In his new book, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary, writer, radio star, and amateur zoologist David Sedaris takes an artistic leap away from memoir and essay to channel a dark and dirty Aesop. In sixteen brief tales, Sedaris introduces readers to snotty warblers, lab rats who experience Schadenfreude, and a certain parasite that sings in a hippo’s butt. Children’s book author Ian Falconer (of Olivia books fame) illustrated the volume with warm, gorgeous illustrations yes, even of the hippo’s butt. For another of our long, all-encompassing, virtually unedited Transcript interviews, we spoke to Sedaris about everything from why he fears bumping into his writing idols to the most awkward Obama joke he has ever heard at one of his readings.
I was reading this article about you that was in the Times in 1993 — just to remind our readers, this was the time you were first starting to do things for NPR, for “Morning Edition” — and this article mentioned that you were getting propositioned by soap-opera producers to write, were in talks about a movie, and that a producer from Seinfeld called you. What happened with all that stuff? I also can’t imagine that being your career, but what happened at that point?
I was 35 at that point, so I’d been writing for fifteen years. I was just fortunate. I was giving a reading in Chicago, and Ira Glass happened to be in the audience and called a couple years later and asked if I’d like to be on the radio. I was doing readings in New York City, but I went from having an audience of 30 to an audience of 10 million basically overnight.
Because you were in your mid-30s and you’d been working on this for so long, was there any temptation at all to be like, “Oh God yes, I’ll take the money and I’ll take that life.”
I understood the pleasure of listening to the radio. So that was one of the reasons I did that. I always wanted to have a book. I actually had one in the drawer, and Little Brown called and I said, “I got one right here.” I was pretty much covered in everything I ever wanted. It was very flattering to be asked. Something told me that writing for television would be a lot more complicated than it seems, and I thought, Well, I already have everything that I want. So I was very flattered to be asked. I think if I’d been younger, I might’ve said, “Oh yeah, I’ll do this and this and this and this and this.” But I was 35, so it wasn’t that difficult to say no.
One of the offers was from Sundance. They were coupling writers with screenwriters, and they would put you in a cabin in the woods and see what you came up with. I said, “That’s really nice, but why don’t you find someone who wants to do that?” Again, it was flattering. You think, Do I really want to do that? Because if you can write with someone, it’s a really special thing. Plus, I don’t know, I think for a movie to be really good it really has to have a gun in it. And I don’t really have any ideas that way.
For a movie to be good it has to have a gun in it?
I think so, yeah.
Can you think of good movies that haven’t had guns?
No, not a single one! Actually I liked that Let the Right One In, that Swedish vampire movie. Did you see it?
There’s not a gun in it.
And it was okay?
Yeah. But most good movies have a gun in them. They don’t have to be all about people shooting at each other the whole time, but I like for someone to be armed.
I’m going to start keeping count now, about how many times that’s actually true.
I just gave my boyfriend’s mother a DVD of that movie Julia. Did you see that? Tilda Swinton in Julia?
That’s the one where she was with the Russian guy?
No, she plays an alcoholic. Part of the movie takes place in Mexico. You never doubt for one moment that she’s an alcoholic. Never for one moment. She does this thing, without any pants on, or underpants. She’s fantastic. And there’s a gun in that movie. A couple.
Oh, dear. I should ask you about your book.
You don’t have to.
I’m really curious. Your book creeped me out.
Yeah, it just took this turn for the weird. I couldn’t tell if I was weirded out — and I enjoyed it, which made me vaguely uncomfortable at how much I enjoyed it — because it takes anthropomorphism to the extreme. Or if it was a writer with whom I am so familiar veering away from all the work you’ve done in the past. I was thinking, Oh man, this is going to sound real good on the NPR fund-raiser weekend when they get to the story about the hippo with rectal parasites…
I was reading the New York Times a couple years ago, and I learned that there is a certain kind of leech that can only live in the anus of a hippopotamus. So in another version of the story, the hippo is completely different and there wasn’t an owl in it and it took place in Africa. I opened with a quote from the New York Times, and I thought, No, the New York Times doesn’t really belong in this book. So I thought, I’m just going to have a rat convey that bit of information. If people don’t believe it, that’s their own business. The second I heard about that leech, I just wanted to write about it.
