Sedaris shows his animal instincts

David Sedaris talks about his new collection of animal tales, curious dog-naming habits of the French, and a war story from the road.

"Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk," by David Sedaris

If you've ever behaved badly in the presence of David Sedaris, he may have already turned you into an animal.

Sedaris, who has 7 million books in print and regularly sells out appearances in the Twin Cities, is back with a new title, "Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk" (Little, Brown, $21.99). A departure from his usual humorous essays, it's a collection of short stories loosely modeled after animal fables, some based on people who have annoyed him.

On the road for a 35-stop tour that lands in Minneapolis Thursday, he revealed more about the book and its characters, which include a pair of ugly-American warblers, a self-pitying bear, stork sisters engaged in competitive parenting, a rabbit overly concerned with rules and a cat in AA.

Q Some people are calling the stories fables for adults. Why don't you?

A Fables have morals. Not all of these do; I didn't want to force it. I call it a bestiary, animals doing things that people do. Others have described the book as "Aesop without morals" or "bedtime stories for children who drink."

Q In two of the tales, someone gets his eyes poked out by a bird. Is this a particular phobia of yours?

A Not really, but my neighbor in France said that you want to have lambs born in the lambing shed, because if they're born in the field, the crows will poke their eyes out. Once I found a little dead rabbit, threw it into a field and a magpie came and plucked out its eyes. I always thought it would be great to have a crow on your shoulder as a pet, but when I think about it, it could pluck your eye out.

Q Do you have pets?

A Our cat died two years ago. In France I was always bringing home something, a shrew with a broken foot or a mouse that would be dead by morning. Right now in London, a robin has started coming into the kitchen. We feed him dried worms. He always leaves before you want him to. He has other options. He chooses to hang out with us, whereas pets don't have other options.

Q In "The Toad, the Turtle and the Duck," angry animals in a customer-service line threaten violence against the woman at the counter, then accuse a fellow passenger of being racist when he makes an innocent comment. What inspired that one?

A I was standing in a long line of really angry people at the Denver airport after our flight got canceled. The toad and the turtle were behind me and I even used an exact line: "I should have punched her."

Q The saddest story in the collection is "The Motherless Bear," who turns into a complete narcissist by talking of nothing but her mother's death for years. Who is she based on?

A Me. I wrote about my mother dying and worried I was talking about it too much. The end is brutal, but the bear got exactly what she wanted. She's exactly as miserable as she wanted to be.

Q "The Mouse and the Snake" pokes fun at people who dote too much on their dogs. What would be your first choice for a dog's name?

A Glen. Especially for a small dog. The French give their dogs American names they can't pronounce, like Hudson. [Does imitation]" 'Udson! 'Udson!" Our sheep farmer neighbor had a black lab named Barry. My periodontist's cat is named Andy.

Q Why did you dedicate the book to your sister Gretchen?

A She loves wildlife, all sorts of creatures. She once had a bullfrog that lived 10 years. Who knew they could go that long?

Q Will you ever try a novel?

A I had an idea for one, but I only have a 12-page attention span, so I don't know if I would actually be able to sustain one. When you read "Freedom," you know that Jonathan Franzen arranged it so I would turn from page 419 to 420. People turn my pages because there are only five of them. You have to be both a real plodder and master manipulator to write a novel.

Q You have said you enjoy these long book tours. Really?

A Cocktail parties are hard. I think, 'How can I get out of this?' But book signings are different because I'm in control. You have a little conversation with each person and hand the book back. My record is 10 1/2 hours. People are nice, if left to their own devices, and tell me nice things about myself, but it's embarrassing to hear so I'd just as soon talk about something else.

Q What's an unfortunate encounter from the road this time around?

A These two women in their 50s were drinking wine out of their pocketbooks while waiting in line to get their books signed. They were plastered and arguing by the time they got to me. They were trying to hug me, after one yelled at me to stop blaming everything on George Bush. I don't touch people, not even my family, and they were trying to hug me. I had been eating sushi and one of their elbows went down in the soy sauce and it splashed all over -- them, not me.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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