David Sedaris On The Life-Altering And Mundane Pages Of His Old Diaries
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today's guest, David Sedaris, is a familiar and widely embraced public radio voice and personality. His most recent book is a collection of stories called "Calypso." He's known for his very personal, often very amusing essays, but he wrote essays and kept a journal long before appearing on NPR.
In 2017, he published a book that collected some of those journal entries, covering the years 1977 through 2002. It's called "Theft By Finding" and provided another occasion for one of Terry's many interviews with him. "Theft By Finding" is now in paperback. It includes the entry from the day Ira Glass called him to let him know that Morning Edition wanted to broadcast Sedaris' "Santaland Diaries," his account of working as an elf at Macy's Santaland. That was the broadcast that changed Sedaris' life by giving him a large audience, an audience that demanded to hear more.
When Ira started his show This American Life in 1995, Sedaris became a regular contributor. There are many other life-changing moments in these journal entries - about friendships, deaths, alcohol and drugs, sobriety and meeting the man who became his boyfriend and is now his spouse. But there also are entries that give readers a sense of what his daily life has been like over the years and how it's changed over the different phases of his life. And his life has changed a lot. When the book starts, he's a college dropout making a living by picking fruit.
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TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: David Sedaris, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'm so excited to be able to talk with you again. But before we talk - and there's so much I want to talk with you about - before we talk, I want you to do a short reading from the introduction to your new book of diaries.
DAVID SEDARIS: I'd be happy to. (Reading) The early years, 1977 to 1983, were the bleakest. I was writing my diaries by hand back then. The letters were small and fueled by meth. A typical entry would go on for pages, solid walls of words. And every last one of them - complete crap. I've included very little of that time in this book. It's like listening to a crazy person. The gist is all you need, really. The diary lightened up when I moved to Chicago, partly because I was in a big city but mainly because I felt so much better about myself. I'd finally done what I'd talked about doing for so many years. I'd left the town I grew up in. I'd gone back to college and actually graduated.
There was all the more reason to feel good when, in the fall of 1990, I moved to New York. I was only writing at night back then, either smashed or getting there. You'd think I'd have addressed my drinking, at least in the privacy of my diary, but it's rarely mentioned. To type that word - alcoholic - would have made it real, so I never recounted the talking-tos I got from Hugh and certain helpful people in my family. Similarly, it took me a while in the 1970s to write the word gay. Oh, please, I said out loud to my 20-year-old self while reading my earliest diaries, who do you think you were kidding? This project made evident all the phases I've gone through over the years and how intensely.
GROSS: That's David Sedaris reading from the introduction to his new book "Theft By Finding," which is a collection of his diaries from 1977 to 2002.
David, why did you decide to publish your journals as opposed to stories based on your journals?
SEDARIS: Well, when I was in college in 19 - probably in 1986, I was in a painting critique. And in a painting critique, you'd put up your work and you'd talk about it. And one of the things I noticed pretty early on in art school was that my classmates had no notion of an audience. Right? I mean, growing up with the mother that I did, I learned that when you walk into the dry cleaners, there's an audience waiting for you. You know, maybe it's just the person behind the counter...
SEDARIS: ...Or maybe there are two other customers. But that is your audience. When you go to the grocery store, your audience is waiting. But the people in my class had no sense of that. And so they would talk the way you might talk to a therapist, and it was really boring. So I thought - well, I don't really have that much to say about my paintings, so I'm just going to read a little something. So I read some things from my diary. And it wasn't higgledy-piggledy. I mean, it was stuff that I thought would be funny. And I took this and I connected it to this and connected, you know. And I read for, like, two minutes. And people laughed. And then the teacher said, so do we talk about that in connection to your work? And I said no, I'm done. And then people liked me even more because it meant they could talk about themselves sooner.
SEDARIS: So I started reading from my diary back then. And when something would work, I would put it into a file that said - that was called diary that works. So really - probably after my second or third book came out, I thought, you know, one day I'll publish that diary that works file. And it just seemed like the time. But then my editor said, why don't you go back - and go back to the very beginning and find things that aren't necessarily funny and put those in as well? And soon, those outweighed the funny ones. And the funny ones seemed almost overproduced, so I got rid of a lot of them. So this wasn't the book that I had in my mind.
