Ahead of his Australian tour, author David Sedaris chats to ABC News about diary-keeping, how a Trump presidency has been worse than he anticipated, and why the world is getting better for LGBT people.
David Sedaris has bought a pillow.
“It seemed like nothing much happened yesterday,” the writer confides in the opening moments of our interview, the West Sussex phone connection he’s speaking into faint.
“But I bought a pillow. It was made by a prisoner.”
Intrigued — am I about to hear a famous David Sedaris bit? — I lean closer into the receiver, as the best-selling author, humourist, noted garbage collector (actually), keen human observer, and mundane memory collector, continues.
“I was at a decorative art and antiques fair, and I saw this pillow and it said, ‘Handmade in prison’,” Sedaris says softly.
“It’s a scheme to rehabilitate prisoners by getting them to embroider pillows, right?”
“Right,” I parrot.
“Anyway,” he explains, “I got the pillow and it wasn’t cheap, you know — it was GBP 120. And the woman selling them explained to me that most of the money goes to the prisoner, and she said there’s a tag on the pillow with his name.
“She said, ‘I think you should write him a thank you letter,’ because it really improves their self-esteem.
“And I thought, ‘You know, if a prisoner gave me a pillow that he made, yeah, I’d write him a thank you letter. But if I paid 120 pounds, actually I think he should write me a thank you letter.’ And I’m the king of thank you letters, OK?
“Like, no one comes close to me when it comes to thank you letters.”
‘It is important for me to be widely adored’
Whether or not this anecdote — typical of the sort of thing Sedaris finds amusing and noteworthy — makes it into one of his future short stories or essays is yet to be seen.
But, he tells me, he spent a lot of time writing about it in his diary this morning, a daily habit he’s had for the last 40 or so years, and the basis of his latest book Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002), a 500-page tome released last year.
Back in Australia this month for the fourth time in his career, Sedaris plans on using his national tour, An Evening with David Sedaris, to read aloud from old and new diary entries, as well as test and refine fresh material for a forthcoming book.
It will be a glimpse into a writer’s mind in real time, as Sedaris — who says he often writes 20 or more drafts of each story — will reshape and rephrase elements of a piece depending on the audience’s reaction.
Asked if it is important to him that he is widely read, Sedaris responds, deadpan, “It is important for me to be widely adored.”
Even if you haven’t read his books — titles such as Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000), Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004) and When You Are Engulfed in Flames (2008) that offer engaging reflections on his offbeat family, youthful misadventures and adult misgivings — his name probably rings a bell, not least because he comes so highly recommended (and gifted on birthdays).
A non-reader friend, for instance, has Me Talk Pretty One Day on his bedside; he says the short essays are easy to read and make him appear more literary than he actually is.
Another friend listens to Sedaris’s audio books while she works in her art studio, his unique voice adding an extra layer of nuance and delight to his writing.
Avid fans (there are 850,000 of them on Facebook alone) follow the American writer’s new releases closely, and click eagerly on his latest online essays in the hope of “catching up” with the 60-year-old between books.
Trump: ‘It’s worse than I even thought it was going to be’
In a piece published in The Paris Review last June, titled A Number of Reasons I’ve Been Depressed Lately, fans gained a glimpse into Sedaris’s psyche as he recounted 10 moments in time from the lead-up to, election and inauguration of Donald Trump.
Each snapshot — no doubt mirroring a sentiment shared by many readers — is an escalating scream of disbelief and despair at what Sedaris views as the unfolding “doom” of a Trump presidency.
It includes conversations with a racist hire car driver, a conspiracy theorist, a friend who can’t take a joke, and a screaming match with his Republican father who yells, “[Donald Trump] is the best thing that’s happened to this country in years!”
Near the end of the essay, after falling off a ladder and hurting himself badly but not critically, Sedaris writes, “It’s remarkably similar to how I felt after the election, as if I’d been slammed against a wall or hit by a car.
“Both pains persist, show no signs, in fact, of ever going away.”
Sedaris says to me now, a year into President Trump’s term: “Yes, well … it’s worse than I even thought it was going to be.
“He has an eight-word vocabulary and uses words like ‘bigly’. I mean …”
He has resolved, though, to stop bickering with his dad about politics, which he takes as one small positive in otherwise disheartening times.
“I expected him to be dead the other day,” he says of his 95-year-old father.
“I don’t want our last moments to be spent slinging arrows, you know?”
These days, Sedaris says, life at home in the UK — with his partner of 26 years, Hugh Hamrick — is a quiet decrescendo.
“A couple of days ago we [he and Mr Hamrick] had a really great day,” he says.
“We didn’t do anything special, just had a couple of meals together.
“But it was one of those times where I thought, ‘God, how wonderful to be 26 years into something and still like the person you’re with and be so happy to have him in your life.”
‘The world is a lot better than it once was’ for LGBT people
Surprised at the furore surrounding Australia’s recent debate on same-sex marriage, Sedaris (who is engaged to Hamrick but doesn’t plan on marrying him) argues same-sex marriage legalisation around the world will help the LGBT community feel less alone.
“I feel like the more time you spend hiding [your homosexuality], it just deforms you, you know?” he says.
“You don’t have to live that way anymore. Well, there are places in America where you probably have to live that way, but I mean, generally speaking, the world is a lot better than it once was in that regard.”
Long gone are the drug-fuelled, unemployed days of Sedaris’s youth spent in Chicago and New York; when he’s not writing or touring, he’s spending up to nine hours a day picking up roadside rubbish in the English countryside.
He has collected so much rubbish his local council named a garbage truck after him — “Pig Pen Sedaris” — and he has even been honoured for his dirty work at Buckingham Palace (along with many other “do-gooders“, Sedaris was invited to the Queen’s Garden Party).
And then, of course, there’s his constant observation of others.
His notebook readily available, no encounter is safe from Sedaris’s curious eyes and mind — especially not on the other side of the world.
“I’ve gotten some great stories in Australia,” Sedaris says.
“I think it has to do with how talkative people are, especially, I think, compared to England.”
Don’t say he didn’t warn you.
David Sedaris is currently on a national tour of Australia, reading his diary entries and new essays.
Topics: books-literature, performance-art, popular-culture, gays-and-lesbians, people, donald-trump, australia