Friday, October 5, 2012

David Sedaris on "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim"

David Sedaris and friend

(I have always thought that David Sedaris is one of America's most talented humorists, though there is a caustic nasty streak to all his work. About a month after I interviewed him, I received a "thank you" postcard, where he or his assistant referred to my status as a freelance writer in New York. "My friend is a freelance writer in New York," wrote Sedaris. "He has difficulty making a living. I don't know how you can."  Ah, what rage, what rage.)

David Sedaris trains his reluctant genius on the foibles and absurdities of his kin, and himself
The fabric of family lore

The Denver Post
July 4, 2004

by Dylan Foley
Special to The Denver Post

 Humorist David Sedaris has achieved rock-star status. The writer routinely sells out 2,000-seat halls throughout the United States, Europe and Australia. His die-hard fans have pushed his new book "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim," only released several weeks ago, to the top of the national best-seller lists.

"I enjoy touring," said Sedaris, 47, in his trademark reedy voice from his Paris apartment, where he has lived the expatriate life for the past six years. He was preparing for a month in America, which included a stop at Denver's Tattered Cover Book Store on June 23. "It is nothing personal at all, but the only thing I don't like about book tours are the interviews. I am really bad at talking about writing. I seem to have a child's vocabulary when it comes to talking about it."

After that jab, Sedaris turned out to be a charming and tortured interviewee with a razor-sharp intellect. He spoke about his famously dysfunctional family, his refusal to write about sex and the victory of the nerds at National Public Radio, where he got his big break with the "Santaland Diaries," a radio show about the brutal world of being a Macy's Christmas elf, in 1992.

Sedaris has made a career of pointing out the horrors of everyday life, often writing of the foibles of his five siblings and his long-suffering boyfriend, Hugh. In the new collection, he draws very different portraits of his quirky mother and mocks his own control and neat-freak tendencies. The popularity of Sedaris is linked directly to his brilliant writing and his eternal, eccentric outsider status.

His family has offered up a wealth of material. His sisters, however, may not talk on the record anymore. "They'll preface certain things with 'Please, don't write about this,"' said Sedaris, who in the new book admits to his habit of carrying around a notebook to write down dialogue during tragic family discussions. "They've gotten paranoid. They know me too well."

In "Dress Your Family in Corduroy," Sedaris presents several comical views of his late mother. She is the helpless 1960s hippie mom, then she is the mother bear protecting a clueless son from a predatory 9-year-old neighbor stalking him in "The Girl Next Door."

"I've written stories about my mother before," said Sedaris, "but I gave her all the wise, smartass lines. There is a story about buying a boathouse in the new book. We were trying to name the house. My mother said, 'What about something with sandpipers in it? Everybody likes sandpipers, right?' It is just a naked thing to say. It's not funny, but there is something that just breaks your heart with a line like that."

The views of his mother came from the unintentional nature of the book. "I never set down to write this book," he said. "I go on lecture tours. I like to have three or four new pieces, and I go back to my room and rewrite them," and the resulting stories portray his family and other characters in different lights. "If I'd sat down and written it from beginning to end, my mother would have been more standard."

Even though he is a writer who mines almost everything in his life, including losing control of his bowels on a French train, Sedaris has avoided sex. "I'm not a good sex writer," he confessed. "When I go on the lecture tours, you say the word 'I' when you read out loud, and people would imagine me having sex. It is not pleasant for people to imagine me having sex."

Sedaris still does pieces for "This American Life," the National Public Radio show hosted by Ira Glass, the broadcaster who gave Sedaris his first big break. The show is a collection of bright men and women, including writers David Rakoff and Sarah Vowell, who were most likely bullied and beaten up in high school. Among their fans are probably the mean quarterbacks and cheerleaders who used to humiliate them, who are still pumping gas in their hometowns.

"It is really a 'Revenge of the Nerds' coalition that Ira has going there," Sedaris said with a chuckle. "I think people imagine us as living in a big communal home and talking to each other every day, but it is really not that way."

The personal writing started because of the radio work. "I was writing fiction," said Sedaris. "For the radio, things had to be true or true-ish, so I started writing about myself. Once you establish yourself as a character, people know who you are and you can go ahead with the story."