GROSS: So also in the reading that you just did, you mention that you did a lot of your writing on meth. And it made me think about - because there was a period of your life when you were doing a lot of drugs. You had to buy those drugs. And knowing that there's a part of you who is so interested in other people - who sees, like, the world as kind of, like, a stage - do you know what I mean?
Not necessarily one for you to perform on but, like, you're in the audience and you're watching people behave. And you seem to find, like, going to a grocery store the night before Thanksgiving and watching people kind of panic-buying is great entertainment for you. So when you had to buy drugs from dealers - I don't know if you got them from friends or if you had to, like, you know, meet strangers on the street or in the car or in the park or whatever - did it expose you to people who were, like, really maybe a little frightening but also, like, really interesting to you? And were you, yourself, or did you become somebody else around them?
SEDARIS: Well, often - you know, when you need drugs and you don't have a lot of money, what you'll do is you'll hang out with people who will give you drugs. Right? And there - a lot - quite often, they're not people who you would like under any circumstances. But you drop by their house, and you laugh at all their jokes. And you wait for them to pull the drugs out. And you say things like, God, I haven't gotten high since - I haven't gotten high since this morning. And you drop little hints, and then you hate yourself for dropping the little hints. And you pick up a bong. And you say, what's this? - as if you've never seen a bong.
And you sit there, and you just - that was the greatest thing about giving up drugs is that I didn't have to hang out with those people anymore. It wasn't their fault. I was the phony. I was the one who was just hanging out with them for that reason. And often, they're people just with crummy personalities, and they couldn't really have friends any other way. They needed the drugs, or no one would hang out with them. So yeah, I've wasted a lot of time pretending to be interested in people who weren't terribly interesting. Then there were really interesting drug dealers, you know - really adventurous, who seemed like little stars to me, you know, had been arrested and hiding drugs inside their body.
BIANCULLI: David Sedaris speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's return to Terry's 2017 interview with David Sedaris. They're discussing "Theft By Finding," which features his self-curated journal entries telling of his life and thoughts from 1977 to 2002.
GROSS: So there's another entry I want you to read. And I'm asking you to read this with some reservations because I'm mentioned in this. And that's part of the reason why I want you to read it and that's part of the reason why I feel awkward asking you to read it. But I have a really serious question about this that I want to ask you after you're done reading it. So would you read this entry from your journals, David?
SEDARIS: Sure. (Reading) February 16, 1988, Chicago. Reasons to live - one, Christmas, two, the family beach trip, three, writing a published book, four, seeing my name in a magazine, five, watching C. grow bald, six, Ronnie Ruedrich, seven, seeing Amy on TV, eight, other people's books, nine, outliving my enemies, 10, being interviewed by Terry Gross on FRESH AIR.
GROSS: So as I was telling you before we started the interview, reading that made me feel so honored and, like, oh, like I won the David Sedaris award.
GROSS: But it also made me worried because the headline on that entry is reasons to live. And I really didn't know how to interpret that. Was that, like, oh, things to look forward to in life or did it mean reasons not to kill yourself? I wasn't sure how to interpret reasons to live.
SEDARIS: It was reasons not to kill myself. You know, I mean, there are certain people in my life who didn't care to be in this book. And so I cut them out. And I had broken up with somebody. And I was, you know, really upset and depressed. And so that was, you know, reasons to keep going.
GROSS: Is it something you were just toy - like, how serious were you?
SEDARIS: I don't - you know, generally I find that when people kill themselves, they have something else going on, you know? Like, you might break up with somebody or you might declare bankruptcy and you might think that you're going to kill yourself. And you might be terribly upset and you might not be able to sleep. But generally speaking, people who kill themselves have something else going on.
GROSS: Do you mean, like, depression or some other...
SEDARIS: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: ...Like, mental health issue.
GROSS: Well, in terms of being interviewed on FRESH AIR, many times (laughter) since then.
