- “Calypso” author David Sedaris is an award-winning, bestselling author and performer best known for his hilarious, and often poignant, personal essays.
- He said that even if he hadn’t sold millions of books, he would still write every day.
- He explained how he built a career by not compromising, but rather embracing, his personality and interests.
David Sedaris has built a career on sharing his life through essays. He writes about everything, from the death of family members to his love of picking up garbage, and his performances are both heart wrenching and hilarious.
His comedy albums have been nominated for Grammys, and his books have sold more than 10 million copies. And while he likes the attention, it’s never been what drives him.
“I’m just compelled to write … And success doesn’t have anything to do with it. Like if I’d never published a book … I would still write just as much as I write now,” he said on an episode of Business Insider’s podcast “Success! How I Did It.”
Before he started writing full-time, Sedaris worked some odd odd jobs. A gig as Santa’s elf at Macy’s led to his mainstream breakout when he read his essay “The SantaLand Diaries” on NPR in 1992. He’s become a radio fixture ever since.
Sedaris released his latest book, “Calypso,” in May, and he’s already on the hunt for more stories.
Listen to the full episode here:
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Transcript edited for clarity.
David Sedaris: Whenever I hear of something extraordinary or see something extraordinary, I write it down thinking it might come in handy. I had lunch with this guy the other day and he was walking down the street and he saw a blind man with a seeing eye dog, and the dog shat on the footpath. Right? And so the blind man sensed it and then he got down on his hands and knees to clean it up, which I didn’t even know blind people had to do. Got on his hands and knees and then his head was in the air and he was sniffing around, sniffing around for the turds. And my friend told me this at lunch the other day and I thought, “God, what a remarkable thing to see.” I get jealous sometimes when people tell me these things.
But you know you can’t be everywhere all the time.
But I think if I were blind what I would do is I would say, “Hello? Anybody?” And I would say, “Clean that up.” Hand them a bag.
Feloni: Do you have like a lens that you turn on and off for taking in things, like maybe you’re judging someone or judging a scenario around you?
Sedaris: If I’m awake, I’m judging. That’s how I do it. I mean I came from a big family, so we would all kind of do that. We would think about our day and we would think, what could I repeat to my mother that would make her laugh? And we all did that because that was the best sound there was, our mother laughing.
Feloni: What were you like as a kid?
Sedaris: I mean when you’re gay, you maybe don’t have a word for what you are when you’re young. You know because it’s not like you are desiring men when you’re 8 or 7, but you know that there’s something different. You’re different from other boys, you just feel it. And that’s nothing you can talk about. Now when I go on tour, I’ll meet a parent who will say, “This is my son Trevor and Trevor’s gay.” And Trevor’s like 13 and I think, “Well that’s great that Trevor can be like that with his parents.” It’s a whole new generation of people who have the luxury of being themselves younger.
Feloni: So you’re saying that as a kid you felt like you couldn’t be yourself?
Sedaris: Yeah. I mean I just felt there was something dark within me that I couldn’t let people find out about. But I think that’s pretty common for anybody my age and older. But I had a good family and I really got a kick out of my brothers and sisters and got a kick out of my parents and considered myself very fortunate.
Feloni: Do you ever have misgivings about using your family’s secrets or just personal moments in your work?
Sedaris: I don’t think I’ve ever used their secrets. I mean everybody has their secrets and things that they don’t want people knowing. My brother’s gone through some changes lately and my brother used to love to be written about. And then he said he didn’t want me mentioning things in this book, so I took it all out. I didn’t ask him why. It doesn’t really matter why. If he didn’t want it in the book, I don’t want to be that person. I mean it was a pain in the arse, to tell you the truth, and it made me mad. But I didn’t want to be that person. Especially if you have a business, you know? Maybe you don’t want people knowing how you voted or what you believe because they will look at that and then they will just take their business elsewhere.
Figuring out how to make a career of being himself
Feloni: You became a public figure with the help of Ira Glass before he was even with “This American Life,” right?
Sedaris: Yeah. He had a local show in Chicago called “The Wild Room.”
Feloni: And your first big hit, it was in 1992. It was that story of you working as one of Santa’s elves at Macy’s.
Sedaris: Well, I had worked at Macy’s for two years as an elf, and I kept a diary. And so that’s all it was, it was my diary of the time that I worked as an elf because Ira wanted something Christmas-y for “The Wild Room.” And so I thought, “Well, I have this.”
Feloni: On that whole idea of taking that job in the first place, were you working odd jobs as you were trying to fund this hobby that you had, of writing and reading your stories?
