Stephen Tobolowsky calls his book, The Dangerous Animals Club, a group of "pieces." They are partly essays, partly short stories, partly memoir. They are anecdotes, stories and insights that are shuffled in and out of order, like cards in a deck.
Tobolowsky is a career character actor. He played Ned Ryerson in the movie Groundhog Day, and Sandy Ryerson (no relation) in the TV series Glee. He was the dog trainer in a Garfield the Cat movie and a Ku Klux Klansman in Mississippi Burning. He has played accountants, cops, insurance sellers and nameless men on the street in more than 200 films and twice as many television shows.
But in recent years, he's been acclaimed for writing and performing what amounts to an ongoing memoir of his life and times. He talks about his book with NPR's Scott Simon.
On the "dangerous animals club" he founded as a child
"When you're a kid, there is secret world that you have that your parents don't know about. Every day my mom would think I was going out just to play in the street, but I would go across the alley to [my friend Billy's] house and we determined that we would find all the dangerous animals that lived in Texas. We had a list: rattlesnakes, copperheads, water moccasins, scorpions, tarantulas, black widows — I mean, Texas, we had 'em all.
"So we went out trying to catch the most horrible things in the world. And then I would come home to my mother, and she'd say, 'Did you have fun playing with Billy?' and I'd say, 'Oh, sure, Mom,' and her never knowing that I just had a jar with 50 tarantulas in it a second ago."
"No one really thinks of their lives as a chronology. It's almost an artificial construct to say that I was born at this date and then these things happened in order. When we think of things, memory is more a function of importance, of meaning in our life. ... The memories come and tap us on the shoulder and say, 'Pay attention to me.' "
On the line between fact and fiction in his stories
"True trumps clever any day of the week. So I really try to make sure that all of my stories in the book are, one, true, and, two, that they happened to me. It's far more important to tell a true story even if it's not perfect in all the details than to make up a clever lie."
On how to put life into a performance or a piece of writing
"Where there's truth, there's life. ... Aristotle talked about something called techne. ... There is a little jolt that we get when we recognize the truth, and it gives us a little burst of pleasure. Aristotle said it is the basis of comedy and it is the basis of all drama, is trying to find techne. I think that's helped me in my comedic acting, and it's certainly helped me in writing my book, in that I have to have faith in what really happened, and I hope that techne is created in people's brains as either they read or if they watch me on screen. ... When we see truth in someone else's story, we recognize it as part of a universal story."