By Brandon Smith
Over the summer with The Collegiate, I was given the opportunity to spearhead a project focused on writing and reading. I registered for a number of different literary events right off the bat with Courtney Summers and Charles Soule, but those were streamed virtually with little audience interaction, and the authors weren’t going to reach through the screen to sign your book. The only one I registered for that was in-person was David Sedaris.
I didn’t know David Sedaris that well. I knew of him, in the same way that you might know about a sushi place around the corner, but never tried because you don’t know how to feel about sushi. Professor Jen, The Collegiate adviser, was excited when she heard that I’d be seeing Sedaris.
“You’ll love it,” she exclaimed, gushing over the time that she had heard him speak. “He is one of the funniest people I’ve ever seen, you’ll love it.”
I was skeptical, because I think I’m pretty funny, but she never talks about me. I bought a copy of “Happy-Go-Lucky,” Sedaris’s latest book that he was on tour promoting. The book was a collection of essays, and I soon found myself delving into Sedaris’s wacky style. I remember annoying my fiancée by reading aloud the snippets about Sedaris’s sister buying a second apartment to get away from her rabbit or the part where he muses about the excuses that men give to doctors when they end up in the ER for things stuck up their butts.
When the day of the event came, I was almost as excited as Jen to meet the man himself. I arrived at Schuler Books half an hour early. In the parking lot, my car was almost hit by an umbrella that had somehow detached from one of the cafe tables outside and was dancing in the wind to pursue its dreams of becoming a kite, so we were off to a good start at least.
I got inside and made my way to the speaking area in the back, which was cordoned off by two store employees. Behind the employees, sitting casually behind a table off to the side as though hundreds of people weren’t here to see them, was David Sedaris and co-speaker Cindy House, who was promoting her debut novel “Mother Noise”.
I gave my name to the speakers, and they checked their list.
“Did you register?” they asked me after a few seconds.
“I thought I did. A month ago,” I said. This was true, but I didn’t tell them that I never received verification that my registration actually went through.
“Sorry, we don’t see your name anywhere. You can stay, but if you don’t have a reservation, we have to ask that you stand in the back,” they told me. “You can take any empty chair that you see after 15 minutes if someone doesn’t show up.”
I was dejected, even more so when I was told I’d be one of the last to meet Sedaris and get my book signed.
However, what the Schuler Books employees did not plan for was for Sedaris and House to begin pre-signing while I was in line. Apparently at some point while I was talking with the employees, someone in the audience saw them at the table and realized “Hey, those are the people I’m here to see!” and a line quickly began forming. I was told that I could join the line, but if I didn’t meet Sedaris before the presentation began in 25 minutes, I would have to wait.
Something that I had learned about Sedaris was that he liked to engage with people. In fact, the Schuler Books website actually warned that he liked to spend time with people, so “be prepared for the signing to take some time”.
It was something Sedaris mentioned in his book. He wrote about feeling “betrayed” when he met an author that he looked up to, only for her to sign his book without looking at him or breaking the conversation that she was having with her publicist beside her. After that, Sedaris vowed to go above and beyond during book signings.
While I was in line, the first thing that I thought was “Maybe I should have finished reading the book.” The next thing I thought was, “You know what, while I’m waiting…”
I’ve been to conventions and met prominent voice actors before, but I get nervous when waiting in line. Anxiety sprouts inside of me like a third hand grabbing my heart and tightening its grip until I can barely speak. Reading the book, I was able to distract myself from getting nervous. Instead of entering the freezing cold anxiety pool one step at a time, I did a cannonball straight into the deep end.
The deep end came sooner than I thought it would, because within minutes I was standing in front of David Sedaris. I recall that he was wearing a tan colored suit jacket, and under the table he was sporting a pair of culottes. The ol’ “business on top, party on bottom” look. When he spoke, his voice was lighthearted and soft, unlike what I heard in my head when I was reading. Flustered, I set my book down at the end of the table. He reached his hand out, maybe to grab the book, but I mistook it for a handshake. By the time I realized he was going for the book, it was too late: I had already put my own hand out and had to commit, shaking the hand of the author whose work I had been reading all week. When I broke the grip, he looked up at me.
“What’s your name?” Sedaris asked me.
“Brandon,” I answered.
He smiled at me and pointed at my book, “Brandon… I can’t reach that.”
