David Sedaris will perform live at the Mahaiwe
On the English South Downs, humorist David Sedaris settles in for a late-night transatlantic telephone chat before a sweeping American tour that includes Great Barrington's Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Saturday.
The conversation moves around the globe like his many books, which have sold millions in 25 languages over two decades, his frank perception relished by radio and magazine fans throughout America.
"Even on my worst days, I'm a pretty optimistic person," he said. "I always believed that if I worked hard, I could have what I wanted."
Having sold some 10 million books, he imagines his adopted British neighbors consider him "a cultural curiosity." He finds them very disapproving of success.
"I like being a foreigner," he said. "I like walking around with a big question mark on my forehead. They just don't get me. It's a completely different way of thinking. I feel like an American from a sitcom and hear myself say ‘Gee' and ‘Golly, that's neat.' In America, I understand what's going on -- even when things happen that I don't like or don't agree with."
Sedaris picks up topics as easily as gathering roadside trash in his adopted England, which he describes in "Rubbish" in his new book "Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls."
He loves travel (even the packing), especially if there's a language challenge. Only South Korea stumped him.
"I said, ‘OK, you win,' " he said. "Not a single word stuck with me, not even ‘thank you'."
A few years ago, he settled in rural England.
"I just like to move," he said "I can take my work with me wherever I go."
His longtime artist partner, Hugh Hamrick, finds it "a little bit harder to pick up and move."
At 56, he said, "I find as I get older I really like being in the country. I didn't ever think I would hear myself say that."
Still, he cannot fathom all the trash strewn at the roadside.
"Wherever I live," he said, "there's going to be something I can't wrap my mind around."
Sedaris spent 10 years in Paris, which he now visits primarily for dental appointments and can't wait to leave.
"A friend compares loving Paris to having a crush on the cutest boy in the class," he said. "It doesn't take any imagination. I don't think other people have an idea of what it's like to live [there]. Everybody's on strike all the time."
He bemoans slow-walking tourists who think the whole world is on vacation.
"Look around you -- people are actually going to work," he scolds. "Pick up the pace!"
People think Paris will make them a writer, he said. One woman asked if she should start her book on the plane over or from when she met her French husband.
"She'd never written anything," he said.
"When you're writing an essay, you're always deciding where to begin it and where to end it," he added. "That's part of what makes you a writer."
He often gets questons about writing, frequently by mail. A 19-year-old asked how to publish two books he had written and how much money to expect.
"You shouldn't even be thinking about that," Sedaris wanted to say. "You should be writing for the love of writing, and then the other stuff will just come on its own."
"This is your time to learn and make mistakes and just really suck," he said. "Then you forgive yourself because you're 19."
Sedaris' first book was published in his mid- 30s, when he was a college dropout working for a New York housecleaning company.
"I didn't feel like a failure," he said.
His early experiences are fertile fodder for his writing. A journal of working as a Macy's Elf was adapted into the widely staged solo play "The SantaLand Diaries," produced by Shakespeare & Company in Lenox for the past three seasons.
Shakespeare & Company director Tony Simotes explained its appeal to Berkshire audiences on many levels, highlighting holiday tensions and giving actors an opportunity to leave their mark on the piece.
"It's one long soliloquy," Simotes said, "and Shakespeare invented that!"
"I love Christmas," Sedaris stressed. "I'd never worked with the public before; it was an eye-opener."
While much of his writing is fiction -- "I'm not a woman or a dad," he said -- life stories are more ambiguous. His family features prominently, and he takes their feelings into consideration.
"Everybody's got secrets," he acknowledges, "things they don't want people knowing."
He would take more liberties if he didn't write for the New Yorker, where, he stressed, "ev-e-ry word is fact-checked."
He has no interest in writing novels.
"I have a 10-page attention span," he said. "after [that] I just don't give a damn."
And he tours with works fresh from the keyboard.
"I'm not going to open a book I wrote last year. Sometimes I think people wouldn't mind it, but I would feel like a failure," he said.
He constantly changes words and adds jokes.
"It's such a golden opportunity -- you've got an audience, so why not see how they respond?"
Some of their responses inspire him in turn. Once, at a book signing, he turned an inscription request ‘Explore your possibilities' into ‘Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls.'
"And I thought, that is the title of my next book," he said.
It never mentions diabetes.
An interviewer recently asked what message he had for the diabetic community.
"Concentrate on the word ‘Owls,' " he replied.
What: David Sedaris
When: Saturday at 8 p.m.
Where: Mahaiwe Performing Art Center, 14 Castle St., Great Barrington
Admission: $50, $65
Information: (413) 528-0100 www.mahaiwe.org
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