Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review
During episodes of unemployment I find it rewarding to sleep as much as possible -- anywhere from twelve to fourteen hours a day is a good starting point. I'd wake up in the afternoon, watch my stories on TV, and then head over to the sofa for a few more hours of shut-eye. It became my habit to pick up a newspaper just after five o'clock and spend some time searching the want ads, wondering who might qualify for any of the advertised positions: vault verifier, pre-press salesman, audit technical reviewer. Show me the child who dreams of being a sausage casing inspector. What sort of person is going to raise his clenched fist in victory after reading "New Concept = Big $! High energy = Return + Comm. Fax resume." Fax resume for what?
HB: When you started writing, did you have radio in mind?
HB: How does radio fit in?
DS: I started on radio in 1992. It was just an accident. I was in Chicago, and Ira Glass, who had heard me reading somewhere, called and asked me to record for a show he had called The Wild Room. He sent it to Morning Edition and they put it on. And I've been on ever since. It was a complete accident.
HB: Has radio changed the way you write?
DS: I don't think so. I mean, I wish it had.
HB: What about the scatological content? You don't exactly shy away from scatology.
DS: No I love that. Did you hear that big turd story on Ira's show?
DS: I have this thing I've been dragging around for years, and I've submitted to NPR so many times. I was at someone's house for Easter, and I had to go to the bathroom, and the biggest turd I've ever seen in my life was in the toilet. I flushed it and it wasn't going anywhere, that's how big it was. I started freaking out that someone would think it was mine. I literally thought of lifting out of the toilet and throwing it out the window but everyone was seated at a picnic table ten feet away -- and they would have seen the window rising as I throw something out.
There's no foul language in it and I tried over and over to get it on Morning Edition. There's no way. I submitted in rhymed couplet hoping they wouldn't remember the earlier version but that didn't work out either. There's always something they're afraid their listeners are going to be offended by, something I don't think about.
And I'm always surprised when I read a review of a book and they say it's scatological and they mean that as a put-down. I'm like, oh, how can that be a put-down?
HB: You can't be too scatological?
DS: Right. And when they say it's juvenile in that way, I'm up for it. When you talk about things like that, things most people don't talk about, they happen to be the things everybody can relate to. That turd story? There's nothing I've ever written that gets more laughs. Everyone has had that same experience, just as everyone -- well, not me, because I don't drive -- has had the experience of getting in their car and realizing they've left a wallet at home.
HB: I don't think that many people have had the experience you describe in "True Detective" of some family member beginning to use bathroom towels to wipe his or her ass, then, just as suddenly, stopping. That's not too ordinary.
DS: After "Naked" came out, I think it was last Christmas, my family and I got together and we realized it was my grandmother. We spent years wondering who was the culprit, but, of course, it was her.
HB: She thought toilet paper was a waste of money. I mean, after all, you can reuse towels. That's another thing; you don't mind making fun of immigrants, even your own grandmother. There's nothing pious or sentimental about your work.
HB: Well, you're gay, that's obvious in your writing, but there's no wonderfully poignant coming out story.
DS: I was asked to be in a book of people's coming out stories. Shudder shudder. Just because you're gay or whatever doesn't mean you're special. It doesn't mean your suffering is special, doesn't mean you're noble because people were mean to you one time. It doesn't mean anything. In the stories and the fiction, I'm always making fun of myself. If the character is selfish, and greedy, I need to tap that in myself. If the character is self-righteous, I need to find my own self-righteousness so I have some handle on it. If I'm coming across as a good guy, that's a warning sign.
HB: I find you overwhelmingly funny. If I'm sitting in, say, a doctor's waiting room reading you, it's embarrassing, kind of like masturbating in public. I can't stop laughing.
Someone posted a note to Amazon.com, the on-line bookstore, saying: "I read this book on a commuter train and I'm almost frightened at how hard I laughed. It was uncomfortable, like being covered by hundreds of ants or falling into a silo of feathers."
DS: If I'm lucky, I might laugh at the typewriter one time. That's the only time. When "Naked" came out, my boyfriend read it. I was in the next room going: what are you laughing at, what do you thing is so funny? You think *that's* funny?
In the new book, "Holidays on Ice," the fellow is reviewing the childrens' Christmas plays, and he says, "in the role of Mary six year old Shannon Burke just barely managed to pass herself off as virgin." I laughed, I thought that was pretty funny. And when I was reading it out loud, I thought I ought to pause here, because people will laugh, and I was right. But with other stories, I was shocked that people laughed as much as they did.
HB: That story, "Front Row Center," has a wonderful slant. You write: "Here again the first-through third-grade actors graced the stage with an enthusiasm most children reserve for a smallpox vaccination." You don't think that's funny?
DS: I don't think I'm completely serious; I just don't think it's worthy of an out and out laugh.
HB: Once I stop laughing and go back and reread some of what you've written -- if it doesn't make me laugh again, in which case I can't think about it -- I find it very caustic. Your view of things is very unsparing, very unflattering.
