The Magic of a David Sedaris Book Signing
This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural, under a pen name.
I never used to like small talk. Most people don’t; there is a pointlessness in speaking to someone with no real intention of getting to know them. I was convinced that there was simply no productive way to have a light conversation with a stranger. But then I went to a David Sedaris book signing.
I got there early so I could look around before grabbing a good seat, but I guess I wasn’t early enough because the seats were already beginning to fill up. I didn’t realize how popular his events were but, after attending, I can see why. Before the talk began, a culotte-wearing Sedaris appeared. He’s a rather short man, though with a presence larger than himself; he seems as though he has, in some way, the air of a court jester — making his public appearances in clown makeup, or his past experience of working as a Macy’s Christmas elf, all the more fitting. He walked to the front of the room where he sat behind a desk, and from there a line began to form. The people in line were waiting to get their books signed. Having thought to bring my copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day, I joined the line and waited.
At the front of the line was a young woman who spoke to Sedaris for maybe a full five minutes, which really bothered me at first. Where does she get off? I thought. She’s holding us all up, chatting with David Sedaris like they’re old friends. Doesn’t she know he’s just supposed to sign the book? But, once she sat down, the next person spoke to him for just as long. And the person after that was the same. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I had never witnessed an author spend so much time actually talking to each person in line before signing their book, and with such sincerity. By the time I made it to the front, I realized I didn’t prepare anything to say to him. I got so nervous that I didn’t say anything at all. He spoke first.
“Do you like to drink water?” he said.
I was a little thrown off by the question. “Yeah,” I said. “I’m actually really thirsty right now.”
“How do you usually drink water?”
Ordinarily I’d think this line of questioning was a joke, but he seemed so earnest about it that I told him that, even though I know I probably shouldn’t, I buy plastic bottles when I’m out because I never got into reusable ones. He asked why, and I said it was because most don’t allow you to see the water, and I don’t like not being able to see what’s inside. He asked me what I was afraid of, what I thought would be inside. I said I don’t know because I can’t see it. He said he’d never heard that before. He signed my book: “To Lily, my thirsty friend.”
The line was cut off at a certain point to allow for the talk to begin, but at the end, he returned to his post behind the table and signed even more books. He sat there signing and talking for hours. He stayed at the bookshop longer than me.
During the book talk, one of the most fascinating things he said was that he hates small talk, especially questions like: “How’s your day?” He said he prefers questions that may reveal more about a person and lead to a more interesting conversation. His example question was: “Do you know anyone in a wheelchair?” Upon hearing this, I understood why he asked me about water, and I was actually a little surprised I had never received a question like that before in my life. This talent of his for opening strangers up so quickly is one of the greatest charms of his writing.
His published diaries, Theft by Finding, perfectly reflects how much of his inspiration is gathered from observation. So many of the entries involve either his observations of other people, overheard conversations, or his own social interactions; all of these avenues of inspiration are then seen in his essays. In Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, his essay “Stand By” gets its humor from snippets of conversations with airline passengers, observations of clothing, and self-analysis. In “Dentists
Without Borders” from the same book, he recounts visits to his physician, periodontist, and dentist in France, and the dialogue he includes draws comedic differences between them and the ones you’d see back in the States. The essay “I Pledge Allegiance to the Bag” from Me Talk Pretty One Day features Sedaris at a barber shop in Paris, explaining to the shop owner why Jodie Foster would be carrying a bag of dog poop in a paparazzi photo. What makes his writing so memorable is the dialogue he includes, because it shows just how much he pays attention to what others say.
One of my all-time favorite Sedaris essays is “Understanding Understanding Owls.” It concerns Sedaris’ hunt for the perfect Valentine’s Day gift and an unorthodox taxidermy shop. The essay ends with his realization that the taxidermist, who hardly knew him, was able to properly assess his personality based on their interactions in the shop. This power of understanding others is what Sedaris seems to bring to his book signings.
Sedaris’ work is special because he pays so much attention to what others say and do. The best type of comedy is born out of observation, and that is what Sedaris does best. I think we can all learn a lesson or two from him and his book signings. ▲
Lily Ekimian is an independent filmmaker from Washington, D.C., now based in Pittsburgh. You can follow along with the films that she and her partner, Ahmed, are working on via their social media @dogdoorfilms!