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David Sedaris Likes Being a 'Crazy Old Man'

Best-selling humorist talks storytelling, family and rubbish

Author David Sedaris

Photograph by Ingrid Christie

Author David Sedaris' latest book is a collection of essays about his life and family.

In your new book, Calypso, you talk about aging. You recently turned 61. Have you adjusted?

If I’m going to look at myself through other people’s eyes, I’m old now. But at least I get to be rich! That sounds awful, but when you’re rich you think, OK, well, I don’t have my looks anymore or my health anymore and I get tired and my back aches, but at least I get to be rich.

You joked in one of your essays about how you’d be a good robber because all old, gray-haired people look alike.

Yes, we really do. What did he look like? He had gray hair. That’s all anybody would remember.

You once wrote of your family, “Ours is the only club I’d ever wanted to be a member of.” What did you mean by that?

In terms of an organization, I always felt very proud to be a member of my family. I was always proud of my mom, and I was always proud of my sisters and brother. I always think that when people are in big families, you’re a member of a tribe. We all had a similar sense of humor. It didn’t matter which one of us got a laugh — if one of us was representing the family, that was enough.

But your relationship with your dad, who is 95, has been adversarial. Will that change?

When I think back, I wouldn’t have wanted another father. I’m completely happy with the one I got. Everything he ever said to me, I did the opposite. Everything. And I made a nice career out of reacting against him. If he had been my biggest cheerleader, I would be a nobody today. He’d say, “You’re a big fat zero.” But that’s exactly what I needed to hear because I’d think, Oh yeah? I’ll show you! 

You needed someone to push up against.

My brother, Paul, who’s younger than me, praises his daughter for everything she does. “Look how awesome Madeline is!” he’ll say. “She raised a fork to her mouth!” I just wonder if that really does any good. I have a friend who is going to write a book called All the Wrong People Have Self-Esteem. It’s true! I think self-esteem is overrated. I think a certain degree of self-loathing is good. If you’re going to push yourself and continue to grow, I think you need a really healthy amount of self-doubt. I thank my father for that.

"I’d rather be thought of as a crazy old man than a crazy young one"

Your mother gathered you and your five siblings after dinner to tell stories. What did you learn from your mom about storytelling?

My mother was the type of person who’d say, “I walked into the dry cleaners and there was a big crowd of people waiting in there, so I turned to my audience and said …” If there was more than one person there, she considered it her audience. What killed me about art school was that most of my fellow students didn’t have a sense of their audience. They acted as if people were going to be automatically interested in their work because it was done by them. But it doesn’t work that way. You have to earn that interest. 

Why didn’t you pursue an art career?

I looked around and realized a lot of my fellow students had something that I didn’t have: They were on fire for the visual arts. By the time I got to art school, I was on fire for writing, not for painting. 

Your sister Tiffany committed suicide. Has writing helped you deal with her death? 

No. I’ve never thought of writing as cathartic. Of course, I was going to write about her suicide because it was such a shattering moment for me. But I don’t know if it actually helped me make sense of it in any way. 

What did that experience teach you?

To fantasize, Tiffany would have loved to stay [with me] for months at a time. But that would not have been the Tiffany who existed. The Tiffany who existed wouldn’t have been able to get on a plane, and if she did, she would have created this big drama and turned people against her so she’d have a story about how mean we were to her. It’s just fantasy to think that we could have fixed her. That’s what I realized. It makes it easier because you can just let go of that fantasy. I don’t have any regrets. I don’t feel guilty. I just feel sorry. 

Tell me about your obsession with walking. 

My friend Dawn came to visit us in West Sussex, England, with her new Fitbit, and we walked 43 miles one day. Now I walk about 18 to 22 miles a day, picking up trash along the way. The town council named a garbage truck after me — the Pig Pen Sedaris. I was invited to have tea and sandwiches with the queen in Buckingham Palace, not because of my books, but because I’d picked up so much rubbish. People think I’m crazy, but when you’re older, you can get away with it. I’d rather be thought of as a crazy old man than a crazy young one.

Do you ever do things just to get material?

No. I’d rather have things just come to me. If I were staying in a motel tonight, one with prostitutes and homeless families, I’d probably leave with a story or two. But I don’t want my stuff stolen, so I’m staying at the Ritz-Carlton. There are stories I’m missing out on now because I want to be comfortable. You almost never get a good story out of a nice hotel.

Anything you’d like to add? 

I want you to know I’ll never read the article. I never read anything about myself.

So, I can write anything?

Feel free to write whatever you want, and don’t worry that I’m ever going to call you or be angry, because I’m never going to read it. And I just want you to feel free.

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