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David Sedaris On The Life-Altering And Mundane Pages Of His Old Diaries

David Sedaris lives in West Sussex, England, where he's known for picking up trash along the side of the road.
Ingrid Christie
Little, Brown and Company
David Sedaris lives in West Sussex, England, where he's known for picking up trash along the side of the road.

Humorist David Sedaris admits that his latest work, Theft by Finding, isn't exactly the book he set out to publish. It was originally meant to be a collection of funny diary entries, but then Sedaris' editor had a suggestion that changed its course.

"My editor said, 'Why don't you go back to the very beginning and find things that aren't necessarily funny and put those in as well?' " Sedaris says. "Soon those [entries] outweighed the funny ones, and the funny ones seemed almost over-produced, so I got rid of a lot of them."

The result is a collection of moments pulled from the diaries Sedaris wrote between 1977 and 2002. Theft by Finding includes major turning points in Sedaris' life: the NPR broadcast of excerpts from his SantaLand Diaries collection, meeting his longtime boyfriend, Hugh, and the death of his mother. But most of the entries are quieter moments in which Sedaris writes about cleaning houses for a living, doing drugs and observing patrons at IHOP.

Though Sedaris has published personal stories and books based on his journals before, the idea of pulling from decades-old diaries took some getting used to.

"Publishing a first draft of something you wrote when you were drunk and 21 — I'll do it if it works and it's inviting on the paper, but a lot of the entries in this book, they're like three lines long," he says. "I might've written four pages that day, but of those four pages the only thing that might be of interest to someone else are these three lines."

Interview Highlights

On wanting to be a successful writer

I really don't think anybody could've wanted it more. ... I was picturing exactly the life that I have today. Exactly the life that I have. ...

A lot of people don't know what they want, or they're just kind of vague about it. I was never vague. I knew exactly what I wanted.

I recently saw that movie La La Land on a plane and it made me think about people who didn't have dreams. There are plenty of people I know in my life who — I don't mean to suggest in any way that they're failures — but I don't know that they ever wanted things, like were very specific about what it was that they wanted. ...

A lot of people don't know what they want, or they're just kind of vague about it. I was never vague. I knew exactly what I wanted. That doesn't mean that you're going to get it, but it's scary ... because what if that doesn't happen?

On how reading helps teach people how to write

There are folk artists out there who live in the woods, who have never been to a museum, who can create artwork that will move you, right? But there's no such thing as a folk writer. There's no such thing as somebody who's never read a book before suddenly sitting down one day and writing one. You have to learn how to captivate a reader. I don't mean you have to go to school for it, but if you pay attention you can learn it by reading books.

On how he met his boyfriend Hugh

We met through a mutual friend, borrowing a ladder. That's just such a nice story. I meet so many [couples] and I [say], "How did you guys meet?" and they say "OKCupid" or "Grindr," so it sounds so very old fashioned to meet someone over a ladder. At least ladders still exist.

On how he reacted to friend and fellow writer David Rakoff's illness

You know how, like, when people get sick sometimes you just don't want to acknowledge that they're sick? ... I think about [writer] David Rakoff. The last time I saw David he looked awful. ... He had Hodgkin lymphoma years ago and then he had radiation for it, and then the radiation caused a new kind of cancer.

When I last saw him, I just said, "Alright, I'll see you later." And I knew I would never see him later, but it just seemed like if I had said more than that it was just burdening him. He was so brave and who was I to suggest that he wouldn't get better?

On his sister Tiffany, who took her own life in 2013

My sister Tiffany was child number five. So she was the youngest girl and the second to the youngest child; there were six kids in the family.

It's interesting. Looking back over her life, my mom never really liked Tiffany very much. Tiffany was too much like my mother, and I remember that as a child almost ... I just thought, Ugh, wouldn't want to be Tiffany. ...

The rest of us should've said, "Mom, you need to do something about this, because that's not OK for you to treat somebody that way." But we never said that. We never called our mother on her behavior towards Tiffany. You think, You're 7, what are you going to do? But I wasn't always 7. I was 20 and I was 30. ... Tiffany had a lot of anger at us and a lot of it was really well-founded. We were adults, we could've said to our mother, "This isn't OK." ...

[Per Tiffany's wishes] nobody [from the family] went to the memorial service. Her ashes went to somebody that she had worked with once, and my sister Lisa called this woman and said, "Could we have just a thimble full to scatter in the ocean behind the beach house?" And the woman said, "No." I understand that. Tiffany didn't want us to have them. The woman was just honoring Tiffany's wishes.

On deciding to quit drinking after years of struggling to admit he was an alcoholic

I was on tour and it was one thing to be drinking like that at home, but it's a lot to take that show on the road. ... I would be on a book tour, and so I'm signing books, and let's say I get back to the room at like 1 o'clock in the morning, and then it's time to start drinking. ... And then you order room service around 4. And then you get high, and, oh look, it's 5:30 in the morning and it's time for your car to come and take you to the airport. ...

I had been wanting to quit for a long time. I was afraid to quit, afraid that I wouldn't be able to write, because I started drinking shortly after I started writing. And then I kind of got it in my head that I needed to be drinking while I wrote. ... I don't know why I was so convinced of it, it's like saying "I can't sing unless I have a blue shirt on."

Radio producers Sam Briger and Heidi Saman and Web producers Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper contributed to this story.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.