David Sedaris On The Life-Altering And Mundane Pages Of His Old Diaries

May 31, 2017

Humorist David Sedaris admits that his latest work, Theft by Finding, isn't exactly the book he set out to publish. It was originally meant to be a collection of funny diary entries, but then Sedaris' editor had a suggestion that changed its course.

"My editor said, 'Why don't you go back to the very beginning and find things that aren't necessarily funny and put those in as well?' " Sedaris says. "Soon those [entries] outweighed the funny ones, and the funny ones seemed almost over-produced, so I got rid of a lot of them."

The result is a collection of moments pulled from the diaries Sedaris wrote between 1977 and 2002. Theft by Finding includes major turning points in Sedaris' life: the NPR broadcast of excerpts from his SantaLand Diaries collection, meeting his longtime boyfriend, Hugh, and the death of his mother. But most of the entries are quieter moments in which Sedaris writes about cleaning houses for a living, doing drugs and observing patrons at IHOP.

Though Sedaris has published personal stories and books based on his journals before, the idea of pulling from decades-old diaries took some getting used to.

"Publishing a first draft of something you wrote when you were drunk and 21 — I'll do it if it works and it's inviting on the paper, but a lot of the entries in this book, they're like three lines long," he says. "I might've written four pages that day, but of those four pages the only thing that might be of interest to someone else are these three lines."


Interview Highlights

On wanting to be a successful writer

I really don't think anybody could've wanted it more. ... I was picturing exactly the life that I have today. Exactly the life that I have. ...

I recently saw that movie La La Land on a plane and it made me think about people who didn't have dreams. There are plenty of people I know in my life who — I don't mean to suggest in any way that they're failures — but I don't know that they ever wanted things, like were very specific about what it was that they wanted. ...

A lot of people don't know what they want, or they're just kind of vague about it. I was never vague. I knew exactly what I wanted. That doesn't mean that you're going to get it, but it's scary ... because what if that doesn't happen?

On how reading helps teach people how to write

There are folk artists out there who live in the woods, who have never been to a museum, who can create artwork that will move you, right? But there's no such thing as a folk writer. There's no such thing as somebody who's never read a book before suddenly sitting down one day and writing one. You have to learn how to captivate a reader. I don't mean you have to go to school for it, but if you pay attention you can learn it by reading books.

On how he met his boyfriend Hugh

We met through a mutual friend, borrowing a ladder. That's just such a nice story. I meet so many [couples] and I [say], "How did you guys meet?" and they say "OKCupid" or "Grindr," so it sounds so very old fashioned to meet someone over a ladder. At least ladders still exist.

On how he reacted to friend and fellow writer David Rakoff's illness

You know how, like, when people get sick sometimes you just don't want to acknowledge that they're sick? ... I think about [writer] David Rakoff. The last time I saw David he looked awful. ... He had Hodgkin lymphoma years ago and then he had radiation for it, and then the radiation caused a new kind of cancer.

When I last saw him, I just said, "Alright, I'll see you later." And I knew I would never see him later, but it just seemed like if I had said more than that it was just burdening him. He was so brave and who was I to suggest that he wouldn't get better?

On his sister Tiffany, who took her own life in 2013

My sister Tiffany was child number five. So she was the youngest girl and the second to the youngest child; there were six kids in the family.

It's interesting. Looking back over her life, my mom never really liked Tiffany very much. Tiffany was too much like my mother, and I remember that as a child almost ... I just thought, Ugh, wouldn't want to be Tiffany. ...

The rest of us should've said, "Mom, you need to do something about this, because that's not OK for you to treat somebody that way." But we never said that. We never called our mother on her behavior towards Tiffany. You think, You're 7, what are you going to do? But I wasn't always 7. I was 20 and I was 30. ... Tiffany had a lot of anger at us and a lot of it was really well-founded. We were adults, we could've said to our mother, "This isn't OK." ...

[Per Tiffany's wishes] nobody [from the family] went to the memorial service. Her ashes went to somebody that she had worked with once, and my sister Lisa called this woman and said, "Could we have just a thimble full to scatter in the ocean behind the beach house?" And the woman said, "No." I understand that. Tiffany didn't want us to have them. The woman was just honoring Tiffany's wishes.

On deciding to quit drinking after years of struggling to admit he was an alcoholic

I was on tour and it was one thing to be drinking like that at home, but it's a lot to take that show on the road. ... I would be on a book tour, and so I'm signing books, and let's say I get back to the room at like 1 o'clock in the morning, and then it's time to start drinking. ... And then you order room service around 4. And then you get high, and, oh look, it's 5:30 in the morning and it's time for your car to come and take you to the airport. ...

I had been wanting to quit for a long time. I was afraid to quit, afraid that I wouldn't be able to write, because I started drinking shortly after I started writing. And then I kind of got it in my head that I needed to be drinking while I wrote. ... I don't know why I was so convinced of it, it's like saying "I can't sing unless I have a blue shirt on."

