Thursday, March 9, 2023

Sedaris gets the call

‘Roger Donald called from Little, Brown to say that he would like to negotiate a two-book deal. To celebrate, I bought a denim shirt, and thought it amazing how quickly one’s life can change. I never thought I’d want a denim shirt.’ This is from the diaries of the American humorist, David Sedaris, who, exactly 30 years ago today, discovered he would finally be a published author.

Sedaris was born in Johnson City, New York, in 1956 to an IBM engineer of Greek heritage and his Anglo-American wife. He grew up in a suburban area of Raleigh, North Carolina with five siblings. He attended Western Carolina University and Kent State University before dropping out in 1977. After dabbling in visual and performance art, he moved to Chicago in 1983 and graduated from the School of the Art Institute in 1987. While scraping a living from odd jobs (not least dressing up as a Christmas elf) he was invited by a local radio host, Ira Glass, to appear on a weekly programme, The Wild Room. This led on to a regular slot, edit by Glass, with National Public Radio. 

Sedaris moved to New York in 1991, and in 1993, he signed a two-book deal with Little, Brown and Company. Many of his essays began appearing in main stream magazines, such Harper’s, The New Yorker, and Esquire. His first book - Barrel Fever - came out in 1994, and Naked followed in 1997. In 2001 he was awarded the Thurber Prize for American Humor. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim came out in 2004. His recording of pieces from the book was nominated for a Grammy Award for best spoken-word album; and his Live at Carnegie Hall received a Grammy nomination for best comedy album. Further successful books followed, including a collection of entries from his diaries. His most recent publication was Happy-Go-Lucky in 2022. Since 2019, he has lived in Rackham, West Sussex, England, with his longtime partner, painter and set designer Hugh Hamrick. For further information see Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica or his own website

Sedaris has been a committed diarist for most of his life, indeed his very first broadcasts were based on extracts from the diaries. In 2017, Little, Brown published a collection of edited extracts from the diaries: Theft by Finding Diaries: Volume One. The book can be sampled at Googlebooks and the full work can be digitally borrowed online at Internet Archive.

Here is part of Sedaris’s introduction explaining how and why he keeps a diary.

‘Not long after deciding to release a book of diary entries. I came upon a five-pound note. I’d been picking up trash alongside a country road in West Sussex, and there it was between a potato-chip bag and a half-full beer can that had drowned slugs in it. Given the exchange rate, the bill amounted to around $8.15, which, as my mother would have said, “Ain't nothing”. A few days later I met with my friend Pam in London. The subject of windfalls came up. and when I mentioned the money she asked if I’d spent it.

“Well, of course.” I said. 

“In the U.K. if you discover something of value and keep it. that’s theft by finding,’ she told me. “You’re supposed to investigate whether it was lost or stolen, though in this case - five pounds - of course you’re fine.’

Theft by Finding. It was, I thought, the perfect title for this book. When it comes to subject matter, all diarists are different I was never one to write about my feelings, in part because they weren’t that interesting (even to me) but mainly because they were so likely to change Other people’s feelings, though, that was a different story. Got a bone to pick with your stepmother or the manager of the place where you worked until yesterday? Please, let's talk! If nothing else, a diary teaches you what you’re interested in. Perhaps at the beginning you restrict yourself to issues of social injustice or all the unfortunate people trapped beneath the rubble in Turkey or Italy or wherever the last great earthquake hit. You keep the diary you feel you should be keeping, the one that, if discovered by your mother or college roommate, would leave them thinking. If only I was as civic minded/bighearted/philosophical as Edward

After a year, you realize it takes time to rail against injustice, time you might better spend questioning fondue or describing those ferrets you couldn’t afford. Unless, of course, social injustice is your thing, in which case - knock yourself out. The point is to find out who you are and to be true to that person. Because so often you can’t. Won’t people turn away if they know the real me? you wonder. The me that hates my own child, that put my perfectly healthy dog to sleep? The me who thinks, deep down, that maybe The Wire was overrated

What I prefer recording at the end - or, more recently, at the start - of my day are remarkable events I have observed (fistfights, accidents, a shopper arriving with a full cart of groceries in the express lane), bits of overheard conversation, and startling things people have told me. These people could be friends but just as easily barbers, strangers on a plane, or cashiers. A number of their stories turned out to be urban legends: the neighbor of a relative whose dead cat was stolen from the trunk of a car, etc. I hope I’ve weeded those out. Then there are the jokes I’ve heard at parties and book signings over the years. They were obviously written by someone - all jokes are - but the authors are hardly ever credited in the retelling. 

Another thing I noticed while going through my forty years of diaries is that many of the dates are wrong. For instance, there might be three October 1, 1982s This was most likely because I didn’t know what day it was. Time tends to melt and run together when you don’t have a job. In that prelaptop era, you had to consult a newspaper or calendar to find out if it was Wednesday the eighth or Thursday the ninth. This involved getting up, so more often than not, I’d just stay put and guess. Quite often I’d even get the month wrong.

