David Sedaris: This American Treasure
David Sedaris has been regaling us with tales drawn from his own life for nearly three decades—and he’s still on the hunt for fresh material.
David Sedaris is a celebrated author and humorist known for his exaggerated autobiographical essays about his family, work, and everyday life in the United States, France, and England.
Sedaris was born near Binghamton, NY, in 1956 and raised in suburban Raleigh, NC. He attended Western Carolina University and Kent State University before graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1987. In the early 1990s NPR host Ira Glass saw Sedaris in a comedy club in Chicago and invited him to perform on several radio shows. Sedaris’s reading of “Santaland Diaries,” humorous recollections of work as an elf in a Macy’s Christmas village, led to a monthly segment on NPR and a two-book publishing deal. His fourth collection of essays, Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000), won the Thurber Prize for American Humor. His next collection, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004), reached number 1 on The New York Times bestseller list; the audiobook was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Sedaris has contributed over 40 essays to The New Yorker and his thirteen published books have sold over seven million copies.
David Sedaris is about as ubiquitous as it is possible for a writer to be, and that’s exactly how he likes it.
AJC: Are you ever over this? This has been an extraordinary career now for going on 30 years, and you keep doing it. You don’t seem to get cynical.
David Sedaris: All my life I dreamt when I was young of people standing in line to say how much they loved me, and every night it’s like my dream come true, and I really don’t see the down side in that.
A national treasure, Sedaris is one of the finest American humorists alive today. The 61 year old has written a dozen books that have all together sold an estimated seven million copies worldwide. His essays, often read aloud in sold out performances, make creative fertilizer of Sedaris’ personal life. In traumatizing events, as well as the mundane, he finds humor. Anything can become a story.
Sedaris: I just think of things as material, you know? On the one hand, I had a problem with a tooth, and I went to a dentist in England who said there’s nothing wrong with your tooth. Really? And then I went to one in Australia who said there’s nothing wrong. Well, then why can’t I even rest my tongue on it if there’s nothing wrong? And then I went to one in San Francisco who said they can see the crack in this tooth from space. We need to do a root canal right now. But all the time I was suffering I thought, I thought, I can write about it. You know, I’m gonna write about it. I mean, it might take a while to get the story where I want it, but that’ll show it. That’s how I thought, like, I’ll show you, tooth.
But in the early 1990s David Sedaris was just another struggling writer working odd jobs to support himself, until one evening when he took the stage at a Chicago comedy club to read some humorous diary entries aloud, and a young radio producer named Ira Glass happened to be in the audience. Captivated, Glass booked Sedaris to perform in a pair of NPR shows. The exposure landed Sedaris a book deal and the rest snowballed from there.
When my sister Karen met him at a reading I remember she said to David, she said, you’re a lot nicer than I thought you would be based on your books. And I remember David said, oh, I’m not nice, just two faced.
AJC: You have written extraordinarily personal things about most everyone in your life, and I know that you do check in with people to make sure that they’re not gonna be hurt by what you write. Is there a line for you between the personal and the private?
Sedaris: Oh sure, oh sure, sure.
AJC: And is it really solid? You see it, and you know when you’ve, when you’re transgressing it and when you need to step back?
Sedaris: Yeah, I mean, well even like with my sister Tiffany who committed suicide there were things, phone conversations that we had and things that she’d told me. I told my sisters that even though she’s dead I didn’t put it in the essays because I thought, oh, she doesn’t want the reader– it would have cleared up so much, and it would have explained a lot. But I don’t know, she just didn’t want, well, I’m sure. There was no need to ask. I’m sure she didn’t want people knowing those things, so.
(excerpt from “Now We Are Five”,” 2013)
The following morning I boarded another plane, this one to Atlanta. And the day after that I flew to Nashville, thinking all the while about my ever shrinking family. A person expects his parents to die, but a sibling? I felt I’d lost the identity I’d enjoyed since 1968 when my brother was born. Six kids, people would say, how do you poor folks manage? There were a lot of big families in the neighborhood I grew up in. Every other house was a fiefdom, so I never gave it much thought until I became an adult, and my friends started having children. One or two seemed reasonable, but anything beyond that struck me as outrageous. A couple Hugh and I knew in Normandy would occasionally come to dinner with their wrecking crew of three. When they’d leave several hours later every last part of me would feel violated. Take those kids, double them, and subtract the cable TV, that’s what my parents had to deal with. Now though there weren’t six, only five, and you can’t really say there used to be six, I told my sister Lisa. It just makes people uncomfortable.
AJC: Is there anything that you would rather not have gone through in hindsight to become who you are today?
Sedaris: I feel like I wasted four years of my life in Raleigh, North Carolina. I dropped out of college and then I moved back home. I didn’t learn any new lessons, I didn’t. All I did was get older. And when I look back on it I think, well, I didn’t get AIDS, you know? So, maybe if I had moved to New York City or if I had moved to Chicago.
AJC: Wow, and that would have been the time as well.
Sedaris: I would have. So, I think of it like that. I think, well, it’s a trade off because especially in those early years when nobody quite understood how you got AIDS and where it came from, it was probably better for me to be tucked away in a small town where nobody wanted me than to be in San Francisco or to be in New York City where, you know.
AJC: There but for the grace of God.
Despite those early struggles finding love, Sedaris wasn’t destined to remain alone. He met his current partner, the painter Hugh Hamrick, nearly 30 years ago, and for all that time a version of their relationship has played out on the page.
AJC: You write him as somebody who’s wonderfully loving, extraordinarily patient, and sort of the sensible person in the relationship.
Sedaris: I mean, Hugh is– a lot of people I know are funny people, are decent people, are clever people, but they’re not good characters. And Hugh is a good character, because he’s the straight person for me to bounce against. So, he’s good to have in a story. He’s like the moral compass in the story. And he’s like that in real life too, but in real life it can be really tiresome to have somebody like that scolding you all the time.
If David Sedaris seems like a difficult person to scold, it’s because rejecting expectations is kind of his thing. And for more than 25 years Sedaris has helped readers to see humor in the daily tragedy of the human condition. Today his wry perspectives may be more valuable than ever.