With his sandy-soft voice and dry-ice wit, drolly confessional author and NRP radio stalwart David Sedaris has become a live-stage favorite. He offers up self-deprecating tidbits about his middle-class upbringing; his most obsessive behaviors; his boyfriend; and a life lived among the United States, France, and Sussex, England, where he currently resides. He reads from his most-loved collections of essays and short stories, such as Barrel Fever (1994), Naked (1997), Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000), and Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls (2013).
Oh, and there's one more thing.
"There is always something that I do at the end of my shows, and that's me pulling out my diary and reading from it at random," said Sedaris, 60. This year he published a collection of them, Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002, and on Monday, he will appear at the Academy of Music with the diaries in mind.
"I started reading out loud when I was living in Chicago in 1986 and was asked to take part in an evening where each reader had five minutes. I had this great piece I was working on that I knew would take 20 minutes, and went for that, only to be told NO," he said, laughing. "That was a good lesson. But I didn't want to read a part of that story, so I panicked and just pulled out my diary. And ever since then, that's been a practice. Sometimes, it just dies, and sometimes, it's a part of the evening that people look forward to."
The funny, crowd-pleasing diary entries always stuck in his head as the topic of a whole book. In fact, that was Sedaris' plan — until his editor made a change.
"My editor wanted me to go back and find things that weren't necessarily funny, to include the stories that didn't make people laugh."
Maybe Theft by Finding's tales of a jobless, drink-and-drug-addicted dropout with a yen for the International House of Pancakes isn't a laugh a minute, but it is poignant.
"The book I had in mind didn't have any real arc," Sedaris said. "This one does. My original idea would have made a nice bathroom book."
Those least-flattering aspects of his life are taken with a grain of salt — lived through, rehabbed, and moved on.
"I cringed the first time I read my diary, when I was like 20. I almost wanted to burn the thing, thinking of me in a beret at the IHoP. Then again, it's harder for me to forgive myself and see the charms of what I wrote two weeks ago."
Sedaris' diaries can be unflinching in their self-realization. "I'm pretty fearless. And sometimes very clean and clear about things," he said. "Like the entry about meeting my boyfriend, Hugh. I went to borrow a ladder, and that was that. Then again, I don't have that same recall about meeting Ira Glass, one of my best friends." The diary Sedaris keeps today — "done sober, and on a computer so that I don't start four sentences in a row with the word he," — is also crisply coherent. "I used to use a typewriter and peck with one finger."
Speaking on sobriety, Sedaris doesn't yearn for the quintessential Beat Gen writing days of drugs and booze, but he also seems to miss the dreams of an aspiring writer, just a tad.
"One should have something to really, truly aspire to, shouldn't they?" he said wistfully.
In diary-keeping, the peril of being weighed down by daily minutia always looms. "I went to this antique fair today and wrote down everything I bought — probably as gifts — and what it cost. I write down every gift that I buy for birthdays and Christmas, and, yes," he said, chuckling, "so to compare it to what they gave me."
Sedaris has never second-guessed his decision to leave the United States. "It's not as I can't return, and it is not difficult to have two passports. With the internet and occasional visits stateside, there's not that much to miss." The United States of years past — "what people believe was a golden time" — wasn't all it was cracked up to be, he said. "I wouldn't have wanted to be a gay man or a woman in the 1950s, or any time before."
"Yes, that's about right," he said, laughing. "I remember that my first book got put in the 'gay' section of some bookstores because I used the phrase my boyfriend in it. There's nothing wrong with that, and I was proud to be there, but I thought the book was beyond my gayness. Then again, one of my sisters found a copy of my Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim in the sewing section, so I really can't complain too much."