David Sedaris: A Writer's Fairy Tale Life

Author David Sedaris, right, with CBS' Serena Altshul.
Author David Sedaris is a writer whose success story is one of the most unlikely you could imagine. CBS' Serena Altschul reports:

David Sedaris, playing to a standing room only crowd at New York's fabled Apollo Theater, is not a rock star, but don't tell that to his fans.

He's a writer who still can't quite believe his good fortune, despite nine million book sales that say: "Believe it."

"At last night's signing, I was approached by a young girl wearing the ugliest T-shirt I have ever seen. It was painted by a dolphin, the girl explained. I must have looked like that wasn't quite strange enough for me. 'A dolphin with scoliosis,' the girl's mother added," Sedaris said.

"The fact that I could make a career out of reading - I never allowed myself to dream that that would happen."

"Do you like to listen or read?" Serena Altschul asked a fan.

"I do both, listen and read. I wish he were my best friend."

His devoted readers wait for hours for a chance to share a story or joke with the guy who's been called the "prime candidate for funniest writer alive" by Greg Villepique of Salon.com.

Sedaris never complains that the lines are too long.

"I love getting attention, just like a child loves it, and it's never worn off. So when people say, oh the book signings go on. Why would I shoo away someone who's giving me attention? What part of standing in line for 10 hours to say how much they love you is bad to you?"

Sedaris was born in upstate New York, but grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. He's the second of six children, all of whom - along with his mother Sharon and father Lou - figure prominently in his stories.

The quest for attention, and the love of storytelling, he says, began around the family table.

"All we ever wanted was to make our mother laugh, and she was generous with her laughter. She wasn't a fool, though. She would say, 'That went on way too long' or 'I've heard that before.' Even at the time, I remember thinking, 'I think this is different than other people's lives.' "

Which may help explain why younger sister Amy Sedaris also found fame with her quick wit and comic timing.

"It was a normal, simple, middle class upbringing?" Altschul asked. "And somehow you and Amy catapulted into the spotlight?"

"I think just because we were more ambitious, I think that had anyone else in my family wanted that, they could have had it as well," he said.

If young David had high ambitions, he kept them to himself.

He dropped out of college, twice. He did way too many drugs, and kept together with a series of low-paying jobs.

One of those jobs was as a Christmas elf at Macy's department store in New York City.

"I don't have any skills, and I'm small, so they hired me," he said.

That led to his story, "Santaland Diaries": "I wear green velvet knickers, a forest green velvet smock and a perky stocking cap decorating with spangles. This is my work uniform."

Every day, the 30-something Sedaris toiled in the service of Santa, and every night he would write in his diary about what happened.

"Can you close your eyes and make a wish? Everything these elves say seems to have an exclamation point at the end of it!"

Then one day, NPR's Ira Glass asked him to read one of his stories on the radio.

"That just changed everything overnight. It was like somebody came along with a wand and said, 'Here you go, here's everything you ever wanted!' " Sedaris said.

"He's been showered with accolades ever since, even invited to speak to Princeton's graduating class in 2006.

Today, Sedaris divides his time between France and England, and travels the world gathering material for his quizzical and slyly subversive stories.

His latest book is a collection of tales about animals. Kind of.

"The squirrel and the chipmunk had been dating for two weeks, when they ran out of things to talk about."

"They become just so human," Altshul said.

"If they were human, then I think, as a listener or a reader, you would think, 'I'm like that. I don't want to listen to that anymore.' But if it's a chipmunk, then you think, 'Oh, that's a story about a chipmunk,' then you're almost near the end and you think, 'Oh, that's about me.' "

"Would you have taken a job here in your early days, when you were cleaning houses and working as an elf?" Altshul asked Sedaris as the two were walking around New York's Central Park Zoo.

"I couldn't have played second fiddle to a sea lion as gracefully as the people who work here," Sedaris said. "Because here it's all about the sea lions. Where with me, it would be like, I eat fish too! I had fish just last night, it was great!"

Fodder, perhaps, for another story, somewhere down the line.

"Is it fair to say that you life story, it's a little bit of a fairy tale?" Altshul asked.

"Exactly," Sedaris said. "I mean, if mine isn't, I don't know whose is."

For more information:
"Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary" by David Sedaris (Little, Brown)
David Sedaris Reads from "Santaland Diaries" on NPR