Author David Sedaris knows how awkward it can be trying to say something an author hasn’t heard a million times before. He'll ask people to tell him a joke, instead.
David Sedaris has a knack for little gestures that linger in the memories of fans.
Before and after each of his speaking engagements, he signs copies of his books for everyone who’s interested. Sometimes it takes hours. After his 8 p.m. show last week in Springfield, Ill., Sedaris signed books until 12:15 a.m., according to Sangamon Auditorium spokesman Bryan Leonard.
When I interviewed Sedaris by phone a few weeks ago, he said he had just been at a university until 2:45 a.m. the night before. Book signings always last longer at colleges, he said, because “young people will lay on the floor.”
Sedaris seems to work hard to come up with something unique for each person, and says he genuinely enjoys the interactions.
“Your biggest fear is that you’re going to sign somebody’s book, and you’re going to give it back to them, and they’re going to say, ‘That’s what you wrote the last time,’” Sedaris said.
So for his latest book, “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk,” Sedaris came up with a new general concept: invite people to do things.
He keeps a notebook with him at all times and copied down his favorites from the night before:
• “Let’s build fires for warmth together.”
• “Let’s hunt shells to throw at poor people together.”
• “Let’s sew buttons on a sweater vest together.”
• “Lets throw a kitten against a cactus together.”
• “Let’s throw firecrackers at cancer patients together.”
• “Let’s fight cancer with our bare hands together.”
• “Let’s fill mugs with beige paint together.”
• “Let’s torment warlocks with spears together.”
That last one had Sedaris laughing out loud.
“It could just be that it was late at night, and I didn’t realize that I was obnoxious. But I like that. I mean, no one else signs that in a book,” he said.
Indeed. A few years ago at a show here, Springfield resident (and, with full disclosure, my friend) Mike Riopell asked Sedaris to sign a book for his then-fiancée, Sarah.
Sedaris obliged: “To Sarah: Best of luck with your first marriage.”
When I mentioned this to Sedaris, he said he didn’t think he’d make that kind of joke anymore.
“I went to a wedding and they had that guestbook, and I wrote, ‘You should do this more often,’” Sedaris said. “It didn’t go over too well.”
That’s a shame, because Sedaris seems to have a particular gift for wedding-related shenanigans. On the blog of Paul Morrissey, a longtime Sedaris fan, he recounts a story that began with Morrissey and his fiancée going to a reading and handing Sedaris a wedding invitation, just for a lark.
Morrissey wrote that it didn’t immediately register when, a few weeks later, his mail included a handwritten note from France: “Thank you for the invitation, but I’ll be in Germany on the day of your wedding. Please accept the following gift, which will come in handy when building your new life. Sincerely, David Sedaris.”
Enclosed with the note was a $1 bill.
Sometimes people have “funny” suggestions for Sedaris, like asking him to sign a copy of “War and Peace.”
“And it’s like, do you have any idea how many people ask me to do that?” Sedaris said. “And they all have that exact same expression on their face that you have. And they all think it’s hysterically funny and they all think I’ve never been asked to do it before.
“But you don’t want to embarrass somebody, so you kind of leave that part out and you say, ‘Oh, I’d be happy to sign something else for you, but I never write my name in books that I didn’t write.’”
Sedaris knows from experience how awkward it can be on the other side of the table, trying to say something an author hasn’t heard a million times before.
“So I just figure everyone’s like me, so rather than have them say something they’ve been rehearsing, that they’re going to kick themselves for later, I just say, ‘Do you know any jokes?’”
And sometimes they do. “What’s a horny pirate’s worst nightmare?” someone asked Sedaris the night before. “A sunken chest and no booty.”
“Those people didn’t know,” Sedaris said. “They probably thought they were going to get up and say, ‘I loved your last book.’”
But, instead, Sedaris forced them to improvise, laughed really hard, pulled out his notebook and thanked them profusely.
“It was a really nice little moment that we had together.”
Brian Mackey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.