So what kind of science research did you do for this book? There are a lot of facts in there.
There’s this story, “The Motherless Bear.” The bear stays away one winter and the other bears wake to find her finishing the last of the chokecherries. Chokecherries come out later in the summer. I could see someone saying, “Sorry about that, there’s no way.” And I thought, But that’s the joy about writing about talking bears. If I say chokecherries in March, I should be able to get away with that. I wrote about a friendship that was the opposite of a friendship, about an aphid and an ant. I did a little research and aphids and ants are best friends. Aphid asses are filled with life-giving juice, and ants massage the juice out of aphids’ assholes and drink it. There’s a symbiotic and beautiful relationship. So there went that story. And that happened quite often. Like the Migrating Warbler, another bird. And then I found out, they don’t migrate to Guatemala. But I changed it so that they do go to Guatemala. Now I don’t know if they stop in Brownsville on the way. I’m sure someone will write and tell me.
One of the strange things about the book is that all of the character traits ascribed to these animals made sense. In the sense that, well, of course that is how an owl would think. Or, yeah, those bears are like that … So were there some animals or traits that were absolutely well-suited to a particular animal?
When I was working on the owl story, I talked to a zoologist. I read it out loud one night, and there was a zoologist in the audience. And she said, “You’re not going to make the owl smart, are you? It’s such a tired cliché.” She said, “Owls are okay, they’re good at their jobs. But they’re not nearly as smart as crows.” I wrote a story about groundhogs, and that was one of my editor’s notes. She said, “You know, if you write about a cat and the cat is vain, we sort of expect that, we expect the owl to be smart. But we don’t really have any expectations about groundhogs and that’s one of the problems with your story. That they’re not working with or against our expectations. Like whatever they do we’ll accept as normal because we don’t have any ideas about them.” And I thought that was an interesting note. I didn’t put in in the book, but that was because it had bigger problems than that.
How long have you been working on this particular book of stories?
I go on these lecture tours twice a year, every fall and every spring. So about seven years ago I wrote a story about a cat in a bad mood. And then the next fall another one. So I tried to write a few every year, but for every one that worked, there were two that didn’t. And then, obviously, I stepped it up over the past year and a half, once I got the actual deadline. I set up a few rules for myself. I didn’t want any animal to have a name. If you say that a rabbit’s name was, oh I don’t know, sometimes someone will have a cat, and you ask, “What’s your cat’s name?” And they say, “Critter!” And you think, Oh, I hate your cat. And they say, “Diane.” And you think, I like your cat. So even giving anything a name would invite judgment that I didn’t want. And that made it hard to write sometimes. It’s like the chipmunk and the chipmunk sister. I could see a reader saying, “Which goddamn chipmunk is talking!” But I worked my best, my hardest. You get into that kind of writing that is math. You don’t want to repeat the word too often, but you don’t want to substitute. Instead of saying chipmunk, you don’t want to say spotted rodent. You just can’t do that …
How do these play out when you read them on tour?
Well, I had to read them first. If you read an essay that you had in The New Yorker, and then you read a piece of fiction, you can hear the audience thinking, Wait a minute, he’s not a squirrel. By the time they get used to the idea that it’s fiction, the story’s over. So I found I had to read them at the top of the show. And then say, “This is from a beastiary that I’m working on. And this is one of the stories.” Then I found that women would respond. You know, the theatre’s dark. I can’t see who’s applauding with enthusiasm and who’s just putting their hands together. It’d be women who’d come up with me when I was signing books and would say, “Oh, I love that story of the chipmunk, is it ever going to be a book?” I don’t know what that means, but women seemed to remember them more. Because generally I find, you can read out loud for an hour, and answer questions for half an hour, and then you can sign books for four hours, and no one ever mentions anything that happens onstage.