It might look like my average diary entry amounts to no more than seven sentences, but in fact I spend an inordinate amount of time writing about my day - around forty-five minutes, usually. If nothing big happened, I'll reflect on a newspaper article or a report I heard on the radio I’m not big on weather writing but have no policy against it. Thus when life gets really dull. I’ll just look out the window and describe the color of the sky. That will lead to something else, most often: a bird being mean to another bird or the noise a plane makes.’

And here are several extracts from the diaries including those in which he writes about his first book deal, some three decades ago.

7 June 1987, Chicago
‘I dared myself to lean too hard against one of the living-room windows yesterday, and it broke and cut my elbow up. Later in the afternoon I took the empty frame to the hardware store, where they said it would cost $30 for new glass. That seemed exorbitant to me, so I was walking back home by way of the empty lot when an American Indian woman grabbed on to it, saying she’d been looking for a window frame just like this. “I need it,” she said. “Hand it over.” Her face was strikingly flat, and for a second all I could do was stare at it.

The woman was holding a beer bottle and put it down so she could grab my window frame with both hands. “Turn it loose,” she said, and the several drunk people behind her cheered her on. Then a man who was slightly less drunk told her to let it go. “Leave him alone, Cochise,” he said. “This here’s a working man.”

I haven’t worked in more than three weeks, but it was nice to be mistaken for someone with a job. Today I took the frame down a different street to the L, where I thought I’d try another hardware store. Right near the station a man asked me for money, and when I walked by he shouted, “Watch where you’re going with that thing, asshole! You almost killed that girl. You almost hit her with that window, you fucker.”

I said, “What?”

“You just about hit that baby, you son of a bitch. I’m going to kill you. I’m going to teach you a lesson you’ll never forget, you little fuck. You can’t get away from me.”

The guy was really beside himself, and I’m lucky I was so close to the ticket window. I worried he’d panhandle enough money to reach the platform before the train arrived, but luckily he didn’t. And what baby? I didn’t see any baby.

Why did I have to break that window, and on a dare, for God’s sake?’

13 February 1989, Chicago
‘Tonight at Barbara’s Bookstore, Tobias Wolff read from his new memoir, This Boy’s Life. All the seats were taken, so I sat on the floor in the front and tried to act normal. I was too shy to say anything when I got my book signed, afraid that if I started talking, everything inside me would just spill out.

He seemed like a kind person and wore a turtleneck, a plaid shirt, a tweed jacket, and jeans with black socks and running shoes. I have to be his biggest fan.’

12 July 1990, Chicago
‘For the third time this week, a man approached me and asked if he could have $1. He pointed to a van and said that it was his. “It broke down and if I don’t get to work, I’m in big trouble.”

Each time it’s a different guy, but it’s always the same van. A scam, obviously, but even if the story was true, who goes to work with no money in his pockets? What if you ran out of gas?

When I taught my night class in the Fine Arts Building, I was often asked for money by a woman who said she’d been robbed and needed to take a commuter train to one of the northern suburbs. Even the first time I saw her I thought, Really? You can’t call a friend or a family member? You’re honestly going to hit up total strangers for your fare? Like the men with the van, she was always well dressed and acting frantic.’

16 October 1991, New York
‘Amy and I walked up 8th Avenue to Intermezzo, where Hugh and his friend Sue were having lunch. “Here you are!” Amy shouted. “Just what do you think you’re doing? You can’t afford to be eating here, not when I’ve got a five-month-old baby waiting in the car. And wine too! You’re drinking wine! I hate being your sponsor, I really do.” Everyone stared and Hugh turned bright red.

Afterward I went to Macy’s, where I filled out umpteen forms, peed into a jar, and had my eyes tested. This year, as a returning elf. I’ll make $9 an hour. Regular Christmas help gets only $6.’

16 January 1993, New York
‘Helen’s forty-two-year-old nephew was a public-school teacher and today he died of AIDS. I said I was sorry to hear it and Helen said, “The bastard. Thought he was Mr. Big because he had an education, but where’s him and his college degree now? In the ground, that’s where. The last time I saw him, I called out, ‘Tommy!’ but he kept on walking. I say, ‘Fuck you, Mr. Smart.’ Yeah, we all know how smart he was now.” ’

24 February 1993, New York
‘This was an amazing New York day. In the morning I met with Geoff Kloske, the editorial assistant from Little, Brown who called a few weeks back to ask if he could read my manuscript. He’s only twenty-three, a kid, and has a grandmother in Jacksonville, North Carolina. We had coffee and afterward he took me to meet his boss, Roger, a big, good-looking chain-smoker who said that he, too, liked my manuscript and hopes to get back to me within a week or two.

Afterward I went to our play rehearsal (for Stump the Host). We open a week from tomorrow.’

8 March 1993, New York
‘The night before the play opened (at La MaMa), William dropped out, saying he wasn’t having much fun. “And if it’s no fun, why bother?”