DS: That's probably fair. I had something on the radio about smoking. Some people said, oh, that was mean spirited. And I said, no, I'm really not that way, and then I thought, wait a minute: yeah, I am that way, why not just admit it?
HB: In "A Plague of Tics" you describe yourself as beset by tics as a child.
DS: I read that story out loud one time, and only one time, because I'm a ham when I read, so I had to illustrate all those tics. And it really hurt. I had a headache for two days afterwards.
HB: You've stopped having tics?
DS: When I started smoking. The head of the National Tourette's Association called me after she heard the story on the radio. She said it made perfect sense, something about nicotine triggering something in your brain that calms you down. It's a form of self-medication.
HB: So you're not real keen on quitting smoking.
DS: The results are terrible. Just put me on a plane across country, and I start. You know, I can sit here right now and leave you alone but if I was on a plane for six hours, I would have to touch something that belongs to you. If someone's sitting beside me, I have to touch that person's shoe. I think: don't think about it, don't think about it, don't think about it, but *no,* I have to touch this person's shoe. And just bending down and touching your shoe is simple. If I have to touch your seat or the headphones you're wearing, it's a mess.
During the last book tour I was in an airport and there was this kid who was just on fire. His father was hissing, "Cut that out, cut it out." I've had a lot of parents come up to me and say, my kid is doing this, what should I do? I say, pretend it's not happening, he's got to have one place where he's not embarrassed about it.
HB: You don't say, give the kid a Marlboro?
DS: Until he's old enough to smoke, just leave him alone. All the tics were described accurately in the story. It's only the teachers' visits that were different.
HB: Your mother and the teacher pal up right away.
DS: You want your mother to punch her out. The enemy's coming, defend me. Instead, they're laughing and talking
HB: Your mother is the constant thread in the stories. Actually, if I may say so, her mouth is a constant thread. I don't have a physical image of her.
DS: That's interesting.
HB: You describe her nail polish, her sunglasses, certainly her smoking, and lots about her personality, but never give a physical image of her. I hear her. I hear this acerbic, smart, unsentimental, bitchy woman.
DS: Uh huh.
HB: This very funny woman.
DS: Because we were raised with it, it just seemed perfectly normal to us. I wouldn't have wanted anyone else as a mother. We'd go over to someone else's house and see these sentimental characters, and just go back to our mother and tell her about this person and laugh and laugh.
HB: When Craig Seligman reviewed "Naked" for the New York Times, he warned the reader that even the bleakest of the stories "contain stuff you shouldn't read with your mouth full," but then he described your mother's "brassiness" as a cover-up for repressed emotion. That seemed corny. I never felt she couldn't express emotion, only that she had no time for sentimentality.
DS: My sister Amy lives close by. We see each other or talk on the phone everyday. We work on projects together. I have never hugged her. I've never said I love her. She's never said that to me, either. It would just be so awkward were one of us ever to say that. We know we love each other but to say it would be so creepy.
HB: It's obvious how much you appreciated your mother as the family diva she was. What isn't obvious until the last part of "Naked" is how little your mother and father enjoyed each other.
DS: Mine was the kind of family where you either belonged to your mother or you belonged to your father. There was no crossing over, until after my mother died when people were allowed to switch. I was never my Dad's, but now he would think I was his from day one. He calls just to talk.
HB: He doesn't hate your guts for this book? Someone in your family must hate your guts for this book. Ya-ya, your grandmother, were she alive, might hate your guts for this book.
DS: My father was upset about the way Ya-ya was portrayed. And he was upset by the portrait of my mom. He thought it should be an I Remember Mama kind of thing, where I would come home and she would have fresh cupcakes waiting for us on the window sill.
HB: In "Ashes," you describe going out for dinner with your mother, who's dying of cancer, and still smoking. Your father and mother get into it, and you describe this as their lifelong dance. The laughter stops for a minute.
DS: It wasn't until the book was finished that I had any view of it. I'd finish a story, many drafts of it, put it in a folder and wouldn't look back over it; it lived in a pile. It wasn't until I got ready to turn the book in that I took all those stories out. Now, when I look at the book, I think maybe it would have been better to forget about the nudist colony, It didn't really fit, and it might have been better to have more family stories.
At the time I thought, the reader would be like, oh enough already. But the nudist colony was the one false thing in "Naked."
HB: You are always peeling insulation and self-congratulation away. In "SantaLand Diaries," you wrote: "All of us take pride and pleasure in the fact that we are unique, but I'm afraid that when all is said and done the police are right: it all comes down to fingerprints."
DS: I've spent ten days at the office of the Medical Examiner in Phoenix. I'm writing about it. If you are John Doe, they do the autopsy, cut your hands off and save your hands in a bucket for a year. Here, look at these photographs.
HB: Body cavities, open skulls.
DS: They have a cooler with buckets of brains.
