Exchanging Gifts With Humorist David Sedaris

Kyle Tonniges
13 min read
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David Sedaris is in high spirits. That’s despite the fact that he’s just about to embark on a book tour of 29 cities in the span of a month to sign copies of his sixth release, When You Are Engulfed in Flames.

“I am such a good packer,” he boasts from his home in London. “I have a list on my computer of what I need to pack.” In addition to the usual assortment of clothes and toiletries, Sedaris brings practical travel items like folding cutlery he picked up in Japan.

He also brings plenty of gifts for teens. “I always like to have some small gifts for teenagers. I’m just so honored when teenagers come because they’ve always got better stuff to do.

“I save the shampoos and conditioners from my hotel [to give as gifts], but those don’t last that long. Today I got these coasters that are cut out of a Turkish newspaper. So that’s a good little present, because they’re lightweight. And there’s a hundred of them. They were $30, so that works out to about 30 cents per teenager.”

“But it’s always the same,” he says of the exchange. Sedaris will offer a teenager a travel bottle of shampoo or conditioner and the parent will immediately get excited and say, “Get him to sign it!”

“How much is a little hotel bottle of shampoo with my name written on it really worth?” he asks. “It’s not about my signature. It’s about conditioner for a teenager.”

Plenty of fans who attend Sedaris’ book signings or readings show up with gifts of their own. Probably the most frequent “gifts” Sedaris receives are writing samples or manuscripts. “That’s hard for me,” he says, “because I can’t relate. I went to a lot of book signings before I ever had a book published, and it never would have occurred to me to try to get that person on their book tour to help me get my book published. Plus, I’m going to a city a day and my suitcase is already full.

“They’ll say they want feedback,” he continues, “but they really don’t. They just want to be told, ‘my
New Yorker editor wants to know where to send the check.’ ” He goes on to explain how hard it is to give constructive criticism to someone you’ve never met, especially when you have no idea how they’ll react.

“If you know that person, you can find a way to say what it is that they need to hear and you can say it in a language that they’ll understand. But you have to know that person first.

“I don’t mean to sound complain-y, but I’m always surprised by the stories and manuscripts that people give me because it would never occur to me [to do so].”

Other gifts have included a baked salmon wrapped in foil and a stuffed pheasant. (“That’s when you realize that a lot of people don’t travel much. You don’t want to have to go through airport security with a taxidermied pheasant under your arm. You don’t want to draw attention to yourself.”)

That said, Sedaris has also received a few phenomenal gifts on the road. A reader in Michigan gave him a video iPod loaded with video clips about monkeys as well as an MP3 player loaded with audio books, both of which were big hits with Sedaris. A woman in San Francisco who owned a flower shop brought flowers to a reading, which Sedaris later shared with an audience member.

He also gets the occasional plate of cookies, which he’ll sample to some people’s amazement. “You have to consider yourself pretty important to entertain the thought that someone’s going to poison you with cookies,” he says dismissively, before pausing to consider the thought.

“If you poisoned me, the benefit is that I would be dead, but you wouldn’t get much on top of it. You wouldn’t get a lot of glory. It’s not like poisoning the president or anybody fun, really.”

When You Are Engulfed in Flames doesn’t offer any tips on poisoning heads of state, but it’s full of Sedaris’ trademark wit and dry delivery as he ruminates on everything from quitting smoking ("The Smoking Section”) and warding off birds in the French countryside ("Aerial”) to hanging out in a Parisian doctor’s office wearing only his underwear ("In the Waiting Room”).

Eagle-eyed fans and obsessives may have noticed that
Flames tried on a couple other titles before going to print.

The book had the working title of
All the Beauty You Will Ever Need , but that was also the title of one of the stories, and Sedaris didn’t think it really captured the feeling he wanted to convey. He then changed it to Indefinite Leave to Remain , which came from the green card he recently received that allows him to stay in England.

“But then when I’d tell people that was the name of the book, they’d just blink,” he says. “It wasn’t really the reaction I’d hoped for.”

He found the title he was looking for in Japan. During an extended stay there, he visited Hiroshima. “In my room, there was a booklet called
Best Knowledge of Disaster Damage Prevention and Favors to Ask of You . It was broken into three little chapters: ‘When You Check in a Hotel,’ ‘When You Find a Fire’ and ‘When You Are Engulfed in Flames.’ ” Sedaris laughed and made a note of the phrase “When You Are Engulfed in Flames” in Japan, but it never occurred to him at the time that it could be the title of his next book. The title is unintentionally appropriate, he says, since fire appears in many of the book’s essays.

The title of his most recent book came to his boyfriend Hugh in a dream. In it, he passed by a house and he saw a man reading a book called
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. “When he told me that, I thought, ‘That’s my book that man is reading.’ It was also an opportunity for me to hear the title of my book the way other people would. I’d never heard words in that combination in my life, especially in the context of it being a book title.”

