Interviewing humorist David Sedaris is a bit like wrestling an eel doused in baby oil.
In the course of a half-hour or so, the conversation jumps from cyborgs to vampires to unicorns, with clever asides about French movie theaters, Canadian hotels and American audiences.
Sedaris never evades a question or avoids a subject. But what he has to say is so fascinating that it’s hard to stick to one’s talking points.
Over the last two decades, Sedaris has cemented his reputation as a smart, self-deprecating writer, radio personality and public speaker. He’s a regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine and National Public Radio’s “This American Life,” and an award-winning author with eight books to his credit.
“People have said before that to write personal essays is so egocentric or narcissistic, (but) you still want people to read what you wrote,” explained the soft-spoken essayist, who appears Oct. 28 in San Luis Obispo. “Whether you wrote about a squirrel and a chipmunk, or you wrote about something that happened on the plane to you last time, you’re still writing something you want someone to see.”
From ‘SantaLand’ to success
Part of a large, quirky Greek-American clan that includes actress and author Amy Sedaris, Sedaris grew up in the suburbs of Raleigh, N.C. He studied briefly at Western Carolina University and Kent State University before graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1987.
Sedaris was working a string of odd jobs when radio host Ira Glass discovered him reading his diary at a Chicago club. Glass invited Sedaris to appear on local program “The Wild Room,” and his subsequent success led to a 1992 appearance on NPR’s “Morning Edition” reading his essay “SantaLand Diaries.”
A satirical account of working as a Christmas elf at a Macy’s department store, it catapulted Sedaris to national fame.
His first book, “Barrel Fever,” came out two years later.
A string of bestsellers later — including 2000’s “Me Talk Pretty One Day” and 2004’s “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim” — Sedaris is a publishing industry darling.
Sedaris’ essays invariably arise from his own life —drawing on his odd childhood and disaffected youth, his idiosyncratic family members and his life overseas with longtime boyfriend Hugh Hamrick.
“Nine times out of 10, it’s something I’ve written in my diary,” said Sedaris, who has kept a journal since 1977.
In his 2008 book, “When You Are Engulfed in Flames,” Sedaris discusses his fascination with dead bodies, recalls his parents’ adventures in art collecting and describes his attempt to quit smoking by moving to Tokyo for three months, costing him $23,000.
“It’s just made it a lot easier to move through the world,” explained Sedaris, whose tolerance for long drives and airplane trips has increased significantly. “Some of my rage is gone.”
Sedaris’ latest book is a departure from his previous nonfiction works.
“Squirrel Meets Chipmunk: A Modern Bestiary,” which hit stores in September, is a fictional story collection about anthropomorphic animals, told entirely in the third person. The book features illustrations by Ian Falconer, creator of the “Olivia” children’s books series.
“I hesitate to call them fables because for me, fables always have morals,” Sedaris said, describing “Squirrel Meets Chipmunk” as “a book in which animals do things that people do.”
In the guise of his furry and feathered creations, Sedaris is able to write about relationship problems and political issues that would otherwise seem stale, he said.
“Everybody knows what a squirrel and a chipmunk looks like,” Sedaris said. “Also, a story (like that) wouldn’t last more than four pages, and I like to keep it short.”
Cozy with his fans
Regardless of the subject matter, Sedaris said he rarely tailors his speaking programs for specific audiences.
“When I go on a tour, especially a book tour, people ask me, ‘What are you going to Fargo for?’ ” Sedaris said. “I don’t think ‘red state or blue state.’ What if there are people in Fargo who didn’t vote that way? What if they really need something like this?”
Sedaris’ affection for his fans, indeed, knows few bounds.
He’s been known to pull people aside during pre-show book signings — “Sometimes it’s nice to just pick somebody like men who are 5-foot-6, or women with braces,” the author said — and he loves presenting small gifts to younger readers.
“I thought, ‘What can I hand out to teenagers that’s light and easy to pack?’ ” Sedaris recalled. “I started buying condoms in bulk.”
That roused the ire of their parents, who accused Sedaris of encouraging their children to have sex.
“That is true,” he admitted. “I said to teenagers, ‘I don’t want to be responsible for losing your virginity. This can only be used for anal sex.’ ”
Now Sedaris passes out miniature bottles of shampoo and bubble bath instead. After all, he said, “Why would you let that conditioner go to waste?”
Still, Sedaris’ cozy relationship with his readers occasionally gets a little awkward.
“Somebody came up to me after a show and told me about this turd he’d made,” said Sedaris, who once wrote about discovering “the absolute biggest turd I have ever seen in my life” in a friend’s toilet. “I said, ‘I’m writing about something I’ve found and you’re telling me about something you’ve made.’ He really didn’t understand the difference.”
“I’ve never written about my sex life. I’ve never written about who I hate,” Sedaris said, yet fans delight in telling him the most intimate details.
Perhaps that’s the risk of living the examined life.
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