David Sedaris, Anatomizing Us In 'Squirrel' Tales The humorist, who made his name with personal essays and other nonfiction, tells Steve Inskeep that his return to fiction kept taking him to surprising places. But the unhappy endings? Those he could have predicted.

David Sedaris, Anatomizing Us In 'Squirrel' Tales

David Sedaris, Anatomizing Us In 'Squirrel' Tales

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David Sedaris is a writer, humorist and regular contributor to public radio's This American Life. Anne Fishbein hide caption

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Anne Fishbein

David Sedaris is a writer, humorist and regular contributor to public radio's This American Life.

Anne Fishbein

David Sedaris isn't out to teach anybody any life lessons. So sure, his latest collection, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, uses self-aggrandizing mice and gullible storks to explore some very human foibles and failings.

But don't call these stories fables.

"Fables have morals, and not all of these do," he tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "So I wound up calling it a bestiary, which is just a book in which animals do things that people do."

In contrast to classic animal fables like Aesop's "The Tortoise and the Hare," there are few identifiably good characters in Sedaris' stories.

"I don't think our world is as black and white now," says Sedaris, who consciously avoided Aesop and La Fontaine as he put together the new collection. "Sometimes in these stories, you'd kind of be hard-pressed to try to sort of figure out who's the worst."

Several of Sedaris' tales were inspired by the unbecoming behavior of others. In "The Sick Rat and the Healthy Rat," a healthy lab rat belittles her dying neighbor by claiming that he brought the illness on himself with his "hatefulness and negative energy."


Illustration of cat and baboon.
Ian Falconer

Hear Sedaris Read 'The Mouse And The Snake'

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The inspiration? People Sedaris knew, suggesting that certain sick people deserved what they got.

""I would hear them talking like that, and I would think, 'When did you get crazy like that?' " he says. "So I sort of found pleasure in writing about it in a fictional way. Instead of doing what I would normally do. Which is just condemn them."

More overtly, one of the many flawed creatures in Sedaris' bestiary sends up a bully of a security guard he encountered at an airport security check.

"I just looked at her and I thought, 'I'm gonna turn you into a rabbit,' " he remembers. "So, I wrote a story about a rabbit who's put in charge of security in the forest."

Most of Sedaris' stories didn't have their genesis in a real-life encounter, though.

"I just wanted to start writing fiction again," he says -- and the short story is a contained form.

"And I found that if you begin a story with 'The squirrel and the chipmunk had been dating for two weeks when they ran out of things to talk about,' a reader or a listener is going to think, 'This is gonna go on [for] four pages tops.' So, it was a medium that called for brevity, and I liked that."

"I liked, too, that everybody knows what a squirrel and a chipmunk look like," Sedaris adds. "So you don't have to describe them. So you can just cut right to the chase."

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While you might think that at least a story or three in the collection might bring itself to a sunny close, remember that this is David Sedaris. And remember, too, the realities of the tradition he's working in.

"I mean, when you think about fables, often those end badly," he says. "Someone's a good person, and someone's a bad person, and the bad person learns a lesson and loses their life in the process. So these are pretty violent. If these were stories about people, I could understand somebody saying, 'Oh, the violence is over the top.' "

The harsh truth, though, is that the world of animals can be pretty grim.

"You know, we have a farmer across the road from us in Normandy," says Sedaris, who lives part time in that French province. "And he told me years ago that you always want your lambs to be born in the lambing shed, because when they're born in the field, crows will come and pluck out the eyes of the newborn babies."

Even Sedaris seems momentarily sobered by that mental picture. And then:

"So I wrote a story about that, because to pluck out the eyes of a baby lamb -- I mean, that's cold."

Excerpt: 'Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk'

Ian Falconer
Illustration of cat and baboon.
Ian Falconer

The Cat and the Baboon

The cat had a party to attend, and went to the baboon to get herself groomed.

