David Sedaris is an odd duck.
That statement won't come as a surprise to readers of Me Talk Pretty One Day, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and other best-selling anthologies by the wicked humorist. Fans snap up Sedaris' autobiographical essays, salty and hilarious mixes of the morbid and the eccentric, as if they were truffles.
But seriously, what kind of author actually enjoys the grin-and-bear-it gauntlet of a book tour?
Sedaris relishes it.
"I like the person I am when I'm on book tour much more than the person I am when I'm not on a book tour," he says.
"Once you've been out there doing it for 20 days and there are still 10 days more to go," he says, "it has nothing to do with real life. Nothing. And I think that's partially what I like about it."
Well, if he enjoys these literary events, he'll love what they have planned for him Saturday at the Joseph Fox Bookstore on Sansom Street.
Owner Michael Fox has arranged a block party to celebrate the release this week of Sedaris' sixth collection, When You Are Engulfed in Flames.
"I know that wherever David goes he draws large crowds," Fox says. "It occurred to me to get my neighbors involved, first because there will be a lot of people gathered in front of their businesses and second so they could take advantage of it. Some are bringing in extra staff. The Raven Lounge will have live music and the Sofitel across the street will have a table with soft drinks."
It turns out Sedaris is already predisposed toward Philadelphia. During his last author event here, he walked around the city with local painter Bill Scott, getting a taste of our fair town.
"Generally on a book tour, you see the hotel and the bookstore," says Sedaris. "It's hard to imagine the lives of the people who live there. For some reason, all it takes is to know one person and then you feel like you know the city."
"Mainly we just walked around and looked at people," Scott says. "He cracked up at one woman who was standing by City Hall and begging for money while talking on her cell phone."
The author, visiting one of his sisters in Winston-Salem, N.C., before embarking on the tour, apologizes for the raucous noise his sister's parrots are making in the background.
"They were quiet until I got on the phone," he says. "Then they want your attention. They get upset when you're talking to someone other than them."
In conversation, as on the page, Sedaris can't seem to bring up a relative without confiding an embarrassing anecdote.
"Lisa's parrot - I can't get anywhere near it. Yesterday, Lisa opened her mouth and said, 'OK, Henry, floss my teeth.' The bird stuck his head in her mouth and started picking food out of her mouth," he says with a tone that blends wonder and disgust.
As usual, Sedaris' siblings and parents take a beating in When You Are Engulfed in Flames. But, as is also his wont, he saves the lion's share of mortification for himself. "In the Waiting Room," for instance, details the humiliation of sitting for 20 minutes in your underpants in a doctor's waiting room, surrounded by fully dressed people.
"If you're going to give other people a hard time, it works better if you give yourself an equally hard time," he says. "There's a way of being self-deprecating that can be irritating. I hope I'm not that way about it. I like to think my self-loathing is genuine."
The title of the new collection comes from a pamphlet he found in a Japanese hotel room on disaster preparation.
He traveled to Tokyo to quit smoking cigarettes. It's a long story - well, 73 pages, which is very long for Sedaris. But he loved the country and hopes to return. (Sedaris, with his companion, Hugh Hamrick, splits most of his time between residences in Paris, Normandy and London.)
"I love television in Japan," he exults. "There was a show on about . . . well, I can only guess, but I think it was about 'Let's find the fattest cat in all Japan.' There were these cats that were really, really fat. They were showing the videos to a live audience who were just doubled over laughing. I mean, it's not every day you see a cat with a triple chin. An American audience would be like, 'This is pet abuse! What can we do as a nation to rein in these overweight pets?' But in Japan, it's just funny, funny, funny."
Sedaris experienced some prejudice during his visit.
"If you sit down on the subway, a Japanese person will sometimes get up [and change seats] because they think Westerners smell like butter," he says. "A lot of people would get bothered by that. But I don't care. Discrimination is gold to a writer."
Sedaris has been somewhat concerned with the kind of reception that might greet When You Are Engulfed in Flames. Since he has enjoyed some success, he likes to pamper himself. But he doesn't want people to think he's an elitist.
"I want to write about things that are going on in my life now," he explains. "I spend more time on planes than I do in a car and I spend an awful lot of time in hotels. But are people going to say, 'What the hell are you complaining about? I never get to ride in business class! I never get to stay at the Four Seasons!'
"Well, I may get to stay at the Four Seasons, but I still have to be me," he says. "I'm too shy to call downstairs to ask for silverware, so I end up having to cut my cake with a credit card."
Of course, with a kookily candid writer like Sedaris, when he has his messy cake, we get to eat it, too.