David Sedaris is the most famous garbage man in West Sussex, England.
On the rural roads that surround the home the writer shares with his boyfriend Hugh Hamrick in the south of England, he often clocks upward of 20 miles a day, the steps meticulously tallied on his Fitbit and Apple Watch. As he ambles, Sedaris listens to audio books – he just finished Michael Patterniti’s book of essays “Love and Other Ways of Dying” and started Larissa MacFarquhar’s “Strangers Drowning” – and picks up litter. Lots of litter.
So much, in fact, that the district of Horsham named one of its garbage trucks after him in 2014 in honor of his commitment to the community’s environmental wellbeing.
This is exactly the sort of thing that you might expect to read in a Sedaris story, and indeed the author’s penchant for walking made its way into a popular 2014 essay in the New Yorker. It’s likely to crop up again at 8 p.m. Saturday, when the humorist returns to the University at Buffalo’s Center for the Arts to read a selection of new work as part of a 40-city tour.
The author of the best-selling essay collections “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” “When You Are Engulfed in Flames” and “Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls” spoke to The News from his home in West Sussex at the end of a long Friday. He’d spent the day cutting up huge cardboard boxes that once contained Swedish patio furniture so they would fit into his recycling bin, and going for a 20.5-mile walk.
A week before his departure for the United States, he spoke about his memories of a Buffalo snowstorm, his maturation as a writer and his love of feeling like foreigner.
Q: You’ve said in the past that you like the sense of being a foreigner. What is it about that state of mind that’s attractive to you or good for your creativity?
A: I just like the constant state of curiosity that I live in.
Even though I’ve been here for a long time, I’m constantly surprised here. I was in the village the other day. I was leaving the grocery store and these two young people asked me if I could go into the store and buy some cider for them, like some hard cider. And they didn’t seem like teenagers to me. They told me they weren’t teenagers, and I believed them because they looked too old to be teenagers.
So then I went to get a haircut and I told the barber about it and he said, “Oh yeah, I see them a lot. He said they’re always poncing a cigarette off me.” And I said, “poncing?” I don’t know how I had never heard that word before. Plus the way people think is so different here than in the United States. We speak the same language, so you would think that there would be no problem, but there’s an optimism that we have in America that we’re kind of born with. You don’t really notice it until you live in the absence of it.
Q: Since you’ve been abroad for so long, though you come to America all the time, do you feel in some sense like a foreigner in your own country?
A: No, but I like not being there all the time. I feel like I notice things more when I go, like I’ll go and I’ll think, “When did all the cashiers in the South start saying, ‘Have a bless’d day’?” At first I thought it was, “Have blessed day.” But it’s not. It’s have a “bless’d” day, and it makes my flesh crawl.
This summer I went to Copenhagen for a book tour. When I was there I was having dinner one night with my publisher, and it somehow came out that having sex with animals just very recently became illegal in Denmark. And I said, “Well, what was it before?” And he said, “Well, it was frowned upon, it was always frowned upon. But it wasn’t like, oh should this be illegal or shouldn’t it? We had other things to take care of.”
So I live for stuff like that when I go to another country. And I learned that the Danes don’t have a word for please … and also that Danish ghosts say, “Beh.” I was in this store and saw these little pillows for children shaped like ghosts. My friend has a baby and so I bought one and said to the cashier, “What does a Danish ghost say?” “Beh.” It sounds like, “Ehh … if you want to I guess you can. Beh!”
Q: When you’re on the road doing a 40-city tour, do all the Buffalos and Duluths blend together in your head?
A: Well Buffalo’s a little bit different because I have friends there.
It’s different too because I’ve been in my friend’s house. When you had that big snowstorm in October a couple years ago, there were all these beautiful trees on the street and the snow fell on the autumn leaves and the branches dropped off. I have a picture of that in my mind.
I very clearly remember a book signing one night while I was there that I said something kind of cavalier about schizophrenics and this schizophrenic woman came up and asked me to sign her bottle of Klonopin. It was a good reminder, because you never know who’s in that audience.
Q: How do you see your writing having changed from your first book to your most recent one?
A: When I look at things that I wrote a long time ago, I cringe a lot just because I see myself trying too hard.
I think what changed my writing was in 1999 or 2000, when David Remnick came in at the New Yorker. He came to Paris and met with me. I had written some short Shouts & Murmurs things for the New Yorker, but he wanted me to start writing more, writing longer pieces. And I said, “I don’t think that I have a New Yorker story in me.” And he said, “We’ll decide what’s a New Yorker story.” That’s my contract with them. I send them everything, and they get the first pass on it.
Q: Do you think about the ways in which your writing is used beyond just entertainment or diversion, specifically the ways people use your literature to say things to each other?
A: Yesterday, I did an interview with somebody and they said oh you know, every Christmas we read, my family reads “Six to Eight Black Men” to each other.
I just loved the idea that there’s a family out there who reads to each other; that’s a nice idea. But it’s funny – I had heard from other people who did that, who sent my book to a sibling who they knew was gay but wasn’t ready to say that they were gay as a way of saying, “Any time you’re ready!”
Q: How many new pieces are you going to be trying out on audiences in Buffalo?
A: One was published in the New Yorker last week, but I still feel like it’s new so I can read it out loud. So I’ve got three. And I was hoping to finish this other one …
Q: What’s it about?
A: I pick up all this trash every day and go on these long walks, and I found two big plastic bags on the side of the road filled with pornography. Normally I would find something like that and I would throw it away, if it were just magazines or newspapers, but somebody might want that pornography, you know what I mean? That could really make a nice difference in someone’s life.
So I wanted to put it in somebody’s hands, but not directly in their hands. Like I didn’t want to touch it and then present it to somebody. I just never know till I get up there if something’s going to work or not.