My date with David (Sedaris)

Over the years (more than seven, to be exact) I’ve interviewed a demigod or two. Or five. Typically, it goes pretty well. I’ve had one disaster–an actor shouting “I’m a big, big star” and then hanging up on me out of the blue–but mostly I’ve been pleasantly surprised by my interaction with “celebrities.” (I hate that term, mostly because it’s applied to everyone from respected authors to 12-year-olds with no life experience who release hit singles with the same five words repeated over and over expressing heartbreak they’ve never actually experienced.)

But my favorite of all the celebrity interviews was my talk with David Sedaris. He didn’t give me any major scoop–didn’t reveal that he’s actually a straight man impersonating a gay man for the sake of his career or tell he me DavidSedaris2hates bunnies or anything major like that. What I loved about my interview with David Sedaris was that I forgot that I was interviewing him, and our conversation felt like exactly that. He was witty, of course, and a little self-deprecating; he was David Sedaris. But I never got the impression that he saw me as some petty managing editor from some small-town alt-weekly. And that’s truly incredible. Because this wasn’t his first interview of the day. Hell, it was probably his fifth. And how many times can you relate the same stories, the same jokes, answer the same questions, before you begin harboring murderous impulses toward your interviewer? In October of 2010–alas! I’ve forgotten the precise date!–David Sedaris masked his impulse to murder his interviewer quite well. And I was so smitten with the exchange that I titled my article “My date with David.” A managing editor can dream, right?

What was truly incredible (to me, at least) is the fact that he seemed to enjoy the exchange as well. Several weeks later I received this postcard in the mail.

It said:

Cut to the front of the line card.

Dear Ashley,

Thank you for taking the time to talk to me the other day. I’ve heard a few decent jokes since then but they’re both so filthy I don’t think I can legally write them as a post card. Again, I really enjoyed talking to you. It felt like a conversation. If you come to the show, use this as a cut to the front of the line card.

Sincerely David Sedaris

When I’m telling people about my job, the thing that always seems to surprise them is just how challenging it is to ask smart questions. Anyone can ask a question about anything, right? Absolutely. But a lot of those questions make you look like a complete moron. For example, if I’m interviewing David Sedaris and I ask “Is this your first book tour” I not only look stupid for not knowing that he’s nowhere near the beginning of his writing career, but I also miss out on the opportunity for obtaining a truly interesting response. The best answer I can hope for is “no” and “no” is not very interesting, doesn’t say anything about who he is as a person. I can ask “What’s different DavidSedaris1about this book tour from previous book tours?” and I stand a much better chance of getting an interesting answer. Asking questions is actually really hard, and asking questions when the person you’re talking with has been interviewed 800,000 times (conservatively) before is almost impossible. As a writer you want to be an original. But the odds that you’re asking the same question as every other reporter are pretty high. Short of asking, “Have you ever accidentally stepped on a slug with your bare feet?” which isn’t really all that relevant to the fact that David Sedaris is giving a talk at the Performing Arts Center, you’re probably asking something he’s heard before. And while you’re telling yourself that you just want to write a good story for your readers, the truth is you also really want to impress David Sedaris. He’s a cool dude, and who doesn’t want to impress a cool dude?

The best I could hope for with my article was that it would capture just the tiniest slice of David Sedaris’ personality, and that little slice would be enough to lure readers to the Performing Arts Center to hear him talk. Of course, it was a packed house either way, but it’s impossible to be a journalist without wanting to impact the outcome of the stories you write about. We’re not writing history. We write about events and elections and puppies and artists as they happen, and we do it because we believe (however naively) that our writing makes a difference. But before you can make that difference, you have to start with the right questions. Because if you ever wind up lucky enough to interview David Sedaris, a perfunctory “how about those Giants?” probably isn’t going to get you very far.

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