NEW YORK – David Sedaris, over more than a quarter century, has earned many job descriptions: humorist, playwright, essayist, author and radio contributor.
At 60, call him a thief, but still funny, sometimes awkward, often poignant.
Sedaris has robbed decades of his diaries for a two-book series taking him way, way back – to Sept. 5, 1977. That’s where he begins – at age 20 – with his first volume, “Theft by Finding,” with the second due out in two years, sweeping him through to 2017.
Odd jobs, his dysfunctional family, the cost of chicken per pound, Sedaris covers that and more through some vagabond moments as he moves from itinerant, art student and, finally, some writerly success. He culled from roughly 8 million words that he wrote by hand or typed, including just a fraction.
Associated Press: Why was it a good idea to put out a 514-page volume of diary entries?
Sedaris: I started reading things from my diary out loud and people laughed. Ever since then, whenever I do a reading I include some things from my diary. I always thought I would publish a funny diary thing, but when it came time to talk about this book, my editor said why don’t you go back and why don’t you find things that aren’t necessarily funny. I just planned it to be things that made you laugh out loud. It turned into something else.
AP: What did it turn into?
Sedaris: It turned into more, I think, a reflection of my life. It turned into something with sort of an arc to it. I don’t imagine the second volume will have that, but the first book does seem to tell a kind of a story. Sometimes there would be a diary entry that was three pages long and there would be three sentences that might be of interest.
AP: Why did you start keeping a diary in 1977?
Sedaris: I was with my friend Ronnie and we had left San Francisco. We were going to pick apples and pears in the Pacific Northwest and I was writing letters to my family and friends, but I didn’t have an address where they could write me back. I started just writing to myself.
AP: How you do describe your work? Do you embrace humorist, diarist?
Sedaris: I rejected the word humorist for a long time because I thought that it meant you had, like, a cardigan sweater with patches on the elbows, but now I’m old and I do. I grew into that word. I think at heart, all this time, I’ve been a diarist. I’m not ashamed of it.
AP: As a teenager, what were you thinking you’d do?
Sedaris: I wanted to be a visual artist, but I realized I was more affected by what I read than by what I saw. I would go to a show at a museum and look at a painting and say, “Oh I wish I owned that,” and that would be the end of my relationship with a painting. With a short story I would read or with an author I would discover I could be haunted. It would affect my mood and affect the way that I saw the world. I thought, wow, it would be amazing to be able to do that.
AP: Diary item dated Dec. 15, 1992, enter Ira Glass, who called to say NPR’s “Morning Edition” wanted to broadcast your “SantaLand Diaries” and pay you $500. This was your start as a public radio star, but you continued your work doing odd jobs to make money.
Sedaris: It never meant anything to me to be able to say to people I’m a writer so I kept my day job. But I would do these readings and I worked my way up from an audience of eight. I really had paid my dues. I wasn’t just this guy who came out of nowhere and someone put me on the radio. I had been writing every single day for 15 years. I went from a small audience to an audience of 10 million people. Everything came from that.
AP: Diary item dated March 23, 1999, you gave up drinking. Why?
Sedaris: I told myself I could only write when I was drinking. I would say that I was an alcoholic. There are many worse drinkers than me, but it meant I couldn’t go anywhere at night because I was just too messed up to leave the house. It meant I was constantly living with this low-grade fever of shame. It felt great to quit. Now I can write anywhere. Put me on a plane on the runway for 45 minutes and I’m good.