Radio producers Sam Briger and Heidi Saman and Web producers Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper contributed to this story.


Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I was really excited when I heard David Sedaris had a new book because it meant I had an excuse to talk with him again. He's best-known for his stories based on the journals he's kept. His new book actually collects his journal entries from 1977 through 2002. It's called "Theft By Finding." It includes the entry from the day Ira Glass called him to let him know that Morning Edition wanted to broadcast Sedaris' "Santaland Diaries," his account of working as an elf in Macy's Santaland. That was the broadcast that changed to Sedaris' life by giving him a large audience, an audience that demanded to hear more. When Ira started his show This American Life in 1995, Sedaris became a regular contributor. There's many other life-changing moments in these journal entries - about friendships, death, alcohol and drugs, sobriety and meeting the man who became his boyfriend - they're still together.

But there are also entries that give readers a sense of what Sedaris' daily life has been like over the years and how it's changed over the different phases of his life - and his life has changed a lot. Now he's an internationally known best-selling author. When the book starts, he's a college dropout making a living by picking fruit. David Sedaris, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'm so excited to be able to talk with you again. But before we talk - and there's so much I want to talk with you about - before we talk, I want you to do a short reading from the introduction to your new book of diaries.

DAVID SEDARIS: I'd be happy to.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOK, "THEFT BY FINDING")

SEDARIS: (Reading) The early years, 1977 to 1983, were the bleakest. I was writing my diaries by hand back then. The letters were small and fueled by meth. A typical entry would go on for pages, solid walls of words. And every last one of them - complete crap. I've included very little of that time in this book. It's like listening to a crazy person. That gist is all you need, really. The diary lightened up when I moved to Chicago, partly because I was in a big city but mainly because I felt so much better about myself. I'd finally done what I'd talked about doing for so many years. I'd left the town I grew up in. I'd gone back to college and actually graduated.

There was all the more reason to feel good when, in the fall of 1990, I moved to New York. I was only writing at night back then, either smashed or getting there. You'd think I'd have addressed my drinking, at least in the privacy of my diary, but it's rarely mentioned. To type that word - alcoholic - would have made it real, so I never recounted the talking-tos I got from Hugh and certain helpful people in my family. Similarly, it took me a while in the 1970s to write the word gay. Oh, please, I said out loud to my 20-year-old self while reading my earliest diaries, who do you think you were kidding? This project made evident all the phases I've gone through over the years and how intensely.

GROSS: That's David Sedaris reading from the introduction to his new book "Theft By Finding," which is a collection of his diaries from 1977 to 2002.

David, why did you decide to publish your journals as opposed to stories based on your journals?

SEDARIS: Well, when I was in college in 19 - probably in 1986, I was in a painting critique. And in a painting critique, you'd put up your work and you'd talk about it. And one of the things I noticed pretty early on in art school was that my classmates had no notion of an audience. Right? I mean, growing up with the mother that I did, I learned that when you walk into the dry cleaners, there's an audience waiting for you. You know, maybe it's just the person behind the counter...

GROSS: (Laughter).

SEDARIS: ...Or maybe there are two other customers. But that is your audience. When you go to the grocery store, your audience is waiting.

But the people in my class had no sense of that. And so they would talk the way you might talk to a therapist, and it was really boring. So I thought - well, I don't really have that much to say about my paintings, so I'm just going to read a little something. So I read some things from my diary. And it wasn't higgledy-piggledy. I mean, it was stuff that I thought would be funny. And I took this and I connected it to this and connected, you know. And I read for, like, two minutes. And people laughed. And then the teacher said, so do we talk about that in connection to your work? And I said no, I'm done. And then people liked me even more because it meant they could talk about themselves sooner.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SEDARIS: So I started reading from my diary back then. And when something would work, I would put it into a file that said - that was called diary that works. So really - probably after my second or third book came out, I thought, you know, one day I'll publish that diary that works file. And it just seemed like the time. But then my editor said, why don't you go back - and go back to the very beginning and find things that aren't necessarily funny and put those in as well? And soon, those outweighed the funny ones. And the funny ones seemed almost overproduced, so I got rid of a lot of them. So this wasn't the book that I had in my mind.

GROSS: When you were putting this book together, I'd imagine that there were two competing impulses, the impulse to be authentic and publish what you'd written back in 1988 and the impulse to, you know, to refine it - to edit it, to make it better. So how did that kind of little competition between those two instincts work out?

SEDARIS: Well, you know, I was saying to somebody a while ago how there are folk artists out there who live in the woods, who've never been to a museum who can create artwork that will move you. All right? But there's no such thing as a folk writer. There's no such thing as somebody who's never read a book before suddenly sitting down one day and writing one. You have to learn how to captivate a reader. Right? And I don't mean you have to go to school for it. But if you're - if you pay attention, you can learn it by reading books. And so I feel like I learned a lot by reading books.

