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'Let's Explore': David Sedaris On His Public Private Life

The best-selling author and humorist has kept journals for 36 years. Those diaries have been the jumping-diff point for the personal essays that appear in his collections, including Me Talk Pretty One Day and now Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls.


Other segments from the episode on April 24, 2013

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 24, 2013: Interview with David Sedaris; Review of Ken Kalfus' novel "Equilateral."


April 24, 2013

Guest: David Sedaris

TERRY GROSS, HOST:This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Those of us who are David Sedaris fans love him for the personal stories he's told on "This American Life," and for the personal essays he's published in The New Yorker and in his bestselling books. Many of those stories are expanded from his journal, which he's been keeping since 1977.

But most of his journal isn't for us. It's not for public consumption. We're going to talk about public versus private in David Sedaris' life and writing. He has a new collection of essays and stories called "Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls." And later, he'll tell us what the heck that title is supposed to mean.

David Sedaris, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's been a long time since we talked. It's good to talk with you again.

DAVID SEDARIS: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: I want you to read an excerpt of your new book, "Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls." And this is an essay that's both about keeping a journal and also about losing two months' worth of it when your computer was stolen. And in this part of the story, your friend's seven-year-old son asks you: What's the point of writing things in your diary? And I'll have you pick it up from there.

SEDARIS: (Reading) That's a question I've asked myself every day since September 5th, 1977. I hadn't known on September 4th that the following afternoon, I would start keeping a diary, or that it would consume me for the next 35 years and counting. It wasn't something I'd been putting off, but once I began, I knew that I had to keep doing it.

(Reading) I knew as well that what I was writing was not a journal, but an old-fashioned, girlish, keep-out-this-means-you diary. Often, the terms are used interchangeably, though I've never understood why. Both have the word day at their root, but a journal, in my opinion, is a repository of ideas, your brain on the page. A diary, by contrast, is your heart.

(Reading) As for journaling - a verb that cropped up at around the same time as scrapbooking - that just means you're spooky and have way too much time on your hands.

(Reading) A few things have changed since that first entry in 1977, but I've never wavered in my devotion, skipping, on average, maybe one or two days a year. It's not that I think my life is important or that future generations might care to know that on June 6th, 2009, a woman with a deaf, drug-addicted mother-in-law taught me to say: I need you to stop being an (bleep) in sign language.

(Reading) Perhaps it just feeds into my compulsive nature, the need to do the exact same thing, at the exact same time every morning. Some diary sessions are longer than others, but the length has more to do with my mood than with what's been going on. I met Gene Hackman once, and wrote 300 words about it. Six weeks later, I watched a centipede attack and kill a worm and filled two pages. And I really like Gene Hackman.

GROSS: That's David Sedaris, reading from his new collection, "Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls."

So you've been writing in your diary nearly every day since September 4th, 1977. How has the motivation changed since the diaries became the basis of your public writing?

SEDARIS: I don't know that the motivation has changed. I mean, it's something - I think I can - I'm more inclined to get something out of it now - I mean, to be able to exploit it later for a story - than I was at the very beginning. But a lot of it just has to do, like I said, with compulsion. It's just something that I simply have to do. It's how I start the day, by writing about the day before.

But every now and then, I read out loud from my diary, so - and I don't read higglety-pigglety. I just would not open it up and just read. But every now and then, something happens, and I think, oh, this might work in front of an audience. So I'm always hoping that something interesting will happen, or that I will be able to, I don't know, something I can perhaps connect with something that happened a few weeks earlier. But I don't try to force it, you know.

GROSS: So why write it the morning after, as opposed to the evening of, when it might be fresher in your mind?

SEDARIS: I used to write it the evening of, but that was when I was drinking, and that was just when I would write in the evening, when I could drink. And then when I quit drinking, I started writing in the daytime, because I found if I was sitting at my desk at night, I would think: Where's that drink that's supposed to be here? So I just tried to change my schedule and start writing in the morning.

And actually, I think I sort of prefer writing it in the morning, and just - I don't know. It gives me a little bit more distance from the day, from the day before. And then I just look at my notebook, and I look at everything I've got in there, and I think, OK. What's my lead story? And then I start with that.

