Do you have a literary “bucket list?” You know, a list of writers whom you hope to meet face-to-face, or at least attend a crowded reading?
Because Joplin Public Library frequently invites authors to present programs, working here has granted me many opportunities to geek out over folks producing the written word. But a few months ago – forgive the cliché – a dream 17 years in the making finally came true in a small, independent Omaha bookstore.
At long last, I met humorist and essayist David Sedaris.
Back in the mid-‘90s, while driving to Joplin from Columbia, I came across a National Public Radio station on which Sedaris was reading a piece entitled “Drama Bug,” from his then-upcoming book “Naked.” I laughed so hard that I drove off the road and almost wrecked my car. From that near accident, I was hooked.
Sedaris is not shy when it comes to book tours, so through the years several of my friends have heard him speak, much to my everlasting envy. My sister in Omaha attended one of his readings a couple years ago. I was unable to make it, so she bought a copy of his first book, “Barrel Fever,” and had him inscribe it for me. One of my favorite authors on the entire planet wrote, “Lisa, I’m very angry that you’re not here.” I squealed with delight when I read that.
Last spring, I’d planned to visit this same sister, and then she revealed that David Sedaris would again be appearing at an independent bookstore in Omaha. Being the good, supportive sibling that she is, she acquired tickets and a book in advance, and suggested we show up a couple hours early to get a good seat. We scored third-row center seats, which meant we were mere feet from the object of my affection. On that warm, humid May evening, I happily sat on an uncomfortable folding chair for three hours, a huge smile on my face, and then waited in line for a few hours more to have my book signed, planning in my head what I’d say when I came face-to-face with Sedaris.
And what were my first words? “I’ve waited 17 years and drove six hours for this moment.” I’m such a dork. He looked concerned and asked, “Well, my goodness, where did you drive from?” When I told him, he helpfully informed me that they were going to be in St. Louis the next night and I could have gone there, but then I explained that I was visiting my sister and had to stay in Omaha for the weekend. He was very kind and gracious, taking several minutes to talk not just to me, but everyone who waited in line to meet him.
I’ve spent the past week listening to an audio recording of his most recent book, “Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls,” and it’s been a joy during an otherwise stressful time. Hearing Sedaris read his own work takes me right back to those hours in that Omaha bookstore, particularly when it’s a piece he read that night or one detailing what he does on his book tours.
In “Author, Author,” he explains his habit of giving small, practical gifts to people who attend his signings. Sometimes it’s a small bottle of shampoo from his hotel, or a Band-Aid or packet of pain reliever that he buys in bulk. This gift-giving practice results in a hilarious but embarrassing trip to Costco with his brother-in-law, who is oblivious to the strange looks people give them when they see the huge box of condoms in their shopping cart.
The night that I met him, the gift was a sticker from a sticker book he found next to the store register. On the title page of my copy of “Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls,” he inscribed “To Lisa: I P(imagine a sticker of a manta ray here) we meet again.” Then, moving his finger over the page, he read it aloud a couple times, hoping that I understood. “Get it? I ‘pray’ we meet again.” So cute.
Listening to the audiobook, I was again struck, as I have been after reading his last couple of books, how he has grown as a writer. When Sedaris started publishing, it was mainly short, funny pieces, many of them fictitious. Now, the personal essays predominate, and while, they are still humorous, but there is much heart in them, particularly when he writes about his big, crazy family or long-time partner, Hugh. Many have a wistful, somewhat melancholy tone to them, such as “Standing Still,” “Guy Walks into a Bar Car,” and “Loggerheads.”
His imagery has become richer, as well. A telemarketer’s voice is described as having “snakes in it. And dysentery, and mangoes.” A McDonald’s bag is “vomiting its contents onto the pavement.” Guinea pigs are “big – like furry slippers, sizes nine and ten and a half.”
It’s refreshing to review a writer’s body of work and see that they have grown in their craft. Far too many seem to produce the same thing over, and over, and over again. But don’t take my word for it. See for yourself. Joplin Public Library has several of David Sedaris’s books, both on audio and in print.