Sedaris: Well, I had just moved to New York and I don’t have any real skills. I mean I never learned to drive a car; I just typed with one finger. So I saw an ad and I thought, OK. But I realised when I took the job, I’d have to tell people. They would say, “What do you do?” And I said, “Oh, I’m an elf at Macy’s.” And they would laugh and I thought, “Oh, maybe this isn’t such a bad job after all.” I mean people seemed to be interested in it.
Feloni: Well, when did you realise that you could make a career out of telling stories like that?
Sedaris: Gosh, I went to art school and I’d been writing every day for seven years before I went to art school. And I read something in class one day and people laughed and I thought, That’s it. That’s what I want. I don’t want to stand in front of people. I don’t want to be an actor on stage. I want to read things that I wrote and I want people to laugh at them. That’s what I want. It never really occurred to me that you can make a living out of that. I mean it’s the laziest form of show business there is, reading (every now and then I look up). But I’ll take it.
Feloni: So it was always paired together, writing with the reading of it, and having an audience in front of you?
Sedaris: Yeah. When I was in high school or junior high, let’s say if you were all assigned to read “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” we would read it out loud in class and the teacher would call on people to read and I was always thinking, Call me. Call me. Call me. Call me. And it could be a cold reading too, like they could say, “Turn to page 41 and read that out loud.” And I just loved it, embraced the opportunity. I know for a lot of people, it’s their worst nightmare. But I don’t know, I always liked it. If you take that paper away, it becomes a whole different thing.
Feloni: How do you mean?
Sedaris: I’ve had producers who have said, “Let’s turn your reading into a real show and you’re going to memorise it and we’ll get lighting, and we’ll get costumes and -“
Feloni: Like a one man show type of thing?
Sedaris: Yeah. But it’s like, “No, I don’t want to.” If I look at the audience and then I say, “And then someone was at the door,” that’s just queer. Do you know what I mean? Like if I’m in the audience, I don’t want someone looking at me like that. I don’t want them looking at me in the face, because then you’re going to have to have that rictus of appreciation. And every now and then during a show, the lights won’t go all the way down and I can see people in the audience and I see people asleep and I see people sitting there with their arms crossed, just not having it. I mean I see people who are having a good time as well, but I just focus on the ones who would rather be somewhere else.
Feloni: So you want an audience, but you don’t necessarily want to be seeing this audience?
Sedaris: No, I don’t want to see them. But I want them to applaud wildly for me – but I don’t want to acknowledge the applause. I worked with somebody on that because I would just kind of walk off stage at the end of a show, and they said, “No, that’s rude. You need to acknowledge the applause.” So now I do this kind of a thing where I look at people for a second. I want the applause but I don’t know what to do when I get it.
Feloni: What did you want to accomplish with your stories? You were saying you wanted to hear this laughter from an audience. But when did you decide too that you wanted to get something, maybe a little bit more poignant out of that as well?
Sedaris: I think when I started off, all I wanted was the laughs and then you realise, OK, that’s not that hard. I can get that. And then you relax a little bit and then you allow the story to have other moments that aren’t necessarily funny, but then I want to get back to the funny bits. I know I’m not going to abandon it. I don’t know how people do it, how people get up in front of an audience and read things that aren’t funny at all. It’s just people coughing, that’s all you hear.
Feloni: When did you realise that you could make a job of just writing all day?
Sedaris: My first book came out and I still had my job. My second book came out and I still had my job and –
Feloni: What was your job?
Sedaris: I was working for a house cleaning company. I remember my father saying, “Do you think somebody’s just going to call and offer you a job?” And I said, “Yeah.” I mean that’s what I’m hoping and that’s what kind of happened.
Feloni: When you were finally able to just dedicate yourself fully to what you wanted to do, was it like a burden being lifted?
Sedaris: It meant nothing to me.
Feloni: It didn’t?
Sedaris: It meant nothing to me.
Sedaris: I don’t know. I like to say to somebody I do nothing but write all day. But I mean you’re only good for a couple hours. I mean, what are you going to do with all that other time that’s stretching before you? And so I had a job until I moved to Europe and then I couldn’t get working papers. And so I thought I’d volunteer in France – the government pays people to do everything there. So I mean I did the only volunteer work job there was in France. It lasted for like four days.
It’s sort of like being retired. I know I’ll fill four hours of my day with writing, but what am I going to fill the rest of it with? And when I lived in Paris, it was just every single day I went to the movies. When I first moved to London, it was the same thing and now I pick up trash on the side of the road.
Feloni: So this is at your home in England. I saw that the community named a garbage truck after you. Could you explain what that is?
Sedaris: Well, they named a garbage truck after me. And then I got invited to Buckingham Palace just based on all the trash I’ve picked up.
Feloni: Wait, really?
Sedaris: It didn’t have anything to do with my writing. The queen has a lieutenant in every county and her lieutenant in West Sussex looked out her window one day and I was picking up trash on her road, and then she saw me again and again and she nominated me to go to the queen’s day of service garden party.
