New pages for an open book

David Sedaris pub­lishes his di­aries and adds to the story of his funny, far­ci­cal and fraught art and life

Los Angeles Times - - BOOK REVIEW - By Lau­ren Chris­tensen Chris­tensen is the as­so­ciate fea­tures edi­tor at Harper’s Bazaar.

Ever since NPR lis­ten­ers heard his break­out “Santa-Land Di­aries” on “Morn­ing Edi­tion” in 1992, David Sedaris has be­come a reign­ing mas­ter of crys­talline so­cial com­men­tary and blis­ter­ingly hu­mor­ous self-re­flec­tion. His un­for­get­table au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal es­say col­lec­tions, writ­ten in just the last quar­ter-cen­tury — works such as “Bar­rel Fever,” “Me Talk Pretty One Day” and “When You Are En­gulfed in Flames” — have be­come mod­ern clas­sics.

They re­veal the au­thor’s life in un­spar­ingly per­sonal, of­ten gritty, al­ways poignant de­tail; Sedaris has al­ways been an open book when it comes to the beau­ti­fully twisted nu­ances of his mid­dle­class, sub­ur­ban fam­ily (in­clud­ing his now-also-fa­mous sis­ter, Amy), his ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity (and his longterm part­ner, Hugh), his strug­gles with drugs and al­co­hol (and OCD) and so much more. But per­haps his most in­ti­mate is “Theft by Find­ing,” a col­lec­tion of his di­aries writ­ten be­tween 1977 and 2002. That he be­gan with a diary and finds him­self re­turn­ing to the form cre­ates an arc that ties to­gether his far­ci­cal and fraught art and life. Sedaris comes to L.A. next week; tick­ets for his Wed­nes­day event at Royce Hall at UCLA are avail­able. This con­ver­sa­tion has been edited. How did this book come about?

I started read­ing from my di­aries years ago, I think in 1986. I usu­ally end any evening — whether it’s a book tour or a lec­ture — by read­ing from my diary. I just find things and think, “Oh, I bet this would work.” So I thought the book would just be en­tries from my folder of “things that work.” But then my edi­tor said, “Why don’t you go back to the very be­gin­ning and find things that aren’t nec­es­sar­ily funny and think about adding those?” And then when I did, the orig­i­nal pieces I’d in­cluded seemed over­pro­duced, some­how, in com­par­i­son, so I wound up cut­ting them. Tell me about your process for keep­ing the diary.

It’s the first thing I do when I wake up in the morn­ing. But along with the diary I also have a Fit­bit that rules my life, so some­times I also have to get my steps in. So like to­day, I got up and wrote in my diary for maybe 20 min­utes at the ho­tel, and then I had to go to the air­port and, since I got there 21⁄2 hours be­fore my flight, I just walked around the At­lanta air­port for a cou­ple hours. And then once I fin­ished that, then I could fin­ish writ­ing in my diary. So you still keep it?

Oh, yeah, I can’t imag­ine not writ­ing in my diary. I mean, the world would spin off its axis and ev­ery­one, all of us, would die. I could never stop. It doesn’t have any­thing to do with me hav­ing any­thing worth­while to say — it’s a com­pul­sion. I keep it on my com­puter, so I can scroll back. I have an es­say that re­cently came out in the New Yorker, and my diary was a big help in writ­ing that. What did you write in to­day’s en­try?

Yes­ter­day in At­lanta this guy said, “Hey, are you here for the ro­tary con­ven­tion?” And I stopped and looked at my­self be­cause my first thought was, “Oh, my God, what am I wear­ing? That I look like I’d be in town for a ro­tary con­ven­tion?” So I said, “No,” and he asked, “Can I ask you a ques­tion, man to man?” And that’s when I said to my­self, “Dam­mit, he got me.” Like, why did I even stop? “Can I ask you a ques­tion?” is al­ways “Can you give me money?” Al­ways, al­ways. And that’s why you never stop. Be­cause he re­ally got me by ask­ing if I was in town for the ro­tary. I didn’t give him any money, but he ru­ined my day. Why did he think he could ask you for money?

Ev­ery­body thinks they can ask me for money, be­cause I’m small. If you’re a small man you get asked for money. I can go out with Hugh and no­body both­ers him at all, whereas it’s in­sane how of­ten I get asked for things. What was it like to dig back into your his­tory from 40 years ago? Did any­thing make you cringe?

I started with the very first day and just read through ev­ery­thing. It took me a cou­ple of years, be­cause there’s only so much of me that I can take. Oh, God, I got so sick of me. If I ever sell my pa­pers, I think I’ll rip a lot of pages out.

