Wednesday, 16 October 2013

60 Seconds with David Sedaris

Photography by Anje Kirsch
David Sedaris is the author of Barrel Fever and Holidays on Ice, as well as collections of personal essays, Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and When You Are Engulfed in Flames, each of which became a bestseller. Seven million copies of his books are in print, translated into 25 languages. He was the editor of Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules: An Anthology of Outstanding Stories. Sedaris’s pieces appear regularly in The New Yorker and in “The Best American Essays.” A collection of fables entitled Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary (with illustrations by Ian Falconer) was published in September 2010 immediately hit the NYT Bestseller Fiction List. His latest book is entitled Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, published 2013. 

He travels extensively though Europe and the United States on lecture tours and lives in West Sussex with his partner, Hugh. 

One September afternoon, David came to Switzerland to read, sign and meet 400 of his fans. A sellout event. I met David beforehand for an interview and managed to cock up my recording device. A blessing in disguise. I am a massive Sedaris fan ... so here are the words. Just the words. All snorts, howls and fangirl gushing mercifully deleted. - JJ Marsh

Where do you write?

I have an office. Well, more than one. But my favourite is at home in West Sussex. It’s a separate building, one up, one down and it used to be a butcher’s shop, but we converted it. You know The Observer does that feature on writers’ rooms and they’re all chaotic, artistic and messy? Mine’s really neat and clean. When I get stuck for a word, I dust. My room is more Barbara Cartland than Ian McEwan.

Which was the book that changed your life?

Angela’s Ashes
, by Frank McCourt. It’s incredibly hard to get into the head of a child without being cloying or false. But he achieved that so well, he inspired a whole generation of memoir writers. People often react to this fifty-year-old upstart who burst out of nowhere, but Frank McCourt had done his time.

Do you have a word or phrase that you most overuse?

‘Fantastic’. But never ‘awesome’.

I hate the way Americans overuse the word ‘awesome’. In fact, I often fine people a dollar a time at events for using the A-word. I warn them first, because it’s only fair, but I can make pretty good money that way.

Have your expat experiences made you particularly attuned to cultural quirks?

Sure. Observing as a stranger makes you aware of your environment, because you want to adapt, to fit in, to do as the locals do. Years ago, I got off a train in Tokyo and lit a cigarette. Then I realised no one else was smoking. So I wanted to get rid of the goddamed thing, but there were no butts on the floor and no trash cans. Eventually I stubbed it out and put it in the cuff of my pants.

I know you’re serious about learning languages. What are your favourite foreign words?

One I learned this week – Drachenfutter. [Literally, dragonfood – a present to appease a pissed-off spouse]. I love that German has a word for every possible concept.

And Nacktschnecke [naked snail, ie, slug]. When I told my publisher that Hugh, my boyfriend, cuts slugs in half with a pair of scissors, he said ‘Der Todesschrei der Nacktschnecke’ [The Death-Cry of the Slug]. That will be the title of my next book. And it works so much better in German.

I’m so impressed that you study the language before going on a book tour.

It’s not always possible, but I took a month-long course in German because I wanted to be able to talk to people. A book signing means you can get hours of practice with native speakers. I did the same with Swedish. On planes, I often get excited when I recognise someone saying ‘delightful’ or ‘thirteen’ in another language. Once I got ticketed for jaywalking in Poland, and tried out my Polish phrases on those wardens. They found me so funny, and by that I mean ridiculous, they let me off. I can get away with a whole lot more now I’m older.

 For me, learning some of the language means learning the way a culture thinks. Take Drachenfutter. The French don’t have a word for that. We taught our neighbours in Normandy the expression ‘in the doghouse’ and now they use it all the time.

Is there a book you were supposed to like but didn't? Or a book you expected to hate but loved?

Lolita. I thought that would be hard work, but I really enjoyed it. Same with The Great Gatsby. I only read that about three years ago and have no idea why I waited so long.

The thing about books that are tough going ... people say to me, ‘I’ve been reading Ulysses or that thing by Gertrude Stein for the last six months’ ... and I think, ‘Life’s too short’.

Hugh’s different. He reads books covered with a thick layer of dust, with no cars in, because they hadn’t been invented back then. Then he gives them to his Mom and they talk about them at dinner, while I ... [mimes falling asleep].

Are you still Wombling?

Yes! I collect rubbish all the time. Around two or three hours a day, I pick up the trash from the lanes of West Sussex. I can’t stop. It drives me crazy. All that beautiful scenery carpeted with crap.

Your writing is funny, endearing and has popular appeal. But I can’t help thinking you’re expressing a certain amount of anger.

I am full of rage. Really. Full of rage. It’s easier when you’re with someone else, but when I’m alone, I get so angry at so many little things.


Crappy coffee.

Double strollers parked in the doorway of a shop. A shop I didn’t actually want to go into, but still.

Parisians. I can generalise in this case. Parisians are the worst when it comes to a complete lack of awareness of others. They step off an escalator and just stand there.