I went there for ten days. It was pretty severe, like body camp. You can die and donate your body to a body camp in Tennessee. They'll leave you underneath a pine tree for a few days, then drag you several miles and bury you under two inches of sandy soil. Someone has to find your body and figure it out. Oh, these pine needles are embedded in his ass.
HB: People think this is fun?
DS: Noyou have to be a crime scene investigator to go there. They had a schedule on the bulletin board: crime scene homicide seminar: 8 AM. High profile murder: 12 o'clock. Lunch, 1 PM. Blood spatter interpretation, 2 PM.
The first few days I was really shocked. Then it was like, unless they're really decomposed I don't want to see them.
HB: Now that you've done your family, they are going to turn you loose on other people? *Are* you done with your family.
DS: No. But there are things it wouldn't be right for me to say. My brothers and sisters would never talk to me again. I would save that for fiction.
HB: You were very domestic in your growing up, always vacuuming with your mother, having conversations while cleaning up.
DS: It was just really good for me to have some busy work. You can get really obsessive, you can get out your tooth brush and clean.
HB: Other kids might have been watching television.
DS: I would clean the fan, instead. It always suited me.
HB: Who do you like to read?
DS: Susan Sheehan, who writes a lot about social issues for The New Yorker. Her last book is called, "Is There no Place on Earth for Me," about generations of people raised in foster care. What I like about that book is she's invisible. If she had commented on it, it wouldn't have worked. Like this little girl, her last words from her dad are "Go on now little ho, and bust one for me." She leaves it at that. I love her stuff. She had another great book where she spent three years with a paranoid schizophrenic.
Any kind of pathology, my sister Amy and I both, we're right there. Nothing is as satisfying to us.
HB: When you write your pieces, do you they free you a bit from whatever it is you're writing about, from your own family's pathology, say?
DS: There's no cathartic effect. I read one review that said writing these stories obviously helped me overcome terrible pain. I was like, I wish my mother was alive so we could laugh at that one. I don't expect my life to be changed either by reading a story or by writing one.
HB: Where are you going with your writing now?
DS: I'm under contract to write a novel. I thought I'd give it a try. Lately anyway, I tend to enjoy nonfiction over fiction, and I don't have any idea of the architecture of the novel. But I think you can call anything a novel now. I was thinking maybe a fake true crime novel, because I love true crime books, so just write a fake one. If it doesn't work out, I'll realize it before the book is published. I don't want to write a crummy novel just because I have to write a novel. Then I have to write a collection. That's what I'm under contract for.
I'm going to France for a year, in August. We don't have a telephone or a fax machine. It's just a village with eight houses. So you can look at everything clearly. Oh, there's greed, there's avarice, that's a gossip, that's a miser. In New York, you run into those people all day every day and you can't keep it straight in your mind.
HB: Does that mean you're not going to be on radio?
DS: We'll have a phone in Paris, so I'll probably work something out.
HB: Cafe Boeuf.
DS: More like Cafe Feedbag.
HB: It seems like you and Ira Glass push NPR about as far out as it will go.
DS: Ira really changed my life. First time I was on the radio, there was a time before I was on the radio and a time after, as different as day and night. First time I was on the radio the phone was ringing off the hook like a switchboard. Even if I don't care to take those opportunities it's always nice to be asked, to go from being somebody with no opportunities to somebody who has them.
You look at things from the point of view of someone who doesn't have many possibilities; that's what your writing about. Then, all of a sudden you're not there any more, you're like some rock star talking about running out of gas in New Jersey. But you're never gonna run out of gas again so you'd better have a good memory. I don't think people are interested in reading about my meeting with a movie executive. Because I'm going to complain about it, and someone's gonna think, well, what the hell is he complaining about? That's what anybody would want.
But I would rather clean someone's toilet, really, than endure a lunch like that again. I'm no happier now.
HB: Don't you prefer not having to clean toilets for a living?
DS: It doesn't make any difference to me. I have writer friends who have jobs, and feel humiliated by having to work. It never occurred to me to be humiliated. I worked for some nasty people who would really talk down to me. I loved it. I thought, this is something, I'm going to go home and write about this. I was completely content.
After radio, somebody would say, can you come clean our apartment? And I'd get there and the house would be already be clean, and they'd say, here's a story you can use on radio, you're going to love this story.
If anything, I'm less happy now, because before I could go to work and clean the Rosenblatt's, who had taken all their Thanksgiving dishes and piled them next to a radiator and left them there for four days for me to come and clean them. I need a jackhammer to get the stains off of it. But that doesn't bother me, that's not going to define my day. But now my whole day is: all I did is write one page of this story I have to turn in, and it's not good enough I feel like shit. I wouldn't feel like shit if I still had a job. and it wouldn't matter what the job is as long as I didn't have to fake it.
I believe I've already outlasted the amount of time that I would have to be popular. I though it would be over with "Naked."
HB: But you've arrived.
DS: When you've arrived, it's time for you to go.
HB: It takes courage to go once you've arrived.
DS: I don't know that anyone has a choice. You're thrown out.