We’re coming up to the 20th anniversary of my friendship with NPR favorite David Sedaris, which led to one of my most-read pieces of writing: an interview that appeared in the February 1997 issue of the “One in Ten” gay-and-lesbian section of the Boston Phoenix (both, alas, extinct). I spent a winter’s day with Sedaris, starting at his SoHo apartment and accompanying him as he visited a taxidermy store and went food shopping (at different places).
The interview happened just as Sedaris was getting extremely popular, after he read his memoir of being a Christmas elf at Macy’s (“SantaLand Diaries”) but before he switched his focus from short pieces of fiction to short pieces of autobiography. He invited me to visit after I sent a rather obsequious fan letter (full text below) in the fall of 1996.
I can’t find his invitation—it was definitely handwritten, not digital—but I remember thinking that it was a golden ticket. Here was a chance to buddy up with someone who was part of the literary scene, the gay scene, and the New York scene. A triple threat! I got even more swell-headed after Sedaris was friendly enough to spend so much time with me on that day in New York.
Sedaris came to Boston later that year, and he suggested meeting for coffee after he did a live interview at WBUR, the public radio station at Boston University. I watched him do the interview from the other side of a glass booth, thinking that WBUR would surely be impressed enough to hire a Friend of David for some job or another. At the coffee shop, I showed him some of my humor pieces and asked for career advice, and he said that getting a piece in The New Yorker was a good way to become known. I thought this was quite charming: His success was relatively late in life but still quick, and The New Yorker surely saw him as a valuable byline (“clickbait” in today’s parlance), but he thought anyone could start out that way! Now I wonder if he was tactfully declining to be my mentor, by offering an incontrovertible but not terribly helpful fact. (“If you want to be taken seriously as a painter, getting a work hung in the Louvre would be a very good start.”)
At his next reading in Boston, I brought him a book to sign, and he said it was great to see me again. At his next reading in Boston, I rashly took along a friend and got cocky about how tight I was with Sedaris, only to get a quick handshake with the author. “I don’t think he recognized you,” my friend needlessly observed. Not long after that, Sedaris moved to France with his boyfriend. I read every one of this books as soon as they came out, but I didn’t tempt fate by casually walking back and forth in front of his farmhouse in hopes of a “chance” meeting.
Below is my fan letter; the Boston Phoenix interview is archived here. “Outwrite” was an annual gay-and-lesbian literary conference in Boston; Sedaris may not have sufficiently gay-positive and sex-positive for many attendees. I can’t find his “fetish night” piece online, but that was the kind of thing I thought I could write at the time, so I hoped he might toss me some of the writing assignments he was too busy to do.
Dear Mr. Sedaris:
I am writing with some trepidation, since I don’t know how you feel about fan letters. Perhaps you still find them useful, either for their encouraging words or for ideas in developing obsessive characters. I decided it would be bad luck not to send you a letter, since I am a writer who enjoys getting feedback from readers (“do unto others...”).
I have read Barrel Fever countless times and saw you speak at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge last year. You seemed to have selected pieces that NPR wouldn’t put on the air because of their questionable taste, which was a nice surprise. (I brought a friend who hadn’t read your stuff, and she was horrified.) I wish that I could read your plays; have they been performed in New York City?
Anyway, I am a 32-year-old essayist and humorist just beginning to write on a regular basis. Your work has inspired me because it proves that narrative humor, without postmodern gimmicks, can still work brilliantly. Last year I mentioned you in a review of a James Thurber biography (see enclosed), but if you have a clipping service they may not have caught it. As I write this, I keep flipping through Barrel Fever looking for lines I especially like, but I end up reading entire stories. (The first page I turned to was in “We Get Along,” and it did have one of my favorites: ‘There’s a type that rents basement apartments. They need a low ceiling to match their self-esteem.’) I also found all the blurbs in the front of the book that makes anything I say seem redundant.
The only thing I can come up with is that it is so refreshing for a satirist to write very specifically about very universal forms of madness. Most humorists today are content to skewer pop culture (or the people who manufacture pop culture) and are erroneously praised for being “subversive.” Their work will become meaningless fairly quickly, since they are piggy-backing on the stuff they pretend to ridicule. But something like “SantaLand Diaries” will resonate long after Macy’s is bankrupt. To me, it’s like reading Thurber, or A.J. Liebling; they re-create worlds that no longer exist.
If I have one request, it is that you consider allowing me to interview you if another book tour takes you to Boston. I normally write for the Phoenix, which did run a profile of you about two years ago, but I know you are a favorite with readers here.
Also, I enjoyed your piece on the fetish night in the New York club in Out magazine. Again, very much like the old style of reporting in the New Yorker. I would love to see more like this.
Robert David Sullivan
P.S. I would do anything to see you come to next spring’s OutWrite gay literary conference and read “Glen’s Homophobia Newsletter” to the stunned crowd.