And sometimes I don't even - the notes that I took the day before, all of a sudden, I think God, what - why did I care about that? So sometimes...

GROSS: Wait, wait. So you take notes the day of, and then you write it up the day after?

SEDARIS: Mm-hmm. Yeah. So, like, I already started taking notes for tomorrow.

GROSS: What did you write today?


SEDARIS: I don't know that I can say it on the radio. It - I was on tour a few weeks ago, and I wrote this thing in this woman's book, and I don't know, apparently, she got upset about it. But I meant it in a good way. I must have just misunderstood. We must have misunderstood one another. And I hate the thought of anybody being angry at me like that, but...


SEDARIS: ...I mean, really, what I wrote in her book, it's the filthiest thing. It's unbelievable. Really, you cannot get any filthier than this. And that's what I kind of liked about it, you know, as a book inscription. And I don't write it for just anybody. You know, I usually feel the person out, and we have a little conversation. But apparently, I picked the wrong person, and she really is pretty upset about this and contacted a lot of people. And so we'll see what happens. Today's a pretty good day. I'm going to have - be able to touch an owl in a couple hours. So hopefully, touching the owl will supersede somebody being angry at me.

GROSS: Do you want to touch an owl because owls figure in your book?

SEDARIS: Well, I - somebody from the Carolina Raptor Rescue contacted me and said: We'd love to have an owl at your reading. Because they saw that I have the word owl in my book. So then I found a diabetic, so I could have both an owl and a person with diabetes at the reading tonight.

And then it looked like the owl wouldn't be able to make it, and so then I was stuck with this person with diabetes, and so I canceled with the person with diabetes, and then the owl came through again. So now we're scrambling, trying to find someone with diabetes.


GROSS: This is so weird. And just so people don't get confused here, your book is called "Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls." And it's called that because...

SEDARIS: It's called that because I was signing books a couple of years ago, and I was signing for this woman, and she was - every now and then, somebody will be kind of pushy, right. And they want you write something specific in the book.

And I just picture every book winding up at Goodwill, and I don't have a problem with that, OK. But I don't want it - I imagine someone at Goodwill opening one of my books and then seeing an inscription that says: Keep laughing. Now, I would never write that in someone's book, right.


SEDARIS: And I would never read a book in which somebody had inscribed keep laughing. So this woman wanted me to write to her daughter: Explore your possibilities. And I said, well, I'll keep the word explore. And then I wrote: let's explore diabetes - then I thought I'm not done yet - with owls. And then I thought: That's the title of my book. So that's where the title came out of.



SEDARIS: I just think - and I've got to tell you, I'm so pleased with it as a book title. I love hearing other people say it.

GROSS: Well, I'm going to say it, and I hope it gives you pleasure.


GROSS: My guest is David Sedaris, and he's the author of the new book "Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls." How was that? Make you happy?

SEDARIS: Fantastic. That made me so happy.

GROSS: Good. Very good.


GROSS: So I imagine you having these, like, years and years and years, like, years - since, what, 1977 - worth of diaries. I mean, where do you put them? How much space do they take up?

SEDARIS: Well, they're actually - when I first started keeping a diary, I just started keeping it on scraps of paper. And so I did that for a few months. And then I started using hardcover sketch books. And then when I went to school at the Art Institute, I took this bookbinding class. And so then I started typing - I started typing the diary entries on eight-by-nine-and-a-half sheets of paper, and then making special covers and having them bound, you know, just spiral bound, like taking them to, like, an office place and having them spiral bound.

And that - there was a guy who used to live in Chicago named Dick who worked at this bindery, and so that was the first time I ever left my diary with anyone. Like, so I would leave it with Dick, who was about, I don't know, 30 years older than me. And I understood that Dick has better things to do with his life than sit down and read my diary, but for anyone even to let their eyes rest upon a page, I would imagine them - I don't know.

I mean, there's a - the you that you present to the world, and then there's, you know, of course, the real one. And if you're lucky, there's not a huge difference between those two people. And I guess in my diary, I'm not afraid to be boring. You know, I don't have a - it's not my job to entertain anyone in my diary.

