For decades, David Sedaris has penned some of the most reliably funny essays around, crafting simple observations and bone dry wit into masterful, droll stories. He’s been keeping a diary since 1977, where he records much of his life that makes it into his later essays. His new book, Theft By Finding, is an edited selection of diary entries from 1977 through 2002. The passages show the growth of the writer and offer a glimpse of how he sees the world, and how that lens translates into his published works. We talked with Sedaris about Theft By Finding, the second upcoming volume, and the apparently common practice of people shitting in retail dressing rooms.
The A.V. Club: How did you decide to publish the selected diary entries that became Theft By Finding?
David Sedaris: I had been thinking for years about a diary book, because when I was living in Chicago I started reading out loud from my diary. Not aimlessly, but there were things that were funny that I would read out loud. And so when something would work I would put it in a file that was called “diary that works.” So my initial idea was to publish that file, but then my editor said, “Why don’t you go back to the very beginning and find things that aren’t necessarily funny?” So I did, and then it was like all of the sudden the funny things didn’t quite fit. They felt too produced in a way. I kept some of them, but a lot of what I wound out cutting out were the things that were funny.
AVC: It lets readers see the evolution of your writing. It’s good to realize that everyone starts out pretty shitty before getting really great.
DS: [Laughs.] Yeah. I especially would notice in my diary—what’s in this book is a tiny fraction of what’s in my diaries. Just a tiny fraction. But I could tell as a young man, I could tell if I was reading Joan Didion. Because I would be writing and trying to write like Joan Didion. Or if I was reading Raymond Carver. You know, strong stylists. But that’s how you find your voice, is imitating other people. So things like that didn’t embarrass me, because I thought, well, that’s how it goes. That’s how everyone learns.
AVC: Was it difficult to read your earlier entries, both as a writer and as a person going through your past?
DS: Yeah, it was hard when—a lot of the early stuff that’s cut out was just me almost like—it was like writing poetry, but I never read poetry, you know what I mean? And it’s just, oh, awful. It just makes your eyes bleed to look at it. But I think, “Okay well, I was 20.” Really you should be writing like that when you’re 14, but that’s only a six-year difference and I can live with a six year difference. If I was doing it when I was 30, that would be a problem.
If you think about a diary, it’s a place to learn. And I’ve never handed my diary to anyone. It’s a safe—and this sounds so queer for me to say it—but it’s a [In a sing-song voice.] “safe learning environment.” But it really is. And it’s even safer now because you can keep your diary on your computer, and lock it in a file. I’m so old that when I started keeping a diary they were in actual books, and I think that’s one the reasons that I’ve never written about sex. Because early on you had to worry that someone was going to find your diary, so it’s bad enough to be writing like Joan Didion, but writing like Joan Didion about sex acts you’d performed with somebody you had known for 20 minutes, that’s a bit worse. So I would write in my diary, “I met J. and we had sex five times last night.” But I would never write about what we did. Now I’d give anything to know what I did. I’d give anything to know! But I’ve never written about sex in my diary. Like if you read my diary, you wouldn’t think I’m a virgin, but you would have no idea what it is that I’ve actually ever done.
AVC: Going from writing out your diary entries to a typewriter to a computer, it seems that throughout Theft By Findings, the entries get longer and longer. Is that the editing, or is that because you were using different technology?
DS: I started typing it in, I don’t know, 1978 or ’79, but then the computer changed that a lot. Because with the computer if you were writing and you realized you had three sentences in a row that started with the word “he,” you could fix that right up, whereas on a typewriter you’d think, “Well, I’m not going to change the whole page. It’s my diary.” So that made a difference.
Also I think it just has to do with getting older and getting better at what it was I was doing, and that I could take something small and kind of take my time with it. I think actually what that has to do with is I quit drinking. Before that I told myself I could only drink if I was—if I was writing, I had to be drinking. So I was on a timer, because eventually you get too drunk to write. So I would have maybe an hour and a half to put away and I’d chug this booze, just chugging it, so I had an hour and a half. So if I had a play to be working on, or if I had a story to be rewriting, I could only write in my diary for a brief amount of time. But now I don’t drink, and I get up in the morning and I write in my diary, and I can write in my diary for hours if I feel like it. And I’m still sober so I can write the stories that I’m working on, and I can sit at the desk as long as I need to. So that changed a lot, I think.
AVC: In the introduction of Theft By Finding you mention that you edited a lot of the entries to cut out stuff that you felt was long-winded or boring. Some of the entries are very short, just a sentence or two—were they originally like that, or is that a product of editing them down?
DS: A lot of times I was cutting out a lot because I wasn’t skilled then. So I might have dropped something in the middle of a paragraph, right, whereas now I would open with that and I wouldn’t have the four sentences at the beginning of it. But sometimes it’d be over a day, and I would think, “Oh, these four sentences would be of interest to someone besides me. The rest of it is just not interesting.” You really burden the reader if you put things in but, “Oh, it’s not interesting, but I’ll put it in anyway.” Then the reader’s going to think, like, “Mmm… no thanks.” So the thing is to cut all that stuff out before its published.