But for the most part you for­give your­self for be­ing 20. Ev­ery­one was 20 once; it’s just that I have a lit­tle more ev­i­dence of it than most peo­ple. What I had a hard time with was be­ing phony. I mean, I was sit­ting at the In­ter­na­tional House of Pan­cakes with a beret on at a ta­ble, read­ing Susan Son­tag’s “On Pho­tog­ra­phy” and writ­ing in my diary. So, you know, you have to for­give your­self. I ac­tu­ally laughed a lot when I was read­ing it, which was a nice sur­prise. Your hu­mor is of­ten mixed with el­e­ments of dark­ness, is this a nar­ra­tive strat­egy, or a form of self-ther­apy?

I don’t know, I guess I have an eye for two things jux­ta­posed next to each other. Like my sis­ter Tif­fany hav­ing that ec­topic pregnancy and then she says, “When can I have sex again?” It was funny. Or like when the war in Iraq be­gan, I heard the news from Lau­ren Ba­call who’s wear­ing a jew­eled head­pin that says, “I love Paris.” She wasn’t say­ing it to me per­son­ally, but she kind of an­nounced it to the room and I was just in a sit­u­a­tion that I didn’t be­long in. You take one step back and the hor­ri­ble be­comes the ridicu­lous. Com­edy aside, your own drug­fu­eled misad­ven­tures fig­ure quite promi­nently in your younger en­tries. How do you look back on that pe­riod now, with the ben­e­fit of hind­sight?

Hind­sight has al­lowed me to be in­cred­i­bly grate­ful, be­cause if I were ad­dicted to meth now and my dealer left town, there’d just be an­other dealer to step in and take her place. But it wasn’t pop­u­lar back then. So when the woman who sold to me moved to Florida, I had nowhere to get it, so I had to detox, and I’m grate­ful for that. It’s not like I’m a strong per­son who could have quit on his own; this is the only way I would have quit. You say you wouldn’t have had the strength and yet you quit drink­ing cold turkey decades later. Where did you find that courage?

One of the things I have in my fa­vor is that work was al­ways the most im­por­tant thing. I fig­ured that booze was help­ing me as a writer. I had never writ­ten any­thing with­out drink­ing. So that was the hard part about quit­ting drink­ing: I thought that I wouldn’t be able to write again. But the drink­ing is a lot to take on the road with the sched­ule that I have. Be­cause I don’t want to drink in pub­lic at a book sign­ing: I want to drink alone, in my room, after I’m fin­ished with all that stuff. A cou­ple nights ago I got back to my room after the book sign­ing at quar­ter to 5 in the morn­ing, so that’s when I would’ve had to start drink­ing: at quar­ter to 5. Quit­ting just made my life eas­ier. The same with smok­ing: I used to never be able to write un­less I was smok­ing; so I couldn’t write on a plane or any­thing. Now I can just do it any­where. I don’t need to drink, I don’t need to smoke. It’s all just based around work. That was al­ways the first con­sid­er­a­tion. What did you leave out edit­ing your di­aries for pub­li­ca­tion?

I’m gen­er­ally not afraid to make my­self look bad. Usu­ally, if you make your­self look bad, that’s a thing that at­taches you to peo­ple be­cause we’re not all that dif­fer­ent. I just looked for the parts that were en­ter­tain­ing or il­lu­mi­nat­ing in some way, so it might look like I wrote four sen­tences on one day when re­ally I prob­a­bly wrote pages. And then I had a big re­la­tion­ship be­fore I met Hugh, and I just snipped him out of the book be­cause he didn’t want to be in it. Is there any­thing you won’t even write about in your diary?

I’ve never writ­ten about sex. I mean, I’ve writ­ten that I’ve had sex with some­body or that we’ve had sex five times, but I’ve never writ­ten about what we did. You were al­ways am­bi­tious, al­ways knew you wanted to “be some­body.” Were you writ­ing with an audience in mind 40 years ago?

No, that didn’t have any­thing to do with it. When I first started keep­ing a diary, I was aware of how bad it was. I knew that what I was writ­ing, es­pe­cially at the be­gin­ning, did not look like what you’d find in a book. But you wouldn’t start play­ing pi­ano and ex­pect to be good by the end of the week. And so I just thought, “If I keep do­ing it, I’m bound to get bet­ter.” And that’s still what I tell my­self ev­ery day when I sit down. What do you think is be­hind your ob­ses­sive need to record? Is it a fear of for­get­ting?

I don’t think it has to do with for­get­ting. It’s just some­thing that I have to do. The same way that there was a time I had to feed these spi­ders in my house. Now I have to pick up trash by the side of the road — I have to do it; I can’t take a day off. But with the spi­ders, I grew out of it. This diary never ended.

Jeff Jenk­ins

DAVID SEDARIS in the 1970s, a time when the au­thor says “you have to for­give your­self.”

Lit­tle, Brown and Com­pany

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