When best-selling author and humorist David Sedaris released his first book, “Barrel Fever: Stories and Essays,” in 1994, it didn’t exactly sound the bells of publishing fame and fortune right away. You might even imagine the sound of its debut as more of a chin-scratching “Hmm” from critics than a ringing announcing the new prince of prose’s arrival.
But a collection of personal essays and pseudo-fictional short stories was never really meant to fling the relatively unknown Sedaris atop the notoriously exclusive literary pyramid overnight. If anything, Sedaris was more transformed by the validation of signing with a major publisher and releasing a commercial novel than he was by the magnitude of its initial impact.
And luckily for Sedaris, he had decades’ worth of written material already in reserve for a follow-up, not to mention the new observations he spent penning nearly every day.
Some of that creative inspiration Sedaris may owe to a fast and confusing childhood amid a spirited home life. He was the second of six children to be born in Upstate New York, not long before his father’s work pulled the family farther south to North Carolina. The family’s outsider status as Northerners in a 1960s South tightened them more than ever at home, revealing to Sedaris a colorful cast of characters and odd scenarios for his increasingly curious, yet anxious young mind to explore.
He wrestled with obsessive compulsions from an early age, which made him compelled to lick light switches and mailboxes, and the cramped living quarters at home didn’t make his burgeoning oddities and strange new environment any easier.
As he and his siblings tumbled from his family’s Raleigh home and into adulthood in relatively quick succession, Sedaris struggled to make sense of his frenzied youth, and even more so with what to do with his newly found individuality.
He first tried attending Western Carolina University, but transferred to Ohio’s Kent State the following year, only to drop out shortly after enrolling. Disillusioned with higher education for the moment, Sedaris traveled to California and worked a series of odd jobs, from field hand to office worker. A few years later, he returned to the Midwest and enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago some 10 years after dropping out of Kent State. He employed himself any way he could, eventually stumbling upon a gig one Christmas that has since paid perhaps the largest dividend for his writing career of all.
For an entire holiday season, Sedaris found himself dressed as a magical elf, raking crying toddlers from the lap of a Macy’s Santa Claus for gas money and a thin padding around his tiny savings account. Sedaris wrote a somewhat exaggerated version of the experience in his personal diary, which he read entries from to classmates, colleagues and anyone else willing to listen as often as possible.
The aptly titled “SantaLand Diaries” became one of his most popular stories among his listeners, shining some darkened light of comedy on his time dressing in green velvet and pointed slippers, directing lines of cranky, entitled parents and their litters to a crimson-and-gold throne of holiday joy.
By the time Sedaris moved to New York City in the early 1990s, he was a little-known writer still working odd jobs up and down the East Coast, in need of a break.
His first exposure to a large audience was nearly all coincidence, occurring after a young NPR producer and host, Ira Glass, overheard Sedaris reading diary entries about his quirky childhood.
The thought of introducing himself as a writer on a radio program seemed strange at the time, something of an ancient format to the modern mentality, but the struggling Sedaris agreed nonetheless. He read “SantaLand Diaries” two days before Christmas on NPR’s “Morning Edition” in 1992, an episode that still ranks as one of NPR’s most requested to date.
The overwhelmingly positive response thrilled the show’s producers, but it stunned Sedaris, thrusting the 35-year-old into literary notoriety and a monthly role reading stories from his collection of essays.
Press from the likes of The New York Times praised Sedaris’s offbeat talent, and he signed with Little, Brown and Company shortly after the show aired.
While “Barrel Fever” introduced his audience to his madcap collection of stories and the candid, disarming style in which he writes, it was Sedaris’s readings on NPR that began garnering a grassroots following for his quirky comedy and accessible insights.
And while he has gone on to write for The New Yorker and publish such best-selling novels as “Naked,” “Me Talk Pretty One Day” and “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim,” with some 10 million copies in print across 29 languages, he continues to be a frequent contributor to NPR’s “This American Life.”
Sedaris’s newest best-seller, “Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls,” also has earned Sedaris his third Grammy nomination for the book’s audio version. The author will appear at 7:30 p.m. April 19 at the Gaillard Center for one show as part of his current tour, “An Evening with David Sedaris.”
Sedaris will offer a selection of all-new readings and recollections, a question-and-answer session and a book signing after the show.
Tickets are on sale now, ranging in price from $46 to $65, and are available at the Gaillard Center box office, by phone at 843-242-3099 or online at www.GaillardCenter.com.