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Wowing an audience, the David Sedaris way

As reading season thickens and authors fill airports on their intersecting migrations from festival to festival, one fey voice rises above all others. David Sedaris may not be the most impressive elocutionist around, but there is not a writer alive who can out-read him.

Others do book tours, but this spoken-word master has just finished visiting 35 cities over 35 days on a bona fide lecture tour, reading yet-to-be published stories in theatres that seat thousands of paying customers. After a shortbreak, he is heading back out on a conventional tour to promote his latest book, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, most of the stories in which true fans will already know from last spring's lecture tour. More new material will appear in next spring's lecture tour, for which tickets are already available.

When he isn't reading himself, Sedaris said in a recent interview from his home in the British countryside near London, he often attends other readings, "so I can remember what it's like to be in that audience." And how deadly that can be when less thoughtful writers command the stage.

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"I went to a writers' festival in Iceland last year, and we were all told to read for 15 minutes," he said. "There were six or seven writers, and I was last. So the first person read for half an hour, and then the second person read for 20 minutes. And I'm up there thinking, Okay, I have to pay for this."

Writing is notoriously private, but reading the result out loud is the very opposite. "They just didn't have the sense of an audience," Sedaris says. "They thought the audience was just automatically going to listen, and that doesn't really happen, you know."

Other common reading errors, according to Sedaris, include the fatal setup. "That's just death when people dip into the middle of their book, so they have to tell you everything that happened in the first 200 pages." Or the program notes best left unsaid: "I would never get up in front of an audience and say, 'I'm going to read four things tonight, because then they're like 'Oh, no! I have to listen to four?' And the first one's over and it's 'Oh, no! Three more?' "

Approaching a lectern with a large sheaf of papers in hand elicits the same response. "Oh, no! He's going to read all that?" Ergo, Sedaris says, professional readers hide their papers.

Best known today as the consistently funniest contributor to The New Yorker, Sedaris uses readings not only to present but also to compose his work, relying on audience feedback to shape it. Many of the 16 biting tales of human folly collected in Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, subtitled A Modest Bestiary and illustrated by Ian Falconer, achieved their final form only after two weeks of rehearsal in Chicago and Berkeley, Calif.

"It was advertised as a work in progress," Sedaris says. "So every night I read those animal stories for an hour, and just hammered on what I was having trouble with."

One persistent difficulty, he says, was the ending to a sweet fable about a group of leeches who form a glee club in the anus of a hippopotamus. "Every single night of the tour the ending was different," he says. "I just wanted an ending that didn't embarrass me."

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As published, the author's 21st-century bestiary is no more naturalistic than that of La Fontaine or Aesop, with animals standing in for all the ill-mannered and self-obsessed people the author has encountered in his travels. Making them animals sharpens the point.

"If those were people in the stories, the violence would really be over the top," Sedaris says. "But I don't think it is for the animal kingdom. …

"The animal world is so savage," he adds. "I think people living in cities often think that with a little bit of counselling it would become less savage." But no. "It's just a bloodbath."

Sedaris turns an obnoxious airport security guard he once ran afoul of - "a grandma with a stun gun" - into a megalomaniacal duck. Other villains encountered in daily life become alcoholic cats, self-pitying bears and murderous birds.

"Other animals are just me," the author says. "If I'm looking for things that get on my nerves, I really don't have to look any further than myself."

What unites them all is their brevity, another quality that endears Sedaris to live audiences throughout the English-speaking world. "If you write, 'The squirrel and the chipmunk had been dating for two weeks when they ran out of things to talk about,' " the author says, quoting himself, "a reader or a listener is going to say, 'We'll be through with this in four pages. It's not the kind of thing that's going to go on for 28 pages.'"

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When reader meets audience, the result is short, sharp and funny. An object lesson for writers everywhere.

David Sedaris's next speaking event will be at the Festival of Ideas in Edmonton on Nov. 21, with more talks in Winnipeg (Nov. 22), Montreal (Nov. 23), Halifax (Nov. 24) and Ottawa (Nov. 25).

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