David Sedaris and Andrew Sean Greer on Humor, Loss and Books

Though Andrew Sean Greer and David Sedaris met fairly recently—after Greer reviewed Sedaris’ book The Best of Me in 2021—they already banter like old pals, each fighting to land the last laugh. These authors have much in common. They both are well-known for funny writing and sharp observations about the world. Both love shopping. Their first date was a New York City shopping trip. “Andy will try on anything,” Sedaris says. Greer raises the stakes: “Everything!”

Another thing these two authors have in common: each has traveled extensively throughout the U.S. Greer’s new novel There is less to loseHis Pulitzer Prize-winning 2017 novel, “The Second Coming”, is now available as a sequel. LessNow, the book follows Arthur Less, a successful and awkward novelist, on his road trip through the country. Greer himself spent time on the road to research what such a trip might entail—and found himself traversing communes, visiting dive bars, and sporting wraparound sunglasses in an attempt to blend in with locals. (The last one didn’t work, and his novel’s protagonist goes through a similar snafu.) All of these moments are combined into an entertaining story about privilege and loss.

Reflections on similar themes can be found in Sedaris’ latest essay collection, Happy-Go-LuckyIt was published May. It was written by Sedaris and included his personal experiences with dealing with the pandemic, the multi-city book tour, as well as the loss of his father. While his book is a nonfiction and Greer’s is a novel, both explore what it means to be a person in America and how to cope with loss, all through a comedic lens.

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Greer, a caller from San Francisco and Sedaris in England called the international conversation. He spoke from the country of Sussex and the two discussed recent travels as well as how they see humor in the loss and what they hope to discover about those around them.

TIME: Your books both feature travel around America. What’s your favorite place you’ve visited in the U.S. in the last few years?

David SedarisDurango Colorado, I was truly surprised. It looks like they’d film a Western there. There is a river running through the area that you feel like you could bend down to take a drink. There’s a trail that runs along both sides for miles and miles and miles. I walk until my toenails turn black and fall off, so it’s great to wake up in the town, go outside my door, use this beautiful trail, and all you hear is rushing water. What’s your place Andy?

Andrew Sean Greer: Bisbee, Arizona. It’s way down south, almost at the border and right near New Mexico. While driving to Tucson I stopped to rest my car and then parked it there for the night. After the show, I went with the musicians to a bar. It was very charming, but not hipster.

Sedaris: Did you dance?

Greer: I danced.

Sedaris:Are you a free-spirited dancer?

Greer:Yes. If I attend a performance, I am often stopped. People around me will say, “Please stop dancing,” and the song playing is called “Dance, Dance, Dance.” I’m doing what they’re telling me to do! But I’m not aware of my surroundings.

Sedaris:Was that what you were doing during the war?

Greer: This is the RV trip that I went on to study. There is less to lose. Every small place I could locate on the map I visited.

Sedaris:So what are you going to do next? Do you keep a diary?

Greer:It’s exactly the same as you. Do you have a notebook? Do you write constantly? That’s what I do. Also like you, I’m utterly curious about people.

TIME: What’s the best mode of transportation to learn the most about people?

Sedaris: It’s the bus People’s phones don’t necessarily work on trains, but they do on buses. It’s changed a little bit. In the past, everyone was using the phone to communicate on buses in Britain. You’ve never heard so many languages spoken in such a small space. Nowadays, people look exactly like their friends on Instagram or texting. What do you think? Are my friends like me?

Greer:Lyft’s early days were filled with fantasies about a kindergarten teacher needing money to travel to Spain. You rode along her car. It was a great experience to talk with everyone on the entire ride. That’s all gone now.

Sedaris: What is the reason it has disappeared? Why is it gone?

Greer:Everybody else is on their phones, and they don’t expect to speak to you. They do sometimes talk to you. The driver I got in New York the last time I saw you, we had a long conversation where I told him I was gay and he said, “You really should try it with a woman first before you commit. You should go to Thailand and hire a prostitute.” I hadn’t heard anything like that in a long time. I was like, “Tell me more! Where should I go?”

TIME: The fictional Less is experiencing various mishaps, humiliations in your two books. What is the best way to use embarrassment in order to inspire empathy?

Sedaris:The most embarrassing thing that you can mention is usually the one most people can relate too. We’re not that different, and if something embarrassing happened to you, chances are it happened to a lot of other people.

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TIME: These past few years were a difficult time. Do you see humor in writing when so much culture, politics, and culture is focused upon doom and gloom.

Greer:I get my news from the late-night TV shows. That’s how I’m processing things. You seem to hear them tell the truth more.

Sedaris: It is a great public service to help people get past their problems. The other day I was with a friend and she said, “Look at that man over in the corner. Look at how privileged he is—you can just tell how he’s so used to getting his way.” I looked over at the man she was talking about. Then she said, “Did I tell you? When they turned down service, they took all of the pillows from my hotel room. I called downstairs and said, ‘I can’t sleep with big pillows. I need someone to bring my small pillows back.’” She was just talking about how privileged that man was. You can listen to your own words! There was a way to say that to her so she could laugh and realize that she’s pretty privileged herself.

TIME: You both see humor in death and mortality, according to your books. Are you able to find inspiration in writing about certain absurdities related to loss?

Greer: It’s naturally funny. My oldest friend’s parents both died in the past 10 years. [After the deaths] they were sitting Shiva and couldn’t move for days. Non-practicing Jews were not allowed to sit there except at this funeral. All they could do was laugh.

Sedaris:It is never my experience that writing can be cathartic. Nothing’s real to me until I write about it. It makes it manageable, in a way, and that seems like the very definition of cathartic—I just wouldn’t ever use that word. Andy said that people want to have a good time in situations like this.

TIME: Are there things you feel you can write after losing a loved one that you couldn’t write while they were alive?

Greer:When my grandmother was still alive, I can recall writing about her. In a story, I used someone similar to her. She wore her hair in a 1960s bouffant still into the ’90s. It was almost like she was in a hot balloon. There were worse things in the story, but that’s what worried her. I thought: I’ll never do that again.

Sedaris: If somebody said to me, “Andy based this character on you in his book,” I wouldn’t read it. I wouldn’t read anything about me. Sometimes when people are upset I’m like, “Well, what did you read it for?” People actually get more upset about that in fiction than they do in nonfiction.

Greer:Do you think so?

Sedaris: Yes, because with fiction, people can decide if you’ve based something on them. I don’t write a lot of fiction, but I had that book A Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk and people were like, “He made that Owl mean. He made me that Owl.”

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