I spent some time panicking and then decided to take the part myself, seeing as I know the lines. So I performed on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Opening night we had fourteen people in the audience. On Friday, there were forty, and on Saturday we were sold out. Meryl has extended our run, and thankfully Paul Dinello has agreed to take over my part. Hugh and Amy say, “Oh, you know you love being onstage.” But they’re wrong. I don’t. Not like that, anyway.’

9 March 1993, New York
‘Roger Donald called from Little, Brown to say that he would like to negotiate a two-book deal. To celebrate, I bought a denim shirt, and thought it amazing how quickly one’s life can change. I never thought I’d want a denim shirt.’

13 March 1993, New York
‘I met on Thursday afternoon with Don Congdon, the agent Roger Donald recommended. He proposed lunch and took me to Le Madri, an Italian place near his office and the fanciest restaurant I’ve been to in New York. Don is in his late seventies and was very elegantly dressed. A fine suit, a Pucci tie, a topcoat, even a black beret. The maĆ®tre d’ knew him. “Right this way, Mr. Congdon.”

Our waiter poured olive oil onto a plate and then gave us bread, which I guessed we were supposed to dip into it. I had thinly carved steak arranged into a turban with grilled radicchio and endive. Don had pasta that he didn’t finish.

While eating, I learned that he represents William Styron, Russell Baker, Ellen Gilchrist, and Thomas Berger. He represented Lillian Hellman for a production of The Little Foxes in, I think, Russia, and Frank O’Connor. He told stories about wandering through the Village with J. D. Salinger, whom he called Jerry, and recounted the night the two of them went to hear Billie Holiday. I heard of the time Don was arrested by the vice squad during Prohibition, and then something about Dashiell Hammett. The problem was that it was all about the past. That said, I liked his language, especially his old-fashioned slang.’

30 April 1993, New York
‘Between cleaning jobs, I bought a coffee and sat in Union Square Park to read for a while. The benches there are sectioned off with armrests - this to prevent people from stretching out and sleeping, I imagine. I’d just lit a cigarette when a guy approached - wiry, around my age, wearing soiled white jeans and a Metallica T-shirt. His hair fell to his shoulders, he had a sketchy mustache, and he was carrying a paper bag. Ex-convict, I thought. It was a snap assessment, but I’m sticking by it.

The guy asked for a cigarette, and when I handed him one, he took it without thanking me. Then he pointed to my bag of cleaning supplies, made a sweeping gesture with his hand, and said, “I’m going to sit down there.”

There were plenty of other benches, so I said no.

“Goddamn it,” he said. “I told you to move your fucking shit.”

I got up and left, knowing that if I hadn’t moved my bag, he would have thrown it. If, on the other hand, I had moved it, he would have sat beside me and continued asking for things. All afternoon I thought about it and wished that I knew how to fight.’

8 January 1994, New York
Stitches (our play) opened Thursday night to an audience of fifty. La MaMa can squeeze in 120, so this wasn’t so bad. Friday was sold out, as was tonight. The Times came last night; tonight it was Newsday and the Voice. I want to tell them we were just joking. It’s not a real play, it’s what comes from doodling while you’re holding a bong. Whatever they have to say, it’s out of my control now and in the hands of the actors. My job is to play the host and greet people at the door as they enter.’

27 December 1994, New York
‘Christmas afternoon. Dad pulled out his film projector and a half dozen Super 8 movies from the late ’60s and early ’70s. I recall him standing in front of us with the camera back then, but, like the photos he takes of us on the stairs every year, I never knew what became of them. Two friends of Lisa’s had dropped by, and though nothing could be duller than watching someone else’s home movies, none of us cared. The moment we saw Mom, we forgot about our guests. They mumbled something on their way out - “Merry Christmas,” or maybe “Your kitchen is on fire,” whatever.

I never knew my mother had been captured on film moving. The first reel was from St. John in 1972. Mom Dad, Aunt Joyce, and Uncle Dick. We see the island. Boats. More island. More boats, and then there’s Mom, who waves good-bye before ducking into a thatched hut. Then the camera is handed to someone else, and we see Dad pull her out. He is young and handsome - he is always handsome. When he points at the camera. Mom buries her head in his chest. Then he lifts her chin and they kiss.

Watching this, Dad stomped his foot on the floor, the way you might if you just missed the bus and knew that another wasn’t coming for a long while. He rewound the film and replayed it a second time, then a third.

“Again,” we called. “Play it again.” To see them both on an island, so young and happy. I couldn’t believe our luck: to have this on film!’

28 August 2002, Paris
‘Shannon called to tell me I’m at number nine. This makes fifty-two weeks - a year on the Times paperback list. While she was very excited and congratulatory, the news left me slightly embarrassed, the way you feel when you’ve stayed too long at the party and notice your hosts looking at their watches. The hosts, in this case, are all the superior writers whose books haven’t sold more than a few thousand copies. On the bright side, I think I can write something much better than Me Talk Pretty. And if it fails and no one buys it, I can really feel good about myself.’

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