So when I was going to some of the earlier entries, I might have, like, four sentences in a row that start with the words she. And that's just not inviting to a reader, you know what I mean? And if you want somebody to turn from Page 17 to Page 18, then you take those four sentences that start with the word she and you turn them into two sentences.

GROSS: So also in the reading that you just did, you mention that you did a lot of your writing on meth. And it made me think about - because there was a period of your life when you were doing a lot of drugs. You had to buy those drugs. And knowing that there's a part of you who is so interested in other people - who sees, like, the world as kind of, like, a stage - do you know what I mean? Not necessarily one for you to perform on but, like, you're in the audience and you're watching people behave. And you seem to find, like, going to a grocery store the night before Thanksgiving and watching people kind of panic-buying is great entertainment for you. So when you had to buy drugs from dealers - I don't know if you got them from friends or if you had to, like, you know, meet strangers on the street or in the car or in the park or whatever - did it expose you to people who were, like, really maybe a little frightening but also, like, really interesting to you? And were you, yourself, or did you become somebody else around them?

SEDARIS: Well, often - you know, when you need drugs and you don't have a lot of money, what you'll do is you'll hang out with people who will give you drugs. Right? And there - a lot - quite often, they're not people who you would like under any circumstances. But you drop by their house, and you laugh at all their jokes. And you wait for them to pull the drugs out. And you say things like, God, I haven't gotten high since - I haven't gotten high since this morning. And you drop little hints, and then you hate yourself for dropping the little hints. And you pick up a bong. And you say, what's this? - as if you've never seen a bong.

And you sit there, and you just - that was the greatest thing about giving up drugs is that I didn't have to hang out with those people anymore. It wasn't their fault. I was the phony. I was the one who was just hanging out with them for that reason. And often, they're people just with crummy personalities, and they couldn't really have friends any other way. They needed the drugs, or no one would hang out with them. So yeah, I've wasted a lot of time pretending to be interested in people who weren't terribly interesting. Then there were really interesting drug dealers, you know - really adventurous, who seemed like little stars to me, you know, had been arrested and hiding drugs inside their body.

GROSS: So you dropped out of college and then went to the Art Institute of Chicago when you were 27. But why did you drop out of college?

SEDARIS: I discovered drugs. I...

GROSS: Oh, OK.

SEDARIS: ...Got high when I was 14. And then I came home and I let my sister smell my fingers. And then I turned anti-drug. And then when I went to college the first time, you know, when I was, like, 18, it was almost like a commercial, like a drug commercial. Like, people in the dorm saying, oh, come on, you can try it once and, like, the peer pressure.

And so I got high, and it was like, wow, where have I been all my life? And then my second year of college, it was getting up on exam day and taking acid and, I mean, just - I dropped out of college. I just was in the dorm doing drugs. I didn't even go to class, like, my last semester so I withdrew - right? - so I wouldn't get the bad grades.

But I didn't think they would tell my parents. But of course they did. So that was that.

GROSS: On February 13, 1989, you have an entry in your diary about going to hear Tobias Wolff read from his new memoir "This Boy's Life." And you write, I have to be his biggest fan. That's the book that made me realize that, like, wow, memoir, that's where it's really happening now in American literature. It's about the memoir. This book is amazing.

And that book was so inspiring, I think, to a lot of people who ended up writing memoirs. Of course, not all those memoirs were as good (laughter).

SEDARIS: Right.

GROSS: But what impact did that book have on you?

SEDARIS: Well, I loved his short stories. And I think the impact of the book was that you saw him as a child and you realized that that person who lived that crummy life went on to write these amazing short stories and that the memoir was written as intricately and as beautifully as any of his stories. And that was really - I feel like that was, like, the first memoir was "This Boy's Life." It hadn't occurred to me - I don't know, I mean, you know, I'd read biographies.

But - and it wasn't the same as an autobiography either. You know what I mean? Like, you never hear the word autobiography anymore. I guess people just put memoir on it. But to me, an autobiography - I don't know, maybe it's just a little bit more formal than a memoir. But, I mean, I would have loved anything that he put out. I really do have to be - I really have to be his biggest fan.

I mean, I'd fight anybody else who says that he's his biggest fan. I'd fight him. I think I'd win.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is David Sedaris. And his new book, "Theft By Finding," is a collection of his diaries from 1977 to 2002. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEASTIE BOYS' "GROOVE HOLMES")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, my guest is David Sedaris. His new book, "Theft By Finding," collects his diaries from 1977 to 2002. So there's another entry I want you to read. And I'm asking you to read this with some reservations because I'm mentioned in this. And that's part of the reason why I want you to read it and that's part of the reason why I feel awkward asking you to read it.

But I have a really serious question about this that I want to ask you after you're done reading it. So would you read this entry from your journals, David?