GROSS: Is there a big difference between the you you present to the world and the other one? The you...

SEDARIS: Yes. I mean, the one I present to the world is pretty much unrelentingly cheerful, because really, I mean, who wants to spend time with someone who's just moaning all the time? Sometimes I look over my diary, and I was looking over a diary from, like, six years ago. And I'd been on tour, and I actually loved being on tour, but you wouldn't have known it to read this diary.

And what I was complaining about was, like, my hotel room wasn't good enough, or dinner wasn't good enough. And I though, oh, I don't - that's not my memory of that time. Like, my memory of that time overall was really positive. But I guess day by day - or at least for these four cities in a row - it was - I just hate the idea that those little complaints overwhelmed the positive parts.

GROSS: So when you're writing in your diary, do you think: Well, I can't really say this, even though it's my personal diary, because somebody might stumble upon it and read it? The guy in the copy center might actually read this, so as much as I want to write it down, I can't.

SEDARIS: The only thing I don't write about is sex. But I don't know even that I'm afraid so much that somebody's going to read it. I just - it's not my subject, you know. It's not - I mean, I sure think about it a lot, but on paper, it's not my subject.

I kind of admire people who do write about it, like Edmund White. I saw him do a reading in Paris, and he was reading from a memoir that he wrote, and I could not believe how frank he was. I just - a lot of people in the audience were just horrified, and I couldn't - because people say to me, oh, you've exposed everything about you. No, I haven't. You know, I just give that illusion.

And I would have to say that he, too - I mean, there's more to Edmund White than these sex scenes in a book, but I really admired him and I really - he's such a good writer, too, and they were beautifully written. I mean, the writing was bigger than the sex, in my opinion.

But, I don't know, even in private I just can't. I just can't. Like, I would write in my diary that, you know, before I met Hugh, I would write that, like, M came over, and we were romantic twice. But that's as graphic as it gets.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Sedaris, and he has a new book, a new collection called "Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: (technical difficulties) He has a new collection called "Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls."

In your new book, you write a little bit about your father, and your father, as described in your new book, is so critical of you, and he says things to you like: Everything you touch turns to crap. Or you know what you are? A big, fat zero.

Either I've never noticed that kind of negative streak about you that your father had, or I've just forgotten. How new is it that you're writing that way about him?

SEDARIS: Well, I would never want anyone to think that I would have wanted a different father. You know, I mean, I always acted against my father, right. And that was really, that was his mantra when I was growing - you know what you are? A big, fat zero. But it's what got me out of bed every morning, you know, thinking, well, I'll show him.

And I don't know if my dad knew that. I don't know if it was part of his master plan, but it really worked. And, you know, my mom was, you know, a cheerful, supportive person, and so I didn't really need two parents like that. One was enough. And - but yeah. I mean, I've worked in opposition to him, gosh, since - really since I can remember.

GROSS: Why did he think you were a big, fat zero?

SEDARIS: Well, you know, I think maybe because he didn't - I mean, when I look back on it, I think my dad probably worried that there wasn't a place for me, you know. I mean, I've seen kids like that before, and I just think, oh, you're a mess, you know. Like, I mean, there's one kid I'm thinking of in particular, who I know, and I think, oh, no one's going to want to hang out with you.

You know what I mean? Like, everything you're doing, you're doing it wrong. And then I started thinking, well, gosh. He's like me when I was a kid, and I'm being like my dad, and I'm deciding that I need to shape this kid. And if that kid's anything like me, he's just going to resist being molded, right. And he - but I think my dad, I think my dad just worried, because, you know, I had all those horrible nervous tics and, you know, just really bad social skills, and not athletic in any way.

And I think he just probably worried that I was never going to leave his basement, really. And so I think this was all - you know, he was trying to shake me and put me on my feet and make me a more likeable person. You know, like he wanted me to take guitar, and he said the guy who can play guitar is going to be the life of the party.

