But despite its seemingly cuddly characters and an array of beguiling illustrations by Ian Falconer, David Sedaris’ “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk” is probably not the best holiday gift for that special youngster on your shopping list.
"Someone who interviewed me characterized the book as 'bedtime stories for children who drink,'" the 53-year-old Sedaris said, calling from a book tour stop in Baton Rouge, La., "and I thought that sounded good.”
Sedaris reads selections from “Squirrel” and his other works Monday at Schuler Books and Music Eastwood.
In typical Sedaris style, the good intentions and noble ideals of his furry friends frequently lead to startling — and, in some cases, lethal — consequences. These are not the kinds of fables Aesop would have endorsed: If Sedaris had written about the mouse who pulled a thorn from the lion’s paw, the ending probably would have involved the lion needing an amputation and the mouse getting sued for practicing medicine without a license.
For Sedaris, that’s simply a reflection of the way life is.
“So often if you're writing a 'moral tale,' there's one character who's sterling and another character who's horrible,” he said, “and I just think it's more interesting if it's just kind of grayed up a bit, because it's rarely that way in life.
"Even if you have jury duty, you see that. You'd like to believe that this completely virtuous, innocent person had this horrible thing happen to them by a monster, and then you go to jury duty and you realize that this person you thought of as perfectly innocent — you know, often it's more complicated than that.
“I had jury duty, and this one fellow had stabbed another one. And it turned out someone needed to stab this guy. It was a lot more complex than any of us wanted it to be. What was interesting was that the guy who had been stabbed raised his shirt in the courtroom and he had been stabbed twice already, before this: a blade magnet.
"I think real life is often that way: more gray than black and white."
Sedaris said he’s heard grumbling from readers who classify many of the protagonists as “hateful,” but he defends his flawed fauna.
"It can be hard to sit through a movie if none of the characters are likable,” he admitted. “But a four-page story? It's not that hard, not for me anyway."
The inspiration for “Squirrel” was an audiobook of South African folk tales Sedaris received as a gift seven years ago. He loved it — although he also thought it had room for improvement.
"I started listening to it and I thought, 'Oh, I can do better than this,'” he said, pausing to snicker and sigh. “I know that sounds bad.
“Then I just sat down and wrote one. I wrote a story about a cat who goes to a baboon to get herself groomed for a party. Then I wrote — I don't know — about 25 more, and then I chose 15 for the book.”
One condition Sedaris imposed on himself early on was that the animals would not have names because "even that invites judgment,” he said. “If I meet somebody and they have a cat and I say, 'Oh, what's your cat's name?' and they say, 'Fireball,' then it's like, 'I don't like you, or your cat.' But if they say 'Monica,' I'm in: That's a fantastic name for a cat.
“So I didn't want to name any of these animals. It was just going to be the Bear, the Bear's Friend, the Bear's Mother.”
Sedaris calls “Squirrel” a “pile” project, a collection that built up bit by bit over time.
“I could write two or three (stories) a year and then just put them into a pile and then say, 'Well, I'll have more next year,'” he explained. “So it wasn't like writing a book in that strict sense like I'm writing a book from scratch and I have a deadline in a year. I just thought eventually I'd have enough for a book."
He was spurred on by “This American Life,” the weekly radio show that frequently features his contributions. “The Cat and the Baboon” debuted on “This American Life”; so did several other “Squirrel” tales, such as “The Parrot and the Pot-Bellied Pig,” a meditation on media manipulation, and “The Cow and the Turkey,” in which a Secret Santa scheme goes awry.
"Ira Glass, on his show, he picks a theme and he asks people to write something on that theme. And after 'The Cat and the Baboon,' I decided that every time he asked me to write something, I was going to write it and put animals in instead of people.
“So he did a (program) called 'Doomed Love,' and I did a story about a squirrel and a chipmunk. And he did a show called 'Cat and Mouse,' and I wrote a story about a cat and a mouse who meet in an Alcoholics Anonymous program in prison. I just used his assignments, whatever they were.”
In his “This American Life” segments, Sedaris reads his own work in his distinctive, airy voice. While millions have grown to love the sound of Sedaris, Sedaris is not a fan of his own vocal style, which is why he recruited outside help when it came time to record “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk.”
"I love books on tape — love 'em,” he said. “But I never listen to my own because I'm on them, and I can't get beyond my voice. So for this book on tape, I drew up a list of people who just, in my wildest dreams, I dreamt might read my stories — and they all agreed. (Actress) Sian Phillips read 'The Cow and the Turkey.' She's Welsh and she's in her mid-70s. She read that, and I never knew how to read the end of that story. I never knew how to read it, but boy, she sure did. Listening to her read it, and she read 'The Squirrel and the Chipmunk' as well, listening to her read the story — and I'm not a kind of person who says this about his own stuff — but I really liked it."
Broadway legend Elaine Stritch also lent her rippling, raspy tones to several of the episodes. "I sort of liked that two of the readers were over 75,” Sedaris said. “I liked the quality that both of them had, the experience that they had in her voices. Just like Ian Falconer's illustrations kind of make it child-like, their voices make it that way, too."
Although “Squirrel” may not seem to be drawn from Sedaris’ own experiences in the way that “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim,” “Me Talk Pretty Someday” or “When You’re Engulfed in Flames” are, he insists he’s an integral part of many of the stories.
For example, “The Motherless Bear” follows a self-pitying, masochistic bear who uses the untimely death of her mom as an excuse for her selfish actions and melodramatic behavior. It’s not entirely a work of fiction.
“My mother died 17 years ago,” Sedaris said, “and I loved my mother and I was very close with my mother. But then I wrote a story about it. And then I wrote another story about it. And then I kind of wrote another story about it. So 'The Motherless Bear' is me."
So even when he is not writing in the first person, as he usually does, Sedaris can’t resist imprinting these often unfortunate creatures with his own personality.
"Often I find if I meet somebody and I don't like them, it's because they remind me of myself in some way,” he said. “So when writing these stories and looking for kind of contemptible traits, I didn't need to look any further than my mirror."