Humorist David Sedaris’ first appearance on National Public Radio in December 1992 was “SantaLand Diaries,” a droll reading that jump-started his literary career.
I was among those who heard it and immediately felt a strong bond with the author, who grew up in Raleigh. I’m familiar with the local landmarks he writes about. And I felt even more connected when I found out that, for years, I lived just two blocks from the house where he grew up.
Like millions of his fans, I started buying all his books and stood in long lines to have them autographed, lines that can stretch for hours.
But my biggest thrill came when I discovered a personal link. In David’s 1997 book, “Naked,” he writes in “The Drama Bug” chapter about his hapless performance in a Raleigh production of “Hamlet,” mentioning several actors by role, including Polonius. When I got to that part of the book, I realized I was the Polonius he was talking about.
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I didn’t remember David, then a high school student, as a performer in that 1972 show. But when I dug out my old program, there he was, listed as one of the traveling players. That encouraged me to write to him about our theatrical association, to which he warmly responded, suggesting we meet in New York City.
Our first interaction — a three-hour chat on a fall afternoon — has become an ongoing friendship that continues two decades later. I’ve been privileged to correspond with David over the years and see him occasionally when book tours bring him near me. What I’ve treasured is David’s casual, open communication, telling me about pieces he’s writing, books he recommends and places he’s visiting. That he takes the time to do so, in such a jam-packed schedule, reveals a genuineness unfazed by worldwide fame.
David continues to delight readers with his hilarious and often poignant stories about his sometimes complicated relationships with parents and siblings.
His new book, “Calypso,” was released this spring and has been at the top of the New York Times Best Sellers list for six weeks. That’s what brought him to the area June 1 for a reading at McIntyre’s Books in Pittsboro. He’ll be back at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books on Aug. 21.
Before he shared stories with the audience of 600 people at McIntyre’s, we reconnected again over coffee. We talked about Raleigh, family, fans and book signings. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
Chapter 1: Family
After publishing so many stories about his parents and siblings, including famous sister Amy Sedaris, I wondered how David would react to a statement he gave in a 2000 News & Observer interview: “I’ve pretty much exhausted writing about Raleigh. I’ve exploited my family as much as I can.”
David laughed sheepishly after hearing that. “Well, I guess I found another lode,” he said.
Actually, David never meant to write about himself or his family.
“I started out as a fiction writer, but then NPR asked me to read about my experiences as a Santa’s elf at Macy’s. When they asked me back, I was like, great, I have these short stories. But they said no, they wanted more of my personal experiences. So, it was really by accident I started writing about my life.”
David has always maintained that he and his family members are characters in his stories, modified versions of the real people. But he seems to be revealing more of himself now, such as in the “Calypso” stories about his mother’s alcoholism and his sister Tiffany’s suicide.
“Well, people probably know me better than, say, Martha Stewart,” he said. “But I don’t feel exposed in my stories. I still have an interior life that readers don’t know.”
Perhaps the recent Broadway musical “Fun Home,” about graphic novelist Alison Bechdel’s parents and siblings, might be a model for something similar about David and his family.
“Someone once wanted to make a movie of one of my books,” David said. “But after my sister Lisa asked, ‘Do I have to be fat in the movie?’ I told the guy no, because I felt like a monster turning my family over to someone else. But a theater piece might be different, because I’d have control over the script.”
David also nixed the idea of a documentary about himself.
“I’ve had inquiries, but if I’m writing about my life, I don’t think there needs to be a visual version. Having a camera following me around would seem like giving myself away. I’d rather sell myself off, piece by piece, than sell all the land at once.”
I brought up the many witty scenes David writes about his boyfriend of 27 years, Hugh Hamrick, which come off like a 1950s TV sitcom with a 21st-century twist. “Hugh is not the funniest or the most interesting person in the world, but he’s a good character because — I hate to say it — he’s so humorless and such a scold. He’s a good person for me to bounce off of.”
Chapter 2: Raleigh and Emerald Isle
When I wondered what a tour of David Sedaris sites in Raleigh might include, David began thinking.
“Well, the IHOP on Hillsborough Street is gone (where he went daily to read and drink coffee) and so is the apartment I lived in next to it,” he said. “At least the Irregardless (Cafe) restaurant is still around, and so is the Dorothea Dix Hospital building.” He was a waiter at Irregardless briefly and volunteered at the hospital in the summers.
“Is the Askew paint store still there on Glenwood Avenue?” he continued to ask about the place where he bought artist supplies.
