Below is another reflection on the life of a publicist from Michelle Rafferty. Rafferty has been a Publicity Assistant at Oxford University Press since September 2008. Prior to Oxford she interned at Norton Publishing for a summer and taught 9th & 10th grade Literature. She is chronicling her adventures in publishing every Friday so be sure to visit again next week.
When it comes to authors and actors I love, I can admit that what often begins as a routine Google search, sometimes develops into minor celebrity obsession. When I get the chance to meet some of these people, my perfectly planned speeches about how they changed my life go awry, and I usually just stand, silently gawking as they sign my book or theater bill, and then run away. I don’t forget what I plan on saying, rather I am terrified that anything I do or say will make me look like I an idiot; in this case I decide that the great American adage “the greatest risks are those not taken” simply doesn’t apply. If I make a fool out of myself, I’ll never live it down, reminded of it every time I see their face on a magazine cover. What if my favorite author hated me? I never could read their work again.
So when my friend invited me to a David Sedaris reading I became excited, not only because he is one of my favorite writers, but also because I thought I had a real shot of not looking like an idiot in front of him. I happened to read a piece of his in The New Yorker that week, in which he describes how (unlike a lot of authors) he loves his book tours, and puts in great effort to come up with a special question and gift for each person who approaches his signing table. This was good news. I didn’t have to start the conversation or come up with some meaningful anecdote. As far as I was concerned, when I marched up to that table, the ball was in his court.
In our seats at the Paramount Center for the Arts, in Peekskill, New York, my friend turned to me and said, “I bet he thinks we are all kind of dumb, spending $60 on tickets to hear him read stuff that we could just read ourselves.” I never thought about it this way, and my celebrity anxiety began to resurface. What if he was right—what if David Sedaris does see his blindly adoring fans as idiots? I could see his next essay saying something along the lines of: “How do you make money in these economic times? Simply open up a book, read and call it a tour, charging $60-$80 a pop.” As the evening progressed, I found that my friend was wrong on two fronts: 1) David Sedaris read all new material, so we couldn’t have read the stuff on our own 2) He didn’t think we (the fans) were dumb at all.
His new material was fresh and innovative, and in David Sedaris style: funny, empathetic, and perceptive when recalling his symbiotic relationships with loved ones and perfect strangers alike. After he read his first two essays and his diary entries, covering significant topics like the inauguration, gay marriage, and making nachos out of the consecrated Body of Christ, he played a clip from his favorite audio book Talking Heads (which he recommended “before anything I’ve written”) and closed with an open Q&A. The questions weren’t especially cerebral, sometimes not questions at all, for example, “Will you sing?”, “When did you start writing in your diary?”, and “Your dad seems like a great guy!” He responded kindly and at length, clearly having a great time. He even shared his diary entries over the past few days (which he keeps in a little notepad in his front pocket).
I also learned that our opinions mattered. One audience member asked why he was circling words with his pen when he read, and he explained that he was editing, making syntactical adjustments and gauging our reactions. He said, “When the audience coughs, it’s like they are throwing skulls at you,” and noted that after several readings his second story became much shorter.
At the end of the evening I waited in line with When You are Engulfed in Flames clutched in my hands, while people around me filled out their “Write your name as you would like it to appear” cards. Because I was keeping my copy for myself, I simply wrote “Michelle.” While others wrote careful messages for their loved ones, my anxiety soared once more as I realized David Sedaris would surely hate me for my pure selfishness. Anxiety still growing, I chatted with my friend, trying to hear what the author was saying to his fans. I noticed that he had a special power over couples; when they left his table it seemed like they were falling in love all over again, embracing, holding hands, and looking into one another’s eyes with wide grins. I even saw one guy dip his girlfriend into the proverbial Hollywood kiss.
When we stepped up to David Sedaris’ table, we found ourselves in the presence of a warm, smiling man with a rather remarkable tan. Somehow I found myself able to answer his questions (Where are you from? What do you do?) with coherent sentences. He offered me a present from his bag (I chose a piece of bubble gum, which has since been chewed and saved). He told us a little anecdote about a mentally unstable fan, which had my friend and I cracking up. At this moment I felt so relaxed that I leaned over, looked in his eyes and asked something I had been wondering since I read his last New Yorker piece: “Did you really give out condoms to fans?” “Oh yes!” he responded, “Last night I had a bus load of 8th graders come, and they completely wiped me out of all my soaps, shampoos, and condoms.” (To clarify, these were shampoos and soaps that he picked up in his hotels during his tour.) We broke down into laughter once more, thanked him, and kindly stepped aside to let someone else enjoy the aura of David Sedaris.
As my friend and I walked down to the Peekskill train station, it smelled like rain and the streetlights seemed to twinkle. My friend knew just what to say: “He loved you!” And you know what, I think he did. But I’m not special. I think David Sedaris genuinely loves every one of his fans (even the mentally unstable ones). Sure, we make great fodder for his stories, but I also think he holds a discernible reverence for us. We indulge in his stories and his life, and he wants to learn as much about ours, which he does in as little time as he can.