Writers & Company

With sharp observation and sardonic wit, David Sedaris spins comedy gold out of everyday life

The American humorist and author spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about his latest book, A Carnival of Snackery, and the power of self-examination.
David Sedaris is an American humorist, essayist and author. (Ingrid Christie)

When David Sedaris first read aloud from his diary, he had no idea he would make a career of it. But after he appeared on NPR, reading excerpts from SantaLand Diaries — about his experience working as a Christmas elf at Macy's department store in New York — his life was transformed. He became something of a phenomenon: a bestselling author and performer, with nine million books in print and sold-out speaking tours.

Sedaris's latest book, A Carnival of Snackery, is the second collection of his diary entries, from 2003 to 2020, covering everything from the joys and aggravations of travel, to litter, hedgehogs and family heartache.

A frequent contributor to NPR's This American Life, BBC Radio 4 and The New Yorker magazine, Sedaris was recently inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Recordings of his performances, such as Live from Carnegie Hall, have been nominated for Grammy Awards for best comedy album, and his audiobooks for best spoken word album. 

Sedaris spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from New York, midway through a 70-city tour.

The impulse to write

"I was hitchhiking across the country with my best friend Ronnie. We were picking apples in the Pacific Northwest, and I was writing letters to my family and my friends. But I didn't have an address where they could write me back, so I just started writing to myself.

"We were in a roadside cafe somewhere in California, and I wrote on the back of a placemat. I did it the next day — and I did it the next day, the next day and the next. 

I can't remember the last time I missed a day in my diary.

"I've met a number of people who will keep a diary for maybe a couple of months and then they give up. I don't know why, but something about it was really suited to me — and I can't remember the last time I missed a day in my diary." 

The search for self

"I remember the first time I read something out loud that I had written: I was in a creative writing class in Chicago and I read something I'd written and everybody laughed and I thought, 'How did I never know that? That's what I want to do with my life. I want to read things out loud that I wrote and hear people laughing.'

"I don't want to memorize it. I don't like to be looked at in the eye by someone on stage. If it's pitch black and I'm guaranteed they can't see me, maybe, but I don't I don't want to be confronted.

I was in a creative writing class in Chicago and I read something I'd written and everybody laughed and I thought, 'How did I never know that? That's what I want to do with my life.

"I don't know that you can envision your life as a grown-up. But when I was in my teens, I started walking a lot. I'd go maybe five or six miles with a transistor radio and fantasize about my future. What I fantasized is exactly the life that I have — except I didn't even allow myself to imagine a boyfriend in that. At that time, I imagined that I would wake up straight, so I would have a beautiful wife. 

"But I was going to live in New York City. I was going to be celebrated and the centre of attention. My dad wouldn't understand at all what I was doing, but everybody else would appreciate me for it."

Taking ownership

"Once you write something down, then you have to deal with it in some way. It's the same thing as once you announce a dream, then you either succeed at it or fail at it. I so clearly remember the day I told myself I wanted to be a writer. I had already been writing, but when I said to myself, 'I want to be a writer,' that meant it's a laser focus. Now it's serious.

Once you write something down, then you have to deal with it in some way. It's the same thing as once you announce a dream ,then you either succeed at it or fail at it.

"Now I've just announced to myself that this is what I want, and if it doesn't happen, you have to deal with that. You have to deal with the consequences."

Wanderer's spirit

"I always wanted to live outside of the United States. It wasn't that I hated the United States; I just thought, from reading biographies of people, it just seemed to make you a better rounded person to leave and live in another country.

"We moved to France and then we moved to England. I'd move to Germany tomorrow if I could. I'd like to wind up in Japan if I could as well, because that's a good place to be old. People are nice to you and they have a negative crime rate. But I like everything about moving. I love going to another country where you don't know anybody and you just kind of look around you and you just have to figure it out.

I love going to another country where you don't know anybody and you just kind of look around you and you just have to figure it out.

 

"I love it when you're in a situation and you look at other people and do what they do. You just try to and then you realize, Oh, look, nobody standing side-by-side on the escalator. Everybody's walking that way. Nobody has a cigarette in their hand. They're not a trashcan in sight. Nobody's eating on the street. Nobody's drinking on the street. It just makes you pay attention more. And I always welcome that."

Father-son tension

"My father just didn't like me. He was very clear about it, and I didn't like him either. So it was mutual. We just couldn't stand each other. 

"I would do a show, and let's say I would be in a 2,500-seat theatre. My father would say afterwards, 'You told me the show was sold out. I sat right here and I counted 17 empty seats.'

"Who would do that? Who would say that to somebody?

"When my father died, I got a lot of sympathy cards and stuff, but no one knows what to say when somebody dies. My friend sent me a Saul Bellow quote that says that losing a parent is like walking through a plate glass window you didn't know was there and didn't see it until it shattered. You spend the rest of your life picking up the pieces. 

My father just didn't like me. He was very clear about it, and I didn't like him either. So it was mutual. We just couldn't stand each other.

"It's easier when you love somebody. When my mother died, it was pure grief. A dark, dark pit.  It's harder coming to terms with it when it's somebody who you maybe didn't get along with. Because then you go back and you think, 'God, why didn't I say this when I had a chance? Why didn't I do this?'  It's usually pretty angry stuff."

Focus on the mundane

"It's a nice challenge to write about small things and try to make an essay out of something that's very small. I like that. The deaths have put everything into perspective, and it makes you realize these clichéd things — that you just have a certain amount of time left with the people you love and how are you going to spend that time?

"I'm at an age now where people are starting to fall apart and you're thinking there are things worse than death. There's a way of lingering that would be worse than death. I don't want to be 84. But I'm really curious what those essays are going to look like when I'm that age." 

David Sedaris's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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