Several years ago, Sedaris' last collection, "Me Talk Pretty One Day," about the culture clash of being a new immigrant in France, was optioned to be made into a film. Sedaris writes about this experience and his sister's horror at the forthcoming movie in the piece, "Repeat After Me."

"I looked at myself in the story, and I thought, 'God, I really am a horrible person.' There is a line when my sister Lisa says, 'Will I have to be fat in the movie?' When someone says something like that, they are conveying that they have no choice, that their entire identity has been taken for the page, and is now being slapped on the screen and they have no control over it whatsoever."

Sedaris opted out of making the movie. He still feels the detached guilt of his compulsion to write about his family. "The best thing is for a person to realize that this kind of thing is wrong, and you just don't do it," he said. "Instead, I just do it, and I say, 'I'm really sorry.' That's what makes for an evil person."

Despite his great financial success (he owns homes in Paris, London and New York City), Sedaris still returns to the dark and bizarre side of human nature. In the new book, there is a psychotic, scamming tenant and a teenage Sedaris with his obsessive desire to buy a cherry-colored suede vest.

"I have an eye for things that are absurd in some way," said Sedaris. "Sometimes, I will walk into a room and say, 'Somebody's missing a hand in here. I know it. I can just feel it.' Somebody might notice a person is charming or has a vast knowledge of history, but I'll notice that they are missing a hand."

Dylan Foley is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.


Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim
By David Sedaris
Little, Brown, 261 pages, $24.95

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Dylan Foley's BookPush is now on Twitter

Dylan Foley's BookPush is now on Twitter. Check us out @lastbohemians. My tweets will address a wide variety of current events and will update my book reviews and author interviews, as well as my "Last Bohemians" book project. Please follow me for periodic tweets.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Nora Ephron, Rest in Peace, 71

I just got a horrible e-mail from Knopf that Nora Ephron died after a long battle with leukemia. I interviewed her six years ago, and she was so funny and so tough. Ephron looked at me like a cat looks at a mouse. I almost felt like she was thinking, "Should I keep batting him against the baseboard or should I just go in for the kill?" Seriously, Ephron had such a sharp intellect and made so many people laugh. She will missed.

--Dylan Foley

(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in August 2006)

Nora Ephron on her essays in "I Feel Bad About My Neck"

In her first book of new essays in 25 years titled “I Feel Bad About My Neck, And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman”(Knopf, $20), writer, screenwriter and film director Nora Ephron tackles the comic indignities of growing older and women’s attempts to stop the aging process.

Starting with the idea that a woman’s neck usually collapses at the age of 43, Ephron moves on to an essay called “I Hate My Purse,” which chronicles the insanity of purses stuffed with the wreckage of life. Using sharp self-parody, Ephron covers her addiction to hair coloring, her brutal beauty maintenance regimen, her 20-year romance with a cheap rental apartment in Manhattan and a mirthful list of things she should have known, including “The last four years of psychoanalysis are a waste of money.” Beneath the comedy, Ephron addresses such serious topics as finding true romance in her forties. Her last essay, “Considering the Alternative,” is a moving take on death and friends lost.

Ephron, 65, was born in New York City, raised in Beverly Hills and educated at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. She started as a newspaper reporter at the New York Post, became a prominent writer for Esquire, wrote the bestselling books “Crazy Salad” and “Heartburn,” crafted the screenplays for the modern classics “Silkwood” and “When Harry Met Sally,” and directed “Sleepless in Seattle” and “Bewitched.” Ephron lives in New York City with her husband, the writer Nicholas Pileggi, and spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley at her publisher’s office in Manhattan.

Q. Why did you start the book with the essay on your neck?

A. Why did I start the book with the neck? It’s the title of the book. You start with the title, don’t you think? It’s kind of like organizing a CD. Do you put the strongest piece first or second? This is one of the mysteries of life. I thought I’d lead with my neck. I went from the most trivial to superficial thing to the something that is not superficial.

Q. Do you think the book is about the absurdity of growing older and fighting the aging process?

A. The whole impulse for the book was to write about something people don’t talk about. I am completely fascinated that people my age think that if they don’t tell people how old they are, no one will know. If everyone can pretend that old age is some kind of blessing, and god knows it is compared to dying, they think no one will catch on to the idea that it is a very complicated period of your life. It began to irritate me that no one was telling the truth about growing older, that there was this impulse to make it all seem so cheerful. The good news is, you are much wiser, but what about the rest of it? When I first got the idea of writing about my neck.

