Reading David Sedaris’s Theft By Finding is like reading the liner notes for all your favorite essays. A collection of diary entries, written from 1977 to 2002, the book begins with Sedaris hitchhiking across the country, working as a house painter, doing drugs, and making highly suspicious sounding art. It follows him writing, hungover in IHOPs in Chicago and New York, and obsessing over the cost of groceries. The book ends with the Sedaris we know: the acclaimed author and New Yorker contributor, living with his partner, Hugh Hamrick, in London.
The entries are sad, desperate, entertaining, and offer a sideways glance into the now familiar world of Sedaris’s writing. There’s the family—his brother, Rooster, his sister, Amy, and his parents—as well as Ira Glass, Stadium Pal, Santaland, and, of course, Hugh. Seeing them in this form is like looking at one’s rippled visage in water; it is recognizable only because you know the solid form so well.
Most entries offer no comment, just observation. “Everything I learned about writing, I learned from watching people.” Sedaris told me. And this observational quality is on full display in a book that is mundane in its concerns but hilarious in its insight.
Of the editing process for Theft by Finding, Sedaris writes in its introduction:
It wasn’t easy revisiting what are now 156 volumes of my diary. I broke the job up—a month or two per day—but after reading about me, I’d have to spend the rest of the day being me. I don’t know that I’ve ever done anything quite so exhausting. Hugh would be in the next room and hear me shout things like, “Will you just shut up!” and “Who cares about the goddamn pocket square!”
“Who are you talking to?” he’d ask.
“‘Me in 2001,” I’d answer.
I spoke to David Sedaris about the new book, his love for book signings, and his inevitable return to IHOP.
The Rumpus: Reading this book was so fun, because of all the familiar faces. I cheered when you went on your first date with Hugh and every time Amy showed up. Was there anyone who surprised you as you edited? Anyone you didn’t remember, or someone important who never made it out of the diaries?
David Sedaris: When I lived in New York, I used to write down the name of every celebrity I saw. Now often when I meet people they say, “It’s nice to meet you,” and I think, Oh we’ve met before. You just don’t remember.
But, when I met Hugh, it was what I call a “clean meet.” I met him and wrote about him. What was more likely to happen is that I would meet someone and they would just show up in my journal much later.
Rumpus: Like David Rakoff.
Sedaris: David and I met after he heard me on the radio. He sent me a letter and I sent him one back. He told me he once had a boyfriend who could also sing like Billie Holiday and we talked. Eventually, I asked him to direct a show I was working on. And we were friends from there, but he heard me on the radio first.
Rumpus: I’m very impressed by all the time you spend in IHOP. Where do you write these days? And what’s the best thing to eat at an IHOP?
Sedaris: When I went to the IHOP, I never ate. What they would do is give you just an enormous pot of coffee and I would just sit there and write and drink. And I wouldn’t go during a rush time and take up a table. I’d go when no one else was there and sit for an hour or so and write. Later, when I got a typewriter, I’d sit at IHOP and read. I’ve never read so much in my life. In fact, now, I feel like I never read.
So, a lot of that time in the IHOP reading was spent becoming a writer. You have to read to become a writer. There are folk artists out there who live in the woods, who’ve never been taught, or to a museum who can create artwork that will move you. But there is a reason there is no such thing as a folk writer. But to be a writer you have learn what it takes to captivate a reader in order to make them turn the page. And in order to learn that, you have to read.
I listen to a lot of audio books. I recently listened to one about Joan Crawford and she has this line where she says something like, No one picks up the phone to listen to someone complain. And it’s the same with reading. No one reads to hear someone complain about the weather or how poorly their children are behaving. You have to give them a reason to turn the page. As a writer you have to invite someone to turn the page. And that is a skill you have to refine. That is why you have to read. You have to read to learn what it is that makes people turn the page.
Rumpus: One of the parts of the book I loved was when you write about imagining yourself being interviewed by Terry Gross. And you have been interviewed by Terry Gross. You told her in 2013 that the person in your journals is different from your persona in your writing. And yet, in these journals they seem the same. Do you still view them as different?
Sedaris: What I mean by the difference is that, when you are writing yourself in an essay or a story, you are a character. You need to have a goal and an aim. You need to give the reader a reason to turn the page. In a diary, you are just yourself. You aren’t trying to entertain. You aren’t trying to get anyone to turn the page. I have over one hundred and fifty six volumes of my diary and I guarantee you that if you read them, you’d stop and never come back.
For this book, the editing was very important. I often read diary entries at readings and if the audience responded well, I put them in a document called, “Diary That Works.” So, when we were working on this book, that was what I initially used as the text. But my editor told me to go back and balance it out with some of the darker moments. Eventually, it became too much of that as well. So I had to edit out a lot of the funny parts. So the book was nothing like I initially envisioned. But I had to create something worth turning the page for.
Rumpus: I did notice how the darker moments and the lighter complemented one another. How does humor function in your writing?
Sedaris: I’m working on a piece right now for the New Yorker and it is very serious. I wanted to make the reader laugh. I put in some stories from a friend, and they work in there. But humor is necessary—it allows the reader to come up for air before dunking them under again. I need humor and I need it on the page to keep the reader going.
Rumpus: I’ve seen you live many times and I recognize some of the material from your performances in this book. As a sometimes-actor, how does performing influence your editing process?