I wish that I had re-edited this book after I did the audio. Because the audio took 40 hours in the studio, and I was standing on my feet. So toward the end of it I’d be looking at certain diary entries and I would think, “Is this really worth my time to read this out loud?” And I would think, “No, it is not.” I would have cut out—I don’t know—I would have cut out 75 pages, just because I was tired of standing up.
AVC: This book covers the diary entries from 1977 to 2002. Is the next volume going to pick up at 2003 and go to present day?
DS: Yes, the next book will be 2003 through 2017. And I’ve already done up to 2010, but now that I’ve recorded this one, I’m going back and getting rid of a lot of things because I’m just thinking, “Okay, if I’ve been standing up for 17 hours would I want to read this?” So I still have a lot… but the first part of the book, there’s an arc to it. My boyfriend, Hugh, calls it the David Copperfield Sedaris—a real rags-to-riches story. But in the second part my life doesn’t really change all that much. I basically go from the back of the plane to the front of the plane.
AVC: Is there anything else significantly different between the two volumes other than the David Copperfield arc? Because by the end of volume one the entries are much more essay-like.
DS: A lot of the entries will be longer than they were. But I think too because I was older and I was kind of learning to take an incident and kind of shape it. Whereas earlier when I was writing my diaries it would be—I just didn’t know how to do it. So I would do something, and it almost sounds like I’m making a pitch, like “here’s my three-line pitch for yesterday afternoon.” Whereas now I’m more skilled. Not everything is worth an essay. Most things aren’t. If asked it’s a story you might tell around the table, like, “here’s what happened to me this afternoon.” But I think I’ve just gotten a little bit better at, “here’s what happened to me this afternoon.” I would like to think I’ve gotten better at it.
It’s interesting, because my world is really small. Right now I’m going to begin a tour, and I’m going to be meeting thousands of people, and they’re going to be telling me things, and I’m going to see children having tantrums, and I’m going to see someone on the plane shitting in his pants, and I’m going to go home—and I live in a little hamlet outside of a village, and for days at time the only people I talk to are my boyfriend Hugh and cashier at my supermarket. But I can make make hay about that. I mean, I can write three pages tomorrow morning following my busy day in New York, and I can write three pages in the country, because I saw a weasel eating a dead squirrel.
What happens a lot is that black ravens—there are a lot of rabbits out where we live, and when the rabbit gets hit by a car the ravens come. And the first thing the ravens do is eat its eyes. And the rabbits look so sorrowful. And I’ll pass one fresh hit, and I’ll pass by an hour later, and he doesn’t have any eyes. I’ve seen ravens turn the rabbit over to get the other eye too. And that’s a big day when I see a raven eat a rabbit’s eyes.
AVC: Speaking of the British countryside, considering what’s going on in the U.S. right now—and England is going through its own version of this in a different way—are you glad you’re living in England right now?
DS: Right, well the good thing about England—like, if I were in France, all people would be doing is rubbing my nose in Donald Trump. As if I voted for him. Just rubbing my nose in him. And in England, they’d be rubbing my nose in it too, except for Brexit. So that means they can’t rub my nose in anything! So thank god I’m in England, because if I lived in any other country, it’d probably be the Philippines. Because with Duterte as the leader they couldn’t really give me attitude on it.
AVC: You mentioned your tour earlier, and something you do that’s pretty unusual is that you take a lot of time to talk to everyone who waits in line to get a book signed. I saw you read a long time ago, when I was a kid, and you had a poll you were conducting for everyone in line. Do you have another poll lined up for this tour?
DS: I think my poll that year was “Do you think Barack Obama is circumcised or uncircumcised?” Which is a really good question. It’s a really complicated question. And a lot of times women would just answer whatever the last penis they saw was. Like if their husband or boyfriend was circumcised they’d say “circumcised!” But it’s really a complicated question, and good question, and I would love to know the real answer to that question.
So I don’t have anything set right now but often when I’m on tour, what I love is when things happen organically. And it just kind of comes upon me. One thing that happened a couple years ago is that my boyfriend Hugh used to work at the Gap in high school, and he told me, just in passing, that people used to defecate in the dressing room. So then I started asking people who worked in stores, “Do people ever defecate in the dressing rooms?” And they would say, “Oh my god, all the time!”
You name the store, and people—they’ll go into Target and they’ll go into those circular clothing racks and crouch right down and just shit right in the middle. And it has nothing to do with a restroom, or an available restroom. It’s something about leaving something behind in a store. So I just started asking people, and it was amazing—I loved that. That is perfect, the whole situation—where you’ve got all these people you can ask. And people started saying, “Oh, well I work in a library and people shit in the library all the time,” or, “I work in a Starbucks and there’s this woman who comes in and she shits in the toiler paper roll.” Like she packs it with her feces. Isn’t it great?