaked out because there’s no threat on the other side of that rainbow — if I keep pulling the cord, there’s usually nothing scary at the end except for maybe some social awkwardness.

DS: I don’t feel like I’ve ever written anything that exposed me to a degree — like, people know that I bought an owl. That doesn’t bother me.

Sloane, I’m curious whether you wish you had a period early in your life like David’s — you were always writing but you weren’t necessarily a published author, and you drew on those early experiences for your writing. Do you ever wish you had that time when you were a little more anonymous?

SC: Like an elf? I don’t know, I don’t have a frame of reference — it’s like asking someone what’s it like to be a twin. I have no idea. When I worked for a literary agent I remember any author I got close to, they would tell me to quit. They were like, “Go be a waitress in Kansas City, go do other things.” I just don’t know, though — doing something for the sake of collecting the experience has never really appealed to me, even now. 

DS: I would perform abortions on boats.

SC: Just in high seas?

David, it’s funny you say you haven’t written anything that’s exposed you too much, because I always thought of your work as a little more revealing of your life and your family and friends than Sloane’s.

SC: Well, I don’t have a Hugh. He’s just a constant. I was just reading the galley of your new book, and Hugh is the baseline, you have your family as the baseline. Maybe I don’t reveal as much, but I don’t think of it as memoir. I think if I thought of it as memoir I would crawl into a hole and die.

DS: With my diaries that Yale is coming to take [ed. note: Yale recently bought Sedaris’s papers], no one can read them until after I’m dead. I’m not afraid of other people being hurt — I’m afraid of dying of embarrassment. And I still wonder to this day, did I really do that? Did I really sell my papers to them?

SC: What do your notebooks look like?

DS: They’re diaries. I print them out at the end of every season and then I make a cover and there’s pictures all inside of it, and it’s very important to me how they’re arranged. So each one is different, and I think a lot about the cover.

But just for yourself?

DS: They’ve never been out of my possession. They’re coming to get them in a few weeks.

SC: But you’re still making them, right? So why at this point?

DS: Because they said, “Well, your house could burn down.”

SC: But that will be true forever.

Do you ever get the sense people feel they have license to just flat-out insult you, because you both can be pretty self-deprecating in your writing? A critic will be like, “Professional narcissist David Sedaris….” And that just feels uncalled for!

SC: Do you have a Google alert for “professional narcissist”?

It’s sort of that thing like, “I can make this joke because I’m Jewish but you can’t.” Do you get that feeling when you’re reading people writing about you?

DS: I would never read anybody writing about me. I would never. I always think that’s unfair when people say, “Oh, you write about your life so you’re a narcissist.” No, every writer wants their stuff to be read. Every writer is narcissistic in the same vein. It doesn’t matter if you’re creating this character called Harry Potter or if you’re writing about yourself. It’s the same.

SC: All happy families. If you’re a nonfiction writer you’re a narcissist, and if you’re a novelist you’re a narcissist. You think you can control an entire world. I didn’t suggest I could do that.

DS: But I’m always surprised by people who engage with people like that. I had a little conflict on an airplane last week, I said this thing and then my heart was, like, up here. And I thought, “There is an escape hatch: You apologize as hard as you can, right now. Do not let another second pass, and you can make this go away. And I did.”

It seems like that gene is missing in a lot of people these days. Defense is the dominant mode now — “I better keep digging this hole and never admit I did anything wrong.”

DS: I think so often you see somebody apologize, and then it’s like, “Get him!”

SC: The underbelly has been exposed.

DS: I see that with some #MeToo stuff. Like, somebody’s accused of talking over people, and they’re like, “I’m so sorry,” and then it’s like, “Get him!”

SC: We live in a world right now that’s certainly rewarding the loudest voices no matter what they’re saying, which is why apologies are a little passé, unfortunately. But yeah, the #MeToo thing, I was just having this conversation with another author friend of mine. I was like, I feel completely trapped by my specific generation.

In what sense?

SC: Well, because I believe that there’s a vast difference between forcing someone to order red wine instead of white wine, to jerking off into a plant, to raping somebody. But I’m so worried that I’d rather support women who are much younger than me or who have been incredibly offended or had their lives changed by experiences that maybe wouldn’t have changed my life, because if I don’t support them I’m aligning myself with, like, Angela Lansbury or the country of France, where they’re just like, “Oh, you were dressed for it.”