And I can't tell you how many times my dad said that to me, and he bought me a guitar, and it just didn't - maybe because I was just so dead-set against him. I would love to be able to play guitar today. But at the time, it was just if he was proposing it, then I had to reject it. And - but I give my...

GROSS: Wait. Let's stop here, because I'm trying very hard to imagine you with a guitar, singing at a party and being the life of the party, in that respect.

SEDARIS: Well, see, my dad didn't play an instrument. I mean, my dad's a huge jazz enthusiast. And, you know, I guess my dad just thought, well, you know, a guy who's a good jazz musician, everyone's going to want to invite him to their party. You know, and if they've got a piano, he can play that, or if not, maybe there's some - he could just beat on the coffee table, you know, bring his own drumsticks, or he can play the guitar, or - everyone's going to like that guy.

And I think he wanted me to be the guy who people like. But I just wasn't his type. You know what I mean? Like...

GROSS: Well, in keeping with that, did he get a sense that you were gay, and was that part of his problem with you?

SEDARIS: I think so. I mean, really, I mean, it's so funny how quickly all that stuff changes. I don't know that in the '60s, in North Carolina, you could have allowed yourself to think that your son was gay. You know what I mean? Like, I couldn't allow myself to think that I was, because there was nothing worse in the world than that. There was no worse thing than being gay.

GROSS: Why? I mean, what did it mean for you?

SEDARIS: It meant that you were to be an outcast forever, that they would never - there would be no acceptance for you in this world. And so you wouldn't even really - you know, like sometimes you'd see someone on TV like Paul Lynde, and you'd think, well, gosh, is he? But you would think well, no. They wouldn't allow him on television if he was one.

Like it was such a horrible thing, that you couldn't - you couldn't allow yourself to seriously entertain that somebody would be that, right. And I wrote in the book I - the first time I really, I had proof of that was in the men's room of the Raleigh Public Library. I stepped into the men's room, and there were these two men having sex in there, and that was the first time I ever thought, like, I'm not the only one, you know.

There's me, and then there's those two men who were in the bathroom there. But I don't know that my father could have really allowed himself to think that I was gay. Maybe he just thought, like, nerd, you know, like really severe, like, a nerd to such an extent that it was like a handicap.

GROSS: What was coming out to your family like?

SEDARIS: I have a lot of sisters, so all I had to do was tell one sister, and everybody knew.


SEDARIS: You know, they did all the work for me. But what was interesting to me was that my parents, like, when my sisters would come home with their boyfriends, they had to sleep in separate rooms, right. But I got to sleep in the same room as my boyfriend. So I don't know if only - my parents only allowed gay sex under their roof, or they couldn't really allow themselves to think that that was going on.

GROSS: David Sedaris will be back in the second half of the show. His new collection of essays and stories is called "Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with David Sedaris. He has a new collection of humorous essays and stories called "Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls." Sedaris is a regular contributor to "This American Life," frequently contributes to "The New Yorker," and has written several best-selling books. Many of his stories - including the one he first became known for "The Santaland Diaries" - are drawn from his journal.

So we've been talking about your journal and how you've been keeping a journal since 1977, and there's many, many volumes and so on. So I just want to play a very brief excerpt; it's just about a minute, from the first interview you and I did together in 1993. And since you were reading like, you know, excerpts of your journals on NPR at the time on MORNING EDITION, including "The Santaland Diaries," I was asking you about keeping a diary. So let's just listen to this, like, brief excerpt of our 1993 interview.

How long have you been keeping diaries?

DAVID SEDARIS: I started when I was 19, so I guess it's been about 17 years.

GROSS: Do you see yourself as, ultimately, being a professional writer? I mean would you like to make a living from your writing or do you see yourself as holding down day jobs for a long time and just writing at night?

SEDARIS: Oh, I write in the evening. If I have to write during the daytime also down and also that the typewriter for two minutes and then I'll wonder what my hair might look like parted in the middle.


SEDARIS: And then I go into the bathroom and I do that, and then I sit back at the typewriter. And then I'll say, I wonder what it would look like if I had a mole on my cheek. And I draw a little mole on my cheek or I go and brush the cat. I can't do it during the day. I don't know why. So I need to do something during the day, and I wouldn't want any kind of job where I'm sitting down, because then I wouldn't want to come home at night and sit down.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

SEDARIS: So I like a job that gets me out and is physical, and keeps me moving around.