Q. You write that there are no white-haired women in Manhattan. When did you have this epiphany?

A. We were having a dinner at Le Cirque for Jean Harris (the headmistress who shot the Scarsdale Diet doctor). She was the only woman there who had white hair. She had just gotten out of prison. That was the epiphany. There is no question that in places where people have money, they do more to stop the aging process than in places like Iowa. In places like Iowa, where I have been, you see a lot of women with gray hair in their 30s. They just let it go.

Q. You write this bittersweet essay about losing your rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan after more than two decades. What is the purpose of the piece?

A. That is not really a piece about rent control. That is about confusing your home with a love object. It’s not really a piece about New york either. The confusion of real estate with who you are and what you want to say about yourself, that’s a universal thing. The essay is also about moving on and downsizing at a certain point in life.

Q. It’s been 25 years since your last book of essays, “Scribble, Scribble.” Why did you return to the essay form?

A. The truth is after I wrote the essay about the neck and the purse, I said, “I think I can do a book circling this question of age.” I made a list of things that might go into the book and then I wrote most of them--the apartment piece, the maintenance piece. I started writing a list of things I’d wished I’d known, then I knew that I had to write a piece on death

I wish I’d written about those people in their 60s and 70s who are still noodling over something that happened to them in high school, or something that their parents did to them, their parents having been dead now for 50 years. It is time to give it up. GIVE IT UP. There are a huge number of people who still think they can get off the hook for their actions because of what their parents did to them.

Q. In your career, you've moved from newspaper writer to magazine essayist, to novelist and screenwriter, and finally film director. Did you see a natural progression in your career?

A. What I have been lucky about is that every seven to 10 years, I have been able to learn something new to do. Every X number of years, things came along that refreshed my work or gave me an unbelievably steep learning curve. It keeps you absolutely awake. Even the blogging I am doing for the Huffington Post is a completely different way of writing than these essays. If you spend too much time writing them, you are not doing them right.

I’ve always had a theory that one of the things that women don’t quite admit when they are complaining about the injustices of life is that one of the things women get to do is to switch careers. There is more fluidity for women than there is for men.

Brendan O'Carroll on "The Young Wan"

Brendan O'Carroll: Forever 'Young'

April 8, 2003 

IT IS the day after St. Patrick's Day and Brendan O'Carroll, Ireland's most famous comedian, is tired and glum as he sits in the dining room at the Fitzpatrick Manhattan Hotel. He had sidestepped the hotel's raucous party the night before, but stayed up late.

"I stayed up watching the news on Iraq," said O'Carroll of his worries, just before the war began. "This Bush has no foreign policy knowledge."

O'Carroll had been in the States for two weeks on a nationwide, 11-city and 70-bookstore tour of America for his fourth Agnes Browne novel, "The Young Wan" (Viking/$24.95).

Agnes Browne is the resilient widow with seven children who has spawned a radio show, novels and stage plays. She will soon star in her own TV show. The 46-year-old O'Carroll used a big chunk of his own childhood story of growing up poor in North Dublin to create Agnes Browne.

With a cappuccino in front of him from the Russian waitress, Browne was ready to talk about the new book. Suddenly, the interview was interrupted by Bill Cullen, the Irish businessman and author of It's a Long Way From Penny Apples, his own story of growing up poor in North Dublin, and working
in the markets of Moore Street.

"Five thousand copies of my book sold out last night on QVC in two minutes," boasted Cullen of the shopping channel. "That's $100,000 in two minutes."

" I have five books of my own," said a mock indignant O'Carroll. "Can't you see I am being interviewed?"

Was it a tense moment? Were they going to challenge each other on whose childhood was more bleak? Was a fistfight going to break out? No, the men
shook hands and Cullen went off to sell more books.

O'CARROLL'S third U.S. book tour has been a big success. O'Carroll has been reading to packed crowds on the East and West Coasts and the book has been doing great.

"The independent bookstores have been hand-selling Agnes Browne," he said.

