David Sedaris on Writing, Reading and Gay Marriage

The author of "Me Talk Pretty One Day," "Naked, and "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim" is back with another collection of hilarious essays. David Sedaris's "When You Are Engulfed in Flames" (Little, Brown) lands in bookstores this week. Sedaris follows with a 30-city U.S. tour. He spoke to NEWSWEEK's Susanna Schrobsdorff about why people tip him at book signings and whether he'll marry Hugh, his boyfriend of 17 years. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You've been living in France for a long time. Can you be funny in French now?
David Sedaris:
Oh, yes. But I don't distinguish between being laughed with, and laughed at. I'll take either.

You said you have more than 30 years recorded in your diary, is that why you never run out of material?
All you have to do is live.

Do you think your stories are darker or more serious now than when you started out?
If they are, I think it's a consequence of reading out loud on those tours. I'll read something in front of an audience, and I'll read it like eight times, and I've proved to myself that I can get a laugh here and here and here. So now I'm more inclined to think: OK, I've proved that I can get a laugh, now let's see what it's like to go without it. Now let's dig a little deeper instead of what's going to get an easy laugh. Let's write what you were really thinking. I don't think I'd be inclined to do that if hadn't been going on these tours. When I look at a lot of older stuff that I've written, I think one sign of amateur humor writing is when you see people trying too hard. People often send me their stuff and I can see that trying on the page. I feel like I've done that myself, and it just makes me cringe. And I hope I'm getting away from that.

So you've read the stories in this collection before.
Yes, and to me, in terms of reading out loud, "All the Beauty You'll Ever Need," is the most satisfying story to read. But there's also a story called "Town and Country" that I like reading that out loud, too. But with that one, I have to get the audience to agree with me on something, and either you're going to agree with me or not. And I insist that's not a dirty story at all, and those are just arrangements of words. [Laughs.] And that if you will agree with me on that, then we can get on with it and have a fine time. But if you're going to be a stickler, and you're going to draw the line at sex with a horse, there's nothing I can do about that. [Laughs.]

Are you looking forward to coming back to the United States for the book tour?
My older sister was asking me if I was excited about my book tour. And I am because I like going on book tour. But once it starts you're so in it, it's so all encompassing. I sat on my ass for five hours straight after the reading just signing books. And that's a lot of books. For the last book tour, I put a tip jar on my table, because you just have to make it fun. I didn't even do it every night and I made $4,000.

You put a tip jar at your book-signing table?
Oh, yes. I would get there two to three hours early, and would sign books until 15 minutes before the reading. And I talk to everyone so I don't sign that many books in two and a half hours. And then just before you start the reading part you go to the back of the room and you say I will sign your book right now for $5. And that's how you really make your money because any one in their right mind, if they have a choice between paying $5 and waiting for four hours, would choose to pay $5.

Then once I started doing that, there was no stopping me. Because a lot of time at book stores there's only one chair in the room and it's behind the podium. I used to give it to a pregnant woman. I'd say if there's anyone here who's on crutches or pregnant, you can have this chair. But then I thought I'm giving away something I could be making money off of. So then I would say, for $20 dollars you can have this chair and be the first person to get your book signed after the reading.

[Laughs.] Yes. It was like a Robin Hood thing. If I said to people, "Oh give me this money, and I'll give it to charity," they're not going to give it to me. I tell people that I'll spend it on crazy things on myself, and I do do that. But sometimes you go to a public-radio station and there's an intern who is not getting paid, so you give them $100. Or you're signing books and there's someone who looks like they could use $50. So you say, you look like you could use $50, and you give them $50.

What do they say?
They're flabbergasted.

Do you do that for every tour?
You can only have one gimmick per tour, so when the hardcover of "[Dress Your Family in] Corduroy and Denim" came out I offered priority signing to smokers because they had less time to live, therefore their time was more valuable.

California just overturned the ban on gay marriage. Would you marry your boyfriend Hugh?
We're the sort of people who wouldn't get married. And I know a lot of heterosexual couples who are the same way. But there are a lot of things I would do in order to save money. When you think about saving money, then you think about a quiet ceremony ... I was listening to NPR and there were people outside a California court house, and this woman said: "I just texted my girlfriend and asked her to marry me." On the one hand it seemed sorta goofy, and on the other hand I started to cry because I was so happy for that woman ... When I heard that woman's voice and how joyful she was—that's what it took to make it seem really important to me, not for myself but for others.

Does Hugh think you're funny?
Nothing feels better than Hugh's laughter. He's not a silly person. He's a pretty serious person. So it's good when I get a laugh.

Is gay marriage legal in France?
No, it's civil unions. But you don't see the hysteria about it here like in the United States where people start saying, if we have gay marriage, then why don't we allow people to marry dogs? And I say, well, thank you! Thank you soooo much for explaining that to me. [Laughs.]

And you do say, I may write about people having sex with horses, but that doesn't mean I would like to marry a dog?
[Laughs.] Right. Now I think I'm going to change my answer and say I would get married. I would get married so I would never have to hear the word partner again. I like the word boyfriend, but now people feel like they have to say partner to be correct, and I think no, no, no, he's my boyfriend. It wouldn't matter if I were 80, he'd still be my boyfriend. If we got married, I suppose he'd be my husband, but anything beats partner. Lately, a lot of heterosexual couples have started using "partner," too, so now you don't even know who's gay. You hear a woman say, "me and my partner, Pat," and you have no idea if they're gay or not.

What kind of wedding would you have?
It would me wearing a sports coat, but not a suit, just going to city hall and signing a piece of paper.

And then dinner?
No, not even. Stopping on the way home and having potato chips.