TAlthough Andrew Sean Greer and David Sedaris had only recently met – after Greer reviewed Sedaris’ book The best of me in 2021 – they’re already joking like old buddies, everyone struggling to get that last laugh. The authors have much in common: they are both celebrated for their humorous writing styles that cunningly examine humanity and for their cutting observations about the world we live in. They also love to shop. The beginning of their friendship included a shopping spree in New York City. “Andy tries on everything,” says Sedaris. Greer ups the ante: “Anything!”
Another thing these two authors have in common: each has toured US Greer’s new novel extensively Less is losta sequel to his 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Fewer, out now, follows successful but clumsy novelist Arthur Less on a cross-country road trip. Greer himself spent time on the road researching what such a journey might entail – and found himself traversing communes, hitting pubs and donning wrap-around shades to mingle with the locals. (The last one didn’t work, and his novel’s protagonist goes through a similar mess.) These moments and more coalesce into a laugh-filled tale of writing, privilege, and loss.
Reflections on similar topics can be found in Sedaris’ latest collection of essays, Happy-Go-Lucky, which was released in May. In it, Sedaris detailed his experience of the pandemic, a multi-city book tour, and the death of his father. While his book is non-fiction and Greer’s is a novel, both explore what it means to be a human being in America and how to deal with loss, all through a comedic lens.
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In an international phone call between Greer from San Francisco and Sedaris from his country home in Sussex, England, the authors spoke about their recent travels, how they find humor in loss, and where they try to learn more about those around them Experienced.
ZEIT: Both books are about traveling through America. What’s your favorite place you’ve visited in the United States in the last few years?
David Sedaris: I was really surprised by Durango, Colorado. It looks like they’re filming a western there. They have a rushing flow that feels like you could just bend down and drink from it. There is a path that runs for miles and miles on either side. I walk til my toenails turn black and fall off so it’s great to wake up in town, walk out my door, use this beautiful trail and all you hear is water rushing. Where’s your place, Andy?
Andrew Sean Greer: Bisbee, Arizona. It’s way down south, almost on the border and very close to New Mexico. I drove to Tucson and stayed the night, parked the RV there. I went to a rock ‘n’ roll show and then to a bar with the singers. It was super charming without being hipster.
Sedaris: Did you dance?
Greer: I danced.
Sedaris: Do you dance wildly?
Greer: I do. I often get stopped when I go to a show. People around me will say, “Please stop dancing,” and the song being played is called “Dance, dance, dance.” I do what they tell me! But I’m not aware of my surroundings.
Sedaris: What did you do in the camper?
Greer: That was the RV trip I took for research purposes Less is lost. I went to every small town I could find on the map.
Sedaris: What do you do then? do you keep a diary
Greer: I do exactly what you do. You carry around a notebook, right? And you write all the time? That’s what I do. Just like you, I’m totally curious about people.
ZEIT: What is the best means of transport to learn the most about people?
Sedaris: The bus! People’s phones don’t necessarily work on trains, but they do on buses. It’s changed a bit. Everyone used to be on the phone on a British bus. You have never heard so many languages in such a small space. But now most people are texting or checking Instagram and all their friends look like them. I wonder: Do you choose your friends because they look just like you? Do my friends look the same as me?
Greer: In the early days of Lyft, there was a fantasy that it was a kindergarten teacher who needed some money to go to Spain, so you rode her in her car. I spoke to every single person throughout the ride and I just loved that. It’s all gone now.
Sedaris: why is it gone What happened?
Greer: Everyone else grabs their phone and expects them to stop talking to you. But sometimes they do. The driver I last saw in New York had a long conversation where I told him I was gay and he said, ‘You really should try a woman first before committing. You should go to Thailand and hire a prostitute.” I hadn’t heard anything like that in a long time. I thought, “Tell me more! Where should I go?”
ZEIT: One strand in both of your books is the real David and the fictional Less, who suffers various mishaps and humiliations. How do you use embarrassment to evoke empathy?
Sedaris: Usually the most embarrassing thing you can address is what most people can relate to. We’re not that different, and if something embarrassing has happened to you, it’s probably happened to many other people.
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ZEIT: The last few years have been a difficult time. What role do you think humorous writing must play when so much politics and even culture focuses on doom and gloom?
Greer: Well I get all my news from late night TV clips. That’s how I process things. You seem to be telling the truth more.
Sedaris: If you can get people to get over themselves, you’re really doing a public service. I was with a friend the other day and she said, ‘Look at that man in the corner. Look how privileged he is – you can tell how used he is to getting his way.” I looked over at the man she was talking about. Then she said, “Did I tell you? I went to my hotel room last night and they had taken all the small pillows out of my room when they did turndown service. I called downstairs and said, ‘I can’t sleep with big pillows. I need someone to bring my little pillows back.’” She was just talking about how privileged this man was. listen to yourself There was a way to tell her that so she could laugh and realize that she’s pretty privileged herself.
ZEIT: In your books you both find humor in mortality and death. Do you find it cathartic to write about the peculiar absurdities of loss?
Greer: Of course it’s funny. My oldest friend’s parents have both passed away within the last 10 years. [After the deaths] They sat Shiva and could not move for days. They got mad sitting there, non-practicing Jews, apart from that funeral, and they were just joking.
Sedaris: I never find writing cathartic. Nothing is real to me until I write about it. It makes it manageable in a way, and that seems to be the real definition of cathartic – I just would never use that word. As Andy said, in a situation like this, people really want to laugh.
ZEIT: Are there things you can write about after losing a loved one that you couldn’t write while you were alive?
Greer: I remember writing about my grandmother when she was alive. I put someone like her in a story. She continued to wear her hair in a 1960s bouffant into the ’90s. I said it was like a hot air balloon and that hurt her a lot. There were worse things in the story, but that worried her. I thought: I’ll never do that again.
Sedaris: If someone said to me, “Andy referred that character to you in his book,” I wouldn’t read it. I wouldn’t read anything about myself. Sometimes, when people are upset, I ask myself, “Well, why did you read it?” That actually gets people more upset in fiction than in nonfiction.
Greer: That’s what you think?
Sedaris: Yes, because with fiction people can decide if you base something on them. I don’t write much fiction, but I had this book Squirrel is looking for chipmunks and people said, ‘He made that owl mean. He made me this owl.”
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