"Whenever I go to a signing like that, I'm in line and I'm just a wreck," says David Sedaris, referring to a recent reading by Garrison Keillor. "I couldn't say anything," he admits, speaking by phone from Paris. "I said, 'Could you make this out to my friend Patsy, P-A-T-S-Y?' And then I looked at his shoes until he was finished and I could go.'"
He's not joking. Sedaris -- familiar voice on the radio show This American Life; brilliant essayist; author of Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day and, most recently, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim -- was nervous as hell meeting the ambassador from Lake Wobegon. "It's disconcerting," he says, "to hear that voice from the radio and actually see it coming out of lips." [Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this paragraph; please see end of article.]
The story is simultaneously funny, self-effacing and comforting: in other words, vintage Sedaris. Critical acclaim and a huge fan base have not made Sedaris complacent, and his awareness of and appreciation for his audience make his readings all the more delightful.
"I really am constantly amazed by [the audience], that there'll be a fourteen-year-old who came with his parents, and there'll be a black lesbian couple, and there'll be people in their 70s," Sedaris relates. "I think I owe it all to Ira [Glass, host of This American Life] and people who listen to the radio.
"When you're on the radio, it's so intimate," he adds. "You're just talking to people one-on-one. So sometimes people get to the theater, and they think, 'He's talking to me, not you!'"
And while many people could undoubtedly listen to Sedaris for hours, he still panics about overstaying his welcome. "When my book came out in Germany, I went on tour with a translator, and people would ask for more -- and he would read more," Sedaris recalls, still incredulous. "And on our first night, I said, 'How long are we going to read?', and [the translator] said, 'A bottle.' He drank an entire fifth of whiskey. He went on for two hours and 45 minutes."
Sedaris says he first learned the value of humor and brevity while at the Art Institute of Chicago. "People would put their paintings up and they would talk as if they were talking to a therapist," he explains. "My paintings were pretty bad, and I knew it, so I started writing these little fake confessionals that I would read when I put my paintings up. That was the first thing I ever read out loud, and I became much more excited about that than whatever lousy painting I was supposed to have completed. And it got a nice response."
David Sedaris brings that same insight and wit to Powell Symphony Hall (718 North Grand Boulevard; 314-534-1111; $18.50 to $30) at 8 p.m. Friday, June 11, as a guest of Left Bank Books (see www.left-bank.com for further details). Don't miss the chance to hear that voice from the radio actually coming out of lips.
Correction published 6/23/04: In the original version of this story, we linked the radio show This American Life with National Public Radio, which is misleading. While This American Life airs on NPR affiliates, the program is produced by WBEZ in Chicago and distributed nationwide by Public Radio International (PRI). The above version reflects the corrected text.