David Sedaris says appearing on public radio ended up costing him his housecleaning job.
David Sedaris leapt from obscurity as a New York housecleaner into the national spotlight as one of public radio's best-loved commentators after reading from his "Santaland Diaries" on Morning Edition in 1992.
He waded through the resulting scattershot of offers from advertisers and television producers before going on to write best-selling books. Thirteen years later, Sedaris has come to uneasy terms with his celebrity. Speaking by phone from his London apartment, he recently talked about the early days, the suddenness of fame, and reactions to his work.
NPR: Many magazine and newspaper articles about you cite "Santaland Diaries" as the first major breakthrough for you as a writer. What kind of reaction did you experience when the piece aired? Did the impact of its popularity strike you right away?
Sedaris: No, Santaland was the first thing I ever had on the radio. I'd read out loud before and had things published in small magazines, but no one had ever heard of them. When I did a reading out loud, there might have been eighteen people in the audience. To go from that to the Morning Edition audience is a pretty substantial leap.
After "Santaland," the phone just started ringing. One time, a telephone operator even called me. She called to say that she had heard [the piece]. I didn't know operators were allowed to make calls. I was thinking, "Don't you need to be at your switchboard? Maybe somebody needs to go to the hospital."
Strangers would call, and then people that I’d known all my life whom I'd lost contact with would call and say, "Oh, I heard you on the radio." I think it was then that it struck me. I have always been an All Things Considered listener, but I'd never listened to Morning Edition. I've always thought that the definition of a good life was being asleep when Morning Edition was on. I never listened to the show, so I never had a concept of anyone else listening to it, I suppose. I was very, very surprised.
Again, it was just from that one story. It was one thing for someone you went to high school with to call, but then people called wanting me to do commercials or write a movie. It was heady to go from no having opportunities to so many. I didn't take any of them, but I was just so happy to be on the radio. That was what I'd always wanted, so I didn't want to do a voice-over for a pain reliever commercial or to write a situation comedy or anything like that. It's always nice to be asked, but that aspect was just sort of overwhelming.
I'd been writing for a long time, and I'd been in New York for two years. I'd been working steadily, it's just I owe Ira Glass. He just changed my life.
NPR: Could you explain how that relationship developed? How did you and National Public Radio find one another?
Sedaris: It was by accident. I was living in Chicago, and someone from WBEZ was doing a show about diaries, so they asked me to read something from my diary. It was me and two or three other people at my local NPR station that I listened to all the time. So that happened, and then it was all forgotten about.
I was reading somewhere later, and Ira Glass was in the audience. He introduced himself. A few years later, he called, asking if I had anything Christmassy for a show that he was doing at the time called The Wild Room, which was sort of a primitive version of This American Life.
So I recorded the Santa story for that, and then he put it on Morning Edition. It was just by accident. Again, I'd always listened to NPR, but I'm not a very aggressive person, so I would not ever have sent a tape or done anything like that. I just sort of wished a lot.
NPR: What do you remember about the process of recording your pieces for broadcast? Did it seem odd to be reading them into a microphone?
Sedaris: There's such a huge difference between reading out loud and reading into a microphone. [On the radio] you don't stop if you make a mistake. If you get too close to the microphone, you just back up and you continue. If you flub a word, you just pretend it never happened. I think there was pressure, having the microphone there.
NPR: Did you feel you were prepared to read stories over the radio? Did you have confidence in your voice?
Sedaris: None whatsoever. It doesn't make any sense that my voice would be on the radio. You know, I was walking down the street yesterday, and I saw a policeman in a wheelchair. Now, if you were paralyzed, chances are that you would draw up a list of occupations you might want to do and then you would put a line through the ones you couldn't. And policeman? You'd just say, "Nope. Can't be a cop..." There was something so great about this man being able to be a policeman, even though he was in a wheelchair. I think that's the way I think of myself on the radio: "I can't do that." People have sonorous radio voices, and mine is not that at all.
NPR: How did you adapt your writing to radio format?
Sedaris: Ira taught me a lot about writing for the radio. If you're writing something for the page, you can say, "I was at dinner with Frank and Stephanie and Philip and Rudy and Janet and Curtis, and Curtis said something about [Makes buzzer sound]." You can't put seven names into a radio listener's head, especially if they don't all play an active part of the story.
Ira taught me to pay attention and to understand why I listened to certain things, and that you can't flood people's minds. You have to sort of pace the story out. And, of course, there’s always words you can't use.
NPR: Do you have any memory of any words you can't use?
Sedaris: Pussy! No, let's see... There was a story I did one time, I think the word "turd." And then there were words, and there were concepts, say, that couldn't be used on the radio. I find that, for all the pretense, it's nearly impossible to talk about race in America.
I've learned too that from reading on the radio and reading out loud since I've been on the radio, that you can always count on people being offended by something, even if it's something you didn’t mention. For instance, I did three little stories about monkeys, and this woman wrote a very angry letter saying, "The first time you said monkey, I laughed along with everybody else. And then you said it again. When you got to the third time, I saw what you were really about. And not only are you a racist, you're a GAY racist. In case you didn't know, African Americans have been referred to as monkeys for years."
Well, monkeys have been referred to as monkeys longer. I mean, they were stories about monkeys! They weren't code! And I get letters sometimes, and sometimes you think, "Oh, this will piss people off," but that’s not really the case. Often it's just things that are completely unintentional.
NPR: In what way do you feel your career was shaped by those initial readings for National Public Radio?
Sedaris: I think that one big change was that before NPR I had been writing fiction, and when I'd read aloud, I would tend to read fiction. Every now and then I'd read from my diary, but not higgledy-piggeldy; they were things I sensed might work out loud. But for the radio, things had to be non-fiction, which is something that really hadn't occurred to me. SantaLand was just stuff in my diary. All I did was take things from my diary and arrange them. When they said, "Do you want to be on again?" I thought, "Well, what would I talk about?!" At that point I wasn't used to writing non-fiction. By now, I can't remember how to write fiction anymore.
NPR: What's the most memorable reaction to one of your radio pieces?
Sedaris: When I first started out on the radio on Morning Edition, they would say, "David Sedaris cleans apartments in New York." I worked for a house-cleaning company, so I had regular clients, and then after I was on the radio, I got all these calls from people who wanted their houses cleaned.
I thought, "I can make some money out of this!" But nine times out of 10, I would go to the person's house, and it would be spotless, and they would be home. The people I had been working for before, they were never home, so I would get paid for three hours of work and be out of there in an hour and a half.
I would go to these new clients' homes, and they would be just sitting there with nothing for me to do. And they would say, for instance, "I work with the deaf. And if you could do a radio story about my organization, it would be one hand washing the other." I really wasn't prepared for that at all.
NPR: Would they pay you for stopping by?
Sedaris: Well they would, but I wouldn't want to go back. [Appearing on the radio] sort of ruined my job. In many ways, cleaning apartments was the best job I ever had. It had paid well, and it suited me. Being on the radio sort of ruined that.
NPR: Had your career taken off enough at that point that you had something to fall back on?
Sedaris: Not really. When I moved to New York, cleaning apartments was my job. If Ira hadn't put me on the radio, I would still be living in New York, cleaning houses. I don't have any skills.
Even if my first book had come out, that's what I'd still be doing. I think people have the idea that you get paid a ton of money for a book, but you don't really.
I mean, I don't ever feel like, "God-damned public radio! I could be cleaning the Rosenblatts' refrigerator right now!" But it did cost me my job. I assume that happens to everybody who is a commentator on public radio. They just do a commentary, and then their life just changes.