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.
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David Sedaris, Anatomizing Us In 'Squirrel' Tales

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David Sedaris, Anatomizing Us In 'Squirrel' Tales

David Sedaris, Anatomizing Us In 'Squirrel' Tales

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The writer David Sedaris made his name with satirical stories about people close to him. His latest work turns to animals - sort of. In the book "Squirrel Meets Chipmunk," Sedaris uses animals to describe human nature.

Mr. DAVID SEDARIS (Author, "Squirrel Meets Chipmunk"): One of the rules I made for myself with this book is I didn't want any of the animals to have names. Because, you know, like sometimes, somebody will say they have a cat, and you say, oh, what's your cat's name? And then they'll say - oh, uh - Daisy. And you think -then you make a judgment about that cat.


Mr. SEDARIS: You either like it, or you don't like it. So I didn't want any of the animals to have names. So it's the stork, and the stork's sister.

INSKEEP: The stork and the stork's sister - the characters are two mother birds. In this passage, they've been talking about what to tell their offspring when their children ask where babies come from.

Mr. SEDARIS: (Reading) So we lie and we lie, and then one day, they're just supposed to believe us. That's how it was with our family, and I never felt particularly traumatized, the stork said. Besides, they're not lies so much as stories. There's a difference. Oh, is there? spat her sister, surprised at how angry this was making her. Give me an example.

The stork squinted over the surrounding rooftops until something came to her. All right. I remember seeing my first full moon, and being told by granddad that it was a distant, natural satellite formed billions of years ago, and I believed it for the longest time until I learned the truth. The truth, her sister said. God made it, announced the stork. Her sister felt suddenly ill. Who? God, the stork repeated.

He made the world and the heavens, all out of it out of dust and willpower and in less than a week. I overheard a cardinal talking about him on top of the cathedral in the square, and it was really quite instructive. So is that who brings the babies, God? Lord, no, the sister said. Babies are brought by mice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: So, you have this stork who has a dumb belief that babies are brought by mice, when we all know they're actually brought by storks. But in the end, you discover the sister is not very smart, either, necessarily. I noticed that about a bunch of these fables - and that's the right word for it - right? Fables?

Mr. SEDARIS: Well, I was going to call them fables, but fables always have morals, and not all of these do. So I wound up calling it a bestiary, which is just a book in which animals do things that people do.

INSKEEP: And I guess what I'm on my way to saying is that if you think about aclassic story like "The Tortoise and the Hare," the hare is full of himself and stupid, but the tortoise is slow and steady, and wins the race. I mean, there's a good character there. Often in these stories that you tell, no one would be identifiable as the good character. Everybody's foolish.

Mr. SEDARIS: Pretty much. I didn't want to read any La Fontaine or any Aesop when I was writing this book because I didn't want to wind up just rewriting those stories. That's been done fairly often, just updating the stories. I don't know. I don't think our world is as black and white now. Sometimes in these stories, like, you'd kind of be hard-pressed to try and sort of figure out who's the worst.

But - like in the story "The Sick Rat and the Healthy Rat," you see that quite often now, as people will decide that sick people deserve their sickness.

INSKEEP: Describe that story for people who haven't seen it yet.

Mr. SEDARIS: It's two lab rats living in a tank, and one of them is near death. And another lab rat is introduced. And she's saying, you know, whatever it is that's wrong with you, you brought it on yourself with hatefulness and negative energy. And I've seen that a lot. But that could never happen to me. I could never get sick because I have a sunny disposition.

And then, you know, a hand comes into the tank and shoots her full of some horrible disease.

INSKEEP: Which is why the first lab rat, of course, was sick.

Mr. SEDARIS: Correct. But I've just known - people who I always thought were logical, I would hear them talking like that. And I would think: When did you get crazy like that? So I sort of found pleasure in writing about it in a fictional way instead of what I would normally do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SEDARIS: Which is just condemn them.

INSKEEP: Or write another story about your family, perhaps.

Mr. SEDARIS: Yeah, but you know, there are a couple of stories in here that are based on - sort of things that really happen, but not many of them.

Like, I was in an airport, and this woman at the security counter wanted me to remove my vest. I don't know what I was doing wearing a vest, but I had a vest on. And I said, well, you can tell me why? I said, I've been to 20 cities this month, and no one's asked me to remove my vest. Can you tell me - I want the vest off now. And I just looked at her, and I thought: I'm going to turn you into a rabbit. So I wrote a story about a rabbit who's put in charge of security in the forest.

INSKEEP: Is there some way in which you got a little tired of writing directly about people?

Mr. SEDARIS: No. What I wanted to do was, I just wanted to start writing fiction again. 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 going to go on four pages, tops. So it was a medium that called for brevity, and I liked that. And I liked, too, that everybody knows what a squirrel and a chipmunk - looks like. So you don't have to describe them. So you can just cut right to the chase.

INSKEEP: Did you, as you were writing these stories, find one of them heading toward a happy ending and you had to say, no, no, wait, wait - I don't want it to go that way?

Mr. SEDARIS: I'm not a big plotter. I didn't like knowing where anything was going. So, I was often surprised by the endings. I mean, when you think about fables, often those end badly. You know, 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. But the animal world is pretty violent.

INSKEEP: In addition to being more gruesome, can you be more explicit, really, about human behavior as you see it?

Mr. SEDARIS: I think so. Well, there was something liberating about writing a story about a squirrel and a chipmunk, because I didn't have to worry about the chipmunk coming to me, saying - you know, thanks a lot. Thanks a lot for telling the world about me and that squirrel.

INSKEEP: The book is called "Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk," and the author is David Sedaris. David, thanks very much.

Mr. SEDARIS: Oh, thank you, Steve.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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