Since National Public Radio broadcast David Sedaris reading his essay SantaLand Diaries in 1992, he has been lauded as one of America’s pre-eminent humour writers.
To hear Sedaris modestly reflect on his storied career, though, you’d never know he was an award-winning New York Times bestselling author whose books have sold 10 million copies in 25 languages.
I caught up with Sedaris when he read at Théâtre Maisonneuve in Montreal last year. Then this past summer, Sedaris – who turns 62 in December – published Calypso (Little, Brown and Company), a collection of 21 semi-autobiographical essays about aging and mortality.
The reviews for Calypso have been nothing short of ecstatic: “Killer… Sedaris is practically his own genre now,” wrote Rachel Manteuffel in The Washington Post.
Unsurprisingly, Sedaris is immune to all the acclaim.
“I started writing when I was 20 and I was 35 when my first book was published,” Sedaris told me in Montreal. “I never expected this. I was not one of those people who wrote something and then went out to try to get it published. For the first seven years, nobody saw any of my writing at all because it was pretty awful.”
Sedaris is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and BBC Radio 4 in England where he and his life partner, Hugh Hamrick, have lived since 2002. Sedaris is also currently on tour.
“Even if I haven’t read from my old books in years, I get bored reading them out loud because I read them 200 times before the book came out,” Sedaris said. “So I can’t bear to do that. Sometimes people want to hear something that was written 20 years ago, but I just can’t.”
Sedaris does not shy away from discussing his gayness and how growing up gay profoundly shaped his life and career. In his essay I Like Guys from his 1997 collection of essays, Naked, a teenaged Sedaris discovers he is gay when he develops a crush on another guy at summer camp; and in his essay Hejira from his 2004 collection Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, Sedaris writes that his father kicked him out of the family home because he was gay.
“My dad threw me out, but he doesn’t hold a grudge and I moved back a few days later,” Sedaris said. “Now when I go on tour, I meet kids who come to my shows with their parents — the kids are 14 years old and they’re gay — and having that was unthinkable when I was growing up. That you could be yourself that early was unthinkable.”
Still, Sedaris says growing up gay toughened him up.
“To be ‘other’ in any way, you really have to at an early age not live your life based on what other people think,” Sedaris said. “I grew up with my dad saying, ‘You’re a failure, you’re a big zero and you’re not going to amount to anything.’ And that’s just music to my ears! That just winds me up. I’m like a wind-up toy, you just set me on the ground and there I go. It’s not your belief in me that will motivate me — it’s your disbelief.”
Meanwhile, Sedaris connected with a younger generation when he and his sister, entertainer Amy Sedaris, were guest judges on an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2016.
“I’ve been a big fan of the show from the very beginning,” Sedaris said. “I knew I didn’t want to say anything bad about anybody on-camera. I don’t want to hurt anybody like that. What I found fascinating was, when you’re in the presence of it, you know immediately (which contestant) is the star. You can’t take your eyes off the stars. Stars announce themselves. The others just fade into the background.”
Sedaris also participated in the critically hailed 2014 documentary film Do I Sound Gay?
“I think if you ask most gay men if they could change one thing about themselves, they would probably change their voice,” said Sedaris, who admits he, too, once wanted to change his voice.“But I think it’s like trying to change your looks,” he said. “I don’t know if what I’m doing would work if I stood before an audience and people would be like, ‘Oh, look how handsome he is.’ Then I couldn’t get up and complain about stuff because people would say, ‘What’s he complaining about? Look how handsome he is!’ So if you have that choice, would you rather be another good-looking guy or do you be yourself and talk like a Muppet? Well, financially, it would benefit me to be myself and talk like a Muppet.
“You know, when I’m in a hotel and call room service, they always say, ‘Yes ma’am, we’ll have it right up,’ ” Sedaris said. “But I don’t think I sound like a woman at all. I think I sound like a Muppet!”
For more information about David Sedaris, visit davidsedarisbooks.com.
Read Richard Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at www.bugsburnett.blogspot.com.