SEDARIS: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOK, "THEFT BY FINDING")

SEDARIS: (Reading) February 16, 1988, Chicago. Reasons to live - one, Christmas; two, the family beach trip; three, writing a published book; four, seeing my name in a magazine; five, watching C. grow bald; six, Ronnie Ruedrich; seven, seeing Amy on TV; eight, other people's books; nine, outliving my enemies; 10, being interviewed by Terry Gross on FRESH AIR.

GROSS: So as I was telling you before we started the interview, reading that made me feel so honored and, like, oh, like I won the David Sedaris award.

SEDARIS: (Laughter).

GROSS: But it also made me worried because the headline on that entry is reasons to live. And I really didn't know how to interpret that. Was that, like, oh, things to look forward to in life or did it mean reasons not to kill yourself?

I wasn't sure how to interpret reasons to live.

SEDARIS: It was reasons not to kill myself. You know, I mean, there are certain people in my life who didn't care to be in this book. And so I cut them out. And I had broken up with somebody. And I was, you know, really upset and depressed. And so that was, you know, reasons to keep going.

GROSS: Is it something you were just toy - like, how serious were you?

SEDARIS: I don't - you know, generally I find that when people kill themselves, they have something else going on, you know? Like, you might break up with somebody or you might declare bankruptcy and you might think that you're going to kill yourself. And you might be terribly upset and you might not be able to sleep. But generally speaking, people who kill themselves have something else going on.

GROSS: Do you mean, like, depression or some other...

SEDARIS: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: ...Like, mental health issue.

SEDARIS: Yeah. Yeah. Right.

GROSS: Well, in terms of being interviewed on FRESH AIR, many times (laughter) since then.

SEDARIS: Well, I used to...

GROSS: Yeah.

SEDARIS: You know, I was working - at that point in my life, I was mainly doing odd jobs and refinishing wood work in people's houses. And so I would listen to your show.

GROSS: Oh.

SEDARIS: And I would write - I wrote about it a lot in my diary. I wrote about...

GROSS: Anita...

SEDARIS: Anita O'Day when you interviewed her.

GROSS: Anita O'Day not having a uvula so she didn't have vibrato (laughter).

SEDARIS: And also when you interviewed her, she said, the name's O'Day. That's pig Latin for money, honey, and plenty of it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SEDARIS: I mean, I don't know if she was drinking during the interview or whatever but it was completely captivating. But, I don't know, I just wanted something so bad, you know? I just wanted to - I really don't think anybody wanted to be somebody more than me. I really don't think anybody could have wanted it more.

GROSS: When you wanted to be somebody, what were you picturing, like what kind of somebody?

SEDARIS: I was picturing exactly the life that I have today, exactly the life that I have and going to a bookstore like I saw, you know, Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff go to bookstores and having people be there and being in The New Yorker and being on the radio. And, you know, I wasn't asking for the world. I thought I was being reasonable. I mean, it seemed like it was possible to talk to you.

(LAUGHTER)

SEDARIS: It wasn't like - oh, I have to be the president. But there were certain things that I wanted. I recently saw that movie "La La Land" on a plane, and it made me think about people who didn't have dreams, who didn't - you know, and there are plenty of people I know in my life who - I don't mean to suggest in any way that they're failures. But I don't know that they ever wanted things, you know, like, were very specific about what it was that they wanted. Maybe they didn't know what they wanted. A lot of people don't know what they want, you know, or they're just kind of vague about it.

But I wasn't - I was never vague. I knew exactly what I wanted. That doesn't mean you're going to get it, but - it's scary. Like, in that list, it's scary to put that list together because what if that doesn't happen? If that doesn't happen, then I've announced what I wanted, and then I didn't get what I wanted. And then I'm a failure. And the way that I grew up, like, that word - I heard that word a lot, you know. I heard it a lot, and it was just always right there waiting for me.

GROSS: Because your parents assumed you'd be one?

SEDARIS: Well, not my mom so much. But, you know, my father, I mean, yeah. So it was scary to - it's always scary to announce what you want, even to yourself because if you don't get it - the only thing on that list is I see outliving my enemies, and I don't really remember who they were...

GROSS: That's good.

SEDARIS: ...Which that's good.

GROSS: I think that's good.

SEDARIS: Yeah.

GROSS: So now that you have the life that you wanted and that you are "somebody," in that sense, you know, with quotation marks around it, is the life what you expected it to be?

SEDARIS: It is fantastic, (laughter) I have to tell you. It is everything that I thought it would be. Like, I don't want people to think that then you get it and you get tired of it, or you think, oh, it wasn't what I wanted. It's exactly what I thought...

GROSS: Yeah (laughter).

SEDARIS: ...It would be. It's exactly what I wanted. That said, you know, I mean, that's very nice, and I'm on a book tour. And, you know - and I get to stay in nice hotels. But when I go home, I mean, I spend between, depending on the weather, five to nine hours a day picking up trash on the side of the road. And that's what I do. There's not a day off. I do it seven days a week. I've picked up so much trash on the side of the road that I was invited to Buckingham Palace...