The tour, however, has not been without peril. "I was having a drink before a reading in Sonoma, California," said O'Carroll, as he pepped up over his second cappuccino. "This old guy comes up to me." He moved into a hillbilly
accent: "You got nice teeth, boy, like a woman," he said.

The terrified comedian, a father of three, ran away from his potential suitor. "If you had a banjo, you'd have a movie," O'Carroll said, referring to the film Deliverance.

The Young Wan, which is slang for a wild girl, is actually a "prequel" to the Agnes Browne series, focusing on Agnes' friendship with the scrappy Marion, when they meet at the age of five. Even after the success of The
Mammy and The Chiselers, O'Carroll tried to kill the series in his book The Granny. "I didn't want to write Agnes Browne books forever," he said. "What people liked was the relationship between Marion and Agnes," said O'Carroll. "My editor asked me to explore their friendship."

The Young Wan returns to the fictional North Dublin area of The Jarro, where the readers meet Agnes' parents - a labor organizer named Bosco and a West Briton factory owner's daughter named Connie. The book goes through the Black-and-Tan brutality, and labor violence kills Agnes' father, forcing her to find work as a teen in the vegetable markets of Moore Street.

O'Carroll created The Jarro from a number of North Dublin neighborhoods, including Summer-hill and Stoneybatter. "I wanted all the action to happen in a small area," he explained. "American tourists show up looking for The Jarro," he giggled. "Dubliners can't say `I don't know,' so they send them

Agnes Browne has become her own cottage industry with the film by Anjelica Huston and the upcoming TV shows. This widow with seven children "supports 40 people," said O'Carroll. "This staff supports the books, plays, etc."

The waitress came over with O'Carroll's third cappuccino. "You know, she is from the Russian neighborhood in Finglas," he cracked.

O'Carroll's own mother was much different than Agnes.

"She was a nun turned into a schoolteacher," said O'Carroll. The late Maureen O'Carroll was a socialist member of the Dail (Irish Parliament). "She was a TD, but we lived in a two-bedroom council flat with 11 children.
I gave Agnes my mother's sense of social justice," he said. "Agnes is also very wise. The major difference between her and my mother was the education."

Though things were tight with 11 kids, O'Carroll never knew he was poor.

"We did okay," he said. "I was never hungry. We thought we were rich. We just didn't have the money."

O'Carroll left school without his mother's knowledge right before his 13th birthday. "I started working in the departures bar of Dublin airport, as a trainee barman," he said. He worked as a waiter, then ran a pub with a partner.

Eventually his partner stole all the money and sold the furniture. Broke and with a wife and then-two kids to feed, O'Carroll took a comedy gig, and wound up getting paid 10 quid for his efforts. In a matter of weeks, he claimed he was making 750 pounds a night.

O'Carroll created the radio show Mrs. Browne's Boys on 2FM in the early 1990s. "That was where everything - the books, the movie, the plays, came from." The seven-minute shows ran for two years, and O'Carroll played Mrs. Browne. The shows were so popular that Irish prisoners asked to be locked in their prison cells so they could listen to the shows on their radios.

His career exploded when he appeared on the Late Late Show with Gay Byrne in 1992. O'Carroll tricked Byrne out of his seat.
(Brendan O'Carroll as the foul-mouthed Mrs. Browne)

"My first question for him was, `So Gay, how is your mickey?'" said O'Carroll. A star was born.

O'Carroll, who can command $10,000 a performance, travels with an entourage, but it is not full of your normal groupies. As evidence of this, his 10-year-old son Eric wandered into the dining room, looking for breakfast.

"My publisher Viking wanted to know why I needed 11 hotel rooms in New York," he said. "They are for my family and friends," a group which also includes his two adult children and his girlfriend, the actress Jenny Gibney.

O'CARROLL'S new project is his third Agnes Browne stage play, Mrs. Browne Rides Again, where he again plays Mrs. Browne.

"We have been playing to sold out shows in Edinburgh and we'll be in Liverpool next," he said.

In the spring, O'Carroll and his production company will start taping the Agnes Browne TV show, where he will also play the famed widow.

He gleefully shows off pictures of himself dressed up as a working-class matron with moles on his face. When asked if he has to shave off his mustache to play Agnes Browne, O'Carroll said, "I play Mrs. Browne without the mustache. If I keep the mustache, I look too much like my mother."