SEDARIS: Well, I used to...
SEDARIS: You know, I was working - at that point in my life, I was mainly doing odd jobs and refinishing wood work in people's houses. And so I would listen to your show.
SEDARIS: And I would write - I wrote about it a lot in my diary. I wrote about...
SEDARIS: Anita O'Day when you interviewed her.
GROSS: Anita O'Day not having a uvula so she didn't have vibrato (laughter).
SEDARIS: And also when you interviewed her, she said, the name's O'Day. That's pig Latin for money, honey, and plenty of it.
SEDARIS: I mean, I don't know if she was drinking during the interview or whatever, but it was completely captivating. But, I don't know, I just wanted something so bad, you know? I just wanted to - I really don't think anybody wanted to be somebody more than me.
GROSS: When you wanted to be somebody, what were you picturing, like, what kind of somebody?
SEDARIS: I was picturing exactly the life that I have today, exactly the life that I have and going to a bookstore like I saw, you know, Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff go to bookstores, and having people be there, and being in The New Yorker and being on the radio. And, you know, I wasn't asking for the world. I thought I was being reasonable. I mean, it seemed like it was possible to talk to you.
SEDARIS: It wasn't like oh, I have to be the president, but there were certain things that I wanted. That doesn't mean you're going to get it. But it's scary. Like, in that list, it's scary to put that list together because what if that doesn't happen? If that doesn't happen, then I've announced what I wanted, and then I didn't get what I wanted, and then I'm a failure. And the way that I grew up, like, that word - I heard that word a lot, you know. I heard it a lot, and it was just always right there waiting for me.
GROSS: Because your parents assumed you'd be one.
SEDARIS: Well, not my mom so much, but, you know, my father, I mean, yeah. So it was scary to - it's always scary to announce what you want, even to yourself. Because if you don't get it - the only thing on that list is I see outliving my enemies, and I don't really remember who they were...
GROSS: That's good.
SEDARIS: ...Which that's good.
GROSS: I think that is good.
GROSS: So now that you have the life that you wanted and that you are "somebody," in that sense, you know, with quotation marks around it, is the life what you expected it to be?
SEDARIS: It is fantastic, (laughter) I have to tell you. It is everything that I thought it would be. Like, I don't want people to think that then you get it, and you get tired of it, or you think, oh, it wasn't what I wanted. It's exactly what I thought...
SEDARIS: ...It would be. It's exactly what I wanted. That said, you know, I mean, that's very nice, and I'm on a book tour. And, you know, and I get to stay in nice hotels. But when I go home, I mean, I spend between, depending on the weather, five to nine hours a day picking up trash on the side of the road. And that's what I do. There's not a day off. I do it seven days a week. I've picked up so much trash on the side of the road that I was invited to Buckingham Palace and...
GROSS: You were invited to Buckingham.
GROSS: I knew they named a trash truck after you. You were invited to - like, wow, because you're picking up trash. And just to put this in context, you live in, was it, West Sussex, England?
GROSS: And there's hills around you, but people throw stuff out of their car all the time. And so your thing is picking up trash. And you used to clean houses for a living back in "The Santaland Diaries" era. So it kind of continues something you've always done. And you've always wanted to do outdoor work during the day, so it just kind of - or some kind of work during the day. So it fits a pattern in your life, that's for certain. But, wow, Buckingham Palace. Might you become, like, Sir David Sedaris, not for your writing but because you're picking up trash (laughter)?
SEDARIS: Well, the queen has a day when she invites do-gooders - 'cause I thought it was going to be me and Hugh and the Queen. And I got there and there were 8,000 do-gooders.
GROSS: Oh (laughter).
SEDARIS: And some of them were cancer research or some of them were - oh goodness - work preserving buildings. And so I didn't meet the queen. I stood, like, 6 feet away from her. That was enough for me. So it's Buckingham Palace. We're in the gardens behind Buckingham Palace. And they serve these - they had tea and sandwiches and, you know, served on silver plates. And then somebody came around with a tray and offered ice creams. And the ice creams were in little cardboard containers, right? And then I saw people finish their ice cream and then think, I'll just put the empty in this planter. I'll just hide it behind this column. And they were littering at the queen's house.
