[To repeat, this from the Flyer this week:]
"A white-tailed doe was discovered one morning disemboweled on the banks of the stream, and the residents of the forest went crazy with fear — 'freaked out' was how the sparrow put it. A few days later, a skunk was found, no more than a gnawed-upon skull attached to a short leash of spine. Personality-wise, he'd been no great shakes. Neither was he particularly good-looking, but still! Then a squirrel disappeared, and it was decided that something had to be done."
So something was.
A gate with a sign reading NO TRESPASSING is erected in the forest to keep out the riffraff. A no-nonsense rabbit elects to stand guard. And before this tale, called "The Vigilant Rabbit," ends, that rabbit has clobbered a laughing snake, a questioning magpie, and an insolent frog. Then the rabbit chews off the horn of a sleeping unicorn. But at least the unicorn survives. No ultimate word on the rabbit, though. When the story closes, the rabbit's staring at the diamond he's coughed up (thanks to the unicorn's magical horn he's swallowed), while, unseen, some unwelcome wolves arrive.
Welcome to one of the 16 not-so-lighthearted stories in David Sedaris' new book, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary (Little, Brown), illustrated by Ian Falconer.
Rough stuff? Yes, and it includes: a busybody hairdresser — a real baboon — with a bad word about everybody; a bear — a real crybaby — who won't shut up about the loss of her mother; a smooth-talking crow who plucks out the eyes of a lamb (while the lamb's mother is lost in meditation); a cat who's forced to endure the inanities of a prison AA program; and a gerbil who, in a rare case of generosity, agrees to investigate the leeches that live inside the anus of a hippopotamus.
Absurdist stuff? No more absurdist than what's inspired Sedaris: the darker side of human nature.
David Sedaris is signing Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk at Davis-Kidd Booksellers, Saturday, November 13th, 3 p.m. Line ticket, with book purchase, required. No photos with the author, please!
But before he's in Memphis on the 13th, there's Sedaris in a car, riding from Providence to Boston, on the morning of the 11th, which is where he opened our conversation on his own terms. The topic: herpes. Call it an occupational hazard:
David Sedaris: I just started this book tour. You know wrestling? Last night, I learned there's something called herpes gladitorium — herpes on your elbow, from wrestling. You get it from germs on the mat. And you can get flesh-eating bacteria too. I talked to a young wrestler last night, and he not only explained cauliflower ear, he answered all my wrestling questions. So that's good. That's what you want on a book tour.
"Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk": In places, it's pretty harsh. How's your audience reacting to it?
I'm very spoiled. I was just on a lecture tour. I went to 36 cities in 37 days. When you're on a lecture tour, you're in a theater. The audience has comfortable seats. The house is dark. And you have a great sound system.
So it's kind of jarring to go from that to bookstores, where they don't have great sound systems. They're bookstores. You can see the audience. And you realize, Oh, I thought that was funny when I read it at a lecture, because 2,500 people laughed at it. When there's 300 people at a bookstore: I guess it's not so funny, is it?
Book signings: They're an education. But there's nothing in this book I haven't read to an audience.
I read a story last night that I never thought was particularly funny. I didn't think it was funny when I wrote it — the story "The Motherless Bear." So, the audience at the store last night didn't laugh. But I wanted them to know I don't think it's funny either. Otherwise, there'd be people in the audience going, "That guy failed. I didn't laugh at all." But I enjoy reading that story — the dialogue, the way it moves.
There's a piece of political satire I do, and after I'd read it about 15 times before an audience, I thought if I read that line one more time I'm gonna scream. Do I really need that line in the finished story? Does it advance the story? It's kind of good to do that. You realize what's important to the story. Sometimes I've read something so many times, my editor at The New Yorker will say, "Okay, let's cut this," and I say, "But that line is my biggest laugh!"
The subtitle to "Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk" is "A Modest Bestiary." Why be so modest?
My publisher said I needed a subtitle, but I'm not big on subtitles. So my friend Jane came up with it. In England, they were afraid people would mistake this as a children's book, so they came up with "A Wicked Bestiary." But "modest" is nice, isn't it? Because it's kind of a modest book.
And it's "handy" too. The size of it ... it fits nicely in the hand.
Because I live in Europe, I couldn't oversee that aspect of it. Ian Falconer, the illustrator, completely oversaw it: the type of paper used, the way the book was printed, the size of it, I believe. They mailed me a copy after they'd done it, and I was delighted.
Did you work with Falconer on the illustrations?
Ian's the professional, not me. I figure you either pick the right person or you don't. You treat that person as an artist. You don't treat them like they're on your payroll.
You travel all over the U.S. reading, signing. How do audiences in one area of the country differ from another?