GROSS: You were invited to Buckingham...

SEDARIS: ...(Unintelligible).

GROSS: I knew they named a trash truck after you. You were invited to - like, wow, because you're picking up trash? And just to put this in context, you live in, what is it, West Sussex, England?

SEDARIS: Yes.

GROSS: And there's hills around you, but people throw stuff out of their car all the time. And so your thing is picking up trash. And you used to clean houses for a living back in "The Santaland Diaries" era, so it kind of continues something you've always done. And you've always wanted to do outdoor work during the day, so it just kind of - or some kind of work during the day. So it fits a pattern in your life, that's for certain. But, wow, Buckingham Palace. Might you become, like, Sir David Sedaris, not for your writing but because you're picking up trash (laughter)?

SEDARIS: Well, the queen has a day when she invites do-gooders - because I thought it was going to be me and Hugh and the queen. And I got there, and there were 8,000 do-gooders.

GROSS: Oh (laughter).

SEDARIS: And some of them were cancer research or some of them were - oh, goodness - work preserving buildings. And so I didn't meet the queen. I stood, like, 6 feet away from her. That was enough for me. So it's Buckingham Palace. We're in the gardens behind Buckingham Palace. And they serve these - they had tea and sandwiches. And I think it was served on silver plates.

And then somebody came around with a tray and offered ice creams. And the ice creams were in little cardboard containers. Right? And then I saw people finish their ice cream and then think, I'll just put the empty in this planter. I'll just hide it behind this column. And they were littering at the queen's house.

GROSS: That's great (laughter). And you didn't pick it up...

SEDARIS: I couldn't believe what I was seeing.

GROSS: ...Though, right? You didn't take it on yourself to...

SEDARIS: And that was my day off.

GROSS: ...Clean up after them? Oh, OK (laughter).

My guest is David Sedaris. His new collection of journal entries is called "Theft By Finding." Coming up, we talk about losing his mother, his sister and a dear friend. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DON BYRON'S "FRASQUITA SERENADE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with David Sedaris. His best-selling books have included many stories and personal essays based on his journals. And on This American Life, he's read many stories based on his journals. But his new book is actually a collection of journal entries spanning the years 1977 to 2002. It's called "Theft By Finding." The entries describe his day-to-day life and the life-changing moments that he didn't necessarily realize were life-changing at the time.

March 21, 1991, you write, (reading) this spring, I am, if I'm not mistaken, in love.

(Laughter) Had you been in love like that before with somebody who reciprocated?

SEDARIS: Yes. I was in love once before, but it was a little bit different. It was a little bit different with Hugh because Hugh didn't seem to be - he wasn't - didn't have one - his one eye on me and the other eye looking around for someone else. You know? And that made all the difference in the world.

GROSS: November...

SEDARIS: He seemed happy with just me.

GROSS: November 1, 1991, you move in with Hugh. Then November 14, two weeks later, your mother dies - two momentous things happening within two weeks of each other, one wonderful and one terrible. I'd like you to read some of your entry from November 14, 1991.

SEDARIS: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOK, "THEFT BY FINDING")

SEDARIS: (Reading) November 14, 1991, Raleigh. Mom died last night, suddenly of pneumonia, brought on by her chemotherapy. Amy called to tell me, and now we're all in Raleigh. Dad gave us the option of seeing her laid out at the funeral home, but I was afraid to go - we all were. How strange to be in her house and see her things - the half worked crossword puzzle, her mail and stockings. She didn't expect to die yesterday, did she? When it happened, Hugh and I were in our kitchen in New York. He was making manicotti and talking about a wooden chicken he'd bought when I was socked by the weirdest feeling. I thought that he was going to die, and I must've said something because he accused me of being dramatic. I can't believe this has happened.

GROSS: I am just so moved when you write - she didn't expect to die yesterday, did she? - that things were still in process in her life - the unfinished crossword puzzle - when, you know...

SEDARIS: Well, she got pneumonia from the chemotherapy. And so she couldn't breathe, and so she was rushed to the hospital. And so that was how she died.

GROSS: When you were deciding to write about your mother's death, how did you decide what to write or what to finally publish in this book about it?

SEDARIS: Gosh, well - you know how, like, when people get sick sometimes, you just - you don't want to acknowledge that they're sick because that seems to be - I don't know. Like, with my mother, like, I would have loved to have said, like, oh, you're going to die. And so can I come and spend time with you? Can I come and hang out with you? Can we - let's talk about all these things that we meant to talk about - because that's suggesting that she'll die. And so maybe the best thing to do is when they say, like, I'm going to die, you say, no, you're not. You're going to be fine. You're going to be fine.