GROSS: So that's David Sedaris recorded in 1993 when he was still cleaning houses for a living. And David, you know, there's many reasons why I love listening back to that, you know, one of them is that like you're so funny in talking about keeping a journal, but also that was like 20 years ago. And I listen back to that and I think David Sedaris when he was saying these things have no idea how his life was going to change. He had no idea how popular he was going to be. He had no idea how much money he was going to make. He had no idea he wouldn't be cleaning houses or doing any day job. He had no idea he'd be living in Paris and England, and flying around the world doing readings. I somehow find that very moving.

SEDARIS: Well, when I listen to that I just think, I mean I was still drinking then. So when I said oh, I write it night, well, that's because I would start drinking at night and then writing and drinking, I just did them at the same time. So - and it's just interesting to me how I was never able to admit that or how I would hide that or I would go on tour and then, you know, try to get the booze together for the tour and, you know, every night and trying to just how exhausting all that was. So that was interesting to me when you played that, like oh, I don't know why I write at night. Hmm. And it did take me a while to get used to writing in the daytime after that. But, you know, I was never the person who thought that having a job during the daytime meant that you were any less of a writer. Like I never - I never thought well, when I can quit my job that's when I'll be a real writer. I never, that was never part of my idea. And the only reason I - I only quit working when I moved to Europe and it was just because I didn't have a green card or anything.

GROSS: So you listen back to that tape and you think oh, that's when I was a secret drinker. So why did you need to keep it secret?

SEDARIS: Because it's shameful, you know. I mean it was, you know, when you're actively doing something like that - I mean there's a way to do it that, you know, to get people to think you're cute or whatever, but it wasn't cute. It was just dark and just an ugly place that I would go to every night. And I think, but like I started drinking and writing at the same time, so when I quit drinking it was kind of hard to - it was never a problem. I never had to force myself to sit down at a typewriter because I had a drink right there and that was my reward for sitting down. But all of a sudden the reward was taken away and I'm thinking what's in it for me now?

GROSS: It's sounding to me like drinking did make you happy necessarily, because as you say, you went to a like a dark place when you would drink?

SEDARIS: Yeah. I mean, you know, like sometimes you just do something and then you just get used to it and so you just have to keep doing it because, I don't know, if you don't do it then it'll be different, you know, and god forbid anything should be different. So that was a lot of it, you know, just drinking and then getting stoned on top of it and just, you know, just ending up like at the end of the night like, you know, kind of falling into bed. And Hugh's not that way at all, you know. And that's when I look back on it, just the fact that he - I don't know - that he saw me that way or that Amy saw me that... You know, and they definitely - these are people you're really close to who see you that way and they don't say anything about it. And if they made fun of you, then it would be better. But if they don't say anything, then that means that you are really pathetic.

GROSS: So you and I had a drink once, and this is probably in the early '90s. And after we had a drink you asked me if I was hungry, which I was. And you suggested we go out for a bite, like, at a local deli. And I ordered an omelet and you I think ordered nothing, and you said that you were going to eat later.


GROSS: And is that because you were going to drink later?

SEDARIS: You actually ordered an omelet and a baked potato. I remember...

GROSS: Yes I did. You really remembered that.


SEDARIS: I thought that was such a strange combination.


SEDARIS: But I didn't, I never liked to drink on a full stomach, so I like to drink on an empty stomach. So, yes, I was going home to drink but I just - I remembered that and I remembered thinking, you know, here's this person who I listen to and is a person who I admire, and she's, you know, she's and we're going out to dinner and I can't even eat then? You know, I mean, even then I have to say oh no, you go ahead and then make the other person feel weird and eat in front of you, just so you can go home and get drunk. See, stuff like that, it just - it was the rigidity of that that bothered me, like there could be no exceptions.

