David Sedaris Wields Signature Wit To Confront Death, Aging In 'Calypso'
A new book of short stories by David Sedaris includes his signature humorous family antics, from clothes shopping in Japan to naming the family beach house "Sea Section."
But in Calypso, the 61-year-old also contemplates his own aging body and the pain of watching his elderly father deteriorate.
He joined me in the studio to talk more about the book and the parts of his life that inspired it.
RICKEY BEVINGTON: Calypso is laugh out loud funny at times. It's also serious. I will quote actor and author Alan Cumming who reviewed the book in The New York Times. He writes, "This book allows us to observe not just the nimble-mouthed elf of his previous work, but a man in his seventh decade expunging his darker secrets and contemplating mortality. Is Calypso your darkest book?
DAVID SEDARIS: Gosh, I could see how people might think that, just because I have a sister who committed suicide a few years ago, and a couple of the essays I talk about that. And so, I think maybe that would lead people to believe that it's dark.
I try to get laughs when I'm writing about it. But when you're talking about somebody's suicide you have to go a few paragraphs usually without [laughter], and be serious for a little tiny stretch.
BEVINGTON: You're known for going to dark places, but then bringing us back out with a funny joke or a light reflection. Is there any personal or family trauma that is off limits in your writing?
SEDARIS: There's a lot of things that I don't write about. Everybody has their secrets, and my brother used to love to be written about. I had a lot of things in this book that a couple of years he would have been fine with and then he said I don't want that in the book.
So that's fine, and I took it all out. I mean, I didn't ask him why. It doesn't really matter why, he didn't want it in there and I took it out.
BEVINGTON: Do you allow people whom you write about to review it before you publish it?
SEDARIS: Oh sure. I have a story that I just sent to the New Yorker. They're going to publish it, but I don't know when. My sister Lisa… I'm going to see her tomorrow, so I'll give it to her tomorrow and ask her. It's hard for me to imagine there's anything in there that she would object to, but I don't want to embarrass her.
BEVINGTON: You're naming people, right? So obviously, if Lisa is in the book as Lisa, I would hope she should get a say in whether or not her words and stories make it into the book.
You have described your storytelling as “real-ish.” It's not journalism, it's not documentary. Your stories can be embellished, but they are based on real life. For example, did you really have a stranger cut out a tumor in the middle of the night?
SEDARIS: First of all, when you write for The New Yorker, every word of it is fact checked. Everything. If I said that I was in Atlanta, and that it started off cloudy that morning and then the sun came out at noon, they would call.
And if the sun came out at 11:45 they would say 'No, you have to change that.' In earlier books I was freer, but as a humor writer that's one of the tools you have in your box if you're trying to get laughs from people.
But the story you're talking about, a woman cut a tumor out of me and then sent it on ice so I could feed it to a turtle? Yeah, that happened, and I saw that woman about a month ago. She lives in El Paso, Texas and we stayed in touch after she did that.
And she's a doctor, she's not a surgeon. She told me when she cut the tumor out, ‘You know, I took some surgery classes, but it's not really my thing. But if I open you up, and it looks like it's more than I can handle, we'll sew you back up and send you on your way.’
BEVINGTON: So she is a practicing doctor?
BEVINGTON: It wasn't just that she took a few medical classes?
SEDARIS: No, no, no. She took a few surgery classes, but she was a doctor – she just wasn't a surgeon.
Then so many people came up to me and said, ‘Well how do you know she was a doctor?’ If someone tells me they're a doctor... I don't know! I don't see why I shouldn't believe them. Let’s say I was standing in the airport parking lot, and somebody came up and said, ‘I'm a doctor, can I operate on you? I might ask for some ID or something.
But this is a situation where she was in the audience at a reading. I had mentioned on stage that I had already gone to a surgeon about this tumor and he offered to cut it out. He said he wouldn't give it to me. So, in that situation I had no reason to distrust her.
BEVINGTON: And for those of you who are about to read the book, it's a very funny back-and-forth between you and the doctor. I'm glad that that's a real story.
SEDARIS: Because I knew I would be writing about it, I got her name, her address and her phone number because I thought, ‘well someone is going to need to call her.’
Sometimes you're writing about things you don't know you're going to be writing about them later. You're sitting next to someone on a plane or something. You don't think it would just be weird to say, ‘Can I have your name and phone number in case I ever write about what a horrible person you are?’
