There’s a lot of humor in this collection, but it feels darker to me than your previous books. Does that seem like a fair assessment to you?
It’s hard for me to assess it. I’m probably the only one who can’t. I think of the period of time between being 12 and being 20: Probably for everybody in life, that’s a pretty dark time. Sometimes, when I’m writing about that period, I’m in this swampy cave, like mucking around in there, and I’m always so happy to come out of there. I wrote the story about the swim team [“Memory Laps”] because I always wondered if other people’s fathers did that—became champions of your friends, pitting you against your friends. I always wondered what became of Greg Sakas [Sedaris’ swim-team nemesis in the essay]. I don’t know the kind of person who thinks of writing as cathartic in any way.
You’re right—I know people say writing is supposed to be cathartic, but I can’t think of a writer who really thinks it is.
Writing in my diary makes sense of the world, but that’s still not cathartic. I think ‘cathartic’ and ‘helping you see things a little more clearly’ are different things.
There are more essays about American politics in this book—does it feel to you like conservative politics have gotten so extreme that the only way to respond is with satire?
I think that’s the best response. I think that’s where the best satire comes from; the best political satire is coming from people like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart and Andy Borowitz and Paul Rudnick. I think it’s particularly strong on television. I always thought that the best way to get back at something is to make fun of it. Get people to laugh at it. That’s my response to everything. Let’s say gang violence: One thing we never try is making fun of those people. ‘You’re so stupid shooting each other, your world is only two blocks in diameter, so you just kill the people on the next block. Ha ha—look at you!’ I think that would do so much better than all the counseling and intervention programs that don’t do any good. There was a time when I was 12 years old and I’d saved up my money and I’d bought a fringe vest and was standing outside the 7-Eleven, and these two girls walked by and said, ‘Teeny bopper!’ It just completely ruined that vest for me. Also, my whole persona, there’s goes that! Gotta try to be someone else now because that’s blown. The fact that when she said that, her friend laughed—it was being laughed at that did the damage.
When you’re writing about your family, do you let them know beforehand that you’re going to be writing about them?
I wrote a title story for the book, and then I gave it to my older sister Lisa. It was about a time when we went to a firing range in North Carolina. She felt like the audience would think of her a certain way, that she was neurotic or something. And I didn’t see that as being an issue. It doesn’t matter what I think; it only mattered what she thinks. And at the time, I thought, ‘There’s no way I can write about the firing range with Lisa,’ and then, several months later, I figured out how to write it without that bit. Usually I’m pretty good about knowing what people would object to. Everybody has their secrets. A lot of what it’s been over the years is Lisa’s sisters-in-law, who could be difficult. I would say, ‘You have to let me write about that.’ But she didn’t want me to write about it because she didn’t want them knowing they had gotten to her. And I understand that. And it was like, ‘Goddamn, I can’t wait until they die.’
Why did you dedicate this collection to your sister Amy?
I think because it has little monologues of teenagers in it. It seemed like a book for her.
When you’re writing an essay, are you thinking about how it’s going to perform on radio, or do you create a different version for radio?
I don’t know that I think ‘radio’ so much as ‘out loud.’ Most of the radio I do now is the BBC, and what’s nice about it is I can do whatever I want. I have eight half-hour segments on the BBC, and it’s this series I’ve been doing for four or five years. I can get away with a lot more at the BBC than I could at NPR. At NPR, they would say, ‘That presents a disturbing mental image,’ and it’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s why I wrote it!’
Claiborne Smith is the features editor at Kirkus Reviews.