GROSS: Along those lines, you said to me, do you mind somebody watching you while you eat? And I said no. And I thought, you know, I never thought about being self-conscious about that, but once you brought it up, I've since, since then, always been just a little bit self-conscious.


GROSS: I mean when somebody watch me while I eat. So thank you, David. Thank you very much.


GROSS: You've made public dining so much more pleasurable.


SEDARIS: Well, my new thing is when I'm - like when I'm on tour is because, you know, after the book signing, if you eat dinner after the book signing, go back to your hotel and let's say it's 12 or one o'clock in the morning and then it's going to take them an hour to bring you the food. So now I eat while I'm signing books. And so I'm eating, I'm really eating in front of people, because there's a long line of people and there's nothing else for them to look at. And so they're watching me while I eat. And if I thought about what I looked like when I'm eating, like, you know, I frequently spit food into people's books.


SEDARIS: I don't mean to, but I do it by accident.

GROSS: Yeah.

SEDARIS: So, you know, like when you're in a restaurant and you're eating a salad and the second that you have your mouth full of it that's when the waitress comes by and say, how's that salad treating you?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

SEDARIS: Just when you have food hanging out of your mouth. So, but it beats the alternative.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Sedaris, and he has a new book, a new collection called "Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is David Sedaris. He has a new collection called "Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls." So earlier we were talking about how you used to be a drinker, a secret drinker, and you would drink late at night while you wrote. And you've been sober for how long?

SEDARIS: I think I quit drinking in 1999. So 14 years.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

SEDARIS: And I don't even think about it anymore.

GROSS: Was there any...

SEDARIS: I mean I don't ever crave it.

GROSS: Was there an occasion for it? Like what...

SEDARIS: I went to - my best friend lives in San Francisco and I've known her since college. And I went to - I would stay in her house when I went to San Francisco on tours and her husband had just gotten out of rehab, just gotten out two days earlier. And I was staying at her house and so, of course, I had to get my booze together. So I go to her house and I filled her refrigerator, you know, with beer and I bought a bottle of scotch in our husband got into it. And I thought I couldn't go without drinking for one night, for a guy to - in the house of someone who just got out of rehab two days ago? Like that's, that's a problem, you know what I mean? If you can't give it up for one night under those circumstances then it's a lot worse than you've been telling yourself that it is. But I remember the next day...

GROSS: Did you feel responsible for him drinking?


GROSS: Mm-hmm.

SEDARIS: I mean it's not - I've met people before who said oh no, we don't want to drink in front of you and it's like look, it's been all these years. I'm not going to - watching you drink is not going to make me want to have a drink. It's my responsibility not to drink and I understand that. But he had just gotten home, you know, he had just gotten home. And I don't know, I just looked at myself and I thought because I'd been making noise to myself about quitting for a long time and I thought if this isn't the occasion I don't know what is. But then - so the next night I didn't have a drink and I had to go to the airport and I was checking in for my flight and I always thought that when I checked in for my flight that the woman behind the counter would look at me and say oh, he's an alcoholic, like she could just see it on my face, she could just, that everyone who looked at me could tell that. And, you know, of course, they see so many people they're not going to, you know, you're not - I mean you really got to go out of your way to be memorable to a desk agent at the airport. But I hadn't realized until that day, how shameful it was to me, I suppose, or how dirty I felt.

GROSS: So just one more question about drinking. Do you think your personality changed, at all, when you stopped?

SEDARIS: Yeah. Yeah, I think it did just because I didn't - I wasn't thinking of myself as weak and dependent in that same way. You know, like, I wasn't having to deal with all that constant shame every day. And it was just like a huge burden that was lifted off of me. And also, like I couldn't talk about it when I was doing it, because then, you know, you're in it and - I mean I always think like it's a problem when you can't talk about it. I don't mean get up on stage and talk about it, but I mean you can't even talk about it with your boyfriend. You know, I couldn't even talk about it with Hugh. So that made a really big difference. I don't know if you were to ask like Amy, or my sister Lisa, or Hugh like, how it changed me, I mean they might have interesting answers ,but I - it was an overnight. But yeah, it lightened - it lightened me.

