“I'm not as much of a jerk as I make myself out to be,” says essayist David Sedaris. Then, “Maybe I'm worse.”
Known for his bitingly hilarious (as in he's laughing at you, notwith you) nonfiction, Sedaris's stories revolve around the misfortunes of others and his own sardonic observations. When You Are Engulfed In Flames (Black Ray Books, 2008) — just out in paperback — is his seventh collection of stories.
From the opening essay, “It's Catching,” Sedaris is the best kind of bad. “If I was a child and saw something creeping out of a hole in my mother's leg, I would march to the nearest orphanage and put myself up for adoption,” he relates after learning that his boyfriend's mother was infected with a parasite. “I would burn all pictures of her, destroy anything she had given me, and start all over because that is simply disgusting.”
Funny. But why doesn't the writer use the page to render himself more saint, less sinner? “I'm very suspicious of that, telling a story where you're heroic and do something good for somebody,” he tells Xpress. “I did something really good for somebody recently and if I had done it for the right reasons, I would never talk about it. I just did it so people would think I'm generous, but even when I include that in the story it feels weird. Stories in which you're heroic are really hard to pull off.”
He adds, “I think if you're going to be hard on other people — in print, anyway — you need to be harder on yourself.”
What could be harder than quitting smoking in the public eye? While learning a foreign language? Sedaris does just that, in The Smoking Section, which comprises the final quarter of Flames and is set in Japan.
He writes: “The pack I bought that day in Vancouver were Viceroys. I'd often noticed them in the shirt pockets of gas station attendants, and no doubt thought that they made me appear masculine, or at least as masculine as one could look in a beret and a pair or gabardine pants that buttoned at the ankle.”
And later: “Between the plane tickets, the three-month apartment rental, the school tuition, and the unused patches and lozenges, it had cost close to twenty thousand dollars to quit smoking.”
“It's always a fear when you write about something like that that you're kind of trapped,” the author says. “I'd feel like an extra-loser if I started smoking again, so I didn't.”
And then Sedaris's inner Crumpet (the curmudgeonly elf from his prickly The Santaland Diaries) comes out: “People expected me to start again. I like defying their expectations.”
Still, there's more to Sedaris's essays than snark. The writer, who's long kept diaries, can pinpoint an essay-making anecdote while it's happening. Take his upcoming New Yorker piece: “I was in Australia with a Kookaburra on my arm. I thought, this feels like a story, and I knew why it felt like a story. I could connect it to something in my childhood. It didn't take that much time to turn it around.”
Not every essay comes so easily. “I was in London in a taxidermy shop and I recognized something as story-worthy. Something sort of incredible unfolded before me. I've written it up twice [but] I haven't put my finger on why it felt like a story, so it's back to the drawing board.”
Sedaris is also trying to flesh out why those who attend his lectures rarely comment on his in-person readings. He's not complaining (though he points out that he takes notes at his friend's plays to have “something to talk about later”) but it's a puzzler: Many fans first encountered Sedaris through Public Radio International's This American Life, hearing Sedaris's dark humor before reading it for themselves.
“They'll mention something they heard on the radio, but not anything I just read,” the author notes. “It's as if it never happened.”
Fans at this week's Malaprop's event probably won't have the chance to right that wrong. After touring the hard-copy edition of Flames, Sedaris hasn't cracked a book on the paperback tour. “The last tour I did was in France and I said that's it,” he recalls. “I was sick of it.”
That doesn't mean the prolific writer has stopped crafting prose. In fact, there are rumblings about a novel. (“Except that I have a 10-page attention span,” Sedaris says.)
Also on the fiction front: “I'm working right now on a collection of stories about animals,” Sedaris says. “I'd like to call them fables, but my morals are a little shaky.”
who: David Sedaris
what: Sardonic essayist returns to Asheville on his paperback tour
when: Thursday, June 25 (7 p.m. Tickets for the reading are sold out at press time; tickets for the signing and reception are available with the purchase of a copy of When You Are Engulfed in Flames. www.malaprops.com or 254-6734)