Does that bother you?
Perhaps part of it is my fault, because when people come up to the table, I just try to ask them a question so we can have a little conversation about something. Because often, you know, people are nice, and maybe they want to say something nice about your last book, it just embarrasses me, so I like to ask them a question so we can just have a conversation about something different. But I’ve found that it was women who would make the time, after we had the conversation, to mention the animal stories. I don’t know, I’ve never been so unsure about a book. I have no idea what people will think about it. You can’t go wrong with the pictures.
How did that come about?
I always knew I wanted it to be illustrated. The Dutch publisher said, “We don’t want the illustrations.” And I said, “Well, then I have to rewrite it because I always knew there were going to be pictures in it.” I didn’t describe the animals because I always knew there was going to be a picture. So anyway, they wound up using the pictures. Ian [Falconer] had done the sets for production of [The Santaland Diaries] in 1997, that they did in New York. We met then. Then we did a project together with Art Spiegelman. He did a project Little Lit. It was comics for kids. We just always wanted to work together again.
Was there any hesitation on his part? Because he illustrates [Olivia,] a big children’s book series.
I didn’t ask him directly. I didn’t want it to be weird, you know, if he wanted to say no. Sometimes it’s hard to say no to that person. But if it’s just someone’s editor talking to someone’s agent, it’s a lot easier. I don’t know if he hesitated, I don’t think he did. I didn’t want to tell him what to do. He just got the stories and turned the drawings in. I don’t know, I just love what he came up with.
It changes things. It’s storybook with pictures, which is different than just a book of essays.
Right. I didn’t expect the book to be that size. And I didn’t expect it to be that thick. When I hold it in my hand, the pictures make sense to me. It makes sense to me that that book has pictures in it. I don’t know what it means. Part of me wants to say, if it has pictures in it, it’s less of a book. But this kind of a book, would be less of a book if it didn’t have pictures in it.
What I like, too, is that I normally do everything by myself. I mean that I write the book, there are no pictures, I read the book for the audio version. But for this one I made up a dream list of people to read the stories. And Elaine Stritch reads four of the stories. And Dylan Baker reads four. And Shaun Phillips reads four of the stories. She’s Welsh and she’s in her mid-70s and she’s a stage actress. She just finished a production of Romeo and Juliet in London. She was in I, Claudius, she played Olivia. I never can listen to my own books on tape, because it’s me reading them and I can’t get past the sound of my voice. I love how I read these stories out loud any number of times so there was a way they went in my head. But when you hear Elaine Stritch read it, it doesn’t go the way it does in my head, but who said my way is right? I love how the other readers interpreted the story.
Do you like to go to readings?
Yes, I do like to go to readings. I’m not that much of a musical theatre person; my first exposure to Elaine Stritch was her reading Dorothy Parker stories on a Penguin audiobook. If she had come to my town to read those stories, I would’ve been there and listened to her. Yeah, I like being read out loud to. I like the radio, I like books on tape.
Do you write your stories to be read? Do you ever do any kind of edit that is specifically for print, and one that is to be read?
Sometimes with The New Yorker, they have grammar rules that just don’t feel right in my mouth. Sometimes, there’s nothing I can do. This is just their way and you have to do it that way. And I’ll change it back to read out loud. I won’t read that version because it doesn’t feel right in my mouth. If something’s over twelve pages long then I wouldn’t read it out loud, because that’s just too long.
Do you practice?
