Q&A: David Sedaris on his new book, ‘Theft by Finding’

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Ever since NPR listeners heard his breakout “SantaLand Diaries” on “Morning Edition” in 1992, David Sedaris has become a reigning master of crystalline social commentary and blisteringly humorous self-reflection. His unforgettable autobiographical essay collections, written in just the last quarter-century — works such as “Barrel Fever,” “Me Talk Pretty One Day” and “When You Are Engulfed in Flames” — have become modern classics. They reveal the author’s life in unsparingly personal, often gritty, always poignant detail; Sedaris has always been an open book when it comes to the beautifully twisted nuances of his middle-class, suburban family (including his now-also-famous sister, Amy), his homosexuality (and his long-term partner, Hugh), his struggles with drugs and alcohol (and OCD) and so much more. But perhaps his most intimate is “Theft by Finding,” a collection of his diaries written between 1977 and 2002. That he began with a diary and finds himself returning to the form creates an arc that ties together his fraught and farcical art and life. Sedaris comes to L.A. next week; tickets for his June 28 event at Royce Hall at UCLA are still available. This conversation has been edited.

You’ve said this book ended up becoming something quite different from the one you’d initially intended. How did the collection evolve?

I started reading from my diaries years ago, I think in 1986. I usually end any evening — whether it’s a book tour or a lecture — by reading from my diary. I just find things and think, Oh, I bet this would work. So I thought the book would just be entries from my folder of “things that work.” But then my editor said, “Why don’t you go back to the very beginning and find things that aren’t necessarily funny, and think about adding those?” And then when I did, the original pieces I’d included seemed overproduced, somehow, in comparison, so I wound up cutting them.

Tell me about your process for keeping the diary.

It’s the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning. But along with the diary I also have a Fitbit that rules my life, so sometimes I also have to get my steps in. So like today, I got up and wrote in my diary for maybe 20 minutes at the hotel, and then I had to go to the airport and, since I got there 2½ hours before my flight, I just walked around the Atlanta airport for a couple hours. And then once I finished that, then I could finish writing in my diary.

So you still keep it?

Oh yeah, I can’t imagine not writing in my diary. I mean, the world would spin off its axis and everyone, all of us, would die. I could never stop. It doesn’t have anything to do with me having anything worthwhile to say — it’s a compulsion. I keep it on my computer, so I can scroll back. I have an essay that recently came out in the New Yorker, and my diary was a big help in writing that.

Sedaris comes to Vroman's in Pasadena June 27. Tickets to his reading are sold out but booksigning tickets are still available. »

What did you write in today’s entry?

Yesterday in Atlanta this guy said, “Hey, are you here for the rotary convention?” And I stopped and looked at myself because my first thought was, Oh my God, what am I wearing? That I look like I’d be in town for a rotary convention? So I said, “No,” and he asked, “Can I ask you a question, man to man?” And that’s when I said to myself, “Dammit, he got me.” Like, why did I even stop? “Can I ask you a question?” is always “Can you give me money?” Always, always. And that’s why you never stop. Because he really got me by asking if I was in town for the rotary. I didn’t give him any money, but he ruined my day.

Why did he think he could ask you for money?

Everybody thinks they can ask me for money, because I’m small. If you’re a small man you get asked for money. I can go out with Hugh and nobody bothers him at all, whereas it’s insane how often I get asked for things.

What was it like to dig back into your personal history from 40 years ago for publication? Did you find anything that made you cringe?

I started with the very first day and just read through everything. It took me a couple of years, because there’s only so much of me that I can take. Oh God, I got so sick of me. If I ever sell my papers, I think I’ll rip a lot of pages out.

But for the most part you forgive yourself for being 20. Everyone was 20 once; it’s just that I have a little more evidence of it than most people. What I had a hard time with was being phony. I mean, I was sitting at the International House of Pancakes with a beret on at a table, reading Susan Sontag’s “On Photography” and writing in my diary. So, you know, you have to forgive yourself. I actually laughed a lot when I was reading it, which was a nice surprise.

I can’t imagine not writing in my diary! I mean, the world would spin off its axis and everyone, all of us, would die.

