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David Sedaris’ diaries paint a life spent in observation

June 20, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
Who was humorist David Sedaris before he had sold millions of books and made countless live appearances before adoring audiences? In a new book, "Theft By Finding," Sedaris offers a portrait of himself as a younger artist through his personal diaries. Jeffrey Brown sits down with the author to discuss his compulsion to observe, write and perform.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: Humorist David Sedaris plumbs his own diaries for his latest book showcasing life’s idiosyncrasies.

Jeffrey Brown sat down with Sedaris recently, amidst his performing around the country in some 120 cities.

JEFFREY BROWN: A 60-year-old hugely successful writer looking back at his younger self, the one before the millions of books sold, the countless live appearances before adoring audiences and often, in his culottes, the regular appearances on late-night TV.

On a recent morning, we joined David Sedaris at the archives of La MaMa Theatre in Lower Manhattan, one of the small stages where he first told stories.

In a new book titled “Theft By Finding,” Sedaris offers a kind of fractured portrait of the artist behind the stories, through his personal diaries.

DAVID SEDARIS, Author, “Theft by Finding”: Trying this persona on and that persona on and, you know, trying acting, and oh, now look, I’m trying sculpture, and now, all the sudden, I’m a painter. But that you could kind of settle on being yourself, completely yourself, and have that be the thing that works, is being yourself, is, to me, incredible.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sedaris was raised in a large family in Raleigh, North Carolina, and many of his stories involve his parents and siblings, including sister Amy, a well-known humorist in her own right.

His colorfully titled story collections, including “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim,” and “Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls,” are perennial bestsellers. And NPR regularly replays perhaps his most famous story, “SantaLand Diaries,” about the time he worked as an elf at Macy’s.

DAVID SEDARIS: Twenty-two thousand people came to see Santa today, and not all of them were well-behaved. Today, I witnessed fistfights and vomiting and magnificent tantrums.

JEFFREY BROWN: That experience appears in his diaries beginning on October 31, 1990, when he is told: “Congratulations, Mr. Sedaris. You are an elf.”

So, you can’t not write and keep a diary?

DAVID SEDARIS: Well, it’s funny, because, sometimes, people would say, oh, that’s very disciplined. But it’s not a discipline. It is a compulsion.

I should be out doing things, but I have to write about these people I saw at dinner the night before. I have to write about the bellman at my hotel. I have to write about something that ultimately doesn’t matter at all. But I — I don’t know. I can’t move on until I get that down.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you overhear something or you record something in your diary, is there kind of, aha, this is something I can use?

DAVID SEDARIS: I flew here from London. I was at Newark Airport waiting for someone to pick me up.

And I saw a couple, and they were in their mid-60s. And then she said to him, where’s the other suitcase? And he said, what other suitcase? She said, you left home dragging two suitcases behind you. Now you have got one. The other one is mine. Where’s my suitcase? You lost my suitcase.

I thought, wow. I mean, I have been in a similar situation, right? And just the entire look on her face, like, if I could leave you now, or if I could kill you now, I would do it.

And so I had to write about that. Maybe one day, I would write a story about arguing in public, and those would come in handy in some way.

But it’s also, like, if I were going to remember yesterday, I flew here in an airplane and I did this and that. But that was really the moment yesterday where I felt like I was living my life, like I was in the moment. I wasn’t thinking about the past or about the future. I was just right there living, visiting and listening, watching those people have an argument.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that sense is important to you somehow?

DAVID SEDARIS: Well, because I spend so much time like living in the past or the future. I mean, I think most people do, really. And the moments when you’re really present in your life can be pretty rare, really.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sedaris’ stories appear regularly in “The New Yorker.” On the day we got together, he was just finishing a new one.

So, in the printed stories and on stage, you’re presenting, in some sense, a character named David, David Sedaris, right? Your family members, your partner, Hugh. Talking to you now, I’m not sure if you think of them as characters or you’re just writing yourself.

DAVID SEDARIS: Well, I think people are people in real life, but the second you put them on page — on the page, they become characters.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how worked over are your stories?

DAVID SEDARIS: Gosh, the story that — I sent in a draft this morning for this New Yorker story that we’re closing, and it’s the 21st draft.

JEFFREY BROWN: Twenty-first draft?

DAVID SEDARIS: Mm-hmm.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it tinkering over words or jokes or …

DAVID SEDARIS: It’s tinkering over words. I will go on tour with, like, let’s say three new stories, and I will read them and go back to the room and rewrite them, and read them and rewrite them.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what does a story in the end have to have to be successful, to work for you?

DAVID SEDARIS: It used to be about just racking up laughs, right? But I think you need, like, some sorrow to give the laughter a bit of weight. And that’s when you remember things. Or that’s when I remember things.

JEFFREY BROWN: So people come and they want — you think they want laughter, but you want something more. You want to give them something more. What is that more?

DAVID SEDARIS: I want to connect with them. I want them to — usually, it’s the worst thing you can admit about yourself that most people can relate to. Right?

It was so surprising to me when I realized that, that when I thought, well, if you write about, say, your own jealousy, people aren’t going to think, oh, he’s a horrible person because he’s jealous. They will think, that’s me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Was there always an ambition? Was there always a kind of craving to not only get to a bigger world, but reach people?

DAVID SEDARIS: Yes. It’s all I ever wanted. It’s all I ever thought about.

When I go on tour and I’m on stage and the lights come up at the end and I see those people, people say, oh, that must be awful. You go on tour and you go to 40 cities in 41 days. And then you have the book signing. And that’s people standing in line to say how much they love you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, for hours sometimes.

DAVID SEDARIS: And I don’t see any part of that that’s negative.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID SEDARIS: It’s all I ever dreamed about like from age to 6 up.

JEFFREY BROWN: David Sedaris will continue to tell his stories and write his diaries in his travels at home and abroad this summer.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown in New York.

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