No, but I didn’t realize that I’m always making noise and talking. My boyfriend told me that. When I’m at my typewriter, I’m always humming and making noise and just kind of turning it into music, whatever it is that I’m writing. I guess I want that rhythm to be written on the page when I read it out loud. I was listening to a book on tape this summer written by Muriel Spark, and it was read by Judi Dench, and there was a section in it that was just magnificent. So I stopped the tape and I wrote it all down, and then when it was written on paper, it was just choppy. It was just Judi Dench creating rhythm out of nothing, because if you had just handed that to me, or to a normal person, it actually would have been painful to listen to, but she made rhythm where it had not existed. I guess I try to put that rhythm on the page so that anybody can read it out loud.
What’s the attraction of being read to as an adult?
I don’t like being left to my own thoughts. If I’m riding my bike I just replay the same scenarios over and over in my head, like I haven’t had a new mental adventure since high school. So that’s what I like about books on tape, so my mind can’t wander anywhere. I’m listening to the book on tape and I’m following the story and, I don’t know, even when I was in high school there was a radio station in my town in Raleigh that played old radio shows, so I would time my bath so I could listen to Our Miss Brooks. That’s when you know that you’re a homosexual, when you’re 9 years old, and you’re timing your bath so you can listen to Our Miss Brooks. It just always did it for me, always, and I always wanted to be on the radio, it just never occurred to me that I’d be allowed to be on the radio, because of my voice. I think it would be like if your legs ended at the knee and you wanted to be in the Olympics — not the Special Olympics, but the regular Olympics, when you still had that dream. Anyone in their right mind would have been like, “Look, I’m sorry but you can’t be in the Olympics.”
You’re often identified as a humorist, and that recalls Will Rogers and Garrison Keillor. Is that a label that you’re comfortable with? If you were asked to self-identify, would you say, “Oh yes, I’m a humorist”?
Well, it wouldn’t be my first choice. I felt uncomfortable calling myself a writer until I started with The New Yorker, and then I was like, “Okay, now you can call yourself that.” I think what bothered me about it was going to art school and meeting people that would say, “Oh, I’m an artist,” and I always thought, “I think the world should call you that before you call yourself that.” But then once I was at The New Yorker I said, “Okay, I can call myself that.” The problem is, it can be kind of a setup. I like to decide for myself what’s funny when I read something, and it makes it kind of harder when somebody says, “You’re going to really laugh hard at this.” That’s when you tend to cross your arms and say, “Yeah, well prove it.” So it wouldn’t be my first choice. I mean, with this book, I got them to take the word “humor” off of it, because I don’t really think it’s that funny. I didn’t mean for it to be that funny.
I kept thinking of Raymond Carver stories when I was reading it because they were these very micro situations with two people, and they were very short, and this sort of bleakness and something terrible happens, and the story just stops. And there’s a phrase for that among critics, apparently it’s called “dirty realism.” So I would consider your book as “dirty realism.” How do you see it if it’s not supposed to be funny?
It has its moments. There were things that made me laugh when I wrote it, but I guess the word humor makes it seem like I expected a solid laugh from it and, I don’t know, I guess I thought if it was any one thing, it would be strange more than funny. And again, it had its moments. I did many readings with Sarah Vowell, and one night before we went onstage, she said, “They’ll laugh at anything we say. Don’t let yourself think that that means that it’s really funny.” And I thought, Wow, that’s a really good thing to remember, because sometimes people laugh out of courtesy and sometimes people laugh because they decide that, you know what, tonight I’m going to go out and I’m going to laugh, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that what you’ve done is funny.
I’ve attended a few of your readings and there’s definitely a place where you pause, either because you wrote it that way or because you’ve already done the story 8 zillion times on tour and you know that this is where the laugh line is. Does the audience surprise you?
Well, when I read something for the first time I’m often surprised by what gets a laugh because sometimes it’s a play on words I didn’t realize or there’s some cultural reference that I wasn’t aware of. Sometimes I think that something’s going to get a laugh. Like, I was writing something this summer and I was laughing very hard, and that doesn’t happen that often. I was at my desk and I was really laughing hard. So I’m looking forward to reading that out loud, because I don’t know that other people will laugh at it. I notice when I read something that often what I’m laughing at is a word choice, a word that I didn’t expect to find there, and that makes me laugh.
