If you're going to see and hear David Sedaris read at the Meyerhoff on Sunday, keep this in mind: He'll most likely be watching you, too.
"He goes on these tours and will read stories that he's working on, and I think there is a kind of feedback that he gets from the audience," says Geoff Kloske, who published Sedaris' first books for Little, Brown. His longtime agent Steve Barclay agrees that the tour is part of Sedaris' creative process.
Sedaris is the best-selling author of six books, including Me Talk Pretty One Day and, most recently, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. His distinct nasal voice is often heard on the weekly National Public Radio show This American Life. (Through his agent, Sedaris declined to be interviewed for this article.)
He is known for his biting tales about growing up in North Carolina and mindless jobs held as an adult. Much of his material comes from relationships with his family and lovers. In Dress Your Family, topics go from heavy to light and include the alienation Sedaris felt when, after coming out as a gay man to his family, his father kicked him out of the house; a seaside vacation home the family never bought; and irritating neighbors who came trick-or-treating the day after Halloween.
Using family trauma as subject matter can make home life uncomfortable. "There are times when I just don't want to finish the story," says David's father, Lou Sedaris. "Especially when he's writing about his mother who died in 1991 and can't defend herself."
Still, Sedaris the elder recognizes his son's talent. "He's a good writer and he can take a bit of nothing and make something out of it," he says.
Sedaris' ability to use humor as a means of telling a larger story sets him apart from other authors. "There are the funny parts, but what makes you keep reading is there will be another part that is not as funny," says Ira Glass, the iconoclastic founder and host of This American Life, who has known Sedaris for more than 10 years.
At their core, Glass says, Sedaris' stories are "mournful and wistful and complicated in a way that other comedy writers don't get to, or only get to in a sentimental way."
Glass first heard Sedaris read short fiction at a club in Chicago. The stories made him laugh, but they had an edge. "They were so dark that I was scared to meet him," Glass recalls.
Later, after they met, Sedaris dismissed Glass' apprehension: "I'm not mean, I'm two-faced," Glass recalls him saying.
Sedaris' first national exposure came in 1992 when Glass, then a producer for NPR's Morning Edition, needed to fill a hole in a holiday program. Sedaris read a story recounting his experience working as an elf in the Macy's Santaland Christmas display.
"I thought, my goodness, this is extra special good, in a way that you don't run into very often," Glass says.
It turns out that Sedaris' stories work naturally for radio. "On public radio, 45 or 50 seconds is the unit of measure," Glass says. And Sedaris' stories move from idea to idea at about that pace.
Glass then persuaded Sedaris to read his personal journal for monthly segments on NPR. The segments aired with the following tagline: "The comments of David Sedaris, who cleans apartments in New York City."
Sedaris was, indeed, cleaning apartments, but there was another reason NPR always mentioned it. "It creates this idea that there is a world of people out there that are driving cabs and cleaning who are really creative writers," Glass says.
The national radio exposure peaked the attention of Kloske, then an editorial assistant at Little, Brown. "Noticeable narrative voice is what appeals to me, and he certainly had one," said Kloske.
Kloske tracked down Sedaris and asked him if he'd be interested in writing a book.
From there, Sedaris was on his way to literary stardom. Kloske, now an executive editor at Simon & Schuster, says he's detected few changes in Sedaris' style since the early days.
"He's got a remarkable [narrative] voice," Kloske says, and one "that managed to get to where he is intact."
Sedaris will be at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost from $20 to $35 and can be purchased through Ticketmaster. Call 410-547-7328 or visit www.ticketmaster .com.
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