What’s So Funny?

October 1, 2009

It’s the kind of perfect sunny day that makes Vancouverites feel smug. Standing on the deck of the Coal Harbour seaplane terminal, David Sedaris, back to the glorious view, squints to read the label on the prescription pill bottle his publisher’s representative has pulled out of her bag to treat her advancing migraine.

“Would you like something stronger?” he offers, with concern.

After a discussion of the relative merits of OxyContin, Ambien, and Vicodin, she accepts a Percocet, which Sedaris produces from an Altoids tin secured with a red rubber band. The pills, neatly wrapped in foil, are left from a previous book tour, when he’d fast-tracked anyone in the signing line willing to share their stash. He shares them as generously as he’d shared his Tic Tacs with everyone in his taxi, including the driver.

Sedaris, 52, is the author of six best-selling collections of autobiographical essays, most debuting in The New Yorker or read on National Public Radio. He’s often described as a modern-day Mark Twain or Dorothy Parker. Despite the literary celebrity, he remains grateful and surprised by people’s passionate interest in him. His presence is elfin and boyish, his voice almost cartoonish in its cheerful high pitch and distinct New York cadence. The corners of his mouth are naturally upturned. Friendly and approachable, he has the bearing of one who moved a lot in childhood and learned nice manners to get by.

His latest book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, details his quest to quit smoking in Tokyo, as well as his life in France, where he and his boyfriend, Hugh Hamrick, have a house. (They now live in England and also own a place in Manhattan.) The paperback release has brought him to Vancouver to record a CBC Radio book club segment and do a hastily promoted signing at Chapters on Granville. Despite the short notice, more than 200 people show up. His book signings are legendary—in Victoria, where Harbour Air is about to fly him, fans have been lining up since 10:30 a.m. He’s scheduled to read at 7 p.m.; as it turns out, he’ll chat with every attendee and sign books until 1:30 a.m.

Sedaris has been to Vancouver many times. (He returns on November 1; for tickets, see Writersfest.bc.ca.) As he recounts in Flames, here is where he started smoking, at age 20. Also stuck in his memory: the Murphy bed in his residence hotel, creepy drunks, and a fellow with “a prison braid” who was the first person ever to hit him up for a cigarette. On a more recent visit, he found paradise: Daiso is the Tokyo version of a dollar store, and its only Canadian location is in the Aberdeen Centre in Richmond. Given Sedaris’s tight schedule, the representative is dispatched to pick up souvenirs. Of the treasures she brings back, his favourite is a black-and-white-striped paper bag that says “I Love Dalmations.” It elaborates: “Only imflowing you don’t imflowing emflowing I must go to you stay aflight.”

“That’s poetry!” he shouts, delighted.

Sedaris has the curiosity and instinctive mischievousness of a preteen who lights various objects on fire just to see what will happen. At Chapters, his wildly diverse, mostly female fans nervously approach. His responses to their greetings leave some of them entertained and others baffled:

“How are you?” (“Are you breastfeeding?”)

“Welcome to Vancouver.” (“Are those skinny jeans?”)

“You’re my favourite writer.” (“Do you have a cat?”)

“I never laugh out loud when reading in public, but I can’t help myself when I’m reading your books.” (“Do you speak Japanese?”)

“Can you write what I’ve written on this piece of paper in my book?” (“I’ll just rephrase that, okay?”)

“This is for my friend who suffers from chronic pain and your writing is the only thing that makes her go on.” (“What time did you get up this morning?”)

He also makes cheerful, unsolicited suggestions:

“The MS is affecting your friend’s memory and vision? This would be a good time to steal from her!”

“You should tell your parents you’re pregnant and want to keep the baby, give them a couple of days to think about that, then tell them you were joking and let them appreciate what a good kid you are.”

“Maybe if your Japanese were better, your cat would come back.”

A technophobe—he has neither cellphone nor e-mail address, and only started using a computer after 9/11 because a typewriter caused too much hassle at airports (“You didn’t want to travel with anything they hadn’t seen that day”), Sedaris uses book tours the way others use the Internet: for entertainment, medical advice, and to research ideas for future essays. (“Tell me your breast-milk stories!” he urges the Chapters crowd.) You can opt out of technology when you’ve sold seven million books.

American honeymooners approach the table and tell Sedaris what they’ve seen in Vancouver so far and what they still want to check out.

“Go to Daiso,” he insists. “Here, I wrote it down for you. Go. You’ll thank me.”

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