The new weird order

Catching Up With ... David Sedaris

Writer, cult idol finds success in expressing views from the outside

July 11, 2004|By Lynell George | Lynell George,Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- David Sedaris isn't trying to change the world. He's just fond of tweaking the universe now and again -- just because he can.

So late last month, the author was up to his familiar bent mischief. At the close of his reading to promote his latest book, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, he informed the sold-out crowd of 1,800 at UCLA that he would offer priority signing -- for smokers.

A pack of cigarettes would usher the bearer to the front of the line, which, if it was anything like it's been around the country, could be at least a four- to five-hour wait. "You nonsmokers are going to live longer than us anyway," he explained.

A wave of chuckles rose from the crowd. The laughter gathered steam as Sedaris, installed behind an imposing podium, continued to lay down the rules: "And for those of you smokers who will think about giving your packs to the nonsmokers, I think you should ask yourself: 'Would he let me smoke in his home?' The answer is no."

Several hours worth of a line snaked from the lobby to the brick courtyard. Smokers, proudly brandishing their American Spirits and Marlboro Lights, pressed to the front of the queue. Bewildered ushers stood at the doorways, double-checking with publicity staff to make sure they had grasped the rule as a rule, not a joke. With Sedaris you can't always be sure.

Outside, looking in

Sedaris knows what it's like to be on the other side of the velvet rope. His outsider-ness has heightened his awareness.

He's been the marginalized Everyguy, his worries, tics, obsessions and neuroses raging all over the page. He's survived the nightmare neighbors; the carousel of weird, dead-end jobs; the father who kicked him out because he's gay; the random, unhinged stranger. But unlike the rest of us, he has the withering riposte at the ready.

"He's so smart, so amazingly twisted," said David Hawkins, milling among the Sedaris-ites hoping for a glimpse. "That makes him a kindred spirit."

It was the dizzily off-kilter piece SantaLand Diaries that introduced Sedaris to the world. Broadcast on National Public Radio in December 1992, the dry, wickedly mordant essay recounted his hyper-surreal experiences as a Macy's Christmas elf. With his clipped, prim voice, his slightly haughty delivery and his ability to journey to the center of the absurd and stare it down, Sedaris became an NPR regular -- and later a cult idol. Another collection, Naked, followed in 1997, but it would be 2000's Me Talk Pretty One Day that cemented his reputation. The collection made him not just a book celebrity but a genuine literary star.

Dress Your Family, his latest collection, is already high on the best-seller lists. Thousands crowd in for readings nationwide; fans nod along with favorite passages as if hearing famous guitar riffs. All of it has made him the rarest of writers, one who can appear on David Letterman to try out a piece or sell out Carnegie Hall but not lose his hip cachet.

All things considered, his offstage life appears to have taken a posh turn as well. An apartment in Paris, a flat in London, a house in Normandy, all of which he shares with his boyfriend, artist Hugh Hamrick.

Consequently, though much of the press has been favorable, there has been an underlying theme murmuring through much of it: "Will success spoil our antihero, Mr. Sedaris?"

"I think people think I believe my press kit," says Sedaris over a quick lunch. "I don't even read my press kit. I don't even read my press."

He places a large corduroy tote on the chair next to him, and lets out a sigh. Dressed in sand-colored slacks, a brown-and-white checkered shirt, he looks as informal as the tossed-off voice that shepherds us through his stories.

Appearances, he knows, are deceiving. "When I leave here when all this is over, I'm going to go back to the little village I live in [in Normandy]. There are 12 houses there. This will be very far away."

Working hard

At 47, however, the difference a decade has made is not lost on him. His professional life has been all-consuming.

Of late, he's been working on pieces that involve his life in England. "But my accent isn't very good. So I can't really do those live," he says with a sigh.

Sedaris writes for the ear rather than the page. Honing the pieces before audiences -- writing and rewriting around reaction. He seldom feels finished with anything.

Yet with all the success, the insecurities continue to roil.

"When there is a crowd of 3,000 and it's sold out and suddenly one person gets up and heads to the back of the auditorium, it's devastating. I don't think about the other 2,999 people sitting there. I think about the one who left. And why? His judgment means something. That just never goes away."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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