What do you like to read?
I just finished that Jonathan Franzen novel. Before that I listened to that last collection of Wallace Shawn essays. I listened to that Mr. Peanut this summer. I liked a lot of it. Sam Lipsyte, The Ask: I howled with laughter at that book. It’s not necessarily that important to me that a book be funny. Like, if I had a choice between a book being funny and being super-tragic, or having a lot of information about diseases and stuff in it, I’d probably go with the disease book. What else did I read this summer? I reread This Boy’s Life this summer, by Tobias Wolfe.
I read that a lot as a teenager, and it’s such a strange book. I was too young to understand why it was interesting.
He’s such a fine writer, I think. There’s a scene in that book where Dwight, the stepfather, is making a show of lighting someone’s cigarette, and just the description of Dwight flicking open the lighter and making a presentation of the tall flame. I just love him.
He’s a dirty realist, too.
That’s what the critics say.
Well, I know he was often compared to Raymond Carver, but he was such a better writer. His writing isn’t choppy at all. I always liked Raymond Carver stories when I was young. What I liked about him was that you could read a Raymond Carver story and think, Oh, I can do that. His sentences are short, they start with the word “he.” I can do that, and then of course you realize it’s a lot harder than it looks. But Tobias Wolfe, there are always images in his books that are just — like the presentation of the tall flame — that just stopped me, and didn’t seem show-off-y to me, but I just would think, That’s writing. I would always feel that way with him. I just adore him.
Do you like meeting other writers?
No, I’m really bad at meeting people I admire. I did this thing to raise money for that PS or PC 728, the Dave Eggers thing. So it just gave me the opportunity to take some short stories I thought were great and put them together. Then we did a reading in New York, and Lorrie Moore came to read and I worship Lorrie Moore, and she and I were going to be on the radio together and meet on “The Leonard Lopate Show,” and I was a wreck. She was a lovely person and she made it so easy. That’s your job, really. If you meet someone and they’re nervous, your job should be to set them at ease, and she was just so gracious and, again, she didn’t have to be that way. I love her writing so much, there’s no reason why she should have to be warm and kind, but boy, she really was.
I met Tobias Wolfe a few times and I must have just scared him. I think I had that look in my eye, and Alec Wilkinson, and I think I probably scared him too. I love his book A Violent Act so much. But other than that, I don’t really know many writers. I know David Rakoff, and we’ve been friends since I first moved to New York, but he didn’t have a book at the time that we met. So it was a bit different than having read his books and then meeting him, because I love David’s writing, so it would have just made for a weird relationship because I probably would have just scared him too.
Well, in a way you and David Rakoff, and Sarah Vowell to some extent, you get labeled as funny, smart people who write things, with you being the anchor of that team. Is that something that’s a little bit annoying?
No. I can see being David or Sarah why that would be bothersome, but I’m not really smart. I’m not, and they really are. So when I’m lumped with them, I’ll take it, but I didn’t earn it in any way. I think because we were all in radio together, and a lot of times people think we hang out all the time and that we’re friends, but I am friends with both of them, but we don’t live in the same city. Sometimes they come here and we hang out or sometimes I go to New York. But you don’t really want writers as friends, because those are the people that are going to say, “I’m already writing that story” or “hands off.” You kind of want people that are going to tell you something, and they’re not going to do anything with it.
You talk about meeting a particular writer and freaking them out. Does your fan base freak you out sometimes?
No. I meet people at book signings. My record now, for signing, is ten and a half hours in one sitting. And people have said, “Oh, that must be awful,” but all I ever wanted was people standing in line to say how much they love you. To me, there’s nothing wrong with that equation. I get a lot of mail, but it’s mainly just people who say, “I read your book and I liked it” and I always write them back, and every now and then you get a letter from a crackpot. I’ve gotten a lot of letters from prisoners lately, and they all want free stuff.
