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David Sedaris: ‘I do mourn my dad as a character — he was a goldmine’

Releasing a new volume of his diary entries, the comedian is once again full of observational humour. Here, he talks about his relationship with his late father, connecting with fans and why he prefers audiobooks to ‘reading with his eyes’

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American comedian David Sedaris. Photo by Ingrid Christie

American comedian David Sedaris. Photo by Ingrid Christie

A Carnival of Snackery, Diaries: Volume Two 2003-2020 by David Sedaris

A Carnival of Snackery, Diaries: Volume Two 2003-2020 by David Sedaris

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American comedian David Sedaris. Photo by Ingrid Christie

David Sedaris doesn’t especially like it when you describe his family as ‘dysfunctional’.

I can’t tell you the number of times someone has said, ‘I love reading about your dysfunctional family’,” he says. “The hairs stand up on the back of my neck when someone says it. If we’re in constant communication and we go on vacations together and all we’re doing is talking about Christmas, I don’t see how that’s dysfunctional...”

As only he knows how, he pauses for dramatic effect. “I mean, my sister committed suicide and my dad wanted to take topless pictures of my sister when she was 17, but I wouldn’t exactly call that dysfunctional.”

This moment encapsulates Sedaris’ singular humour in a nutshell, which is at once shocking, revealing and slightly outrageous. Over the course of 13 collections of stories, essays and diary entries, he has honed this humour to breathtaking effect, often describing his experiences of growing up in his chaotically colourful Greek-American family.

Few private moments went uncharted, few conversations left unturned as he relayed life growing up in North Carolina with parents Sharon and Lou, and his siblings Lisa, Gretchen, Tiffany, Paul and Amy (the actress Amy Sedaris). Later, few corners of his 30-year-relationship with his long-time boyfriend Hamrick were safe from his observational humour, and his legion of devoted fans have come to know them all with an acute intimacy and affection.

I often wonder if Sedaris’s family or friends object to his writing about them with such astonishing candour. “If I write about my friend Pam, whose son is adopted, I will ask, ‘Is this OK? Is there anything you object to?’, but other people I don’t worry about because it’s a flattering thing. Most people will say, ‘Look, I don’t want you to write about this’, and I think, ‘I’d never have written about this. It’s so f***ing boring’. They think I’m on pins and needles, dying to get it written down.”

I tell Sedaris that I was moved to hear that his father Lou, a major presence in his body of work, died in May at the age of 98. Those who follow Sedaris’s writing will be aware of the pair’s prickly relationship, although they made peace last year after Lou entered a hospice (Sedaris wrote later that his father didn’t die, as expected, but recovered and left the hospice to stay in an assisted-living facility).

“I think people really felt that [emotion] with my dad, but when you’re writing about someone, they’re a character,” Sedaris reminds me, on a call from his home in Sussex. “There’s the real person and there’s the character. The character of my father was irascible, but in real life he was just an asshole. Although when you’re an asshole and you hit 80, you become a character.”

His delivery of this observation leaves me breathless with laughter, and so Sedaris warms to his subject. “I was delighted when he died, to tell you the truth,” he says in his southern drawl. “When he died, I wrote this eulogy and the audience was there with their mouths open. I did not say one good thing. But hey, if you want people to say good things about you, be a better person! People say, ‘I know you’ll miss him terribly’, and I’m like, ‘I’ll have to get back to you on that’. I mean, I do mourn the character.” Another pause for comedic effect. “He was a goldmine.”

Predictably, Sedaris’s book readings are closer to stand-up comedy sessions, and his audiobooks, usually read by himself, hold almost as much appeal to fans as the printed form. And no wonder: his literary career was partly launched by radio, when he began recording a monthly segment for US radio network NPR based on his diary entries (more recently, he has presented a series of readings on BBC Radio 4).

Diary entries

He has become more aware of the cadence of his writing as a result. “I think about it all the time, especially as I’m going to be reading it on stage,” he says. “I can look at my writing before I went on tour, and there’s no musicality to it. I didn’t understand rhythm and I wasn’t used to reading things about loud.”

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“I’m always surprised by the number of people who apologise about enjoying audiobooks, because they feel it’s not really reading, or that it’s a guilty pleasure,” he adds. “To tell you the truth, when someone sends me a book, I think, ‘What am I supposed to do with this? Read with my eyes?”

For his latest book, A Carnival of Snackery, he asked comedy actress Tracey Ullman to help narrate the audiobook because he didn’t want to attempt a British accent. “There’d be nothing worse than getting the accent wrong,” he notes.

The book is collection of diary entries from 2003 to 2020; a companion book of sorts to Theft By Finding, the first volume of his diaries, which spans 1977 to 2002. Sedaris might have written these as private diary entries, yet the hallmarks of his observational humour are very much intact. Told in staccato bites, the diaries were written from several locations, while he was on book tour.

Sedaris finds himself shopping for tea in Dublin’s Brown Thomas store in 2004. While in Ireland on another book tour in 2014, meets a fellow with ‘very white skin and red hair’ who talked all the way to the hotel (of his seven-week-old baby, Sedaris notes the man said: “She’s a fookin’ monster. A fookin’ nightmare”). He also met a man who taught him the German for ‘dryer fluff’.

“I love how chatty Irish people are,” Sedaris writes in his diary. “It can take a real toll on a book signing, though. Last night’s show sold out and I didn’t leave the theatre until 1am.”

Sedaris doesn’t necessarily bother with social media, but connects with fans in other ways. He handwrites letters and sends postcards.

“I’ll probably regret answering the woman who sent me a 42-page letter. She’s gonna write back,” he notes, mock-seriously. “I didn’t write back to the person who asked me to pay their student loan. But like Jerry Seinfeld says, I can’t hear anyone laugh about a tweet.”

In his latest book, another entry catches my eye: “I didn’t turn older this year. I turned old.” At 64, and with his trademark boyishness still very much intact, does he really believe that? He very much does.

“I find myself wagging on how sensitive audiences are, and then I worry, ‘That’s sounds old’.” He is more amused than anything about certain aspects of modern culture. “We’re not supposed to say the word ‘mother’. The term is ‘gestational parent’,” he notes wryly. “Well, try finding something that rhymes with ‘gestational parent’.”

As though to cement his role as an elder statesman, Sedaris recently sold his archive to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, where his manuscripts, drafts, notebooks and other scraps will be part of the library’s holdings relating to social satire from the likes of Garry Trudeau, Saul Steinberg, David Rakoff and Mark Twain.

“The deal is that people won’t read them until after I’m dead,” he says of the 185-book collection. “Which is just as well. Even someone writing a biography of me would be like, ‘I can’t do this any more’. They’d just be bored.”

He has long reached the point in his career where a new wave of writers are described as ‘the next Sedaris’, something that also seems to amuse him. “Yeah, you hear, ‘he’s a cross between David Sedaris and a three-legged cat’,” he says. “I used to be on the radio all the time years ago, but I haven’t been on in years. But it’s not like I want my spot on the radio back. I don’t have a problem with someone taking my place. It’s time to let someone else do it.”

Another perfectly-timed pause. “But they’re going to have to work pretty f***ing hard.”

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A Carnival of Snackery, Diaries: Volume Two 2003-2020 by David Sedaris

A Carnival of Snackery, Diaries: Volume Two 2003-2020 by David Sedaris

A Carnival of Snackery, Diaries: Volume Two 2003-2020 by David Sedaris

David Sedaris’ book ‘A Carnival of Snackery, Diaries: Volume Two 2003-2020’ is published by Little, Brown on October 7


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