— David Sedaris

So will your readers. But your humor is often mixed with elements of darkness, whether it’s violence or tragedy. Is this a narrative strategy, or a form of self-therapy?

I don’t know, I guess I have an eye for two things juxtaposed next to each other. Like my sister Tiffany having that ectopic pregnancy and then she says, “When can I have sex again?” It was funny. Or like when the war in Iraq began, I heard the news from Lauren Bacall who’s wearing a jeweled headpin that says, “I love Paris.” She wasn’t saying it to me personally, but she kind of announced it to the room and I was just in a situation that I didn’t belong in. You take one step back and the horrible becomes the ridiculous.

Comedy aside, your own drug-fueled misadventures figure quite prominently in your younger entries. How do you look back on that period now, with the benefit of hindsight?

Hindsight has allowed me to be incredibly grateful, because if I were addicted to meth now, and my dealer left town, there’d just be another dealer to step in and take her place. But it wasn’t popular back then. So when the woman who sold to me moved to Florida, I had nowhere to get it, so I had to detox, and I’m grateful for that. It’s not like I’m a strong person who could have quit on his own; this is the only way I would have quit.

You say you wouldn’t have had the strength and yet you quit drinking cold turkey decades later. Where did you find that courage?

One of the things I have in my favor is that work was always the most important thing. I figured that booze was helping me as a writer. I had never written anything without drinking. So that was the hard part about quitting drinking: I thought that I wouldn’t be able to write again. But the drinking is a lot to take on the road with the schedule that I have. Because I don’t want to drink in public at a book signing: I want to drink alone, in my room, after I’m finished with all that stuff. A couple nights ago I got back to my room after the book signing at quarter to 5 in the morning, so that’s when I would’ve had to start drinking: at quarter to 5. Quitting just made my life easier. The same with smoking: I used to never be able to write unless I was smoking; so I couldn’t write on a plane or anything. Now I can just do it anywhere. I don’t need to drink, I don’t need to smoke. It’s all just based around work. That was always the first consideration.

"Theft by Finding" author David Sedaris scoured through 25 years of meticulous, handwritten diaries to find the stories he divulges in his new book.

Did getting sober change the way you approach your work?

Yeah, I think the change in my writing process has something to do with not drinking, but I think it has maybe just as much to do with the computer, which made my diaries better. Even though I still only type with one finger, and I have to look at the keyboard. This is after basically 40 years of typing. If I handed you my diary from yesterday, I might be embarrassed for you to know a few of the things that I was thinking, but I wouldn’t be embarrassed by the writing.

Would you really ever let me or anyone else get ahold of it?

No. That’s my nightmare. I’ve never handed my diary to anybody and said, “Knock yourself out.” I wouldn’t.

What did you leave out in the editing?

I’m generally not afraid to make myself look bad. Usually, if you make yourself look bad, that’s a thing that attaches you to people because we’re not all that different. I just looked for the parts that were entertaining or illuminating in some way, so it might look like I wrote four sentences on one day when really I probably wrote pages. And then I had a big relationship before I met Hugh, and I just snipped him out of the book because he didn’t want to be in it.

David Sedaris signing books at Royce Hall in 2004. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Is there anything you won’t even write about in your diary?

I’ve never written about sex. I mean, I’ve written that I’ve had sex with somebody or that we’ve had sex five times, but I’ve never written about what we did.

You were always ambitious, always knew you wanted to “be somebody.” Writing these entries 40 years ago, did you think they’d be published? Were you writing with an audience in mind back then?

No, that didn’t have anything to do with it. When I first started keeping a diary, I was aware of how bad it was. I knew that what I was writing, especially at the beginning, did not look like what you’d find in a book. But you wouldn’t start playing piano and expect to be good by the end of the week. And so I just thought, if I keep doing it, I’m bound to get better. And that’s still what I tell myself every day when I sit down.

What do you think is behind your obsessive need to record? Is it a fear of forgetting?

I don’t think it has to do with forgetting. It’s just something that I have to do. The same way that there was a time I had to feed these spiders in my house. Now I have to pick up trash by the side of the road — I have to do it; I can’t take a day off. But with the spiders, I grew out of it. This diary never ended.