GROSS: That's great (laughter). And you didn't pick it up...
SEDARIS: I couldn't believe what I was seeing.
GROSS: ...Though, right? You didn't take it on yourself to...
SEDARIS: And that was my day off.
GROSS: ...Clean up after them? Oh (laughter). March 21, 1991, you write, this spring, I am, if I'm not mistaken, in love. Had you been in love like that before with somebody who reciprocated?
SEDARIS: Yes. I was in love once before. But it was a little bit different. It was a little bit different with Hugh because Hugh didn't seem to be - he wasn't - didn't have one - his one eye on me and the other eye looking around for someone else. You know? And that made all the difference in the world.
SEDARIS: He seemed happy with just me.
GROSS: November 1, 1991, you move in with Hugh. Then November 14, two weeks later, your mother dies - two momentous things happening within two weeks of each other, one wonderful and one terrible. I'd like you to read some of your entry from November 14, 1991.
SEDARIS: Sure. (Reading) November 14, 1991, Raleigh. Mom died last night, suddenly of pneumonia, brought on by her chemotherapy. Amy called to tell me, and now we're all in Raleigh. Dad gave us the option of seeing her laid out at the funeral home, but I was afraid to go - we all were. How strange to be in her house and see her things - the half worked crossword puzzle, her mail and stockings. She didn't expect to die yesterday, did she? When it happened, Hugh and I were in our kitchen in New York. He was making manicotti and talking about a wooden chicken he'd bought when I got socked by the weirdest feeling. I thought that he was going to die, and I must've said something because he accused me of being dramatic. I can't believe this has happened.
GROSS: I am just so moved when you write - she didn't expect to die yesterday, did she? - that things were still in process in her life - the unfinished crossword puzzle - when, you know...
SEDARIS: Well, she got pneumonia from the chemotherapy. And so she couldn't breathe, and so she was rushed to the hospital. And so that was how she died.
GROSS: When you were deciding to write about your mother's death, how did you decide what to write or what to finally publish in this book about it?
SEDARIS: Gosh, well - you know how, like, when people get sick sometimes, you just - you don't want to acknowledge that they're sick because that seems to be - I don't know. Like, with my mother, like, I would have loved to have said, like, oh, you're going to die. And so can I come and spend time with you? Can I come and hang out with you? Can we - let's talk about all these things that we meant to talk about - because that's suggesting that she'll die. And so maybe the best thing to do is when they say like, I'm going to die, you say, no, you're not. You're going to be fine. You're going to be fine. Like, you think about David Rakoff, you know. The last time I saw David, I mean, he looked awful. And...
GROSS: And he was a close friend of yours who was a wonderful writer.
SEDARIS: He died five - it was five years ago. He had Hodgkin's lymphoma - and it - years ago, and then he had radiation for it. And then the radiation brought - caused a new kind of cancer. And when I last saw him, I just said, all right, I'll see you later. Like - and I knew I would never see him later. But it just seemed like if I had said more than that, it was just burdening him. It was just - he was so brave and who was I to suggest that he wouldn't get better.
GROSS: My impression is maybe that you were trying to let David Rakoff and your mother let you know if they were ready to talk about impending death as opposed to you telling them...
GROSS: ...That it was impending, you were waiting for them to tell you. And if they didn't, you were going to play it their way.
SEDARIS: Right. That's just what I've always done. You're right.
BIANCULLI: David Sedaris speaking to Terry Gross in 2017 about his then new collection of journal entries titled "Theft By Finding." It's now out in paperback. After a break, we'll continue their conversation, and film critic Justin Chang reviews Spike Lee's new movie "BlacKkKlansman." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 2017 interview with David Sedaris. His best-selling books - including his latest, a collection of short stories called "Calypso" - have included many stories and personal essays based on his journals, which have also been the basis of many of his stories heard on This American Life. But one of his most recent books called "Theft By Finding" actually is a collection of journal entries spanning the years 1977 to 2002. The entries describe his day-to-day life and the life-changing moments that he didn't necessarily realize were life-changing at the time. Terry spoke with him last year when "Theft By Finding" was first published. It's now out in paperback. When we left off, they were talking about the death of his mother.
