So the night before I’m supposed to meet David Sedaris, I have a dream. In it the 51-year-old humorist and his younger sister, actress Amy Sedaris, star in their very own talk show. Under a solemn spotlight, David delivers a monologue like one of the sly, deliciously witty and awkward essays made famous on This American Life and in the pages of Esquire. Then he introduces Amy as the host of the program, wherein the Strangers With Candy star dishes non-stop on cupcakes, Stephen Colbert, and the ghost of her imaginary boyfriend—the late, beloved Ricky—while David drops one-liners like a miniature Ed McMahon, promising as much unapologetic wit as the Carson co-host does Publisher’s Clearinghouse sweepstakes. There are no guests.
“Amy and I did have our own little talk show when we were kids,” Sedaris confirms. “It took place in our kitchen. We never got around to inviting guests, either.”
On a cross-country tour to promote his latest collection of short stories, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Sedaris sits in contemplation, flipping through a large folder of diary entries at the back of a waiting room in the local Barnes & Noble bookstore. Here he edits his own observations, his own life, measuring and condensing himself into the precise images and ideas he wishes to convey to his readership. “When you first start writing, you think ‘I worked on this, so people should listen,’” he says. “But really, there’s no reason anyone has to listen. They don’t owe you.”
Now he self-critiques with ease. At a page and a quarter, a recollection of the elderly who skip him—and everyone else under 70—in line at a Parisian post office is too long. “But it’s really irritating,” he says raising both eyebrows. The thing about some guy trying to sell him a mobile phone? Too long. David’s partner Hugh Hamrick working on the stage production of The Lion King? Too French.
These could be the confessional building blocks of Sedaris’ next tangential essay, or they could be buried in obscurity forever. The North Carolina native likes to test unpublished pieces at public readings. He also likes to present teenagers with gifts. Most receive the miniature shampoos and conditioners from his hotel room. When depleted of complimentary personal hygiene products, he just starts handing out money. “I was shocked how many were there the other night,” he says of his cash giveaway. “I ran out of teenager stuff, and I was so honored they came.”
Having finally kicked his nicotine addiction via a journey to Hiroshima—detailed in a piece from Flames, “The Smoking Section”—now Sedaris finds himself sitting quietly during breaks at book signings rather than lighting up indoors and pretending to be an out-of-touch ex-patriate. Last night he autographed books for eight and a half hours and only peed once. This interests him, he tells me, because if he drinks a glass of water before going to bed, he’s up three times during the night. Maybe, I offer, he should sign copies of Barrel Fever in his sleep.
Following Fever, his first collection published in 1994, were Holidays on Ice, Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day, the unanimously praised volume that earned Sedaris the title of Time’s Humorist of the Year in 2001. Mirroring his propensity to write about mini-crises, Sedaris was heralded as a “minor phenomenon.” But he never reads his reviews or checks interviews for accuracy. This benefits him now because some critics say When You Are Engulfed in Flames is the closest thing to a letdown he has ever published.
Maybe it is that Sedaris’ sprawling life, still the prime product of his pen, is somehow less relatable than his youth or adolescence. His quirky mini-crises have turned into mid-life crises faced by a wealthy, well-regarded writer with all the resources and time to deal with them that few others are afforded. Who else goes to Japan to enroll in an exclusive stop-smoking treatment? Who is David Sedaris? Or maybe it’s that Flames bypasses the humorous moments that made him famous and instead zeroes in on delicate instances of poignancy, a reflection of Sedaris’ maturation as a writer and, finally, an adult. “The older I get the more I think an obvious sign of amateur writing is someone trying to be funny,” he says. “Even if it gets a laugh, if it feels like trying, I get rid of it.” Without picking up the paper, Sedaris says he could feel it the morning he woke up and The New York Times had knocked the new book. Still, he is proud of Flames as an exercise in making his stories more serious.
Some critics may not understand that pursuit; some may not care. Critics are people, after all, and people like jokes. That’s essentially what Sedaris was reading in a Chicago nightclub when future NPR personality Ira Glass discovered him and invited him to read his diary on the radio. Since then, Sedaris’ success has meant a unique sort of celebrity. He travels most places unnoticed, but when he is stopped, it is by a devoted fan that recognizes not a movie character or a hit single, but a number of revealing histories and eccentricities from his real life.
Sedaris enjoys meeting fans, but likes this relative anonymity. He has turned down offers from Letterman to cover presidential elections and Super Bowls for The Late Show. Overexposure on television would mean less respect in the literary community and more recognition and admiration on the street. And that, he knows, would be bad for business.
“It feels nice to go into the Apple Store, and because people saw you on Jon Stewart’s show they’re nice and want to do favors for you, so I think, ‘Oh, if I went on there a lot, I’d get a lot of favors!’” Sedaris says. “But that’s not good. I can’t write about that. I work very well with someone mistreating me, but there’s nothing I can do with somebody being nice to me. That’s poison.”