You mentioned that there was a zoologist who took issue with your portrayal of owls, so do you expect a lot of scientific fact-checking to go along with the Bestiary?
Your first letters are always from grammarians who say, “You used a semicolon on page fifteen and it should have been a full stop and I can’t believe that anybody didn’t pick that up.” I guess they’re kind of applying for jobs as copy editors. Those are the first people you hear from. And then you’ll hear from people who will say that warblers don’t stop in Brownsville, they actually stop earlier or later than that. Like the story “The Crow and the Lamb.” Lambs are born in the winter and there are poplars shifting lazily in the background. Shifting suggested they have leaves on them. Maybe someone will write and point that out to me as well. On tour, generally what happens is over the course of the tour I kind of develop — I don’t know what else to call it — but shtick, or I find my theme, or my theme finds me, and I like that.
What was the theme for the last one, do you remember?
I was collecting rudeness stories and it was interesting to me what people offered, because sometimes it was just a cruelty story or just a stupidity story, but rudeness to me, or just the kind that interests me, has to do with class. So I met this woman and she worked at a country club over the summer, and she was a college student. So she’s in the dining room at the country club and a woman in her 60s beckons her over to the table, and the woman in her 60s says, “Hold out your hand” and the girl held out her hand, and the woman spit a mouthful of food into her hand and said, “There’s a bone in my chicken salad.” That’s gold. That’s a really good story because the waitress couldn’t say, “Oh, that’s funny because there’s a bone in your hair, too,” and wipe her hand on the woman’s head, because she would have lost her job and she couldn’t afford to lose her job.
Or, this woman I met who worked at Starbucks, and this woman comes in and she says, “Can I help you?” and the woman is looking at that overhead board and she can’t make up her mind. So the Starbucks employee starts talking to her supervisor and the customer says, “Excuse me.” And she says, “Oh sorry, I was just talking to my boss.” The woman says, “I’m your boss.” So, that was a good one, too.
Breast milk was a theme before that, because I had written this little thing about breast milk, and this woman came up and said, “Oh, my mother used to put breast milk in our pancake batter. She said it was better for us than regular milk.” And then I told that story onstage, and then somebody else told me a breast-milk story, and somebody else, and somebody else, and then I was in Fargo and this woman left after the reading and came later to get a book signed and she had a little plastic container, and she had gone home, and it was a plastic container of breast milk, and she wanted me to sign the container. And I said, “Can I smell it?” And she said sure and lifted up the lid and she looked at me and said, “We both know where this is going.” And I said, “We do.” I didn’t drink all of it. I just had to taste it, you know?
I think a theme kind of presents itself. I remember a couple of years ago, it was before the election, I put a piece of paper on my signing table and I said, “Okay, we’re taking a poll. Do you think Barack Obama is circumcised or uncircumcised?” And it’s actually a good question because it’s a hard question. There are many factors to consider. I was in Boise, Idaho, and this man who was very well-dressed and in his 70s raised his hand and said, “Well, you don’t need to take the poll. I can tell you right now. Obama is uncircumcised” and I said, “Well, how do you know?” and he said, “Because there’s no end to that dick.” And what was interesting was that he thought he was going to get a huge laugh, and I love people who are really confident and wrong.
I know our time is running out, but I just have one last quick question. What is your favorite venue to read in in the United States?
Oh, my goodness. You know what, it’s the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
And why is that?
It’s the pews. So you wouldn’t think the acoustics are that great, but somebody in the back row can cross their legs and you can hear it from the stage. Some theaters you are in and you can’t hear yourself, and so you step all over yourself and people are laughing and you continue to read. At the Ryman, you can really hear yourself and you can really hear the audience, and it’s a really beautiful theater and all of the stage hands wear string ties and they’ll say, “I just had Dolly Parton stand where you are and she ain’t nothing but a bitty thang.” They say it when they bring you a crate to stand on behind the podium. That’s a great hall.