David Sedaris recently had tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace. But it wasn’t because he’s sold 11 million copies of his books and is a master comic storyteller. It was because of his hobby: He often leaves his home in rural Sussex at midnight, puts on a headlamp and spends up to nine hours de-littering the local highways and byways.
“The Queen has these garden parties—this was do-gooder day, so there were 8,000 do-gooders there,” he says, sitting in the kitchen of the 16th-century farmhouse he shares with his boyfriend of 26 years, Hugh Hamrick. “I got invited, but it was only for picking up rubbish.” But still— thrilling, right? He shrugs. “People ask me what I felt when I saw her, but I felt nothing.”
He blames the indifference on his American roots (“I saw Obama once,” he points out, “and I was excited!”). But the truth is that Sedaris, 61, rarely does, says or feels the expected thing—and that goes a long way toward explaining his appeal. Beginning with “The SantaLand Diaries,” an essay about his stint as a grumpy Macy’s elf that launched his career when he read it on NPR in 1992, he has mined his own life for hilarious stories that are simultaneously utterly relatable and off-the-wall. His latest bestselling collection, Calypso, includes a piece about a neighborhood turtle he grew fond of—and how he had a fatty tumor removed from his own back so he could feed it to the thing (surely a first). England famously loves its eccentrics, which could be why Sedaris, who grew up in North Carolina and lived in France before crossing the channel in 2002, feels so comfortable there.
“People said, ‘We’ll scootch down a little bit, make a place for you. Would you like a radio show? We’ll give you a little show. Would you like to write for The Guardian?’ I was so touched.”
It’s not surprising, of course, that England made space for him. Even if the Queen knows more about his litter picking than his prose, Sedaris has a huge following (Reese Witherspoon is a fan!) and is an astute observer of human nature. His writing makes you giggle but also learn about yourself—it’s filled with “that’s exactly what I think—but I hadn’t thought it yet!” moments. (On middle age: “There are few real joys. . . . The only perk I can see is that, with luck, you’ll acquire a guest room.”) And his stories are a family affair. Long before America was entertained by reality TV clans, Sedaris’s readers were amused and moved by the eccentricities of the intellectual version of the Kardashians: his mother, father, sisters Lisa, Gretchen, Amy (yes, the famous comedian) and Tiffany, and brother Paul. He may highlight their foibles, but he adores his family.
“Most people, when they get to be teenagers, they say, ‘I want to be as far from you guys as possible,’” he says. “We were never like that. We wouldn’t not be home on Saturday because that’s when the scary movies were on TV, and that’s when I made pizza. What could be more important?”
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Lately his family tales have taken a darker turn— inevitably, he says. “If you’re writing about your life, and you’re getting older, there’s going to be more illness and death.” He writes in Calypso about his mother’s alcoholism (she died in 1991, when he was 34), his 95-year-old father’s rapid aging and, heartbreakingly, his sister Tiffany’s 2013 suicide. The last time he saw Tiffany, who was younger by six years, she turned up after one of his book readings and, still angry from a fight, he closed the door in her face.
“You can’t make fun of other people and then make yourself look like an angel,” he explains of revealing that moment. “It looks so bad. But real mental illness is not like the wacky neighbor on television. It’s exhausting, and sometimes you need a break from it. There’s so much mental illness in my family. I don’t have depression, but I probably have other stuff going on.”
Which brings us back to . . . litter. Just as writing “definitely helps me harness my obsessive nature,” Sedaris says, “so does picking up trash.” That particular form of therapy started in 2010 when he spotted a man picking up litter in his village. “I said, ‘Are you paid to do that?’ And he said, ‘No, I’m doing it because it drives me crazy.’ And I thought, ‘Gosh, I can do that too.’ He changed my life, really.”
Appalled by how much the Brits litter, he now spends his days toggling between writing and litter picking, the latter often after dark (“Because this is a true crazy person,” he jokes), much to the concern of his boyfriend. “I worry about him,” says Hugh, 58, a painter and set designer. But a man has to do what a man has to do. “If I weren’t on duty, things would be pretty sorry around here,” Sedaris says. His record for ground covered in a day? 43 miles. His grossest find so far? Soiled underpants.
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“My goal is to find a human body,” he says. “Whenever I’m walking and I smell death, I think, ‘Oh, let it be a person!’”
As he launches into a story about how he’s found receipts in tossed shopping bags that led police to finding the litterbugs and issuing fines, Hugh jokingly does the international sign for crazy person behind David’s back, winding his finger around his temples. Slightly shy, Hugh is the grounding constant and solid fall guy to David’s comic commentary. Nothing seems to faze Hugh. David doesn’t easily express his love for him (“We’re engaged, I guess,” he says) and has even publicly admitted he could imagine living without his boyfriend but never his family.
“I took myself so seriously,” Hugh explains. “And when I met David, the fact that he could make fun of me. . . . He makes me laugh.”
Also, he keeps a very tidy house, if the singleminded way he’s currently picking up bread crumbs from the kitchen counter is any indication. As a child, Sedaris admits, “my room was a shrine of cleanliness.” It’s all part of the anxiety and compulsions he lives with, which were never officially diagnosed as OCD.
“Plenty of people have it worse than I do,” he says. “I could be doing any number of things—I could be in a room obsessively thinking, counting the fly legs on the floor. But I kind of feel like I make a difference—not as a writer so much, but picking up litter. I was able to harness it for the good.”