At Sky Blue Window, we believe opinions matter -- some more than others, especially those of experts in a particular field or discipline. Otherwise, they can be just sort of uninformed rants, and while there's a place for those, too, it isn't here.
But occasionally we'll feature personal essays or maybe first-person features that are narrated by someone with in-depth knowledge of a particular topic. In this piece, for example, Editor Jami Stall has spent most of her adult life working in the editing and publishing business, working on everything from magazines to travel guides. She brings that unique perspective to a reading by David Sedaris at a local campus bookstore. Her passion for words and familiarity with Sedaris' works earned her a new title from the author himself.
Some assignments are better than others. Yesterday I got to watch one of my favorite authors at a reading and book signing at the Butler University Bookstore. The intention, of course, was to interview bestselling author David Sedaris for a Sky Blue Window article. Well ... sort of. For full disclosure, my intention was to see one of my favorite authors. In my rich fantasy world, he would have an afternoon to kill (amid his different-state-a-day national tour) and we'd do lunch and then maybe go antiquing or perhaps visit the quirky medical museum in town that displays jars of human brains. I didn't firm up the itinerary -- it was just a fantasy, after all.
Instead, he declined all media requests. He was here at this free event for his fans only. OK. Still, that's me. Giddyup! I can write a story without an interview, right? I've read all his books, many of his New Yorker essays, listened to him on National Public Radio. Nothing to it.
Wrong. Writing about a great writer is difficult, to put it mildly. It presents some of the same problems faced by a couple of my friends who quote Seinfield episodes as if citing Bible verses. They think it was the greatest show ever written and performed; yet, when they try retelling a "hilarious episode," their description is never quite as funny as the actual episode.
I ran into a similar situation when trying to write about Sedaris' bookstore appearance. Along with his gift for the written word, he also possesses mad spoken word skills, which were on full display at Butler. His side-splitting humor as a storyteller is made all the more charming by his unique little voice.
He had the crowd in tears with laughter when he told his story of a cow birthing a calf. What her bovine mind must have been thinking as she stood grazing with two calf feet sticking out of her nether region. Then (because this is David Sedaris, after all) he tied it into his own struggles with passing a kidney stone, and how he can only somewhat sympathize after enduring excruciating pain and then peeing out what looked like a piece of aquarium gravel, followed by blood. But even then he's grateful for not passing something the size of a kitten from the end of his penis. And then having it turn around and expect him to feed it.
Sedaris also recounted the time he bombed at his alma mater, the Art Institute of Chicago, when he went to present an award and proceeded with a pre-written speech, despite his instincts. Instead of dropping the opening bit once he arrived and saw his audience, he shared with the crowd of much, much older folks a filthy joke about an elderly couple. He got not a single laugh. But his retelling of it yesterday brought down the house.
Then he recommended a couple of books from authors to whom he gives props. Family Life by Akhil Sharma "has foreigners in it, which I love, coupled with extreme tragedy," he says. And he speaks of this family living in India and how their religion is mocked because it's founded on deities riding on mice, "but then all religions are equally ridiculous really," he says.
His second recommendation is another book about brothers. Blake Bailey's The Splendid Things We Planned describes a family dealing with one son who is simply a major f--k-up who makes his brother's life a living hell. Sedaris read a passage from page 26 of this 254-page book. It details how the troubled son climbs to the roof and defecates off the chimney and then makes the younger brother watch and describe it.
Sedaris then says to anyone who has disappointed their dad lately to get the book as a Father's Day gift. "Your dad is going to read this book and say, 'At least he's not sh_tting off the roof.'"
He killed with that line. But then again, it was DAVID SEDARIS. He could probably receive a standing ovation by reading the obituaries.
A petite man with a petite voice, Sedaris stood before the crowded Butler University Bookstore packed with seated fans. In town for the paperback release of Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, the award-winning author announced he wouldn't be reading from that book at all. "I was sick of it by the time it came out in hardcover," he says, explaining that he'd already read it 60 or 70 times by then. Now that it's in paperback, he's definitely over reading from it. Instead, he amused fans with an upcoming article he's written for The New Yorker, to which he frequently contributes. The piece describes his extreme preoccupation with a Fitbit, digital wristband that tracks one's movement -- especially the steps. It then sends digital motivations to the wearer, encouraging him or her to improve. However, getting the device not only has Sedaris obsessed with increasing his daily steps (which he did -- from 5,000 to 60,000, the equivalent to 25.5 miles daily), but his essay describes him doing so while satisfying another fixation -- walking along the winding road in his West Sussex, England, hometown while picking up litter.
From spent condoms, grease-soaked fish-and-chips wrappers and KFC containers, to old tires and abandoned underwear, the garbage he collects is shocking. Even more disturbingly funny is the image of this small, tidy man in his pressed flat-front slacks and button-down oxford walking along with a garbage grabber and trash bag, collecting random roadside rubbish.
Having passed his fair share of rocking cars along the lane, Sedaris says that "apparently people here greatly enjoy having sex in their vehicles." This leads him to ponder whether they are doing it in their cars and then eating KFC, or if they're eating the chicken first.
The fans shake with laughter while he describes many of his observations, complete with dialogues. He captivates as much with the spoken word as with the written, which explains why he's been a regular contributor for National Public Radio since the early '90s and now reads for BBC Radio as well. His stories are rich with his sardonic humor and hilarious imagery.
After Sedaris finishes talking trash, he shares various stories from his diary, which he's written in daily since 1977 (and he says could be the source of his next book, though he worries the short entries might make it too convenient for becoming a "bathroom reader"). He shares humorous observations from previous tours, such as the book he recently signed to "Rich Ju -- who was an Asian man who was neither rich nor Jewish," and snippets of conversations or jokes he's heard during his extensive travels. He tells about a woman with an extremely large vagina (that echoes as her gynecologist examines her) and shares the story about signing a book for one young man's mom.
"He asked me to write something shocking and offensive in the book for his mother, so I wrote: Your son left teeth marks on my d--k," he says. But from the look on the young man's face after reading it, "he clearly wanted something disturbing, but not actually shocking or offensive," Sedaris recalls.
It's hard for him to understand why some people get upset by things he creates.
"To me it's just language. I don't get offended even if someone said faggot," he says. An 82-year-old man wrote to complain about one of his books he got as a gift. "Blame your friends who gave it to you. What are you coming to me for?" Sedaris says, shaking his head and smiling.
After he read, he then fielded questions from the audience. One man asked how he knows when he can be racy with his readings, as he was at this event. "Oh I didn't go anywhere near the racy material here today," he said with his trademark smile.
Then he softly padded back to a large table at which he sat and proceeded with the signing -- greeting everyone in line with the same genuine attention and enthusiasm. A friend of mine, who was also there, mentioned to Sedaris he'd seen him at Clowes Hall a few years ago, an event that cost $50 a ticket. Sedaris says he still does the big-ticket venues, but he thinks book signings should always be free, so more people (especially students) can attend who might not otherwise be able to afford it. "That way they can bring their copy of the book to be signed whether they got it used or at a Goodwill or wherever," he says.
Next up, I handed him my books. If it weren't for the line snaking through the bookstore, I would have sneaked in a few interview questions. Instead he asked some of me. And with that, he determined I am an "enchanting editrix."
So in the end, it wasn't an afternoon of antiquing with him, but I'll take it.