Sadly, no. One less tour stop. We didn’t get to talk about the many other Raleigh sites David writes about, but I still think they would make a great tour for fans. Local audiences do seem to respond differently to his stories than elsewhere in the country.
“All my North Carolina audiences do,” he said. “When I read a story about Emerald Isle, they know what the area looks like, because so many have been there. But in other parts of the country, you have to explain local things like that, including how people are always saying hello to you, even from inside their houses.”
Chapter 3: Book signings
David gladly signs books for many hours after his readings and lectures, prompted by a specific encounter.
“When I was living in Chicago, I bought a well-known author’s book and stood in line to have it autographed. She continually talked over her shoulder to her publicist while signing and didn’t ever look at me or talk to me. I remember vowing that if I ever got a book tour, I’d talk to people so long, they’d say, ‘I gotta go now.’”
He has held to that standard. The longest he has signed is 10 and a half hours in Chicago, an activity David says he enjoys because he gets to hear so many stories. One couple in line at McIntyre’s mentioned they raised chickens. “They told me snakes often eat the golf balls they put out as nest eggs. It made me very happy to know that snakes are dumb.”
The night before his McIntyre’s appearance, he signed for six and a half hours at a bookstore in Davidson. And he’ll likely match that and more when he reads at Quail Ridge Books in his hometown.
It wouldn’t be a David Sedaris signing without the outrageous comments he puts in fans’ books. There’s even a Facebook page where they can be shared. He started doing so on his first book tour in 1994 for “Barrel Fever,” which included the former Wellington’s Books in Cary. The store had to order extra copies, which David later signed in New York, writing quirky comments like, “I hope they didn’t take out the $20 bill I left in here for you.”
Sometimes fans tell David what they want him to write in their books, but he often slyly subverts those requests.
“A few weeks ago, a woman told me her only child Beverly was being horrible to her, so the woman wanted something for Beverly to find in her mother’s books after she died. She asked me to say, ‘I’m sorry Beverly is being so awful to you,’ but I wrote, ‘I was so touched by your story of the infant son you put up for adoption.’”
Chapter 4: Fans’ gifts
Fans often bring David gifts, some quite memorable.
“An artist friend had given me a handful of ceramic nails he’d made, so I decided to give them out at signings,” he said. “I gave several to a young woman, telling her, ‘Use these to crucify a hamster.’ So, she did! During a subsequent tour, she brought it to me, having stuffed it herself and nailed it on a cross. It was a mess.”
He also had a young woman bring him a taxidermied lamb.
“It was kneeling and so life-like. I had the bookstore ship it to my Emerald Isle beach house, where we keep it by the door, because you never see a lamb at the beach.”
Chapter 5: Writing
At David’s lecture in Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium last October, I heard him read three unpublished stories that later ended up in “Calypso.” David repeats readings of new material on his tours to help hone his writing.
Take the commencement speech he gave at Oberlin College in May. “I only was able to read it on tour eight times, but I’m so glad I did, because my first draft died. Then I took a whole different tack and read it out some more. That was good, because during the actual speech, I knew where all the laughs should come.”
An even more recent example happened the morning David was being driven from Davidson to Pittsboro.
“My publicist called to say that PBS wanted a three-minute piece for its ‘Speak Your Mind’ segment, due in four days. So I wrote it in the back seat of the car.”
David read it that night at McIntyre’s, a slightly rough but already pithily funny look at ethnic stereotyping.
My chat with the author passed quickly, and it was time for him to prepare for the evening. After signing a number of books before his talk, he confidently manipulated the crowd into prolonged gales of laughter.
Afterward, he signed books for over six hours.
After David flew the next morning to a New York City appearance, I watched his Oberlin commencement speech online. In it, he admonished the graduates to write thank-you notes as an old-fashioned courtesy in this age of electronic communication. David told them he sends thank-you cards to every interviewer, host and driver he encounters.
Sure enough, a few days later, I received a postcard from David, thanking me for the interview and our time together. Despite his prickly literary persona, there’s a sweet-natured soul underneath who takes the time to make all his fans feel he’s their friend.
David Sedaris will be at Quail Ridge Books Aug. 21 at 7 p.m. All seats are sold out. But those who buy “Calypso” at the store will receive a signing line ticket to meet the author. “Calypso” (Little Brown and Company) is $28. The bookstore is at 4209-100 Lassiter Mill Road, Raleigh. No photos or videos at the event.