Books Spotlight

David Sedaris Talks Pretty

With his new collection of essays, ''When You Are Engulfed in Flames,'' America's favorite memoirist defends his right to exaggerate in the name of humor

David Sedaris | DAVID SEDARIS ''I don't recall Oprah Winfrey calling George Bush a liar when he was on her show. And those lies cost thousands of people…
Image credit: Christine Kokot/dpa/Landov
DAVID SEDARIS ''I don't recall Oprah Winfrey calling George Bush a liar when he was on her show. And those lies cost thousands of people their lives''

If David Sedaris' longtime boyfriend, Hugh Hamrick, wants to buy him a shirt, Sedaris has a lot of requirements. ''Hugh gets after me,'' Sedaris says. ''Because I have so many little rules.''

On a sunny mid-May afternoon, he's sitting in the couple's London town house, sipping tea poured from a cat-shaped teapot. So what sort of ''little rules'' is he talking about? ''You may not have noticed,'' Sedaris explains, ''how a lot of manufacturers have made the buttons farther apart. If you lean over? Your stomach shows.'' The very shirt Sedaris has on right now once had that peekaboo problem. ''So I had snaps added between the buttons,'' he says, very pleased. Look close and there they are: teensy, discreet snaps. Problem solved!

But wait — there's another, more important rule. What if Hugh should procure a shirt without a pocket big enough to hold Sedaris' trusty Europa notepad, or one with no pocket at all? Well, that's a deal breaker. After all, Sedaris, 51, is the master of the short, hilarious, self-lacerating personal recollection. He might need a Europa handy for jotting notes at any moment. ''Pulling it out makes people more nervous than a camera,'' he says. ''[They] think I'm writing down their license plate number.'' Can't he dispense with the scribbling and wear a pocketless shirt once in a while? Sedaris looks stricken. ''I don't let that happen,'' he says.

Spoken like a true compulsive. Sedaris has let go of many fixations in his life: He swore off drugs and alcohol years ago, and, in January 2007, turned his back on cigarettes. But his magpie drive to gather together odd, shiny facts and foibles? That he will never abandon. It's a siren call that's made him one of the best-loved and most successful humorists on the planet. Sedaris' full catalog, including his acclaimed essay collections Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day, and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, has 7 million in print. His CDs do very nicely. And his book-tour appearances can cause shoving and tears among those jockeying for seats. During the Q&A sessions, Sedaris says, there's almost always someone who asks, How much of the story you just read is true? Not his favorite query, because Sedaris doesn't claim to be a rigorously factual memoirist, especially when it comes to his lilting, lyrical dialogue. That's sparked a bit of a to-do recently, but if Sedaris can figure out how to solve the problem of widely spaced buttons, he can handle anything.

The author's latest book of essays, When You Are Engulfed in Flames — the title comes from a disaster-prevention text he found in a Hiroshima hotel room — goes on sale June 3. Some of the new volume's ingredients will be familiar to Sedaristas. Long-suffering partner Hamrick figures prominently; he even lances a nasty boil on Sedaris' butt in a paean to couplehood called ''Old Faithful.'' Sedaris' family reappears too, including his little sister Amy Sedaris (of TV's Strangers With Candy and many a kooky Letterman appearance). But fame and scrutiny change things, including audience perceptions, and Sedaris worries that success may be dulling his outsider-loser edge. Maybe nibbling at his credibility, too. The withering assessments of his own lunacies haven't diminished, but the events are tamer and backdrops fancier: swanky hotels, the first-class section of an airplane. ''I don't know if I'll get away with it,'' says Sedaris. ''I'm trying to write about what's happening to me now. So there I am sitting in first class, right? I don't know if people will say, 'F--- you, I never get to sit in first class!'''

NEXT PAGE: ''I've said a thousand times I exaggerate. Why is it news when somebody else says it?''

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