Sedaris is fantastic at meeting people. While he was signing my book, he pointed at my necklace and asked about it. I answered that it was a cat from a video game that my fiancée liked. He asked what her name was. Maddy, I answered. He asked where she worked. A clothing store, I answered. He asked what she did there. She, uh, sells clothes, I answered lamely.
“What do you do?” Sedaris asked me.
“I’m a cook. At Applebee’s,” I said, and I felt a little embarrassed. I always feel embarrassed when I tell people that I work at an Applebee’s restaurant, but this time was a little worse. Sedaris had written a dozen books, traveled the world, and spoken in front of millions if not billions of people. He had spoken at university commencement ceremonies and baccalaureates for prestigious schools. Meanwhile, I was a Neighborhood Expert, which was just a glorified team trainer.
But Sedaris didn’t make me feel lesser for it. Instead, he nodded in approval while he finished doodling a picture of green hills with a blue sky over them. Finally, I mustered the courage to ask what had been on my mind all along.
I explained- trying to keep my voice from shaking too much- that I was going to different events to learn from writers and get advice for anyone who wanted to write someday. I was eager to hear what Sedaris would say. Sedaris in particular has a unique style that lures people in, makes them laugh, and just when their guard is down, smacks them over the head with an emotional baseball bat. As you’re left reeling, all you can think is “where was he keeping THAT?”
“I would say, just write,” Sedaris said. “Every day.”
House chimed in that it was also important to be reading a lot, to learn what worked for other authors and what didn’t work for others.
Sedaris asked me if I wrote, and I told him that I was interested in being a horror writer someday. While we were talking, Sedaris took one of the extra Schuler Books bookmarks and began scribbling something down. He handed it to me and explained that it was his agent’s information, and while she didn’t represent horror writers, she could direct me to one who did.
I try not to tell people that I write. I feel like it doesn’t mean anything until I make real progress with it, the same way that someone might casually say “Oh, I’m planning to start a garden over there,” but there’s always an excuse not to sit down and plant the seeds. Whenever I tell somebody I write, they respond “that’s nice” like they know that I’ll never even pick up a gardening hoe. They don’t see the plants that I worked to bring to life that never bore fruit, the plants that withered and died once they poked up out of the dirt and saw the sun.
Now here was a published author, someone who has many books to his name and people lining up to meet him, showing that he had faith in a complete stranger. I didn’t know what to say. I tried to thank him, but nothing I said could convey how I felt to finally feel validated like this.
“I got a feeling that you could be a big horror writer. I think you understand horror,” Sedaris told me. “You have to understand horror… because you work in an Applebee’s.”
After again thanking Sedaris and House for their time, I stepped away from the signing table. I made my way to the back of the ocean of chairs, next to a couple that was looking through the kiddie toys on the shelves, and it was around this point that I realized that I never mentioned that I was a reporter.
The way that the chairs were set up, anyone who wasn’t crammed into the small speaking area was in a chair that spilled out into the store, so they couldn’t see much of the speaking area. From where I was standing, I could see the speaker’s podium, and that was pretty much it. Still, it was enough. I was just taking out my notepad when one of the store employees approached me.
“Excuse me,” she said. “Um… Mr. Sedaris wants to give you his chair.”
Again, I was utterly floored while she brought me over to the signing table, where David Sedaris pulled his chair out and offered it to me like someone handing you a box of empty Mountain Dews at the bottle return. Again, I thanked him, and he shrugged like it was no big deal. I pushed the chair over to the end of the closest row, where I proudly sat out in the aisle and made people walk around me.
Sedaris and House shared stories from their books and lives, and they had a natural wit to them that had the audience in stitches. There was a bald man in front of me whose whole head turned red when he doubled over laughing. It was great to see.
I didn’t realize it until after the show, but the bearded man beside me had been given House’s chair. We returned the chairs to where they had been behind the signing table, and Sedaris and House soon returned to face a line that stretched far into the shelves. The employees said that Sedaris would stay as late as he had to in order to meet everybody. I went home and soon finished reading his book. I’ve never met anyone quite like David Sedaris, and I doubt I will again.
“Happy-Go-Lucky” is currently available in bookstores, including Schuler Books. The audiobook, narrated by David Sedaris, is available where audiobooks are sold.