The summer of Sedaris

David Sedaris
While Sedaris is on tour, he keeps his packing compact. “I would never travel without a wooden hanger that folds in half,” he says. “I have some nice folding cutlery, too. I tend to eat dinner while I’m signing books, but sometimes they feed you a steak and give you a plastic knife; it’s just not going to do.” He adds, “A woman said to me a while ago, ‘After watching you eat for five minutes, I can see why you don’t like your picture taken.’”
Credit: Hugh Hamrick

Summer is paperback season. Until last year, it was also the season acclaimed author David Sedaris sweated the most, literally. But his outlook changed for the sunnier — and drier — after he and his partner, Hugh, moved to the U.K., where he claims you can wear a sweater in July. “English people complain about it, but it’s fantastic for me,” he says. “Now I like summer for the first time in my life!”

This week, the humorist releases his latest soft cover, “Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls,” a story collection in which many recall summers past as impressionable, if sometimes oppressive. We talk to Sedaris, who in the coming months embarks on a book tour as well as voyages to Japan, Vietnam and Cambodia, about jaywalking and jet-setting in the heat of June.

If given the writing prompt “How I spent my vacation,” how would you predict your response for summer 2014?

For me, it’s always “the summer of something.” This year, I got a Fit Bit. You walk 10,000 steps and it sends you an email saying, “That’s great! A lot of people don’t walk that far. Do you think you can walk 5,000 more steps?” And so I say, “I bet I can!” A week ago, I walked 60,000 steps. That’s 25.5 miles. I’m completely obsessed. It’s like a sickness; I’ve been Fit Bit-ten. It will be the summer of the Fit Bit because it can’t go on. It just can’t.

In “A Friend in the Ghetto,” you say the type of book you most enjoy is one about a character whose life is fundamentally different from yours. What would that person do on their summer vacation?

They wouldn’t have a word for vacation. They would live in one of those countries where it just means working in the heat.

How would you explain a Fit Bit to them?

They would probably be walking that distance already to get water from a well or something. They wouldn’t have a computer, though, so you would just say, “Want a rubber bracelet?”

In “Author, Author,” you talk about giving teens, among others, gifts and special treatment at book signings. Who will benefit this summer?

I always have something special for teenagers and I haven’t decided what my other group will be. One time it was women with braces on their teeth, once it was men 5’5″ and under. Once it was smokers but then people ran out and bought cigarettes to get to the front of the line, so it has to be something that people can’t cheat on. What I tend to do more often is keep my eyes open for somebody who touches me for one reason or another and say to the bookstore manager, “Can you bring that person up to the front?”

I decided not to [give out condoms to teenagers] anymore. People knew what to expect after I wrote about it. They would come up and ask, “Where’s my condom?” Often it’d be a grown-up, and I would think, “Did you not read that story? You can go buy your own!”

Considering your travel plans and foray into foreign languages in “Easy Tiger,” have you learned any Vietnamese words?

All I can say in Vietnamese is “kẹo” — it means candy. I went to a Super Cuts in Sacramento and the barber taught me that. Since I wrote that story, I’ve studied Polish, Swedish and then Arabic, but that was a fiasco. The program I used taught me to speak with an Egyptian accent, which apparently is hilarious. I went to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and you never meet a native there; the people who work at shops or your hotel are from the Philippines.

I’m just a dilettante, though. I enjoy studying [a country's language] for a month, then going there and running my mouth and seeing where it gets me. I used Pimsleur for Polish. When Hugh and I were in Warsaw, I crossed a street and all of a sudden these two policewomen were there and they pulled out their book to write me a ticket for jaywalking. And I reached and pulled out all of my Polish. I started by saying, “Excuse me are you a Polish woman? Do you speak Polish? Me too! Do you want to go to my hotel for a drink?” They howled with laughter and asked, “Where on earth did you learn this stuff?” I had my iPod on me, so I put it in their ears so they could hear it and they were delighted; they didn’t give me a ticket.

Are you attached to any paperback or hard backs right now?

I love books on tape. [I’m listening to] a novel by Meg Wollitzer called “The Interestings.” It’s about a group of kids who meet at an artistic summer camp in high school and how their friendship changes of the course of the coming decades. It isn’t read by the author, but the woman who reads it does a fantastic job. It’s the best audiobook I’ve listened to since George Saunders’ “The 10th of December.” He read it himself and he did just a bang-up job! You know what’s really great, too, is “The Snow Queen,” the new Michael Cunningham book. Claire Danes reads it and she does a great job. When you walk 25 miles a day, you listen to a lot of audiobooks. [Laughs]

Another great book — I interviewed the author onstage in London — is called “Family Life” by Akhil Sharma. I read the book in galleys and then reread it and it’s even better. Also, “The Splendid Things We Planned” by Blake Bailey. It’s the story of this brother who’s just a classic lost person who gets in trouble again and again, and people just lose patience with a person like that. And you would think the reader would as well, but [Bailey is] such a good writer that you never become exhausted [with the character] the way you would with a person. It’s the kind of book that makes you feel like you’re not alone, and that’s always nice.

Reading dates:
June 3, 7 p.m.
Housing Works Bookstore Cafe
126 Crosby St., 212-334-3324

June 5, 7 p.m.
163 Court St., Brooklyn, 718-875-3677

June 7, 6 p.m.
Harvard Bookstore
1256 Mass. Ave., Cambridge, 617-661-1515


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