David Sedaris' career as a critically acclaimed and hugely popular storyteller began on public radio in 1992 with the "Santaland Diaries," his saga about a Christmas job as one of Santa's elves at Macy's in New York. Further autobiographical essays explored his upbringing in North Carolina, where he battled the school speech therapist ("for whom the word 'pen' had two syllables") and his later adventures as a housecleaner in New York and an expatriate in Paris.
Although still making appearances on National Public Radio's "This American Life," Sedaris also tours the country, giving live readings. His four books of essays and fiction include "Me Talk Pretty One Day," which recently was released in paperback.
Sedaris, who is decidedly low tech, lives in Paris with his longtime boyfriend, Hugh Hamrich. The conversation began with Sedaris calling, while on tour, from a hotel in New York but having trouble with the phone. We called him back.
Q.: Was there a problem with the telephone?
Actually, it was the first time I've talked on a cell phone. They gave it to me while I'm on tour. It's so tiny. It's like you can't tell where your mouth is supposed to go. I suddenly realized why you see people screaming into them when they are walking down the street. It doesn't seem like they would work.
Q.: You've never before used a cell phone?
I'm embarrassed to be seen with one. When I see people use them I think, "How important can that really be that you have to be on a call while walking down the street?" At first, someone would say, "I need one because I'm a doctor," and I would think that was OK. Then, "I need one because I'm a mom." Now everybody has one.
Q.: Do you use a computer?
About a year ago, Hugh gave me an iBook. I never wanted one or asked for one. It sat around in the box for a while. I can't commit to it completely. I feel like I've been lied to. You can carry it everywhere but you can't get anything to come out of it.
Q.: You mean paper?
Yes. People say that you can just go to the business center in the hotel, but your computer has to know what kind of printer it's supposed to be talking to. That involves parts of the computer I've never gone to and I'm not interested in. Once, we were in a hotel and I wanted to print out something from my diary and Hugh said, "Just e-mail it to the hotel and they will print it out for you." And I said, "No, no, no, no, no. You don't e-mail your diary to the hotel. It's private."
I think the only thing I really liked about the computer was that I found out by accident if you hit a certain key you can make the letters really big on the screen.
Q.: Why was that interesting?
I could write one sentence and say, "Well, there's my page. I met today's deadline."
Q.: So you don't use it much?
I do when I am working on early drafts of something. But I always type the final draft on the typewriter, because there is more risk when you use a typewriter. People tell me that with a computer it's so easy to erase something or move it from here to there. But I would spend all afternoon working on a single paragraph.
With a typewriter, you have a page in front of you and you feel you have to fill it. I think spatially, and when I look at a computer screen I don't see a page. I'm always surprised at how much or little I've written on a computer.
Q.: What typewriter do you use?
I like the IBM Wheelwriter 4 or any of the Wheelwriters. Another company makes them now [Lexmark]. I used to travel with mine, but it was so heavy. And every time I went through the X-ray machine at the airport they would pull me aside. They had not seen a typewriter for such a long time. One guy said to me, "Turn it on." I had to explain to him that I would need paper to show him how it worked. They acted like I was traveling with a cannon.
Now, when I do lecture tours I have it in my contract that they have to have an IBM typewriter in my room.
Q.: Where do they find them?
You can rent them. But it often happens that they say they can't get them. They give me some old Panasonic word processor covered with dust and a ribbon so dried out you can type one sentence and that's it.
Q.: You just don't have digital stuff in your life?
I'm like the most primitive person. I don't know what a CD-ROM is. I don't have e-mail. I don't understand what a Web site is.
It's usually the people who ride you about not having e-mail that make you feel so lucky you don't have it. If someone sends an e-mail, they get upset if three hours later they don't hear back from you. They expect you will drop everything and respond.
And everything has to have a complicated remote. I didn't know we had six channels on the TV in Paris until Hugh showed me. It's getting to the point where half the time I go to a hotel I can't figure how to turn on the TV, so I just don't watch it. I can't figure out how to work the clock radios, so I call down for a wake-up call.
I was at my sister's and I wanted to listen to the radio, but you first had to figure out how to turn on the radio and then get a station. And I thought, "Oh, forget it. That's what a radio dial was so good for."
Q.: You can live a full life without digital?
If you went to the jungles of Peru and asked the natives, "What do you mean you don't have place mats, how can you live without place mats?" they would not know what you were talking about. They never imagined place mats, so they aren't missing anything. Life is perfectly fine without them.
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- As told to DAVID COLKER