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GROSS: How did your mother's death change your relationship with your father?
SEDARIS: Well, my mother always really liked me. I feel very fortunate to have been loved by my mother. And - so you know how it can be in a family, right? And so it really bothered my father. And I would come home, and my mother would make me exactly what I wanted for dinner, and she would serve me first. And my father would just be furious and take it out on me. It was like a game that they, you know - I mean, I wasn't the only one, you know, that this was going on with. But, you know, you grow up with it, and it just becomes normal to you.
And after my mother died, then I could have a different relationship with my dad. But, you know, the relationship did change with my dad. But it wasn't like - you know, with my mother, I never - it was just effortless. You know, just what are we - you never thought, oh, what are we going to talk about in the car? You know, you just are talking in the car. You never - it was physical. If Mom's there, you just wrap - you know, you just kind of throw yourself on her, you know, like, hang off of her. Just - I always considered myself very, very lucky to have had her as a mother.
GROSS: I want to talk with you about your sister Tiffany who took her life. Well, actually, I'm not really sure how she died. I'll ask you about that in a moment. But you wrote about her in The New Yorker. But I want - there's a couple of short entries from your book I want you to read. The first is October 3, 1977. But before you read it, tell us, like, where she fit in your family, which had six children in it.
SEDARIS: My sister Tiffany was child number five, so she was the youngest girl and the second to the youngest child. There were six kids in the family. And she - you know, it's interesting. Looking back over her life, my mom never really liked Tiffany a lot - very much, you know. Tiffany was too much like my mother. And just - I remember that as a child almost.
My mother, like - I just thought, wouldn't want to be Tiffany. And then she ran away from home when she was 14, which took a lot of guts. I mean, you know, the rest of us had threatened it, but we never did it. And she ran away from home, and then the police brought her back. And then she ran away from home again. And my parents sent her off to this school they'd heard about on the "Donahue" show, which was called Elan, which was in Maine. And now you hear a lot of things about Elan. I mean, it was like a horror factory. I mean, it was a horrible place.
And from the time that Tiffany returned two years later until the time - the last conversation I had with her, she brought up Elan in every single conversation. I mean, there was never a time when Tiffany didn't talk about the school that my parents - I don't even know that school's the right word - the place that my parents shipped her off to when she was 14.
I mean, in my parents' defense, you know, if you've got six kids and somebody is running away from home, you don't really have the option of kind of dropping everything and then focusing all the attention on this one child. You just get them out of there, you know. So she - I think there were already something going on with Tiffany, even maybe by the time she was sent there. But when she came back, she was like - you could really tell that there was something different about her.
GROSS: Can you read that entry for us from...
GROSS: ...October 3, 1997?
SEDARIS: (Reading) October 3, 1997, New York. Tiffany called collect this morning, sobbing and saying that she can't leave the house. It happens every so often. Other days, she can leave but still wakes up crying. I feel bad for her but can't understand the problem. Isn't there some kind of medication for this? She talks about Mom, about the school she went to over 20 years ago, all this stuff from the past, over and over.
GROSS: Do you think that she was having a mental health issue?
SEDARIS: Well, it was funny because when you talked to Tiffany, there was nothing wrong with her. And then you'd think, well, if there's nothing wrong with you, why can't you leave the house, right? Why can't you hold down a job? And in retrospect, in reading this book over, I would say, well, gosh, of course there was something wrong with her. But at the same time, you wanted to kind of believe her and believe that she was fine. But then when you look over things like this, nobody else calls you crying and saying they can't leave the house. I mean, it's not like - it's not like I had 10 friends that month calling me crying and saying they couldn't leave the house. I mean, that's really - you know, that's really outstanding that somebody has that problem.
GROSS: So there's another short paragraph I want you to read from an entry from November 9, 2000.