Feloni: Did you get to meet her?
Sedaris: No. I stood about, I don’t know, eight feet away from her, but it didn’t mean anything. I just feel sorry for people like her who just have to meet people all day. That’s got to be awful and I don’t want to impose. Do you know what I mean? I would just be one more quivering, kneeling person. Actually, I wouldn’t quiver if I knelt before her because I don’t care about her that much. Do you know what I mean? Like if I met your mum, I would probably care more. I would say, “Oh look, that’s Rich’s mum.”
Finding insights through tragedy and comedy
Feloni: So when you’re sitting down to write a story, drawing from your life, how much does dramatization, whether for comedic or poignant effect, play into it? What are you trying to accomplish with each story?
Sedaris: Gosh, I mean I guess I’m trying to tell the story and I’m trying to tell you what was funny about it or what was illuminating. It’s so easy to lose the story, to go off on little tangents and then people forget what we were talking about. That’s a real danger for me, so I have to keep that in check. I mean if I’m writing about it, obviously there was something special about it. I went once to buy an owl for my boyfriend Hugh. I was going to buy him a taxonomy owl and I went to this place in London and the shop owner started pulling things out to show me, and he had a human arm and he had a woman’s head in a plastic bag and –
Feloni: Wait, is it like a skull or -?
Sedaris: No, it still had hair and it had some flesh on it. I mean it was old, but it was a woman’s head. And he had a pygmy skeleton that he showed me. But it’s like he saw into my soul and he said, “Oh, I know what this person would like.” And it was just sort of one of those moments when your life feels like a story and I had to work with that to try to get the reader or the listener to see it the same way it felt remarkable to me.
Feloni: Did you have to add some flair to it along the way?
Sedaris: My job is like making something out of nothing and sometimes it’s too much of nothing and there’s nothing that can be done about it. But sometimes you can stitch a little nothing-thing to another little nothing-thing and form a necklace of moments that can work as a story.
Feloni: Did you ever write something that someone in the story read and was very upset about?
Sedaris: Yeah. I wrote about how when I first moved to Paris, I went to French school, and I wrote about my teacher. She didn’t speak English, and it didn’t occur to me that she would ever know anything about it. And somebody who worked at the American branch of the school that I had gone to informed the school in Paris and the teacher was upset. I learned a big lesson from that because the facts in the story were all correct, but what I had left out was that even though the teacher could be monstrous, we adored her and it was harder to explain why would you adore somebody who’s monstrous. And so I felt like I was being lazy in cutting that out and so that’s the thing. If you’re going to hurt somebody, don’t hurt them because you were lazy. I mean if you’re going to hurt, give it your all and hurt them. But don’t do it out of your laziness.
Feloni: How did you decide that you were going to write about losing your sister Tiffany to suicide?
Sedaris: Well, she committed suicide. I thought,Well, I’ll just write about that. But I mean I write about – it was a big moment for my family. So I wouldn’t have not written about it. And actually, I’ve got to say I don’t know that I’ve ever written anything that has resonated with people like that, or at least people who have had a family member commit suicide. I heard from so many people after that story was in The New Yorker and I imagine I’ll hear from a lot of people when the book “Calypso” [in which it’s included] comes out, too. But I like hearing from those people. I really do. I think we all have something in common and it’s like we’re all members of a terrible club.
Feloni: When you write something like that, is it a cathartic experience?
Sedaris: No. I’ve never thought of writing as cathartic. But sometimes when you write about something you can reach something, you can get to the point of something that you didn’t know, that you wouldn’t be able to articulate if you were sitting around a table just talking about it. But then you’re sitting at your desk and you’re like, Wow, that’s it right there. That is it. But that said, I still don’t find it cathartic.
Feloni: Is finding that insight what drives you?
Sedaris: I’m just compelled to write. Every day I sit down and if I couldn’t do it, boy, we would have a real problem. Like if you told me that I couldn’t write tomorrow, I don’t know what I would do. And success doesn’t have anything to do with it. Like if I’d never published a book, I would still write just as much as I write now. I don’t know if I would be better.
Feloni: It’s just who you are, it’s just something you have to do?
Feloni: Your younger sister Amy, she’s an actress and she’s a very funny person. Is that just a coincidence or was there something about the way that you guys grew up?