You know, it used to be like I had to do my laundry every Sunday at six o'clock, and if I didn't do my laundry at six o'clock the world was just going to fall apart. Everything - I had to clean my house on Saturday and had to start cleaning my house on Saturday at five o'clock because I had to be cleaning my house when "Prairie Home Companion" came on and if I didn't do that well, I wasn't even going to see what would happen if I didn't do that. Do you know what I mean? Like somebody inviting me out for dinner on Saturday or inviting me Saturday, it just wasn't going to happen because I had to clean my house. I had to do my laundry. I had to do these things on schedule at the exact same time at the exact same place, and I had to be sitting down at my desk and I had to be drinking by nine o'clock, and I had to be lighting the bong, you know, by 11:30.

And now I can do things. I can go out. I can - every night can be different, you know? And I think it's - and I think that's been great for me, you know, to be able to - to be able to have adventures in a way that I wouldn't have been able to have adventures before.

GROSS: Well, that leads me to wonder, you know, like, when we first spoke in 1993, you were cleaning the house during the day and writing at night. And that took up a lot of time. But you don't need a day job anymore. You make plenty of money with your books and your tours. And that frees up, like, hours and hours of time every day to do something.

And how have you figured out how to use all the time that has been freed up by not having to, you know, have a job? I'm not saying writing isn't work, but it's...


GROSS:'s a more flexible form of work. And you were writing - you were going to be writing one way or another.

SEDARIS: Right. But now what I do...

GROSS: And one of the things about not - like, one of the good things about having a job is that it kind of eats up time that you might be spending with obsessive thoughts or, you know, even maybe self-destructive thoughts, negative thoughts.

SEDARIS: Well, what I do now, and I love how this - I think it's a really wonderful world that things can come to you the way that they do. Hugh and I got this house in West Sussex, right? And it's in an area called the South Downs. And the Downs are these massive, chalk-speckled hills that run for a hundred miles between East and West Sussex. And we're just at the base of one of them, right.

And our house is on a one-lane winding road, right, that's tree-lined. And it's my idea of beauty. There are forests, and it's just what beauty means to me, right. But English people throw everything out their car window, and the roadsides are carpeted with rubbish. So that's what I do with my life now. I pick up rubbish on the side of the road. I do it on my bike. I do it on foot. The council, the local council has given me an outfit and a grabber.


SEDARIS: And sometimes I do that, but - and they'll send me out with naughty boys, like, juvenile delinquents. That's what they call them, naughty boys. And sometimes - so sometimes I'll do it with the council, but a lot of times, I just do it on my own, and I do it on my bike. And I have a basket on my bike, and spend hours every day collecting rubbish on the side of the road.

And to escape the negative thoughts, I have an iPad, and I'm usually getting ready to go somewhere. And I like these Pimsleur language instruction programs. And so, like, for our trip to Poland, right, so I studied Polish before we went. And so what people who live out where we - they think that I'm crazy, because what they see is a middle-aged man who's talking to himself.


SEDARIS: They don't know what I'm repeating Polish phrases - talking to himself picking up rubbish on the side of the road. And I'm dressed in rags because, you know, that's my outfit. I mean - and I'm - and they see me here and there. And they see me every day doing it. I was cleaning up in the village one day, and a guy walked by and said: There's some rubbish over there. And he pointed.

And I wrote an article about it for the Times of London, and then Hugh was at the village shop, and someone said: Is it you who wrote that article? And Hugh said, no. It was my boyfriend. He said, well, there's a road right near where I live that needs cleaning. You need to send him out there.


SEDARIS: And it's, like, you know, you can do this yourself. It's not difficult at all. And it's completely satisfying to me, completely. I mean, there's a before and after. I have my territory. I mean, obviously, I can't clean the whole country, you know. But I have, like, an eight-mile radius around the house, and I - that I maintain.

And I try to - you know, if you clean two miles of road, you're going to come back the next day, and it's going to be dirty again, right. So if you - like, I'm gone now on this tour. I'm gone for two-and-a-half months. All hell is going to break loose.

GROSS: Well, David Sedaris, it's been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much. I wish you all the best. It's really been great to talk again.

