It was 7:15 p.m., which meant there were still 45 minutes before everyone would be seated, before the lights would dim, before the Grammy-Award-nominated-American-humor-writer-slash-comedian-slash-bestselling-author-slash-radio person (all from Wikipedia) would walk onstage, take a sip of water, and crack a joke or two, or 10, or 72 million.
As I was walking through the quad toward the steps of Royce Hall on Wednesday, my friend was telling me about her experience during last year’s reading.
“He signed books before the event started,” she said. “The line was short because people didn’t know they would have a book signing beforehand, so they didn’t think to go early.”
I felt like a C.I.A. agent who was acquiring top secret information in order to infiltrate some heavily fortified building, while preparing my “surprised-but-still-composed” face, just in case something catastrophic happened that could foil my plans. I was also cursing myself for leaving my black, shiny shades at home—you know, the one equipped with camera shooting and picture transmitting and all.
“He asked me what my favorite animal was, and I couldn’t think, so I just spitted out, ‘lemur,’” my friend continued. “But he didn’t know what that was. So he just drew me a generic shape with some limbs.”
I wanted a generic-shape-blob drawing on my book too. So after I weaved through the small groups of people and stepped into the lobby, I grew even more excited when I saw the short line (which grew five million times longer in the next 10 minutes). But at that point, there were only seven people between me and David Sedaris. And I was never so excited for a blob before.
When we got to his table, Sedaris doodled a turtle-hare on my friend’s book, sighing, “Wouldn’t that be frustrating?” He was also trying to decipher my friend’s necklace, asking if it spelled out “shell” or “pork.” I looked at her necklace and realized that it was just a squiggle of ribbons.
I opened up my Me Talk Pretty One Day, and asked him to insult me. He promptly wrote, “To Angelica: Why are you such a wh***?”
I was never happier.
Sedaris opened the show with a story from his most recently released, Squirrel seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary. His hands folded onto the ends of the podium, and his voice unfolded a narration, a voice familiar to fans worldwide in audio recordings. And YouTube.
The animal fable he read was different from his usual autobiographical glimpses that focuses on his upbringing in Raleigh, family life, school, homosexuality, and anything Sedaris-life-related because it was, well, an animal fable. But it did have the same underlying sense of sadness wrapped with a coat of humor that set the tone for the rest of the night. It was about a forbidden kind of love, it talked about the misinterpretation of the word “jazz” (like being slang for anal sex), and it touched on themes of memory, forgetfulness, happiness. It was called “The Squirrel and the Chipmunk.” It was about a squirrel and a chipmunk.
Sedaris shared other stories that he’s working on, which addressed the frustrations of learning foreign languages, the differences between German and Japanese cultures, his attempts to garner his father’s approval at his swim meets, and his “hatred” of Donny Osmand (who later haunts him in a Las Vegas billboard). Sedaris also read entries from his journal, which included jokes he had learned from fans at book signings (including “A: How does a Mexican cut his pizza? B: With Little Caesars”), and his experience of standing in line at a hotel café behind a couple who took 4903.2317 years to order.
The lady sitting to the left of me literally couldn’t keep her seat. She would have spurts of laughter that rocked my chair every so often, and I couldn’t help but pun in my mind when I looked around me to gauge everyone else’s reactions, “David Sedaris is definitely rockin’ the house.” It was a full house, and the entire theatre echoed with “awws” and “woops” and laughter and applause.
He took a mini break from his storytelling to feature a novella by Tobias Wolff called The Barracks Thief. One of his favorites, he claimed that it was one he could read over and over and over again and still love. And that’s why it’s such a good book, he said.
The talk ended with a short Q&A session, where audience members asked him questions like whether anyone in his stories have ever ended up in one of his audiences, whether his family or friends had qualms about being in his stories, whether he was okay with his stories being edited.
Sedaris answered with little anecdotes that were just as enjoyable as the stories he read. He talked about the time he called his dad, wanting to let him know that he had made it on the New York Times Bestseller list. His dad merely answered, “Well, you’re not on the Wall Street Journal’s Bestseller list.” But Sedaris also reminded the audience that it was precisely this attitude from his dad (before the invention of self-esteem, as he said) that drove him and challenged him to be who he is. And that he was truly grateful.
He concluded the Q&A about his trust in editors, which included another anecdote about his trip to China and how he wanted to mention in his writings the superfluous presence of human poop there. However, he didn’t see it as an absolute setback or criticism of travelling to China. Instead he turned it around as a kind of phenomenon, encouraging people to go there just to see the turd.
To me, that’s what Sedaris is about, turning turd into something phenomenal and novel, but funny and somewhat familiar.