“What kind of party?” the baboon asked, and she massaged the cat’s neck in order to relax her, the way she did with all her customers. “Hope it’s not that harvest dance down on the riverbank. My sister went last year and said she’d never seen such rowdiness. Said a fight broke out between two possums, and one gal, the wife of one or the other, got pushed onto a stump and knocked out four teeth. And they were pretty ones too, none of this yellowness you find on most things that eat trash.”

The cat shuddered. “No,” she said. “This is just a little get-together, a few friends. That type of thing.”

“Will there be food?” the baboon asked.

“Something,” the cat sighed. “I just don’t know what.”

“ ‘Course it’s hard,” the baboon said. “Everybody eating different things. You got one who likes leaves and another who can’t stand the sight of them. Folks have gotten so picky nowadays, I just lay out some peanuts and figure they either eat them or they don’t.”

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk
Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary
By David Sedaris,
Illustrated by Ian Falconer
Hardcover, 164 pages
Little, Brown and Co.
List Price: $21.99

“Now, I wouldn’t like a peanut,” the cat said. “Not at all.”

“Well, I guess you’d just have drinks, then. The trick is knowing when to stop.”

“That’s never been a problem for me,” the cat boasted. “I drink until I’m full, and then I push myself away from the table. Always have.”

“Well, you’ve got sense, then. Not like some of them around here.” The baboon picked a flea from the cat’s head and stuck it gingerly between her teeth. “Take this wedding I went to — last Saturday, I think it was. Couple of marsh rabbits got married — you probably heard about it.”

The cat nodded.

“Now, I like a church service, but this was one of those write-your-own-vows sorts of things. Neither of them had ever picked up a pen in their life, but all of a sudden they’re poets, right, like that’s all it takes — being in love.”

“My husband and I wrote our own vows,” the cat said defensively.

“Sure you did,” countered the baboon, “but you probably had something to say, not like these marsh rabbits, carrying on that their love was like a tender sapling or some damn thing. And all the while they had this squirrel off to the side, plucking at a harp, I think it was.”

“I had a harp player at my wedding,” the cat said, “and it was lovely.”

“I bet it was, but you probably hired a professional, someone who could really play. This squirrel, I don’t think she’d taken a lesson in her life. Just clawed at those strings, almost like she was mad at them.”

“Well, I’m sure she tried her best,” the cat said.

The baboon nodded and smiled, the way one must in the service industry. She’d planned to tell a story about a drunken marsh rabbit, the brother of the groom at last week’s wedding, but there was no point in it now, not with this client anyway. Whatever she said, the cat disagreed with, and unless she found a patch of common ground she was sure to lose her tip. “You know,” she said, cleaning a scab off the cat’s neck, “I hate dogs. Simply cannot stand them.”

“What makes you bring that up?” the cat asked.

“Just thinking,” the baboon said. “Some kind of spaniel mix walked in yesterday, asking for a shampoo, and I sent him packing, said, ‘I don’t care how much money you have, I’m not making conversation with anyone who licks his own ass.’ ” And the moment she said it, she realized her mistake.

“Now, what’s wrong with that?” the cat protested. “It’s good to have a clean anus. Why, I lick mine at least five times a day.”

“And I admire you for it,” the baboon said, “but you’re not a dog.”


“On a cat it’s . . . classy,” the baboon said. “There’s a grace to it, but a dog, you know the way they hunker over, legs going every which way.”

“Well, yes,” the cat said. “I suppose you have a point.”

“Then they slobber and drool all over everything, and what they don’t get wet, they chew to pieces.”

“That they do.” The cat chuckled, and the baboon relaxed and searched her memory for a slanderous dog story. The collie, the German shepherd, the spaniel mix she claimed to have turned away: they were all good friends of hers, and faithful clients, but what would it hurt to pretend otherwise and cross that fine line between licking ass and simply kissing it?

Excerpted from Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary by David Sedaris; illustrated by Ian Falconer Copyright 2010 by David Sedaris. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Co., a division of Hachette Book Group.