Sedaris: Since I started reading my work on stage, my sentences have become more fluid. They dance now. I read some of the things I wrote before I did readings and I noticed how the sentences don’t vary or they are too long. So, performance is really an important part of how I edit. I sometimes take something out because I realize I put in a joke just to be funny and the audience laughed, but I should be ashamed of myself. I sometimes take out sentences, which are perfectly fine on paper, just because they don’t flow when I say them out loud. I always read my work out loud now.
Rumpus: One of the most amazing things about reading your diary was realizing how sudden fame seemed to come. You had a poignant entry about feeling like a failure then, boom, you’re on NPR and, a few entries later, have a book deal.
Sedaris: It wasn’t like that. The reality is I was working the whole time. I had been writing since I was twenty. So then when Morning Edition called, it wasn’t like I had just started writing then. But what happened was that I was suddenly put in front of an audience. Before I had done readings in Chicago at the Lower Links and maybe seven hundred people would show up and not to hear me, but just for the show, which had other readers. But being on Morning Edition gave me an audience of over twelve million people.
But then when Little, Brown called and asked if I had a book, I could say, “Yes, I have a book right here.” Then the New Yorker called and I said, “Of course!” Because I had been working for a long time and I was ready. But people say that to me a lot. Oh I should write a book like you and make money. Like you can just write a book or a story and suddenly find success. That’s not how it happened.
Rumpus: I hope Ira Glass doesn’t hold it over your head though.
Sedaris: Ira is the kind of person who will say, “Oh, actually, David helped me make This American Life a success.” Which I don’t believe for a minute, but he is gentlemanly like that.
Actually, I recently had a young woman hand me a manuscript with a note that read, “You can be my Ira Glass.” But Ira had actually heard me read in Chicago and then years later called to ask if I would read “The Santaland Diaries” on the air. I never asked anything from him. So, I can’t be her Ira because she’s already asked me for something.
Rumpus: You are very kind with your audiences. You put on a good show and you take time with the signings.
Sedaris: I remember what it’s like to be in the audience. I would go to book signings and I remember how it felt to stand in line. How it felt to think of something to say to someone you admired so much. And then it would be my turn and then the author would just sign the book and slide it back. You feel terrible about yourself. I would say things like, “I liked your last book.” And then walk away thinking, Oh, I hope he doesn’t think I didn’t read his current book! So I try, because no one goes to a reading thinking, I hope the author makes me feel terrible about myself tonight. I love signing books.
I’m friends with a lot of writers and so many of them say how much they hate signings and how they leave after a certain period of time. But what is so hard about sitting there while people tell you how much they love you? And if you don’t like it, well, learn to like it. I try to take one person at a time. I never look down the line to see how many more people are left. And I always try to make people talk about something besides whatever they planned to say.
Rumpus: Did you ever say anything embarrassing to another writer?
Sedaris: Well, I was the type of person who was the question-asker. And not just genuine questions, I would ask a question so the author would know how much I knew about them. Once I went to a Tobias Wolff reading. I knew he was teaching at Syracuse at that time. And so, I remember asking him how he liked Syracuse. People do that to me now and it’s okay. There is rarely a time when I just have had enough.
I do remember hearing that Susan Sontag told someone, “That is the stupidest question I’ve ever heard. Next question.” And of course there was no next question, everyone was too scared.
On this most recent tour someone asked me which Spice Girl I liked and I just couldn’t handle it. I said I didn’t know anything about the Spice Girls. I mean, I write for New Yorker; think of something better. That said, I do try my best.
One thing I noticed is that no one ever talks to me about the thing I just read. I’m not sure what that means exactly, just no one ever mentions it.
Rumpus: Going through and editing these diaries must have been a clash between yourself now and yourself of the past. What was the moment that made you cringe the most?
Sedaris: I edited out the most embarrassing parts. There were parts in my diary [where I was reading] someone I liked and I would try to imitate their style in the diary. That was embarrassing. There was also an old boyfriend, a man I dated for two years before Hugh, who asked not to be mentioned. So I took him out. But I went on and on about him in my diary for two years like a fourteen-year-old girl. I don’t know how my friends put up with me.
But actually, what makes me cringe the most is me now. I am becoming a terrible snob. I was reading some entries to the audience on my lecture tour and no one laughed. I could tell everyone thought I was a snob. You’ve seen my teeth. You can’t be a snob with teeth like mine.
Rumpus: It can’t be that bad. Isn’t snobbery a function of getting older? For example, I now demand things because I’m no longer young. I won’t sleep on a floor because I’m a grown woman and I want a bed. I also refuse to buy cheap bread.
Sedaris: So, this is what I mean. I was sitting in first-class on an airplane and a woman said to me, “How lucky you are to be sitting here. It must make for excellent people-watching.”
And I said, “Oh, but we don’t consider you people.”
Sedaris: The woman laughed, but Hugh was with me at the time and he was mortified. So that’s a lot different than just wanting not to sleep on someone’s floor. But that’s the thing about a diary: you can see who you are and who you are becoming and you can change.
Rumpus: Perhaps to change, you need to go back to the IHOP?
Sedaris: I think that might be the answer.
Rumpus: Is there an IHOP equivalent in England?
Sedaris: There is a place called the Little Chef.
Rumpus: It sounds terrible. I hope it works.
Author photograph © Ingrid Christie.