SEDARIS: (Reading) On Tuesday afternoon, she cried while telling me a story she'd recounted a year before. She cries a lot. And the episodes generally end with a list of things she's doing for herself. I get out of bed in the mornings. Do you understand? I get up. The accomplishments are tiny, but I guess they're all she's got.
GROSS: You write about how Tiffany tried to push away the family, maybe because she was so angry about being sent away. And you said that for a year, you'd send a letter I think, like, every month. And she wouldn't read them. Oh, she asked you to stop. You write that you sent her monthly letters for a year, and then she wrote you and asked you to stop. What did you think your options were in trying to, you know, be there for her when she was kind of pushing you away and also being in such a state of depression and living in a real hellhole, judging from how you've described it?
SEDARIS: I feel like Tiffany had this story, and the story was that the family was horrible to her. And that had to be the story. That had to be the story that she maintained to her friends. She couldn't change it. Well, you know, I was talking to somebody this weekend. And she wasn't complaining in any way, but I was asking her questions about how she grew up. And the things that I heard just appalled me. And I kept saying, like, that's not OK. And, like, why didn't your siblings do something or say something? And it just made me think about Tiffany. You know, like, the way that my mother never really liked Tiffany - like, the rest of us should have said, Mom, you need to do something about this because that's not OK for you to treat somebody that way. But we never said that. We never called our mother on her behavior towards Tiffany. You know, Tiffany had had a lot of anger at us, and a lot of it was really well-founded. I mean, we were adults. We could have said to our mother - we could have said to our mother, this isn't OK.
GROSS: She was, I think, living in Massachusetts when she died.
SEDARIS: Yeah, she was living in Somerville, Mass.
GROSS: And you write that she'd been dead at least five days before her door was battered down. That's so disturbing. That's, like, everybody's nightmare, to not only, like, die alone but, like, no one knows that you've died.
SEDARIS: Well, plus she had two roommates. She had two roommates. And they said, well, I guess our smoking - I guess we didn't notice the smell because we smoke a lot. I mean, you'd have to smoke a lot...
SEDARIS: ...To not notice that in, like, 80-degree weather or 80-plus-degree weather for five days.
GROSS: Do you know if she killed herself or, like, what happened?
SEDARIS: Yeah. She had saved up a lot of medication, Klonopin, and taken the Klonopin.
SEDARIS: And she had done that months before, and it didn't work. So this time, she put a plastic bag over her head to make sure that it would work. I mean, she really wanted out.
SEDARIS: She really - and she - you know, there was a letter that - my sister Amy went up there afterwards and found a letter. And it was so disjointed and so - I mean, if that was the state of my mind, I'd probably kill myself as well - I mean, if that's what the inside of my head was like.
GROSS: Just one more question about your sister. She had asked in her will that you not attend her memorial or have control over her remains. Did you honor that?
SEDARIS: Yes. We - nobody went to the memorial service. And her ashes went to somebody that she had worked with once. And my sister Lisa called this woman and said, could we have just, like, a thimbleful to scatter in the ocean behind the beach house? And the woman said no. So - and I understand that. Tiffany didn't want us to have them. So, you know, so we - and the woman was just honoring Tiffany's wishes.
But at the same time, you know, I mean, Tiffany sent my father a - you know, wrote my father a little letter. And it was like, you know, I - this doesn't have anything to do with you. And I love you, and - but still, the story had to be that we were uniformly terrible to her. And that was just what the story had to be. And so - I mean, that's a lot of anger to take with you, you know? But again, it wasn't necessarily all misplaced anger, you know?
You know, she had her reasons to be angry. It's just - I think she didn't want to be mentally ill. And she didn't want to take her medication. And if somebody's mentally ill and they won't take their medication, there's not a damn thing you can do about it, you know? And she was really hard - really hard to deal with Tiffany, you know? And, you know, she would call my dad every day and just rail at him. And, you know, to his credit, he accepted the calls every day. And he listened to it. And he never gave up hoping that things could improve.
BIANCULLI: David Sedaris speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2017 interview with David Sedaris. They're discussing "Theft By Finding," his personally selected collection of journal entries from the years 1977 to 2002. It's now out in paperback.