Like, you think about David Rakoff, you know. The last time I saw David, I mean, he looked awful. And...

GROSS: And he was a close friend of yours who was a wonderful writer.

SEDARIS: He died five - it was five years ago. He had Hodgkin's lymphoma - and it - years ago, and then he had radiation for it. And then the radiation brought - caused a new kind of cancer. And when I last saw him, I just said, all right, I'll see you later. Like - and I knew I would never see him later. But it just seemed like if I had said more than that, it was just burdening him. It was just - he was so brave and who was I to suggest that he wouldn't get better.

GROSS: My impression is maybe that you were trying to let David Rakoff and your mother let you know if they were ready to talk about impending death as opposed to you telling them...

SEDARIS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...That it was impending, you were waiting for them to tell you. And if they didn't, you were going to play it their way.

SEDARIS: Right. That's just what I've always done. You're right.

GROSS: How did your mother's death change your relationship with your father?

SEDARIS: Well, my mother always really liked me. I feel very fortunate to have been loved by my mother. And - so you know how it can be in a family - right? - and so it really bothered my father. And I would come home, and my mother would make me exactly what I wanted for dinner, and she would serve me first. And my father would just be furious and take it out on me. It was like a game that they, you know - I mean, I wasn't the only one, you know, that this was going on with. But, you know, you grow up with it, and it just becomes normal to you.

And after my mother died, then I could have a different relationship with my dad. But, you know, the relationship did change with my dad. But it wasn't like - you know, with my mother, I never - it was just effortless. You know, just what are we - you never thought, oh, what are we going to talk about in the car? You know, you just are talking in the car. You never - it was physical. If Mom's there, you just wrap - you know, you just kind of throw yourself on her, you know, like, hang off of her. Just - I always considered myself very, very lucky to have had her as a mother.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Sedaris, and he has a new collection of his diaries. And it's called "Theft By Finding," and it collects his diaries from 1977 to 2002. Let's take a short break, and we'll be back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ACORN SONG, "LOW GRAVITY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is David Sedaris. His new book, "Theft By Finding," collects his diaries from 1977 to 2002.

I want to talk with you about your sister Tiffany who took her life. Well, actually, I'm not really sure how she died. I'll ask you about that in a moment. But you wrote about her in The New Yorker. But I want - there's a couple of short entries from your book I want you to read. The first is October 3, 1977. But before you read it, tell us, like, where she fit in your family, which had six children in it.

SEDARIS: My sister Tiffany was child No. 5, so she was the youngest girl and the second to the youngest child. There were six kids in the family. And she - you know, it's interesting. Looking back over her life, my mom never really liked Tiffany a lot - very much, you know. Tiffany was too much like my mother. And just - I remember that as a child almost. My mother, like - I just thought, wouldn't want to be Tiffany.

And then she ran away from home when she was 14, which took a lot of guts. I mean, you know, the rest of us had threatened it, but we never did it. And she ran away from home, and then the police brought her back. And then she ran away from home again. And my parents sent her off to this school they'd heard about on the "Donahue" show, which was called Elan, which was in Maine. And now you hear a lot of things about Elan. I mean, it was like a horror factory. I mean, it was a horrible place.

And from the time that Tiffany returned two years later until the time - the last conversation I had with her, she brought up Elan in every single conversation. I mean, there was never a time when Tiffany didn't talk about the school that my parents - I don't even know that school's the right word - the place that my parents shipped her off to when she was 14. I mean, in my parents' defense, you know, if you've got six kids and somebody is running away from home, you don't really have the option of kind of dropping everything and then focusing all the attention on this one child. You just get them out of there, you know.

So she - I think there were already something going on with Tiffany, even maybe by the time she was sent there. But when she came back, she was like - you could really tell that there was something different about her.

GROSS: Can you read that entry for us from...

SEDARIS: Sure.

GROSS: ...October 3, 1997.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOK, "THEFT BY FINDING")

SEDARIS: (Reading) October 3, 1997, New York. Tiffany called collect this morning, sobbing and saying that she can't leave the house. It happens every so often. Other days, she can leave but still wakes up crying. I feel bad for her but can't understand the problem. Isn't there some kind of medication for this? She talks about Mom, about the school she went to over 20 years ago, all this stuff from the past, over and over.

GROSS: Do you think that she was having a mental health issue?

SEDARIS: Well, it was funny because when you talked to Tiffany, there was nothing wrong with her. And then you'd think, well, if there's nothing wrong with you, why can't you leave the house? Right? Why can't you hold down a job? And in retrospect, in reading this book over, I would say - well, gosh, of course there was something wrong with her. But at the same time, you wanted to kind of believe her and believe that she was fine. But then when you look over things like this, nobody else calls you crying and saying they can't leave the house. I mean, it's not like - it's not like I had 10 friends that month calling me crying and saying they couldn't leave the house. I mean, that's really - you know, that's really outstanding that somebody has that problem.