What, London is better?

Yes! I point out to visitors how they take manners and consideration for others seriously. Look at their escalators. Everyone obeys the rule. Stand on the right.

You mentioned Frank McCourt and spoke of yourself as a memoir writer.

The whole classification thing is difficult. I’d like to think of myself as someone who writes for The New Yorker. You don’t have anything quite like it in England, but that magazine, to me, represents some of the greatest humorists, political observers, satirists and wits for the last hundred years. When they first asked me to write for them, I said, ‘I don’t have a New Yorker kind of story.’ They said, ‘Send it, and let us decide’.

And bookshops make their own decisions about how to classify my work. In some places, I’m filed under ‘Gay’, simply because I use the term ‘my boyfriend’. I’m sure people are disappointed. I mean, it’s not like there’s a chapter on fisting.

I just finished The Happy Place on the train here. [David’s account of his colonoscopy]. There was one line, when you woke up, till high on the anaesthetic: ‘I gave her a little finger wave, the type a leprechaun might give to a pixie floating by on a maple leaf’.

I like that one too! But I’m worried I’m getting a little obsessed by leprechauns.

Have you managed to work out the hospital photographs yet?

No. I gave up on that. You know, I have my hands full worrying about the parts people can see. Hair, skin, this eye ... so what my intestine looks like doesn’t really bother me.

Which writers make you laugh?

A lot. Jincey Willet. And George Saunders. Basically anyone who surprises you with the way they use language. We get so used to hearing the same patterns of words, we don’t realise how numb we’ve become. When’s the last time you heard ‘goblin’?
OK, bad example.

What I love is when someone uses an unexpected combination of words to create a perfect image. Like when Julie Klausner described Anna Wintour as ‘that cunt skeleton’.

And lastly, the title: Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. Where did that come from?

Some people can be very insistent about exactly what they want written in their books. One woman told me to sign a book for her daughter with the line, ‘Explore your possibilities’.

No. I’m never going to write that.

I kept the word ‘explore’ but wrote ‘Let’s explore ... diabetes with ... owls’. As soon as I’d finished writing, I knew I had the title for my next book.

But best be careful with demands. One young man asked me to sign his book with something shocking and outrageous for his mother. So I did.

‘Dear Barbara, your son Connor left teethmarks on my dick.’

By JJ Marshauthor, reader, Triskelite, journalist, Nuancer, reviewer and blogger. Likes: pugs, Werner Herzog and anchovies. Dislikes: meat, chocolate and institutionalised sexism. Short story collection out now.

How to Find an Agent/Publisher – The Easy Way

By JJ Marsh

I know what you’re thinking.
This is misfiled and should be under the Satire section.
Let me explain.

Previously ...

Back in the days when I still wanted a publisher, I knew I needed an agent first. It used to take me a week to trawl through the Writers & Artists Yearbook for my shortlist.

Add several more to research each agent’s likes/dislikes/quirks of submission process, explore their client list, evaluate the agency and shorten the shortlist.

Plus I then needed to tailor each letter accordingly.

After all of that, because I don’t live in the UK, I needed IRCs and SAEs, the obtainment of which was a PIA.

I’m no longer agent/publisher hunting, but many writers are. So what if I told you there’s an easier way to do both?

Agent Hunter

Agent Hunter is a database of all UK literary agents, their agencies and publishers. The database is regularly updated, continually fact-checked, and extremely comprehensive. You can sort the entries on the database to develop your own personal shortlist of agents/agencies and/or publishers.

I’m going guinea-pig.

I’ll start by looking for an agency. I want large (6 agents and upwards) and definitely members of the Association of Authors’ Agents. No more IRC faffing about, either. They have to take email submissions.

Enter above requirements and bingo – 11 agencies, with list of agents, contact details, latest news, submission requirements, and further details – for example, open to foreign authors. Save that search – I’ll need it later.

OK, now to find the right agent. New search and much more opportunity to refine my requirements. I can search for likes/dislikes, number of clients, email subs, other passions, etc. Plus, all the details of how to make a submission and email address.

I write European crime. I want an agent with experience, with a limited list, open to new clients, who likes literary Eurocrime.
I input my details on Agent Hunter and in seconds, have a list of 18 candidates. I can see each one’s client list, blog, Twitter handle and likes/dislikes. Plus, all the details of how to make a submission and email address. Result!

Save that one for future reference and come at it from another angle.

Search for an agent who represents authors who write in a similar genre – Alexander McCall Smith and Kate Atkinson. (Caroline Walsh and Peter Straus respectively, if you’re interested.)

Onto publishers. OK, who accepts unagented submissions? 32 results for smaller/independent houses, 4 major houses, and 15 children’s. All details available, plus guidelines for effective submission.

So, the upshot of my experiment? Agent Hunter is effective, efficient, idiot-proof and a timesaving godsend to the harassed writer. And for twelve quid a year, a bargain.