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GROSS: I want to ask you about another turning point in your life and that's when you gave up drinking, which you write about in your diaries. How did you know that you needed to stop? Like, what was that turning point for you?
SEDARIS: Well, I was on tour. And it was just - it was one thing to be drinking like that at home. But it's a lot to take that show on the road, you know (laughter)? It was really a lot of work. And I would be, you know, going back to a hotel room after - I would be on a book tour. And so I'm signing books. And then let's say I get back to the room at, like, 1 o'clock in the morning and then it's time to, like, start drinking And then - 'cause you didn't want to eat on an empty stomach.
And so, you know, you get your drinking in. And then you order room service around 4. And then you get high. And, oh, look, it's 5:30 in the morning and it's time for your car to come and take you to the airport. And it was just - I think it was traveling with it that made me realize. Plus I'd been wanting to quit for a long time. I just was afraid, you know, afraid to quit, afraid that I wouldn't be able to write 'cause I started drinking shortly after I started writing. And then I kind of got it in my head that I needed to be drinking while I wrote. And I had it in my head that I needed to be smoking. I couldn't write unless I had a cigarette.
GROSS: So was it hard to stop?
SEDARIS: I'm pretty good at quitting things. I quit. And the next morning, I went to the airport, and I thought that people could see it in my face. I mean, I always thought that people could see in my face that I was an alcoholic, that they could just look at me and they'd just know it or look at a picture of me and say, oh, my God, look at that picture of an alcoholic. And then when I quit drinking, I went to the airport and I thought, they - I didn't look like that anymore, you know? And, I mean, I'm talking as if I used to resemble W.C. Fields.
SEDARIS: I didn't. I just had it in my head that it showed on my face. And I quit. And, you know, there were a couple people who said, oh, well, you know, why don't you just have a drink? I mean, it's not going to last. And I do well with things like that, with, like, little challenges like that. And so I just thought, well, I'll show you. So I don't know. I've never had another drink. I don't miss it. It's a little bit different in America, like, if people are drinking and you don't drink, people get the idea pretty quickly. But you get a lot of lip, you know, in Europe. You get a lot of lip in England. You know, I don't trust people who don't...
GROSS: Why? Why is that true?
SEDARIS: You know, if you don't drink, people say, well, I don't trust people who don't drink. And it's like, well, then you're just going to have to not trust me. I mean, there's something in the book. I was at a wedding in France, and the woman, the bride's mother said, you have to have champagne to toast the bride and groom. And I said, that's OK. I just got some sparkling. I don't really care for champagne. I got some sparkling - you have to have champagne. No, really, I'm OK. You have to have champagne. And then - so I have my sparkling water. And then we raise our glasses. And all of a sudden, she sticks her finger in my mouth. She had stuck her finger in her champagne, and she jammed her finger into my mouth, telling me I had to have the taste of champagne. The thing is, she had a long fingernail, so it kind of caught the inside of my mouth. So really, I toasted with the taste of blood in my mouth is how I really toasted...
SEDARIS: ...The bride and groom. But if she had known what she was doing, then I don't know that she would have - it just didn't occur to her. I guess she just thought I was being obstinate or something. Sometimes I say - people say, do you want a drink? And I say, oh, I'd like to, but I'm a tragic alcoholic. I always say tragic. I'm a tragic alcoholic.
GROSS: Why do you say tragic?
SEDARIS: To maybe drive it in a little bit deeper.
GROSS: Right. Yeah. David, I have so enjoyed talking with you again. Thank you so much for coming back to the show. Congratulations on the book. It's just absolutely fascinating to read it (laughter). So...
SEDARIS: Thank you so much, Terry, for having me back on.
BIANCULLI: David Sedaris speaking to Terry Gross in 2017 when "Theft By Finding," his collection of personal journal entries, was first published. It's now out in paperback. Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews the new Spike Lee film "BlacKkKlansman."
SOUNDBITE OF ROMANTIC PIANO MUSIC MASTERS' "SMOOTH JAZZ GROOVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.