GROSS: So there's another short paragraph I want you to read from an entry from November 9, 2000.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOK, "THEFT BY FINDING")

SEDARIS: (Reading) On Tuesday afternoon, she cried while telling me a story she'd recounted a year before. She cries a lot. And the episodes generally end with a list of things she's doing for herself. I get out of bed in the mornings. Do you understand? I get up. The accomplishments are tiny, but I guess they're all she's got.

GROSS: You write about how Tiffany tried to push away the family, maybe because she was so angry about being sent away. And you said that for a year, you'd send a letter I think, like, every month. And she wouldn't read them. Oh - she asked you to stop. You write that you sent her monthly letters for a year, and then she wrote you and asked you to stop. What did you think your options were in trying to, you know, be there for her when she was kind of pushing you away and also being in such a state of depression and living in a real hellhole, judging from how you've described it?

SEDARIS: I feel like Tiffany had this story, and the story was that the family was horrible to her. And that had to be the story. That had to be the story that she maintained to her friends. She couldn't change it. Well, you know, I was talking to somebody this weekend. And she wasn't complaining in any way, but I was asking her questions about how she grew up. And the things that I heard just appalled me. And I kept saying, like, that's not OK. And, like, why didn't your siblings do something or say something?

And it just made me think about Tiffany. You know, like, the way that my mother never really liked Tiffany - like, the rest of us should have said, Mom, you need to do something about this because that's not OK for you to treat somebody that way. But we never said that. We never called our mother on her behavior towards Tiffany. You know, Tiffany had had a lot of anger at us, and a lot of it was really well-founded. I mean, we were adults. We could have said to our mother - we could have said to our mother, this isn't OK.

GROSS: She was, I think, living in Massachusetts when she died.

SEDARIS: Yeah, she was living in Somerville, Mass.

GROSS: And you write that she'd been dead at least five days before her door was battered down. That's so disturbing. That's, like, everybody's nightmare, to not only, like, die alone but, like, no one knows that you've died.

SEDARIS: Well, plus she had two roommates. She had two roommates. And they said, well, I guess our smoking - I guess we didn't notice the smell because we smoke a lot. I mean, you'd have to smoke a lot...

GROSS: Wow.

SEDARIS: ...To not notice that in, like, 80-degree weather or 80-plus-degree weather for five days.

GROSS: Do you know if she killed herself or, like, what happened?

SEDARIS: Yeah. She had saved up a lot of medication, Klonopin, and taken the Klonopin.

GROSS: Oh.

SEDARIS: And she had done that months before, and it didn't work. So this time, she put a plastic bag over her head to make sure that it would work. I mean, she really wanted out. She really - and she - you know, there was a letter that - my sister Amy went up there afterwards and found a letter. And it was so disjointed and so - I mean, if that was the state of my mind, I'd probably kill myself as well. I mean, if that's what the inside of my head was like.

GROSS: Just one more question about your sister - She had asked in her will that you not attend her memorial or have control over her remains. Did you honor that?

SEDARIS: Yes. We - nobody went to the memorial service. And her ashes went to somebody that she had worked with once. And my sister Lisa called this woman and said, could we have just, like, a thimbleful to scatter in the ocean behind the beach house? And the woman said no. So - and I understand that. Tiffany didn't want us to have them. So, you know, so we - and the woman was just honoring Tiffany's wishes.

But at the same time, you know, I mean, Tiffany sent my father a, you know, wrote my father a little letter. And it was like, you know, I - this doesn't have anything to do with you. And I love you, and - but still, the story had to be that we were uniformly terrible to her. And that was just what the story had to be. And so - I mean, that's a lot of anger to take with you, you know? But again, it wasn't necessarily all misplaced anger.

You know, she had her reasons to be angry. It's just - I think she didn't want to be mentally ill. And she didn't want to take her medication. And if somebody's mentally ill and they won't take their medication, there's not a damn thing you can do about it, you know? And she was really hard to deal with, Tiffany, you know? And, you know, she would call my dad every day and just rail at him.

And, you know, to his credit, he accepted the calls every day. And he listened to it. And he never gave up hoping that things could improve.

GROSS: My guest is David Sedaris. His new book is called "Theft By Finding: Diaries; 1977 to 2002." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TERRY SLINGBAUM'S "WATER GAMES-RAVEL RE-IMAGINED")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is David Sedaris. His new book is a collection of his diaries from 1977 to 2002. It's called "Theft By Finding." I want to ask you about another turning point in your life and that's when you gave up drinking, which you write about in your diaries. How did you know that you needed to stop? Like, what was that turning point for you?

SEDARIS: Well, I was on tour. And it was just - it was one thing to be drinking like that at home. But it's a lot to take that show on the road, you know (laughter)? It was really a lot of work. And I would be, you know, going back to a hotel room after - I would be on a book tour. And so I'm signing books. And then let's say I get back to the room at, like, 1:00 in the morning and then it's time to, like, start drinking.

