Ever start to get the feeling that the job description of your average bestselling author can seem kind of one-size-fits-all? Something like this, perhaps: Ideal candidates will have the precisely right combination of talent, timing and all-around good fortune to write a breakout book that garners the support of high volumes of voracious readers. Once training is complete, core responsibilities include writing a solid book per year thereafter. Social media skills strongly preferred.
David Sedaris would never have gotten hired for that job. In fact, he wouldn’t have even applied.
And yet it’s hard to think of another writer whose career parallels his. For starters, he’s made his name with essays, a form not exactly known for its career-building attributes. And he’s not just known for writing his stories and observations, which display a gift for finding both humor and poignancy in even the most ordinary of interactions—he’s also known (in fact, probably better known) for reading them aloud.
He’s been called “the rock star of writers,” a term it’s difficult to imagine the soft-spoken, unassuming author ever using to describe himself. But it’s not hard to see where it comes from. People pay top dollar for tickets at Broadway-sized theaters all around the world just to hear him read. He has a “Live at Carnegie Hall” CD, not to mention an audio box set—and has even been nominated for Grammy awards for his audiobook recordings. On “The Daily Show” this year, Jon Stewart introduced him as “one of our favorites” to deafening cheers from the studio audience, and later doubled over in uncontrollable laughter, his back to the camera, as Sedaris described his interactions with fans in line to meet him on tour: “I talk to people so much that they’re like, ‘Uh, let me let you go …’”
For decades, National Public Radio listeners turned up their volumes at the first sound of his distinctive, familiar voice. (These days, the U.K. transplant treats BBC Radio to his more regular appearances.) Readers of The New Yorker have come to know the basics of his life offhand—the quirks of his family members (including his sister Amy, the comedian, actress and author), odd jobs held over the years, habits embraced and given up. All of it is fodder for his enormously popular stories, sometimes self-deprecating, always witty, often insightful and unexpectedly moving beneath a wry surface. His books—beginning with 1995’s Barrel Fever: Stories and Essays, then Holidays on Ice, Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Squirrel Meets Chipmunk, and his latest, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls—enjoy near-guaranteed instant bestseller status. He’s been praised by critics as a master of satire, and an expert chronicler of the human condition.
David Sedaris is not one-size-fits-all. In fact, he’s proof that you can build a successful career as an author by playing to your strengths, following your true passion, going at your own pace, and never shying away from your unique voice.
And thank goodness for that.
In the feature-length WD interview in the October 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest, Sedaris discusses his process, the importance of not placing expectations on your work, and why it’s so important to make real connections with your readers. In these bonus expanded answers, he talks more about his early inspiration, how his stories originate, and why he believes humorists are not journalists.
You talk often about your daily practice of writing in a diary. Is that where most of your essays originate?
A good many of them do. I’m on tour, and sometimes I end the evening by reading things from my diary. And they’re just vignettes, they’re just little snippets, little things that happened. And that’s not enough to make a story, but often you can kind of stitch them together and make a story out of them, and often my stories start with that. Like, I wrote a story in [Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls] about getting a colonoscopy, and that started as a diary entry about my father just nagging me about getting a colonoscopy. Every time I picked up the phone, he would nag me about it. And I read it out loud, from my diary, and that seemed to work, and then I stitched that together with an evening in the Netherlands, when a friend’s son suggested that the first person to reach the age of 200 has already been born. And I just wanted to get my father off my back, so I thought, OK, fine, I’ll get a colonoscopy. But I very seldom do things just so I can write about them.
I read an interview where you said you were inspired by the storytelling abilities of comedians like Whoopi Goldberg in shaping your own style and approach early on. At the start, were you primarily writing with the intention of those words translating well into radio and stage more so than in print?
Well … For the first seven years that I wrote, nobody saw anything that I wrote, except in letters and some really bad performance art pieces, but those were mostly silent—you know, standing stock-still and pouring Styrofoam pellets out of a boot [laughs], that kind of stuff. And then I started reading out loud. The first thing I read out loud was a little monologue that I’d written for a painting critique [when I was in art school], and so it was in the voice of a character. And I wrote it knowing I was going to read it out loud [in class], so I wrote it in a conversational style, so it sounded like somebody speaking. And it felt really good to be in front of an audience and get those laughs. It never occurred to me that I would Xerox it and hand it out to people, because that’s not what I wanted. I didn’t want them to construct a voice in their head—I wanted that voice to be mine. And I was comfortable with that level of performance. I’m not comfortable as an actor, I don’t want to memorize anything, I don’t want to look the audience in the eye, I don’t want to break that wall—but I’m confident reading.
And those Whoopi Goldberg monologues from her first Broadway show, I was just thinking about one of those today. … It’s just that moment at the end of that monologue where it’s comic, you’re laughing, you’re laughing, and then there’s that moment of self-realization for her character. And it’s not overdone, it’s not overplayed, it just makes it more—it’s just that little touch of sorrow. …
A few years ago there was a point where you were being publicly accused of exaggerating the truth in your essays for the sake of humor, after Alex Heard wrote a piece in the New Republic. Most writers seemed to understand that it was overblown, and it did blow over, for the most part. But have there been any residual effects from that in the way you now handle certain things in your writing, or in the way it’s received by your editors?
No—I mean, that’s what humorists do, that’s what they’ve always done. I think all of a sudden there was a decision that humorists were journalists. But I think there were like five people who thought that should be the case. I don’t care what they say, I don’t know why they would even want that to be the case. I mean, the difference seems pretty apparent to me. So, no.
Are you already under contract for future compilations for your essays, or do you decide when you want to pull the trigger and compile something?
Well, I owe my publisher another book, and I think there’s a date, but I never pay attention to that. There will come a time where they’ll say, “Where’s that book you owe us?” And then it’s like, “Oh, right, that!” But I don’t know what the date is. My agent does. But they’re not going to hold my feet to that fire.