An avid note-taker, Sedaris has kept a diary for 30 years and keeps a pad in his pocket to write down notes before transcribing them to his diary. “Today not much is happening,” he says matter-of-factly. “There are days when I feel like I’ve really got something and it’s something I can use for a story, and then there are days that are just boring,” he says, citing a trip to the London Apple store as an example.

He’d gone there to get some work done on his computer when his mind began to wander. “I was there at the Genius Bar and the guy was explaining how to do things and my mind was just a thousand miles away. I was wondering if his bed was made and what part of town he lives in. The alternative was to concentrate on what he was talking about, which was just too boring.”

Is Sedaris one of those people who likes to sit and make up stories about total strangers he sees in coffee shops or airports?

“I used to, and I think like most people, I’ve wondered about people,” he says. “But now you just follow them until their cell phone rings and you usually find out all you need to know.”

Sedaris, who doesn’t own a cell phone, cites a run-in on a London bus as the perfect example.

“I was on the bus and there was a man on a cell phone behind me, and he was talking about a woman in his office. He said, ‘Just get her out of the office. I don’t care what excuse you have to make up. I need access to her computer for an hour and I’ll find out what needs to be found out.’ ”

Thinking he was eavesdropping on a detective, Sedaris leaned in closer. “Then he started talking about the Russians—that he knew someone from the KGB. You couldn’t help but listen to this guy. And then of course you want to look at him because you think he’s going to look like whatever you think a spy is supposed to look like. And then I thought, maybe he’s just screwing with everybody. He was really putting together a mental picture, and I could tell the guy next to me was listening also. We had a little eye contact, like,
Is this guy really a spy?

Sedaris finally got his chance to check out the alleged spy when he stood and stole a look before getting off at his stop. He was disappointed. “You wouldn’t look at him twice. He was just a nondescript slob.”

Sedaris’ books have been translated into more than 20 languages around the world. That could present a problem for translators and readers in their native language because his phrasing is so specific and, in many cases, depends on a particular reference or word to ring true.

Translators will often call him for advice or more information if they run into a problem. In one story, Sedaris referred to someone as being the type of person who would be named Britney. He and a French translator had a long discussion about just what type of person a Britney is before the translator reached the conclusion that the French equivalent would be Marie Chantal. The reference worked like a charm.

But some cross the line. An Israeli translator was working on one of Sedaris’ stories about the Anne Frank house ("Which is really adorable. People must think it was horrible, but it’s not.”), and he called with questions about the story.

“Then he said, ‘While I have you on the phone, I think we should change the ending of the story,’ ” Sedaris says with a note of surprise and shock. “And that’s not really the translator’s job. By leaving off the last sentence the story would be significantly different. It would suggest that I had learned this lifelong lesson. And I didn’t. I’m still as selfish as I ever was.” He stressed the importance of the sentence but never found out whether or not the translator listened to him.

Sedaris receives copies of all the translated works, but he often ends up with more than he needs, so the extra copies go with him on his lecture tours. Every night he gives away a book in a different language if someone comes up to his signing table and can speak the language.

“Inevitably, someone will come up and say ‘My sister is dating a guy that’s thinking about taking Swedish.’ I didn’t bring this book to the United States and carry it around so I could give it to someone who’s dating a guy who’s thinking about taking Swedish.”

Sedaris’ childhood has been a rich source for his material, though in an interview with trade magazine
Publisher’s Weekly in 2004 he dismissed the notion that he’d had an eccentric childhood. “It’s just how you write about it,” he says. “My parents weren’t cruel. I didn’t suffer horribly. Nothing extraordinary ever happened to me. What I do is an exercise in making something out of nothing.”

Flames is the first of his books to have a disclaimer, stating that the events contained are “real-ish.” No, it’s not insurance against all the high-profile literary frauds and truth-stretchers that have been in the news as of late. It’s because the book contains a story about Sedaris attending Princeton during the Stone Age. “Otherwise, it felt weird,” he says. “Because I was putting a piece of fiction in a nonfiction book.”

When asked about the fuss and drama about keeping essays 100 percent real, Sedaris mentions an article he had read about a woman—one of only two such people in the world—who has a photographic memory of everything that has happened in her life since the age of 5. “She remembers what she had for dinner on Sept. 23 when she was 7. She remembers who she talked to on Sept. 25. And she was saying in this article that it’s a curse, because there’s a lot of stuff you don’t necessarily want to remember.

“So there’s this woman and then there’s everyone else. No one remembers every word that was said to them when they were 6 years old or a year ago,” he says before pausing for a moment to reflect. “A memoir, to me, is the last place you’d look for truth. I’ve always been very upfront about the way that I write and the way I tell a story. At least I think I have.”


David Sedaris will be at Barnes and Noble (6600 Menaul NE, 883-8200) this Saturday, June 21, for a reading and book signing to promote When You Are Engulfed in Flames , starting at 7 p.m. The event is free, although the store recommends getting there by 5 p.m.

If you already bought a copy of Sedaris’ new book, bring your receipt so employees know it’s yours.

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