After five autobiographical essay collections that have sold more than four million copies in 25 languages, a lot of people must think they know David Sedaris pretty well. Certainly his fans are fully versed in the eccentricities of the writer’s sizable Greek-American family and his down-and-out young adulthood. After stints in multiple colleges, he scraped by picking apples, painting houses and playing an elf at Macy’s Santaland, all the while consuming drugs, alcohol and cigarettes in bulk. Happily, things turned around in the early Nineties, when he met his perfect boyfriend, Hugh Hamrick, and, shortly thereafter, was asked to read his essay about the aforementioned elf gig on NPR, which led to overnight fame and a book deal. Sedaris and Hamrick, a decorative painter, soon traded their rat-friendly tenement in New York’s SoHo for a lovely Paris flat. Today the couple divide their time between a Left Bank apartment, a house in a rustic part of Normandy and a town house in London’s Kensington.Listen to a clip from the Audiobook
On a chilly March afternoon, Sedaris welcomes me to the Paris place, which is spacious and filled with comfortably worn antique furniture, quirky portraits and numerous taxidermic birds. Wearing khakis and a blue checked short-sleeve shirt, he is as self-deprecatingly funny as you might expect. “I’m No. 1 in Austria!” he faux brags. “Whenever a book of mine does well in another country, I always think, Really? Because people have their own stuff to read. But I’m flattered.”
With the publication in June of a new collection, When You Are Engulfed in Flames (Little, Brown and Company), Sedaris, 51, is about to launch a six-week publicity tour in the States. And since his last U.S. book tour, in 2005, a new challenge has emerged: the legacy of James Frey. These days, in the wake of Frey’s infamous fabrications, it seems every memoirist has to watch his back. Last March The New Republic published a 4,000-word piece by writer Alex Heard, who spent weeks fact-checking the Sedaris oeuvre, talking to his childhood friends and even confronting his then 83-year-old father in person to try to prove Sedaris a liar. In the end, the attempted takedown, a humorless and rather tiresome account of Heard’s gumshoeing, came up with very few smoking guns. Although Heard did confirm that Mr. Mancini, Sedaris’s junior-high guitar teacher, was not quite the “perfectly formed midget” he had depicted, most of his findings were anticlimactic. (A mental hospital at which Sedaris volunteered when he was 15, for example, was not architecturally Gothic, as he’d described, but Tuscan Revival.) Still, the article generated attention.