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 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."
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."
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."