With his new collection of essays, ''When You Are Engulfed in Flames,'' America's favorite memoirist defends his right to exaggerate in the name of humor
David Sedaris
Credit: Christine Kokot/dpa/Landov

If David Sedaris’ longtime boyfriend, Hugh Hamrick, wants to buy him a shirt, Sedaris has a lot of requirements. ”Hugh gets after me,” Sedaris says. ”Because I have so many little rules.”

On a sunny mid-May afternoon, he’s sitting in the couple’s London town house, sipping tea poured from a cat-shaped teapot. So what sort of ”little rules” is he talking about? ”You may not have noticed,” Sedaris explains, ”how a lot of manufacturers have made the buttons farther apart. If you lean over? Your stomach shows.” The very shirt Sedaris has on right now once had that peekaboo problem. ”So I had snaps added between the buttons,” he says, very pleased. Look close and there they are: teensy, discreet snaps. Problem solved!

But wait — there’s another, more important rule. What if Hugh should procure a shirt without a pocket big enough to hold Sedaris’ trusty Europa notepad, or one with no pocket at all? Well, that’s a deal breaker. After all, Sedaris, 51, is the master of the short, hilarious, self-lacerating personal recollection. He might need a Europa handy for jotting notes at any moment. ”Pulling it out makes people more nervous than a camera,” he says. ”[They] think I’m writing down their license plate number.” Can’t he dispense with the scribbling and wear a pocketless shirt once in a while? Sedaris looks stricken. ”I don’t let that happen,” he says.

Spoken like a true compulsive. Sedaris has let go of many fixations in his life: He swore off drugs and alcohol years ago, and, in January 2007, turned his back on cigarettes. But his magpie drive to gather together odd, shiny facts and foibles? That he will never abandon. It’s a siren call that’s made him one of the best-loved and most successful humorists on the planet. Sedaris’ full catalog, including his acclaimed essay collections Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day, and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, has 7 million in print. His CDs do very nicely. And his book-tour appearances can cause shoving and tears among those jockeying for seats. During the Q&A sessions, Sedaris says, there’s almost always someone who asks, How much of the story you just read is true? Not his favorite query, because Sedaris doesn’t claim to be a rigorously factual memoirist, especially when it comes to his lilting, lyrical dialogue. That’s sparked a bit of a to-do recently, but if Sedaris can figure out how to solve the problem of widely spaced buttons, he can handle anything.

The author’s latest book of essays, When You Are Engulfed in Flames — the title comes from a disaster-prevention text he found in a Hiroshima hotel room — goes on sale June 3. Some of the new volume’s ingredients will be familiar to Sedaristas. Long-suffering partner Hamrick figures prominently; he even lances a nasty boil on Sedaris’ butt in a paean to couplehood called ”Old Faithful.” Sedaris’ family reappears too, including his little sister Amy Sedaris (of TV’s Strangers With Candy and many a kooky Letterman appearance). But fame and scrutiny change things, including audience perceptions, and Sedaris worries that success may be dulling his outsider-loser edge. Maybe nibbling at his credibility, too. The withering assessments of his own lunacies haven’t diminished, but the events are tamer and backdrops fancier: swanky hotels, the first-class section of an airplane. ”I don’t know if I’ll get away with it,” says Sedaris. ”I’m trying to write about what’s happening to me now. So there I am sitting in first class, right? I don’t know if people will say, ‘F— you, I never get to sit in first class!”’

NEXT PAGE: ”I’ve said a thousand times I exaggerate. Why is it news when somebody else says it?”

The last time Sedaris jetted in from one of his residences in Paris, Normandy, and London to do a U.S. book tour was in 2005, for Corduroy and Denim. In the years since, the American extreme-memoir scene has grown cluttered with the bodies of authors pilloried as partial or wholesale fabulists: James Frey, Augusten Burroughs, and, most recently, the author who called herself Margaret B. Jones. The kerfuffles over their books have created a charged atmosphere for anyone trading on their life for raw material. If you ask Sedaris, the Frey backlash, culminating in a public shaming by Oprah Winfrey, was overblown. ”His punishment outweighed his crime,” says Sedaris. ”I don’t recall Oprah Winfrey calling George Bush a liar when he was on her show. And those lies cost thousands of people their lives.”

So to get back to that question he always gets from the crowd: As he’s strip-mined his own North Carolina upbringing and subsequent adulthood, how much has Sedaris himself made up? Plenty, he has frequently and cheerfully confessed. But it doesn’t matter because he’s a humorist, right? The New Republic begged to differ last spring. In an article titled ”This American Lie” by Alex Heard, TNR accused Sedaris of doing more than just stretching the truth. ”With some of his stories, especially the early ones, like in Naked,” says Heard, ”he’s taken every liberty a fiction writer [does]. It makes the story very funny, but also makes it something you shouldn’t call nonfiction.” Responds Sedaris: ”I’ve said a thousand times I exaggerate. Why is it news when somebody else says it?”

Some of the sleuthing Heard did seems solid, including, for example, getting Sedaris to confirm that he invented details of encounters with mental patients in 1970. But many a bizarre situation checked out true, and Heard’s contention that Sedaris’ work amounts to a mean-spirited exploitation of his family and others seems, well, grossly exaggerated. Sedaris’ Little, Brown publisher, Michael Pietsch, shrugs off Heard’s piece as ”a ludicrous exercise” that ”ignores a great American literary vein of essays in which great writers take liberties with their personal experiences.”

Whew! Hey, did it just get serious in here, folks? Let’s remember these are funny essays we’re talking about — and beautifully crafted ones, too. Some blogarazzi have applauded Heard, but just as many have given him a Bronx cheer, including super-cynical Gawker. Says one Sedaris associate, ”When Gawker’s on your side? You’re home free.” The author is resigned to the fact that any nonfiction writer these days is a target — even one who writes about boils and concrete toadstools. ”On the American humorist license, it reads, ‘Can exaggerate your head off,”’ Sedaris says. ”They haven’t changed the wording on it in hundreds of years.” Still, Sedaris’ latest stories include more specific qualifiers, like ”in my memory,” ”as I remember it,” ”a man I’ll call…,” and ”I’ll say her name was…” He’s also placed the designation ”realish” on the copyright page of his new book. He says the lawyers at Little, Brown, who usually meet with him before each book is published, had nothing to confer about once they saw realish. ”You say ?ish, you don’t have to meet with anyone,” Sedaris says drily. ”If I’d known that, God! I’d have done it years ago!”

When You Are Engulfed in Flames