BEVINGTON: What do you say to people who really want to demand a very clear line between fiction and nonfiction?
SEDARIS: When I'm interviewed for a newspaper, a fact checker never calls me afterwards. I had an article about myself in The New York Times, a fact checker never called me. I don't know what else I could do. For people who want to have that discussion. I absolutely don't know what else I could do for them.
I feel like people get invested in what they like, if people don't believe something they're invested in that. And then if you say to them, ‘Well no, call this person’ they're like ‘Yeah right’.
They just refuse to say, ‘Oops I'm wrong,’ and 'I'm sorry.' This is just a situation where somebody, just a few weeks ago said, ‘Well how much of what you just read on stage is true?’ and I said, “What did you doubt?”
And she couldn't name anything! But I'm a professional. It’s my job to write about things in a way that happened to me in a way that is going to get a laugh from people. But I think sometimes people don't see the distinction.
A lot of times people think that I just dictate my stories into a tape recorder or something… they don't understand that you chose this word over this word. Maybe they don't quite see that, and they're thinking, ‘Well I couldn't get a laugh out of that, so how come you are?’
Oh, because I've been doing it for I don't know, 40 years. That's why.
BEVINGTON: But you are embellishing aspects of this story?
SEDARIS: Well no, not really. I mean, I can't think of anything in that story that you're talking about, having the tumor cut out of me. I can't think of a single thing in there that's embellished in any way.
BEVINGTON: She was really as tall as a child?
SEDARIS: She was 5 feet tall. So, I mean where do you draw the line of a child and an adult right?
BEVINGTON: I asked because Americans today are debating truth versus lies in the news media from our elected officials. I think that what we're getting to as a country at this moment is that deep desire not to be misled. I think that's a very deep human need is to not feel betrayed or misled or be lied to or all of the nuances. It's a spectrum.
SEDARIS: I find that to be really interesting, that you hold the humorist’s feet to the fire but the politician who's in front of a crowd of tens of thousands of people and then is going on television, that's like ‘meh.’
That's debatable whether that's true for some people and not true for others. But if you're writing about feeding your tumor to a snapping turtle then it's like every single word of that must be true if it's going to be read in front of an audience of 2,000 people in Tucson, Arizona.
BEVINGTON: That's a good point, but we wouldn't be interesting subject matter for your books if humans weren't absolutely contradictory and self-defeating.
SEDARIS: That's true.
BEVINGTON: I'd like to ask you about how as an author you think about your audience.
One example that I think about is J.K. Rowling, and she wrote her Harry Potter books to become more adult and mature, darker, scarier more sexual as her initial child audience grew up.
It's like the protagonists actually aged with J.K. Rowling's core initial audience. Do you think of your audience as aging along with you and sharing that experience with you?
SEDARIS: Interesting. I don't know. I feel like they stay the same age. I get older, but they stay the same age.
BEVINGTON: And I'm sure they'd love to hear that.
SEDARIS: You know there are as many 9-year-olds in the audience now as they were 20 years ago. There are as many well-meaning lesbian couples in their mid-40s as there were 15 years ago. There are as many organic gardening of people in their 70s as there were 15 years ago… They're just replaced.
But I don't feel them getting older. Just me in a way.
BEVINGTON: Throughout your book you reference paying for things. Why do you bring this up?
SEDARIS: Paying for things?
BEVINGTON: For your family specifically.
SEDARIS: Oh, why do I mention that I'm the one who pays for stuff? I think I mentioned it with my family just because my dad is so cheap. If I go to Raleigh my father would say, ‘Why don't we go out to dinner?’
I'll say, “Where do you want to go?” Then he’ll pick a really expensive place and that's fine.
And then he'll invite all these friends, and when the bill comes he doesn't reach for his wallet. I always feel like it's my job. Whoever has the most money it's their job to pay. But he puts me in these positions and he just keeps adding to it and adding to it, and I'm the one to pay.
So, I do mention that and I did buy my family a beach house. That's important because if you paid for it then if somebody brings in a piece of furniture that you don't like, you get to say, actually that that goes under the house, because you paid for the house.
BEVINGTON: Oh, you're flipping all the family power dynamics that you had as children, right?
