David Sedaris is a comedian and author known for his quick wit and crackling prose. His latest collection of personal essays, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, made its debut as No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list. Here, Sedaris – appearing at Indigo (Signal Hill) in Calgary on June 30 – shares some of the secrets to his success, including his affinity for picking up after litterbugs
The greater wisdom of small bills
When I was in college, that was the first time I was flying on airplanes and I remember my mother saying that I should always have fives and singles on a plane so that if you want to buy a drink, you don’t have to pay the stewardess with a $20, because only assholes do that. I noticed when I started flying that men, always men, would pay with a $20 because then the flight attendant had to go get change and then if they couldn’t find the change, they might say, fine, take it for free. I think in a broader way, what my mom was saying is just be conscientious and don’t make life more difficult for other people. It’s not that difficult to break a $20 before you get to the airport.
It’s not who you know
I bristle when people say, “It’s all who you know.” People can sense when you’re grilling them as a contact. It is so irritating. I’ll get a letter from somebody and they’ll say, “Oh, I read your book and I really liked it.” And I answer all my mail unless it’s somebody really angry or crazy. Usually that’s the end of it, but sometimes they’ll write back and you think, Okay. And then they’ll write you a third time and they’ll say, “Well actually, I’ve written a book and I was just wondering if maybe you could show it to your agent or talk to somebody at The New Yorker.” Why didn’t you just come out and say that to begin with? I lived in New York for a while. I remember going to see a play and half the audience had flyers for their own play. It’s just so unsavoury.
The way to get: don’t ask
An old saying that I can’t stand is, “You don’t get if you don’t ask.” [My career really started when] I did a little reading in Chicago at a club. It was just a silly show, but Ira Glass happened to be in the audience. He introduced himself and then he called me a couple of years later and asked if I had anything Christmas-y that would work for a local radio show in Chicago. I had a story about the time I worked as an elf at Macy’s Santa Land, so I recorded the story and he put it on his radio show Morning Edition, which has an audience of 10 million. It changed my career in every way, but the difference is, I didn’t invite Ira to come and hear me, he just happened to be there. Somebody gave me a manuscript not that long ago. The note on it said, “Please Mr. Sedaris, you can become my Ira Glass.” That’s not the same! I have helped plenty of people, but I’ve helped them because they didn’t ask me to. Usually when somebody asks you, that’s a sign that their talent is for self-promotion, not writing.
There nothing rubbish about picking up rubbish
Every day I pick up litter. Some days when I’m home in England I’ll do it for nine hours. There’s a lot of rubbish in England. Even today [in Toronto], I was running out for lunch and there were cans and bottles that somebody had left on a bench. I picked them up and I threw them away. Say my work is not going very well, or maybe I’ve had an argument with someone I care about. By picking up trash I can know that I am making the world a better place, that I’m adding value in a small way. Every morning I get up and I do sit-ups and push-ups, but that’s not making the world a better place. I don’t even know that it’s making my body a better place. Picking up rubbish keeps you humble.
My own private instrument
When I was 20 I was hitchhiking though the Pacific Northwest. I was writing letters to my friends and family, but I didn’t have an address for them to write back to so eventually I just started writing to myself. I’m a very habitual person. Many years later, I would say I could probably count the number of days I’ve missed on my hands. Every morning I’ll get up and figure out what happened to me that I most want to write about. I’ll go to a strange city and I’ll spend my time in my room writing about what happened the day before, and I’ll think Oh, I should be out living life and not writing about what happened the previous day. I see it as practice. Almost like playing the scales for a pianist. It’s private – I’ve never handed my diary over to anyone, so I can experiment.
Not everyone should write everything
I don’t write about sex. It’s just never been my topic. I read aloud [from my own work] so often, at book signings or on the radio or other events. Maybe that has something to do with it. Let’s say I’m in front of an audience and I’m reading about making my bed, then the audience is picturing me making my bed. Or if I’m reading about picking up trash on the side of the highway, they’re picturing that. I don’t want them to picture me having sex! I’m 57 – nobody really wants to picture that. I admire people who do write about sex. That, to me, is really exposing yourself.
This interview has been condensed and edited by Courtney Shea.