Books·My Life In Books

David Sedaris on the books and authors that influenced his life

The award-winning American humorist became a great writer by reading a lot of books — and copying his favourite authors.
David Sedaris's Theft by Finding is a collection of his diary entries dating back to 1977. (Ingrid Christie )

David Sedaris is already well known for drawing extensively on his life for his writing, but his latest book may be his darkest yet. The American humorist — and author of books Theft by FindingMe Talk Pretty One Day and Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls — returns with Calypso. The book is a collection of personal essays that looks at human nature, mortality and the painful truths about growing old.

Below, Sedaris describes the books and writers that have shaped his life and career.

Biographies about famous people — before they were famous

Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States.

"The earliest thing I remember reading were these things at the library at my elementary school. They were these biographies of famous people and they all had orange covers. I loved reading about, let's say, Abraham Lincoln, when he didn't know he was going to be famous. I knew it, but he didn't and I felt like I had something over him. Then I thought, maybe I'm just doing my chores and I'm going to be famous and I don't realize it. That could be the case. If it could happen to him, it could just as easily happen to me."

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut authored 14 novels over the course of his life. (Dial Press Trade Paperback)

"I read books because I had to read them, but the first book I ever read for pleasure was by Kurt Vonnegut. I was 20 years old. I do not remember which of his books it was, but I think I read all of them. I thought, 'Oh right, you can do this... for fun.' I was living in a small town in Oregon and I went and got a library card."

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver was an acclaimed American short story writer. (Vintage)

"Vonnegut got me reading and started my relationship with books. At first I didn't know where to turn. I remember I read Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis because it was something that the better English class read in high school. Then I discovered contemporary fiction. I just remember the excitement that I felt when I got Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love from the library. The writing was so simple. Sort of like:

"I knocked on the door.
A woman came to the door.
'What do you want?' she asked.
I said, 'I'm here to see Nick.'
She said, 'Who's Nick? There's no Nick here.'
She brushed a fly off her face."

"That's not from a Raymond Carver story, but the sentences were that simple. I remember thinking, 'This is possible. I could do this. He's not using any big words. The sentences are not complex in any way. I think I know how to do this.' You've got to start somewhere and I started off by imitating him."

Taking Care by Joy Williams

Joy Williams is the author of Taking Care. (Rollie McKenna/Penguin Random House/Vintage)

"Another strong stylist that I imitated for a while was a woman named Joy Williams who had a short story collection called Taking Care. She has such a singular voice. It hasn't really changed over the years. I remember she was talking about a girl having a fantasy about her beau and she said, 'He was feeling fine, and fancy too.' It was such music to me."

The White Album by Joan Didion

Joan Didion is the author of The White Album. (Brigitte Lacombe/Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

"I can look back through my diary and I can tell when I discovered Joan Didion because all of a sudden I'm writing like Joan Didion. I mean it's a very poor imitation, but there I am, writing like Joan Didion."

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff

Tobias Wolff is the author of In The Garden of the North American Martyrs. (Mark Coggins/Ecco)

"I've read every word Tobias Wolff has ever written. I have to be his biggest fan. Really, I would fight someone. If someone came in here and said 'I'm his biggest fan,' I would fight that person and I would win. Because I'm Tobias Wolff's biggest fan."

The Easter Parade and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Richard Yates is the author of Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade. (Bob Isear/Everyman’s Library)

"I read The Easter Parade or Revolutionary Road every year. Richard Yates is just a good word-for-word on-the-page writer. He couldn't be more different than someone like Joy Williams or Raymond Carver. His sentences are very complex, the stories are complicated and he was such a miserable man. I always like people who would hate me. I don't know what that's about. But Richard Yates would definitely hate me."

Is There No Place on Earth for Me? by Susan Sheehan

Susan Sheehan's Is The No Place On Earth For Me? won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. (Vintage)

"There's a woman named Susan Sheehan who wrote for the New Yorker for a number of years. She's written a number of nonfiction books, usually about things that a social worker might be interested in. She wrote a book called Is There No Place on Earth for Me? and it was about a young schizophrenic woman named Sylvia Frumkin who lived in the Bronx with her family. At the beginning of the book, she's naked in a fountain with makeup drawn on her face with magic marker. They put her in a mental hospital, put her on this medication and she works her way up to living in a halfway house. She gets a little apartment and stops taking her medication. Then she's naked dancing in a fountain and the whole thing starts over again.

"When I was in junior high school, my mother said we had to get volunteer jobs. So I worked at a hospital called Dorothea Dix in North Carolina, which is a mental hospital and has since closed. But I've seen those wards and I've seen those people there locked away. Their families would never come to visit them. They'd throw a chair through the TV and get strapped to the bed. It's just grinding. The book is so good at showing the grinding wheel of mental illness. And the writing is so good. She doesn't turn somersaults in a sentence. She does her job and you're just devastated."

Dorothy Parker

Dorthy Parker was an American poet, short story writer, critic and satirist. (Penguin Audio)

"I like an audiobook. Quite often in an audiobook someone will read a story, especially the last line of a story, and I'll think, 'That's not how it goes at all. Don't you know anything?' But Elaine Stritch, who's a Broadway actress, recorded Dorothy Parker stories and she understood those stories. There's nothing I would change. Not a thing in those recordings. They're masterful. They never released them on CD or digital. They're just on tapes and that's why I'll never get rid of my tape player."

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