PCS Blog

From Cleaning Out Fridges to April in Paris

Posted by Kinsley Suer | 27 November 2012

David Sedaris, the man behind The Santland Diaries, has made a career out of chronicling his true – and usually hilarious – life experiences. In addition to serving as an NPR commentator and a contributing columnist for The New Yorker, Sedaris is well-known for his batch of bestselling memoirs, including When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk.
But what you may not know about Sedaris is that his short story "Santaland Diaries" (which was later adaped into the play The Santaland Diaries) was actually his first real break. In the early 1990s, Sedaris was a housecleaner in New York City. After being discovered by Ira Glass of NPR’s This American Life, Sedaris was invited to read his holiday piece on Morning Edition in December 1992. It was an instant hit with radio listeners, and today is an annual holiday tradition on NPR.
In 2005, Sedaris reflected on his career following the success of "Santaland Diaries" in an interview with NPR's Michael Taylor. An excerpt of this interview appears below. Click here to read the interview in its entirety.
November 22, 2005
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.
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.
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.
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 [Glass] 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.
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