SEDARIS: I did this interview with Money magazine a while ago, and it wouldn't have been my first choice. I've never picked up an issue of Money magazine. When I was talking to the guy I thought ‘Why have I never read a book about a money disorder?’ because there's got to be such a thing, and I think I have a money disorder. I think my dad had a money disorder. I don't think my mother did.
We meet a lot of people with, maybe just call it, a financial disorder. I don't mean being poor. It's something else. Like. if you said to me I like your shirt, I would tell you how much it costs. As if you said to me ‘How much did that cost?’
I don't know why I do that, but I think it comes from… I didn't have any money and then I had more money than I ever imagined that I would. I'm just sort of delighted by it and I expect everyone to be as happy about it as I am.
BEVINGTON: As long as you get to pick out the furniture.
BEVINGTON: You want to talk about the name of your beach house?
SEDARIS: We bought a house on the coast. I bought a house on the coast in North Carolina. When we would go there when I was a child, a house would be called Crab-A-Dab-A-Doo or Clam-A-Lot. Now, they have names, like there's a place near us called God's Place.
I'm sorry, you can't name your beach house God's Place. And then Dolphin’s Song. So, our house had a dumb name and so I changed it to the Sea Section.
Then we just bought the house next to us and so we're going to call that either the Amniotic Shack or Canker Shores.
BEVINGTON: Is it up for a family vote?
SEDARIS: I'll talk about it when we all get together. I had some names. We'd all come up with names, and then I was in a reading one night and I said to the audience, “Anybody have any good ideas?"
This one woman had both those ideas, and I've wracked my brain and she, this woman, she's just like a genius!
I came up with another name, and I made the mistake of saying it one night onstage and the temperature of the room changed. And I realized, it's always going to be too soon for that, always. A thousand years from now it'll be too soon for that beach house name.
BEVINGTON: Well that means you have to share it with me!
SEDARIS: I often chide myself because I feel like I never learn. This is something I did learn. Oh my goodness, I couldn't erase it if I said it on the radio. It was bad enough to say it on the stage... Anyways. Never.
BEVINGTON: It's been focused grouped and denied?
BEVINGTON: Would you read a scene for me?
BEVINGTON: I'll just set it up. It's a scene where you and your boyfriend and your sister arrive at your 94-year-old father's house. You notice that it's a mess. He can well afford to move into a retirement home, but he won't spend the money. He won't even turn on the air conditioning or the lights and you're disturbed. But you are trying to act normal.
I was just wondering what the house would look like had my mother been the surviving parent when I noticed my father on the deck just off his bedroom, staring into a tree. I’d last seen him a month earlier and had noticed how hunched over he was—not bent into the shape of a question mark, the way some people his age are, but still it made him look frailer.
“Hey!” he said as I opened the sliding glass door. “There you are!”
He wore white tennis shorts with a beige T-shirt and matching socks. Everything looked too big on him: his watch, his glasses, even his teeth—which is odd, as they’re completely his own. When he stepped forward to hug me, I noticed four mean-looking bruises on his arm. They weren’t purple but black, and had cotton balls over them held down with masking tape.
“We brought you a cup of coffee,” I said.
The living room is the last semi-presentable patch of territory in my father’s house—the only one without a desk in it—so we retired there. “Gosh, you all look terrific,” he said, taking a seat on the sofa. “So tanned and healthy.”
“What happened to your arm?” I asked.
“I fell,” he told me, waving away my concern. “It happens sometimes when I turn around too quickly.”
“So you fall, and then what?”
“I crawl around for a while until I come to a chair or something, and then I lift myself up.
“Hey,” he said to Amy, no doubt eager to change the subject, “I pulled out a few things I thought you might like.” He gestured to a pile on a low table beside the sofa. “There’s a straw hat that belonged to your mother and some pocketbooks.”
“I don’t really wear hats,” Amy told him.
I didn’t want my father to feel bad, so I picked it up. “The only bit that really says ‘woman’ is the bow,” I said, walking into the bathroom to try it on and noticing that both the sinks were filled with stuffed animals. It was like they had planned to take a bath and were just waiting for someone to turn the water on. What on earth? I thought. “I can’t believe that the straw’s still in such good shape,” I called into the other room.
BEVINGTON: Trying to keep it positive.