DS: It seems to be generational. I was talking to somebody in their seventies and she said, “You know, I was raped when I was seventeen years old and you didn’t see me going to the police.” That’s what they’re there for!

SC: “My whole family was killed in a concentration camp, I’m not crying about it!”

DS: That’s part of the generational aspect. I got booed — a couple people booed. I was at BAM and I was talking about Al Franken, this was last December, when I found people really were reluctant to talk about it at book signings, or people would whisper about it. I said, “As far as I’m concerned Al Franken handled this poorly from the start. When that picture came out, he should have said, ‘I thought she was dead!’ ” To me, that’s not a joke about the woman or Al Franken, that’s a joke about me being so stupid that I would think that would settle everything.

SC: I have to say, the conversations that I’m having in private are much funnier. A friend of mine sent me a link the other day to these two skeletons from 6,000 years ago that were found intertwined, spooning each other, in a sort of like, “Men – not all bad!” way. And I wrote back, “Yeah but 50/50 that was rape.” It’s 6,000 years ago! And she wrote back with just a picture of a skull, and it said, “#MeToo.” This is a group of women, some of whom have been victims of sexual assault. Do we think rape is a laugh riot because we’re making these jokes? Obviously not. People are being encouraged, now is the time to have your voice heard. And that’s great, unless you want to make a joke.

Nuance I feel is what we’re talking about, or the lack of it — I always think when I see certain things, “Well, RIP nuance.” People read a headline and not the article and then they shout their opinion from the highest rooftop.

SC: Or the lowest Twitter feed.  You’re not on —

I was going to ask, you’re not on Twitter, are you?

SC: I couldn’t even finish the sentence. “You’re not — you don’t — you wouldn’t — ”

DS: I have a Facebook page but I’ve never even looked at it. One thing I notice when I’m on a bus or something in London and I look over someone’s shoulder and they’re looking at Instagram — all their friends look just like them. It’s all their friends, like, hoisting steins, and they look just like them.

SC: I don’t think the internet needs to know what mood you’re in, ever. But that’s maybe the part of me, and you’re probably like this, too — a bit of a private person who seems like they’re not private. I feel that in your writing. It’s like microdosing. I get to read David’s writing and see the world more brightly and clearly for a second. But I don’t necessarily feel like I know what you’re thinking when you fall asleep, or if you’re having marital distress or family distress. I think the first essay that I read that was a little revealing like that was about your sister, in the new book.

DS: I never — do you have a concept of a book when it comes out?

SC: No, but I have to lie. I have to have a theme, it’s like you have to pay the toll.

DS: I can’t tell you if there’s a common theme, I can’t tell you what the book’s about. I don’t really think it’s my job.

SC: That’s very freeing. It is for other people to say, and it’s always slightly off from what I think the book is about. It’s almost unfair, what I’m asking people — “I can’t tell you, why don’t you guess,” and when they guess, I’m like, “Well, that’s wrong.” But it’s also not mine anymore. You give it away, it does not fully belong to me.

Sloane, you’re very good at those turns of phrases that sound as if you’ve heard them before, but then you realize it’s an original.

SC: My idol in that sense, specifically that sense, is Fran Lebowitz. I saw her speak once. Someone was asking her about New York and how it’s changed. Times Square came up, and she said, “Running into someone in Times Square now is like running into someone in a gay bar in the Seventies. ‘I’m just here to use the bathroom!’ ” It was so perfect. And the other one we were talking about, or I emailed you — we were talking about David Rakoff, who was just the king of the one-liner.

DS: He, like Fran Lebowitz — and you, too — is witty. Which is smart and funny. I’m not witty. I’m not putting myself down, I have qualities. But I’m not a terribly bright person. I mean, I’m smart enough to get through. But David Rakoff was really a smart person. Dorothy Parker was really a smart person. I don’t like it when the word is misused, because you have to have a certain IQ to be a witty person, and I believe you are a witty person. There aren’t that many of them.

SC: That is lovely and I’ll totally accept it. I will say also that it’ll just atrophy unless you have this profound curiosity. I feel like that sort of natural curiosity, but a skeptical curiosity that is entirely in your work — I just think there’s no one comparable.

 

The Village Voice is celebrating the summer’s literary scene throughout the week. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Summer Books page.

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