How much?
Subscription costs £12 a year with a 7-day free trial

Agent Hunter is the creation of The Writers' Workshop, the UK's largest editorial consultancy for new writers.


This is a global site for anyone involved in publishing – a permanent online trade fair.

For writers, service providers, publishers, adaptors, translators, agents and literary scouts, Pubmatch is a kind of online dating agency.If you're unpublished, need a cover designer, just published, need a marketer, published loads already, seeking an international rights agent, looking to sell audio/TV rights, want an illustrator ... they’re all here.

Registering as an author shows you and your books to rights buyers, suppliers and agents around the world. You can also search the network for agents and publishers who work in your genre, find cover designers, search for editors, etc, etc. Particularly handy if you’re going to a trade show, you can organise meetings via the site.

So I gave it a go.

I uploaded my author profile, added my books, lost the entire thing several times (tip: get all your metadata on one doc, including quotes and reviews to facilitate recovery and minimise tooth-grinding). I also created a catalog(ue) of available rights for my books.

I invited a few contacts for meetings at Frankfurt Book Fair (all accepted, which gave me a bit of a shock) and received several invitations, at least two of which look intriguing.

When using the site, I encountered a couple of issues, but both my emails received friendly, helpful replies and solutions within hours. Impressive.

So now I just sit back and wait for the phone to ring ...

How much?
Two possible memberships: FREE or Premium - $79.99.

Alternatively, if you’re a member of The Alliance of Independent Authors, you can take advantage of a special deal – Premium Membership for $9.99

PubMatch is a partnership between Publishers Weekly and The Combined Book Exhibit Family of Companies. Publishers Weekly is an institution in worldwide publishing arena. The Combined Book Exhibit Family of Companies has over a century of experience in the publishing industry - specifically in the arena of trade shows, marketing and connecting publishers for the exchange of ideas.

By JJ Marshauthor, reader, Triskelite, journalist, Nuancer, reviewer and blogger. Likes: pugs, Werner Herzog and anchovies. Dislikes: meat, chocolate and institutionalised sexism. Short story collection out now.

60 Seconds with Sharon Olds

Sharon Olds is one of contemporary poetry’s leading voices. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award, Olds is known for writing intensely personal, emotionally scathing poetry which graphically depicts family life as well as global political events.

Olds’s candor has led to both high praise and condemnation. Her work is often built out of intimate details concerning her children, her fraught relationship with her parents and, most controversially, her sex life.

Olds’s latest book, Stag’s Leap (2012), includes poems that explore details of her recent divorce, and the book won both the Pulitzer Prize and Britain's T.S. Eliot prize. In awarding the latter, Carol Ann Duffy, chair of the final judging panel, said: “This was the book of her career. There is a grace and chivalry in her grief that marks her out as being a world-class poet. I always say that poetry is the music of being human, and in this book she is really singing. Her journey from grief to healing is so beautifully executed.”

Olds has won numerous awards for her work, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Widely anthologized, her work has also been published in a number of journals and magazines. She was New York State Poet from 1998 to 2000, and currently teaches in the graduate writing program at New York University.

Which book most influenced you when growing up?

The Bible -- the Psalms and Song of Solomon.

Describe your writing space – what’s in it and why? 

Window overlooking water, trees, sky (city or country); train, bus (window seat); any window overlooking anything.

Who or what had the biggest impact on your writing life?

4/4 time of church hymnal; music -- classical and rock & roll; stories to tell.

The word I most think of while reading your poetry is fearless. What are you afraid of?

Everything. (I’m copying Adrienne Rich!)

Do you have a word or phrase that you most overuse?

Golden sweet amber bright etc.!!

So many reviewers compare your work to music. How do you perceive the relationship between words and sound?

I didn’t know that -- I’m happy! I guess I perceive the relationship with my ears, body (dancing, walking), breathing, and eyes.

Is there a book you were supposed to love but didn’t? Or one you expected to hate and fell for?

Supposed to but: the book of child martyrs I won as a choir prize (loudest voice).

What’s your view on the future of poetry?


Do you have a guilty reading pleasure?

For essential escape from my own mind, for mental travel, for emotion, for the study of guilt and fear and (someone else’s) (imaginary) danger, I read detective stories and murder mysteries (no horror).

Your legacy will be both poetry and poets – what do you learn from teaching?

How to listen, how to pay attention to 12 people at once, how to describe, what life is like now for the young, how poetry changes with the changing world.

Which work has impressed you most this year?

The advances the younger poets have made away from sentimentality and self-pity.

Would you share a line from a review you liked?

May I share a poem which contains a line from a review?

(Jonathan Cape and A. A. Knopf/Random House - One Secret Thing)

In a parallel universe, what job would you be doing?

If it’s right beside us, a mirror opposite, I would be writing poems backwards.

By JJ Marshauthor, reader, Triskelite, journalist, Nuancer, reviewer and blogger. Likes: pugs, Werner Herzog and anchovies. Dislikes: meat, chocolate and institutionalised sexism. Short story collection out now.