The people in charge of these things, these tours ... it's interesting … the people who make the decisions … like, I'm going to Oklahoma City on my tour. Those people will say, "Oklahoma City: That's so conservative!" And I'm like: You idiot! Do you think EVERYONE in Oklahoma City is conservative? What are the odds?
I had this story I was reading. It had just one thing about George Bush in it, a slight little thing, okay? I read it last spring a million times without any problem. And maybe because the election was on its way, this time I got booed. Somebody in the audience in one city said, "You can keep your book" and walked out. In another city, four people stormed out of the front row. But in Louisville, Kentucky, 2,300 people broke into applause. I thought they'd never stop. So:
Clearly, somebody in charge would've said, "Louisville is where people are going to boo. You'll be lynched in Louisville!" That's not the case at all.
So, to answer your question: I don't notice a difference in audience reaction regionally. What I do note is audience engagement. People in the South can be chattier, which is a quality I greatly admire.
And speaking of the South, you've done readings in Memphis several times. What's been your impression of the city?
I've only been in Memphis for work, and that's six or seven times. My feelings about Memphis changed once I discovered the downtown YMCA. It's a Y not far from the Peabody hotel. I started swimming after I quit smoking, and the people at that Y are so friendly. I love it there. I'd go to that YMCA any day.
Swimming: It's something to do on these tours. It gives me a little activity. When I go on tour, I try to find a YMCA, see if they'll let me in. I'm never gonna be good at swimming, and I have hair on my back. So I have nothing to be proud of. I kind of slink into the water and hope there's a lot of old people around.
Fans at your signings are kindly asked not to take pictures of you. Why?
That's not what I have to offer the world: I mean, my physical presence. If I had to list the 10 things I've got going for me, physical presence wouldn't even be on the list. It wouldn't be on the extended list.
But you were just on Jon Stewart's show.
I'll go on TV when a book comes out. But I never watch myself. I don't know what that would take: to watch yourself on TV. Even if that's what you had to offer the world, even if looks were number-one on the list ... to watch yourself on TV. You'd be thinking, Oh my God, is that my posture? Or: That ear is a little off. You'd try holding your head in a different way. I've already got too many things to worry about.
I've seen you recommend and read from books by other authors. What are you recommending on this tour?
Yes, I'm recommending a short-story collection called Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by a fellow named Wells Tower. I so love holding that book up to the audience and reading from it. It sounds really different from everything I've been reading all night. It sounds BETTER than everything I've been reading all night. I just love testifying for that book. I'd offer a money-back guarantee on it. I can't imagine anyone not liking it.
It's a wonderful idea: Using your time in front of an audience to publicize an author you admire.
I was in that bookstore in Oxford, in Mississippi, doing a signing, and afterward, they said to me, "Can we offer you a book?" Which nobody says anymore. NO-BOD-EE. Usually they say, "We've got something for you." And it's a mug. "We've got something for you." It's a T-shirt. I don't want mugs and T-shirts!
With all the news now of bullying, what would you say to a gay teenager who's being called names or worse?
In England, where I live, there's a big anti-bullying campaign. I don't know what good it does. But I love the "It Gets Better" video project that Dan Savage is doing. Still, I don't know if a 13-year-old watching that campaign is going to say, "I bully people. I need to stop!"
When I was young, you didn't call anyone a fag, because it was so far-fetched. It was like calling someone a warlock. You couldn't imagine that anyone could be so horrible, that anyone could actually be homosexual. To call somebody a fag was over-the-top. You'd call somebody a sissy …
Or a queer.
Queer, yeah … but when somebody back then said "queer," you didn't get the image in your mind of somebody with a dick in his mouth. Look, I'm 53. When I was school-age, I thought I was the only one.
I was at a zoo the other day. There were these sea otters, and they probably think they're the only sea otters in the world. There were only three of them. They live in this enclosure. They think that's normal.
And when I was young, there were no books about homosexuals in the library. It wasn't talked about. I thought I was the only one. Though I did have my ideas about Charles Nelson Reilly. But I had no proof.
Then my mother got a novel by James Michener, and there was a scene in it where a man is attracted to another man. That's when I realized I wasn't the only one on earth. That was in my senior year of high school.
For Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, I wrote 25 stories and I chose 16 for the book. I did have a story in there about a gay worm. But I realized all worms are gay. They don't need anyone but themselves. They're both male and female.
Do you identify with any of the animals in the finished book?
Oh yeah, quite a few. The ones with irritating qualities. I'm the baboon who sells out his friends for a tip. I'm the motherless bear whining for attention. I'm the grieving owl ...
You're the hippopotamus?
Yes ... no! Not the hippo.