SEDARIS: Oh, thanks so much, Terry. Thanks for having me back on.

GROSS: My pleasure.

David Sedaris' new collection of essays and stories is called "Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls." You can read an excerpt on our website: This is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:This is FRESH AIR. Ken Kalfus began his public writing career relatively late. He published his first book at the age of 44. Ever since then, he's been making up for lost time. Three of his books have been named New York Times Notable Books, and his 2006 novel, "A Disorder Peculiar to the Country," was nominated for a National Book Award. His latest novel is called "Equilateral" and our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: This is a weird, little novel, but any reader familiar with Ken Kalfus expects his writing to go off-road. Kalfus wrote one of the best, and certainly the least sentimental novels about New York City post-9/11. I loved "A Disorder Peculiar to the Country," but I stopped assigning it to students in my New York lit class because they were usually turned off by its black humor and lack of uplift.

"Equilateral" doesn't run that same risk of being in bad taste as social commentary because, at first, it doesn't seem to have anything to do with current events. In its early chapters especially, the novel merely appears to be a spare valentine to the scientific romances of H.G. Wells and perhaps the lost-world sagas of H. Rider Haggard.

The real-life premise is this: In the late 19th century, astronomers spotted what they thought were canals on Mars. Many of those astronomers theorized that, therefore, there must be life on the red planet. Kalfus' fictional astronomer, Sanford Thayer, is an Englishman who's obsessed with the idea of contacting the Martians.

Thayer has launched an internationally funded project to carve out an enormous equilateral triangle - 300 miles to each side - in the Western deserts of Egypt. Once it's dug out, the triangle will be filled with petroleum. Here's how Kalfus' somewhat pompous omniscient narrator describes the rest of the plan:

Sometime before dawn on June 17th, 1894, at the moment of Earth's most favorable position in the Martian sky, the petroleum pooled in the trenches on each Side of the Equilateral will be ignited simultaneously, launching a flare from the Earth's darkened limb that, across millions of miles of empty space, will petition for man's membership in the fraternity of planetary civilizations.

Throughout the opening chapters of his novel, Kalfus is so captivated by his own fictional fantasy of that giant, triangular 19th century greeting card flashing into space, that he's content to just elaborate on the details. He describes how 900,000 native workers toil deep in what Thayer calls the Great Sand Sea.

Those workers are under strict command not to deviate one inch in their digging, lest the Martians mistakenly think that a geometrically imprecise triangle is a natural, rather than a man-made, phenomenon.

That's why when the workers stumble upon the tip of a buried pyramid as they're digging a 40-foot trench on one side of the Equilateral, Thayer orders them to bury the pyramid again and pour the pitch over it. At this point, we readers begin to catch on that Thayer, in the fine literary tradition of Englishmen abroad, has stayed out in the midday sun too long.

The great lure of Kalfus' kooky novel, at first, lies in its central premise. The book even contains diagrams to help readers visualize the growing triangle and the astronomical glide of Mars and Earth relative to the sun. We feel the blistering heat and the invasiveness of little daggered grains of sand that scratch the eyepieces of Thayer's telescopes, even when they're carefully packed away in Chinese cedar cabinets.

Given that this is a novel preoccupied with geometrical design, it makes sense that the main characters here - Thayer, his lovelorn secretary, his solicitous native servant, and the practical British engineer on the project - drift closer and farther from each other in shifting, triangulated alliances.

But halfway through this little book, a more ambitious theme begins emerging. Without giving the startling particulars away, I'll just say that violence erupts in the desert, stirring up a veritable sandstorm of troubling philosophical questions, all of them having to do with whether or not we Earthlings even have the right to think of ourselves as embodying intelligent life.

Like Thayer's enormous triangle, the big idea underlying "Equilateral," the novel, isn't illuminated until nearly its completion. It's a pretty neat trick for a novelist to pull off, to obscure the fact that what at first looks like an intricate fantasy novel is actually ignited by social commentary. When Kalfus finally strikes the match, we readers finally see the light.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Equilateral," by Ken Kalfus. You can read an excerpt on our website, And you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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