Sedaris: Amy and I aren’t special in my family. Everyone in my family is funny and I always thought that came from being in a big family but we’re all different. Like my brother can mock anybody. He’s really good at imitating people. He can meet you and within a matter of minutes, he can spot your weak point. My sister Lisa’s funny in a way that she tells stories about horrible things that people say and do to her, but just not in a complain-y way, but with a sense of wonder. She’s really good at what she does. My sister Gretchen is funny in a way that she tells a story and you’re just shocked. You do not expect those words to come out of a lady with grey hair’s mouth. You just don’t expect that. Amy wouldn’t tell you a story of something that happened yesterday. She’s just right there in the moment. She’d just be in this room and she’d have you doubled over, but I’ll look around in this room and I don’t really see anything that’s necessarily funny in this room, but she would.
Feloni: You’re saying your whole family is funny, but when the two of you decided to make careers out of that, did you ever have a point where you felt a rivalry with her?
Sedaris: No. What we do is so different. I’m not an actor. I don’t aspire to be an actor. I could never do improv, never tried it, never wanted to try it. But I always thought it was interesting how sometimes people will try to drive us apart. Like at a book signing and somebody will say, “Well I think your sister’s a lot funnier than you are.” And it’s like –
Feloni: People say that to you?
Sedaris: Yeah. I don’t know what they’re thinking but I’m like, “I’m Amy’s biggest fan.” So some guy said the other day to me, “I’m really Team Amy.” And it’s like, “Well, she and I are on the same team – against you.”
Feloni: And to that point saying that you’d never want be an actor, and that even when you’re on stage reading, you don’t really want see the audience: What I think is funny is that, for example, in your new book it seems like you have no shame. You even give graphic details of a gastrointestinal virus that you had. How do you balance that with not wanting to see how a crowd is reacting to you?
Sedaris: Well, with a gastrointestinal virus, I didn’t actually shit in my pants. See that would have been different if I had. I don’t know that I would have written about it if I had shit in my pants.
Feloni: Fair enough.
Sedaris: But I almost shit in my pants. So that’s the difference right there.
Feloni: OK, OK!
Sedaris: I think I give the illusion of talking about everything, but I don’t, actually. Like people often say, “I can’t believe the things that you said in your book about your father.” And it’s like, “What did I say?” And then they can’t really think of anything. Late in her life, I became friends with Phyllis Diller, who was like the first female comedian. I mean she was on television constantly when I was growing up. She had a long cigarette holder for a cigarette, and then people would come up to her and say, “I saw you in Vegas and I was in the front row, and you got cigarette ash all over me.” And she’s like, “No. That was a wooden cigarette.” She never smoked in her life and she just used it as a tool for timing and for controlling the audience. She just gave the illusion of smoking on stage, when actually it was about something else completely.
Feloni: Are you clearing your stories with the people involved in them?
Sedaris: Yeah. I mean because when you write for The New Yorker, the fact checker’s going to call people you write about. The fact checker’s going to say, “Do you have a Donovan album? Did you have a blue station wagon? Did you once have sea turtles in a bucket in the back of that station wagon?” And you’re going to freak out. You’re going to think, “What on Earth did he write?” You’re just going to think the story’s all about you, but it could just be a minor detail in that story. I think sometimes people are thinking about, “Oh, what if somebody wrote about me?” There’s this one fellow who wrote an entire book about me, and he interviewed me for the book, and I like him a lot. But I told him from the very start, “I will never read your book.” If you were to write an article about me, never will I read that article.
Sedaris: It’s none of my business.
Feloni: Well, why don’t you wanna read about yourself?
Sedaris: I don’t care what you have to say about me. Well, I do. Maybe I care so much that I don’t want to know, but maybe my life would be easier not knowing. Even if it’s a newspaper interview that you give, right? I don’t even want read that, because if there’s some mistake in there, like you’re calling Hugh my husband instead of my boyfriend, I just don’t even want know about it. I have a life to lead, and it’s just easier without that in it.
Why you shouldn’t compromise who you are
Feloni: How do you personally define success?
Sedaris: I remember my sister Lisa in high school, she took a test that would tell you what you’re interested in and I remember thinking, Gosh. How can you not know what you’re interested in? And knowing what you’re interested in, I think, is half of it and then if you can do what it is that you’re interested in, that’s wonderful.
Feloni: And just keep yourself open to opportunities?
Sedaris: Yeah. I think that’s part of it too, is just saying yes to things and not shutting yourself down. But I don’t know, I don’t consider myself more successful than a writer who hasn’t published a book and sold 10, 12 million of them. It was really lucky. And that’s all a part of it and you can’t fake that luck and you can’t manufacture it, and I would imagine it would be like that for any profession. I sort of made a career out of being myself, which is pretty hard for that child to think that he could ever be himself. I would think, Well people would reject me. People would never stop throwing up if they knew who I really was. But the fact is that the truer I remained to who I really am, the more people seemed to go for it. And I don’t know, I’ve got believe that that would work for anybody if it could work for me.
Feloni: Well, thank you so much, David.
Sedaris: Oh, thank you.
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