How David Sedaris found the fame he craved
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 10 November 2018)

For many years, David Sedaris yearned for fame. He didn't call it that, but a pleasant measure of fame was what he hoped for. He felt he was a nobody and he wanted to be somebody, somebody who was talked about and well known. Living in the age of celebrity, he was shut out.

He did not like obscurity, that quality movie stars often claim to desire. He thought wistfully of the time in the future when he might occasionally spot his own name in a magazine. While doing routine anonymous work, like decorating someone's apartment, he often listened to the radio interviews of Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air. Today, he admits to dreaming about being interviewed by Gross. He remembers well what it was like to be an unknown. It wasn't fun.

Today he can't imagine that there was anyone else who so badly wanted fame. For that reason or some other, he was miserable. He drank enough to qualify as an alcoholic, and did drugs as well. He considered suicide and wrote in his diary a list of reasons why life was (or perhaps could be) worth living. Finally, by good luck, he found a way to market his working life, his personality and his sense of humour.

He was on stage in an obscure Chicago club, reading excerpts from his diary, when Ira Glass of NPR heard him. At that point, he said recently, "My life just changed completely, like someone waved a magic wand." Sedaris had briefly played an elf in Macy's department store at Christmas. His talk about that experience, Santaland Diaries, ran on NPR. In 1995, when Glass started his regular program, This American Life, he assigned Sedaris regular appearances. In almost no time Sedaris had a contract with Little Brown for his first book of collected stories and essays, some of which had appeared earlier in The New Yorker or Esquire. Eight books followed. Me Talk Pretty One Day won the Thurber Prize for American Humor. Naked won the Randy Shilts Award for Gay Nonfiction. Sedaris also has a Grammy for a comedy record. He and his sister, the actor Amy Sedaris, collaborate on writing plays.

He continues to search his own life for unusual (and essentially comic) incidents. He is not above eccentricity. He is, for instance, a militant activist in anti-litter. When he's at home in Horsham, West Sussex (where he lives with his partner, Hugh Hamrick), he spends four or five hours every day patrolling the nearby highway, picking up trash that motorists have thrown from their cars.

This devotion to his principles has been recognized by the Queen. Every year, she invites volunteer workers from across the kingdom to a garden party at Buckingham Palace. Recently Sedaris and Hamrick were there to be feted. Unfortunately, Sedaris noticed that a number of guests were placing empty ice-cream containers in planters or behind columns. Littering in the garden of Her Majesty! Sedaris was appalled.

In a recent interview (of course it was with Terry Gross) Sedaris was asked how his present life contrasted with the nobody's life he lived for so long. He now goes on tours across the continent where people line up to get his autograph on books they've just bought, he tells his stories on the BBC, he's delivered a convocation address at Princeton University. Was this acclaim, Gross asked him on air, what he had in mind all along? Of course, Sedaris said, this is exactly what he dreamt of from the beginning. It should happen just that way to every nobody.

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