This interview was originally broadcast on April 24, 2013.
David Sedaris writes personal stories, funny tales about his life growing up in a Greek family outside of Raleigh, N.C., about working as an elf in Santa's workshop at Christmastime, and about living abroad with his longtime partner, Hugh. The stories have appeared on This American Life and in The New Yorker, and have now filled seven essay collections, including Me Talk Pretty One Day, Naked, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and his latest collection Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls.
Because Sedaris' writing relies so heavily on his own life, it's not surprising that many of his essays begin as entries in his journal, which he has been keeping obsessively since Sept. 4, 1977.
"That's how I start the day — by writing about the day before," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "but every now and then I read out loud from my diary. ... I wouldn't open it up and just read, but every now and then something happens and I think, 'Oh, this might work in front of an audience, so I'm always hoping that something interesting will happen ... but I don't try to force it."
But most of his journal isn't for public consumption. In fact, Sedaris says his public persona as a famous writer is quite different from the person he is — and has been — in private, and the journal is where those two versions of David Sedaris collide.
"There's the you that you present to the world," he says, "and then there's, you know, of course the real one and, if you're lucky, there's not a huge difference between those two people. And I guess in my diary I'm not afraid to be boring. It's not my job to entertain anyone in my diary."
While Sedaris says his partner, Hugh, sometimes wonders whether the impulse to write almost exclusively about one's own life is a sign of narcissism, Sedaris understands his compulsion to journal and compose personal essays differently.
"I mean, I think everybody thinks about themselves," he says. "This seems to me like a part of the obsession with it is just as a writing exercise, really: I write in my diary, and that kind of warms me up, and then I move onto other things."
On the nasty thoughts he writes down in his journals
"Thoughts pass through your head, you know, like I'm sure perhaps you would walk down the hall one day, and you would see somebody and you would think, 'God, I hope my hair never looks like that,' but then five minutes later you might have a cheerful thought about this person, right, or a complimentary thought about this person. But see, that's the thing about a diary: You're just sitting down and you think, 'God, I saw so-and-so yesterday and I hope my hair never looks like that.' And then if you died, I just think of how hurt they would be to think you spent all this time criticizing them, but you weren't — it was just the thought that passed through your mind.
"I mean, I think ... I've always understood that. You know, my mom would walk into the room, and you would hear her talking about you on the telephone and saying bad things about you, but ... that's just in the moment. It never hurt my feelings. I thought, 'Well, tonight it will be a different story.' ... I don't know that I would be hurt by something like that; I just worry that other people would [be] if they were to read negative things about themselves. I say that to Hugh. Like, 'If I die and you start reading my diaries and you see something bad about yourself, keep going because there's some really good things about you in there too, you just have to skim forward a little bit."
On the former connection between drinking and writing
"You know, when you're actively doing something like [drinking], there's a way to do it to get people to think you're cute or whatever. It wasn't cute [for me]. It was just dark and just an ugly place that I would go to every night. I started drinking and writing at the same time, so when I quit drinking it was kind of hard. [Writing] was never a problem. I never had to force myself to sit down at the typewriter because I had a drink right there, and that was my reward for sitting down. But all of a sudden the reward was taken away, and I'm thinking, 'What's in it for me now?' So it just took a little while to get over that. It was the same when I quit smoking. ... It was all together, so I had to peel those [habits] away from the writing."
On portraying his father negatively in Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls
"I would never want anyone to think that I would have wanted a different father. I always acted against my father, right? And ['You're a big fat zero'] was really, that was his mantra when I was growing up. You know, 'What you are is a big fat zero,' but it's what got me out of bed every morning, thinking, 'Well, I'll show him.' And I don't know if my dad knew that. I don't know if it was part of his master plan, but it really worked. You know, my mom was a cheerful, supportive person, and so I didn't really need two parents like that. One was enough."
On living in West Sussex, England
"Hugh and I got this house in West Sussex, right, and it's in an area called the South Downs. And the Downs are these massive, chalk-speckled hills that run for a hundred miles between East and West Sussex, and we're just at the base of one of them, and our house is on a one-lane winding road that's tree-lined, and it's my idea of beauty. There are forests, and it's just what beauty means to me. But English people throw everything out their car window, and the roadsides are carpeted with rubbish, so that's what I do with my life now: I pick up rubbish on the side of the road. I do it on my bike. I do it on foot. The local council has given me an outfit and a grabber."