SEDARIS: It's so odd to see a parent, someone who is so powerful all your life [like that.] It's hard to see that person frail. You'd almost rather not be there so they wouldn't be embarrassed by you seeing it.
And since that time, my father fell and he was on the floor for a day before they found him. Now he's at an assisted living place and he has a room there.
My father, he hates old people. Hates them! And the people there are all younger than he is! Oh, and he mocks them, and just detests them.
BEVINGTON: Are you saying that the only thing harder than watching yourself age is watching your parents get older?
SEDARIS: Well my grandmother lived with us and my father was an only child. She lived with us and then my father put her in a home. There is no way my father's not thinking about that now.
I think it's easier to imagine our death than it is to imagine our real true decrepitude. There's no way putting my father in this place...
You can't realize in a blink of an eye, it will be my sisters and I in that place and it's going to feel like tomorrow to us. You just can't help but think of that.
It’s interesting too, when you have a parent who's that old, you're still a child. You're still somebody's child but you're 61, and there's still someone who's going to call you son…
You know what it is? You still have to worry about Mother and Father's Day. Jesus. I mean in the days of yore, by the time you hit 30 you wouldn't be spending money on those holidays anymore.
BEVINGTON: I think it's telling that as you're driving away from the scene, your boyfriend says ‘Why don't you just pay for him to have a chauffeur or something, a driver.’ There's some tension about whether or not you should be spending money on your father, and there's a lot of different reasons you go into some of them, but I read that as, wait, he is the dad. He has to be spending the money. It's weird, I don't want to supplant him. He's still alive, and somehow spending that money on him might be supplanting him in some way before his death.
SEDARIS: When my mother died in 1990, my father was thinking about the amount of money you can give away every year that you don't have to pay taxes on it. So we started giving people like pretty big checks at Christmas, and he said, 'I put yours, I gave yours to Cindy and she put it in your account.'
He and I have the same banker. Every year I write my father a thank you letter, and I say, ‘Thank you so much I know you didn't have to do that. I so appreciate it," and then I talk to my banker a couple of years ago she said, ‘Your father never put a dime in your account.’
He never put a dime in my account. He received the thank you letters all those years, and he never told me. When I confronted him, he said, ‘You don't need the money.’
I was like, “Well, you could have you could have told me, you know! I would have saved the money on an international stamp, that's like $20 right there I could have made back!”
BEVINGTON: In this same chapter, you visit a restaurant where your parents were eating in 1968 when someone in the restaurant announced the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Everyone in the restaurant burst into applause except your parents, who had recently moved to the South. Why choose to end this book paralleling political divisions of 1968 with those that are dividing families and Americans today?
SEDARIS: I guess I didn't think that. I wrote an essay in which that was a pivotal part of the essay but it never worked out, and then when I was writing this essay I was at that same restaurant.
They have a branch at the airport, and I thought, ‘Oh right I might as well mention that.’ But I just mentioned that I think, to show how Raleigh had grown.
It was still a part of showing my dad when he was younger, and then showing my dad when he was older. I'd mentioned elsewhere in the book how that's affected my family just like it's affected that a lot of families, and my dad is so old.
My father has always been a Republican and nothing will change. If Adolf Hitler said 'I have the nomination,' my father would vote for Hitler for president. If Satan said, ‘I will save you 17 cents on your taxes,’ my father would vote for Satan for president.
I wrote him because he's so old, and I worry. Every time I see him, I worry it's going be the last time I'm going to see him. But you don't want to be fighting with him. So there's just so much we can't talk about.
When my father went to this assisted living center, I wrote him a letter, and he had wanted to move back home again. I wrote, and I said it's not safe for you to be at home alone. It's not safe.
I told him I needed him to live long enough to see Donald Trump impeached. Because that's what's going to happen. My father is going to die on a Wednesday, and Donald Trump is going to go down on a Friday. That's what is bound to happen.
BEVINGTON: How did he respond?
SEDARIS: I don't know, I sent it in a letter.
BEVINGTON: He never wrote you back or mentioned it?
SEDARIS: Well, I think my father has written me like two letters in my life. He's not a big letter writer, and I haven't been home. I went on a 42-city lecture tour. 40 cities in 42 days and then went home for three days, and then I came back to start my book tour.
I might see him in a couple days in North Carolina, and we can talk about it…
No, we can't talk about it. I'll just look in his room and see if the letter has been opened.