Well-known funny-man David Sedaris comes to Pittsburgh for a reading of new stories and for the chance to meet you.
Photo by Ann Fishbein
Best-selling author, radio storyteller and much-recorded memoirist David Sedaris would love to talk to you when he comes to Pittsburgh this month. Yes, of course, he’ll also read to you as part of an inevitably large audience in Benedum Center—such houses usually fill up way in advance, and tickets have been selling fast—but he also cherishes one-on-one face time post-reading in the lobby. Unhurried. Sedaris wants it that way. “I learn a lot,” he commented in the Louisville Courier-Journal, and he has no intention of being rushed. “I can’t do that,” he said.
Or, you might encounter this rather unprepossessing 52-year-old man, whose face many people don’t recognize, while washing his minimal wardrobe at the local Laundromat or taking a swim. He often does that on the road. But it’s his voice that’s most likely to make you perk up; it’s his sound that people especially warm to.
Sedaris, the creator of six best-selling books of personal-humor essays, more than a dozen CDs and many pieces in The New Yorker and Esquire, is here for just one day for a program presented by The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust amid equally short visits to 30 cities in a biannual national tour. His agent, Steven Barclay, explains that Sedaris wants to focus most on writing and can’t do that if he’s spending a lot of time and energy being public. Which also means he turns down interviews with magazine writers like me and with broadcast hosts. Face it—celebrities can lose creative momentum bogged down in chatter. And they may say something they regret, leading someone to latch onto the negative.
Now that Sedaris’ name—and voice—have become widespread, kind of like corduroy or denim pants on over-eaters (Sedaris fans: Note the reference to the book Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim), and because there’s a total of 7 million copies of his books printed in 25 languages, there’s always someone who wants to uncover the man behind the curtain. So Sedaris has been accused of messing around with reality: his own, his family’s and other people’s. He’s often acknowledged that he exaggerates for effect, especially in dialogue. “It comes with the territory,” he said on NPR’s “Fresh Air” show. “A memoir is the last place you’d expect to find the truth,” he pointed out in The New York Times.
The 2001 winner of both the Thurber Prize for American Humor and Time magazine’s “Humorist of the Year,” he doesn’t, though, create material out of thin air. In an ever-present diary, he keeps extensive notes on what he sees, hears and thinks. “Pulling it out makes people more nervous than a camera,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “[They] think I’m writing down their license-plate number.” Later he transcribes, edits and rewrites, then gives public readings, gauging the effect of his writing, highly valuing audience response. That means, by the way, that much of what he’ll read in Pittsburgh will be new. And he never reads anything already published in his books. He feels audiences deserve something fresh, even keeping another diary telling him what stories not to repeat in revisited places.
Diaries play a key role in Sedaris’ career. In fact, it was those personal notebooks that put him on the national map. In this case, it was his “SantaLand Diaries,” an essay where he recounts his time working as a Christmas elf at a Macy’s department store. He first read parts on NPR just before Christmas in 1992, when he was in his mid-30s. But the success he found was no overnight fluke. He’d been keeping diaries for about 15 years already and started performing publicly in Chicago after moving from his family home in Raleigh, N.C., in 1983.
While studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he occasionally appeared in variety shows. Interpreting his writing in a Chicago nightclub, Sedaris was admired by Ira Glass, then a local radio-program host. Glass invited him to read on the air, and Sedaris’ life took a major turn. Now he performs regularly on Glass’ nationally syndicated weekly show, “This American Life,” with more than 50 pieces archived on the website (thisamericanlife.org).
Sedaris’ other big interests include going to movies. And taxidermy. According to the Boston Phoenix, his collection of stuffed dead animals includes a squirrel, two fruit bats, four Boston terriers and a baby ostrich.
He’s not really into modern technology, although he finally started writing on a computer. Web-savvy? Barclay says, “It’s not something he’s really interested in.” And he doesn’t have a cell phone. To communicate, Barclay may call Sedaris at the London apartment shared with his longtime boyfriend, painter and theater designer Hugh Hamrick. The phone there is not that busy, though; evidently few people call. Sedaris doesn’t seem to have a circle of friends. “He’s a solitary person,” Barclay remarks. “He spends a lot of time at home.”
After around 20 years together with Sedaris, Hamrick turns up often in print as do other family members, including David’s mother, his brother Paul and his writer/performer sister Amy. But another sister, Tiffany, asked to be left out, finding their previous home life painful, not funny. But she finally gave permission in 2004 after discovering his recent writing was “more soul-searching, more sensitive,” as she said in The Boston Globe. Clearly Sedaris remains full of surprises. Maybe that’s why he delights so many people.