Author, playwright and humorist David Sedaris needs no introduction, especially in his hometown of Raleigh. But we’ll give him one anyway: Recipient of the Thurber Prize for American Humor, Sedaris has more than 7 million copies of his books and essay collections in print, translated into 29 languages. He’s a longtime contributor to NPR and The New Yorker magazine and has penned a half-dozen plays with his sister, actress and writer Amy Sedaris.
Sedaris will read from a collection of new stories Saturday at the Durham Performing Arts Center, with a matinee at 3 p.m. and an evening show at 8. Only a handful of single-seat tickets remain for the evening show. Both performances will feature a Q&A session after the readings.
Speaking from his home in West Sussex England (at 1 a.m. local time – he’s a night owl), Sedaris talked to the N&O about writing, touring and coming home.
Q: Do you come back to North Carolina often? Do you still have family here?
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A: Yeah – we got a house on Emerald Isle a little over two years ago. So I started coming to North Carolina a lot more. We used to go there when I was a kid, on vacation. It’s interesting to be back there now with my siblings, as grown-ups. It seems like we should be 8. Instead we’re, like, old.
Q: Oh, right. You had a story about that – about naming your beach house when you were kids?
A: Yeah, when we were young, we thought my dad was going to buy a house on Emerald Isle and we were trying to come up with names for it. With beach houses, all the names are like puns, right? So I wanted to just have the shape of a ship on the sign, and it would be called the Ship Shape. We wouldn’t write that on the sign, we would just know it. With the new house that we got, we didn’t go with Ship Shape. We went with Sea Section.
Q: What will you be reading at the Durham shows?
A: I have all-new material. You know, we’ll see how it works, but I have six new stories. Last time I went on tour, I had, I think, four new stories.
One of those was “Leviathan” (about returning to Emerald Isle) and I probably read it on stage about 30 times. After that I gave it to my editor at The New Yorker. I like to learn as much as I can about a story on my own, by reading it on tour.
Q: An amazing aspect of your stories, I think, is that they work equally well whether you read them in a book or hear them read aloud. Those are usually two totally different disciplines, with humor, anyway.
A: Well, I used to write stories so that I could read them out loud, and now I try to write stories so that anyone can read them out loud. To me, that’s written on the page – the rhythm of the sentences and where to pause. That’s all grammatically constructed on the page.
There are plenty of people who are better writers that I am, and people that are funnier than I am. But one of the strengths that I think I have is I can learn from other peoples’ mistakes. Like when I very first started, I would do readings with other writers and there would be no dialogue or it would be a dream sequence. And I thought, “Nobody wants to hear that. I don’t even want to hear about dreams that I’m in.”
Q: So the performance element is always in your mind as you’re writing?
A: Yeah. When I was living in Raleigh, I remember discovering Raymond Carver – at the Olivia Raney library, in fact. He meant a lot to me, when I first started writing. Because he made it look very easy. His sentences are very simple. You think, “I could do that.” But you ever try to read Raymond Carver out loud? It’s murder.
Q: Looking at your tour schedule, you’re going to be on the road for the next several months. Do you enjoy traveling when you’re on these tours?
A: Well, I don’t look too far ahead when I’m on tour. I might look a couple days ahead, but that’s it. Generally speaking, I love being on tour. You hear a lot of good stories, for one thing.
Like, a lot of time I’m in a car and someone is driving me around. A couple of years ago I had this driver and she said, “You know, I have a cousin who lives in Mexico. When he was a baby, pigs chewed off his arms and legs. And he went on to law school.” (Laughs) So every now and then you get an amazing story from a driver.
One time in Blacksburg, Virginia, this guy was driving me and I said, “What wildlife do you have up here?” He said, “Oh, we have deer and we have bear. Last week I saw a bear cub on the side of the road, dead. Must have wandered off from his mama and got hit by a car. Barack Obama’s the worst president this country ever had.” (Laughs)
I’m like, “Wait, how did we get here? We were just talking about a bear cub!” You can’t argue with him. You’re not going to change his mind. So I just ask more questions. “How do you know he was born in Kenya?” I love talking to people and getting in these conversations. I live for that.