Through insightful, self-deprecating storytelling in his observational essays and memoirs, and spoken-word readings onstage, humorist David Sedaris navigates through an existential world that's constantly bombarded by the unexpected, the unexplainable and the downright bizarre.
In his hands, it's a journey of hilarity. It's our journey, too; we just have to pay close attention to see it, he says.
Sedaris, 56, grew up in Raleigh, N.C., graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1987, and worked odd jobs in New York and Chicago, continuing to make entries in the diary he began in 1977.
Sedaris was "discovered" by Ira Glass, producer and host of National Public Radio's "This American Life." Glass caught Sedaris' act (comic readings from his diary) in a Chicago nightclub and put him on the local public radio show "The Wild Room" and later on NPR's "Life" and "Morning Edition."
It was Sedaris' radio reading of "SantaLand Diaries" a side-splitting theatrical monologue about his job as a Christmas elf at a Macy's department store that jump-started his professional writing and broadcasting career in the mid- 1990s.
What followed has been a steady output of stories, magazine columns (the New Yorker, Esquire), collections of essays ("Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim," "When You Are Engulfed in Flames") and, in collaboration with his sister, actress Amy Sedaris, a half-dozen stage plays.
Sedaris, who casts himself as a disaffected underdog, has won a Thurber Prize for American Humor, was named 2001's "Humorist of the Year" by Time magazine and was nominated for two Grammy Awards for spoken-word and humor albums.
In his new collection, "Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls," he takes readers on a global travel adventure that delves deeply into the off-the-wall (Little, Brown, $27, 288 pages; on sale Tuesday).
Over the past 12 years, Sedaris has lived in Paris, London and now in West Sussex, England, with longtime partner Hugh Hamrick. Visit Sedaris at www.facebook.com/ davidsedaris.
In print and onstage, your persona is very likable.
No one is more surprised by that than me. I get up on stage or I go to a book-signing and I genuinely think, "What on earth are you people doing here?" I mean, I wear a tie and I love signing books and I feel like that shows, right? And I think I come across as grateful, but you don't have to like people who are grateful. Then I think of other people who are wonderful, who the public doesn't seem to like, and I want to say, "Why would you possibly like me and not like that other person?" It doesn't make any sense.
Has anyone disliked you?
I wouldn't want to have to do my taxes, but I think the woman who's doing them now doesn't like me. I get emails from her that are really short-tempered, and I feel there's nothing I can do. Apologizing won't make any difference, and no humor will work on her. She just hates me.
At one (event) when I was reading (my essay) on undecided voters, I was talking about Sen. John McCain but I wasn't naming him. A couple of times people yelled stuff out at me and slammed out.
When people leave the theater for whatever reason, I feel awful. I tell myself, "Oh, that's a doctor on call.' Or if it's a bunch of people leaving, I think there was a bus accident and all the doctors in the audience were called.
Sometimes I get letters from people who say, "I went to your show and you used (offensive) language. I thought you were better than that." I write back and say, "Whatever gave you that idea? I certainly hope it wasn't me!"
Then there was that condom incident.
My lecture agent got an email from a woman who came to a reading in Chicago with her 15-year-old daughter. The woman (complained that) when her daughter got up there to get the book signed, I gave her a condom. I stopped giving out condoms because teenagers started coming (to events) and saying, "Where's my condom?" It ruined the surprise.
There was a controversy over your story about Princeton, and your use of the word "realish" to describe its accuracy.
I used the term "realish" for one story in my (2009 collection) "When You Are Engulfed in Flames." All the essays in that book had been fact-checked by the New Yorker magazine (where they originally appeared), except that one fictional story about me going to Princeton in the Stone Age. I knew if I didn't mention (that it was "realish" and not real) people would say, "He's such a liar, he didn't go to Princeton." People did say that anyway, and I said, "No, I didn't, and I didn't live in the Stone Age either."
Then (last year) some guy wrote in the Washington Post how my "realish" stories were putting NPR and "This American Life" in a tight spot. I don't know what world he lives in that he confuses journalism with a memory of something that happened in the third grade (for example), but I think most people can tell the difference.
A lot of your stories involve your upbringing and your family. Are your siblings OK with that?
If you're telling a story that everybody in the family has been laughing about for years, then there's not a problem. What's irritating to my family is when people read my stories and think they know all about (my family). Actually, that's an illusion. I never tell the secrets.
You're something of a perfectionist when you write.
Because of the way I started I was an elf at Macy's people don't think of me as the kind of person who writes 18 drafts of a story. Maybe they think I just dictate into a machine.
When your partner, Hugh Hamrick, shows up in your stories, it's almost like you're a comedy team with him as the straight man.
He's the "gay straight man" you would want around if anything's broken and needs fixing, or if you need to get your mortgage interest statement to your accountant who hates you. When I read (a work in progress) to Hugh, and he says something is disgusting, that means it's a winning line that will get a huge laugh.
Why live in Europe?
I like living in places I don't quite understand. When I come back to the U.S., even when bad things happen, I understand them. In Europe, I hear, "What is up with you people and your guns?" I don't have a gun, but there's something about them I understand because I grew up here. It's like you need a semi-automatic weapon to shoot up your old television set.
Have you learned how to drive a car yet?
The roads are only one lane where we live. So it's driving on the left in England, and you have to pull off the road (for oncoming traffic), so I don't feel like this is the time to learn.
Is there any message in your body of work?
Maybe it's that an ordinary life can be extraordinary. My life is no more special than anyone else's, it's just that I've made it my career to be on the lookout for special moments. I'm on public transportation and out in the world and carry a notebook and write down all these things and put them in my diary. I'm curious and ask questions, I'm not a threatening person, and I'm too timid to say "no." A lot of people just end (situations) by saying "no."
I'm not extraordinary by any means, but for some reason I was drowning a mouse on my front porch at 2 in the morning, and these people pulled up. The next thing I know, they're in my house. That's extraordinary to me.
Or it's extraordinary that I go to buy a taxidermied owl for my boyfriend for Valentine's Day, and all of a sudden the taxidermist is presenting me with a 400-year-old preserved head in a grocery bag (in the story "Understanding Owls" in the new book).
What can't you live without?
I can't live without coffee, and I can't live without jazz. I love jazz so much I've reversed it and call it "zzaj."
As part of his 55-city book tour, humorist and writer David Sedaris will appear at 8 p.m. May 4 at the Crest Theatre, 1013 K St., Sacramento
Information: Crest box office, (916) 442-5189; www.tickets.com, (800) 225-2277
Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128.