And then - 'cause you didn't want to eat on an empty stomach. And so, you know, you get your drinking in. And then you order room service around four. And then you get high. And, oh, look, it's 5:30 in the morning and it's time for your car to come and take you to the airport. And it was just - I think it was traveling with it that made me realize. Plus I'd been wanting to quit for a long time.

I just was afraid, you know, afraid to quit, afraid that I wouldn't be able to write 'cause I started drinking shortly after I started writing. And then I kind of got it in my head that I needed to be drinking while I wrote. And I had it in my head that I needed to be smoking. I couldn't write unless I had a cigarette.

GROSS: So was it hard to stop?

SEDARIS: I'm pretty good at quitting things. I quit. And the next morning, I went to the airport, and I thought that people could see it in my face. I mean, I always thought that people could see in my face that I was an alcoholic, that they could just look at me and they'd just know it or look at a picture of me and say, oh, my God, look at that picture of an alcoholic.

And then when I quit drinking, I went to the airport and I thought, they - I didn't look like that anymore, you know? And, I mean, I'm talking as if I used to resemble W.C. Fields.

(LAUGHTER)

SEDARIS: I didn't. I just had it in my head that it showed on my face. And I quit. And, you know, there were a couple people who said, oh, well, you know, why don't you just have a drink? I mean, it's not going to last. And I do well with things like that, with, like, little challenges like that. And so I just thought, well, I'll show you. So I don't know, I've never had another drink.

I don't miss it. It's a little bit different in America, like, if people are drinking and you don't drink, people get the idea pretty quickly. But you get a lot of lip, you know, in Europe. You get a lot of lip in England. You know, I don't trust people who don't...

GROSS: Why? Why is that true?

SEDARIS: You know, if you don't drink, people say, well, I don't trust people who don't drink. And it's like, well, then you're just going to have to not trust me. I mean, there's something in the book. I was at a wedding in France, and the woman, the bride's mother said, you have to have champagne to toast the bride and groom. And I said, that's OK.

I just got some sparkling - I don't really care for champagne. I got some sparkling - you have to have champagne. No, really, I'm OK. You have to have champagne. And then - so I have my sparkling water. And then we raise our glasses. And all of a sudden, she sticks her finger in my mouth. She had stuck her finger in her champagne and she jammed her finger into my mouth, telling me I had to have the taste of champagne.

The thing is, she had a long fingernail, so it kind of caught the inside of my mouth. So really, I toasted with the taste of blood in my mouth is how I really toasted the bride and groom. But if she had known what she was doing, then I don't know that she would have - it just didn't occur to her. I guess she just thought I was being obstinate or something.

Sometimes I say - people say, do you want a drink? And I say, oh, I'd like to, but I'm a tragic alcoholic. I always say tragic. I'm a tragic alcoholic.

GROSS: Why do you say tragic?

SEDARIS: To maybe drive it in a little bit deeper.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah. So I haven't spoken to you in a few years. So the question I really wanted to ask you was how are you? But I thought, like, well, when people say how are you, the person responding says, I'm fine, how are you? So I didn't expect it would be a question you could really answer, you know what I mean (laughter)? But, really, like, how are you?

SEDARIS: I am tanned.

(LAUGHTER)

SEDARIS: I just went to the beach house. And I - that was my goal, to get a tan.

GROSS: This is the house you bought for you and your family in a beach off of North Carolina where you used to vacation.

SEDARIS: Yes. We bought a house on the coast - on an area called Emerald Isle. We bought a house. And the houses there all have names. And so our house is called the Sea Section. That's what we named it. So...

GROSS: Right, against your father's wishes (laughter).

SEDARIS: ...I went to the Sea Section for the long weekend. And I got a tan 'cause I wanted a tan for my book tour.

GROSS: Oh.

SEDARIS: So I am tanned and I'm - I really, gosh, I - you know, often when I go on tour, I'll get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and then every anxiety I have just jumps me - get him.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SEDARIS: And then I just lay there awake for the rest of the night. And so I got up, I don't know, like, at 4:00 in the morning. And they said, get him. And I said, there's nothing to get. I mean, sorry, but I don't - I mean, I could be anxious like, oh, is my alarm going to go off at 8:00? But I don't have that - I was dreading going on television for the book tour.

But I already finished that. So, like, I really - I have a tan and I have nothing to be anxious about. So I'm delighted.

GROSS: David, I have so enjoyed talking with you again. Thank you so much for coming back to the show. Congratulations on the book. It's just absolutely fascinating to read it (laughter). So...

SEDARIS: Thank you so much, Terry, for having me back on.

GROSS: David Sedaris' new book collecting his journals from 1977 to 2002 is called "Theft By Finding." We have an extra on our podcast that we didn't have room for in this broadcast in which David talks about meeting Ira Glass. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.