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Published: Thursday, 9/30/2010

Sedaris turns to contemporary animal fables

BY SUZANNE VAN ATTEN
ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

ATLANTA - What does an author do once he's turned his personal life into a shelf full of best-selling memoirs, two Grammy-nominated CDs and a play that has become an annual holiday tradition?

If he's humorist David Sedaris, he turns to fiction and writes a book of contemporary fables about farm animals and woodland creatures.

A gossipy baboon, a bossy rabbit and an alcoholic cat are among the furry, feathered characters in Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary (Little, Brown & Co., $21.99). Like modern-day archetypes, these flawed members of the animal kingdom inflict various forms of misery on others until they get their comeuppance in unexpected ways.

At times ribald or poignant and often funny, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk finds Sedaris getting droll retribution against people who irritate him, and he's got a long list to work from. Speaking last month from his home in London, he offered as an example his story The Vigilant Rabbit.

"I was on tour last fall and I had this vest on," he said. "I don't know what I was thinking, because I would look down every once in a while and say, 'Really?' Anyway, I was in an airport in Wausau, Wis., and there was a grandmother working security. People say, 'Oh no! I have to go through security in Chicago!' But Chicago is a breeze, you know? It's Wausau, Wis., it's the smaller cities that take themselves so super seriously that are the problem.

"So this grandmother says, 'Um, I need you to take that vest off.' And I said, 'Well, you know, actually, I've been to 20 cities in the last 20 days, and you're the first person to ask me and I'm just wondering why.' 'I want the vest off now!' she said. And I thought: I'm going to turn you into a rabbit! And I went right back to my hotel room and I wrote that story."

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk may be a departure for Sedaris, but then he's built a career on defied expectations. His work is brainy enough to appear regularly in The New Yorker and air on NPR's "This American Life," but he also writes ridiculously absurdist plays with his sister Amy Sedaris (Strangers With Candy) under the name the Talent Family.

The Santaland Diaries, his play about his stint as a department store elf, is staged around the country every winter. He's also published an anthology of short pieces by his favorite authors (Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules) and released several CDs of his live performances.

In an era when authors appear gratis at private book clubs to promote sales, Sedaris has joined that rarified group of authors such as Garrison Keillor who attract paying audiences.

But the core of Sedaris' work is his autobiographical books - including When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and Me Talk Pretty One Day - that chronicle his youth in Raleigh, his early adult years working odd jobs, and his current life in Normandy (and now London) with boyfriend Hugh Hamrick.

Although it is definitely for adult readers only, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk may appear at first glance to be a children's book. Not only are the characters anthropomorphized animals, but the pages are illustrated by fellow New Yorker contributor Ian Falconer, creator of the Olivia children's books.

"I always knew I wanted this book to be illustrated, and Ian was my first thought," Sedaris said. "There's that story The Mouse and the Snake - I never liked that mouse. She reminded me of every person who ever said, 'My dogs are my children.' But when I saw Ian's illustration of that mouse, she looked so sad, and I realized how lonely she was. His drawing made me think of the story in a completely different way. Sometimes I have no idea what I'm doing. I need other people to show me."

Having made his mark in the publishing, radio, and recording industries, Sedaris' next logical step would seem to be film. And, in fact, Me Talk Pretty One Day was optioned for a movie after its release in 2001, but Sedaris backed out before it could be made.

"I started having second thoughts because it had to do with my family," he said. "One day my sister Lisa said, 'Do I have to be fat in the movie?' And I just started thinking, 'Oh, what have I done?' I just got out of it. It's one thing for it to be about me, and another thing to say to someone else, 'Oh just take my dad. You know where to send the check.'•"

But Sedaris' life may appear on the big screen yet. Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez (Easier With Practice) has optioned the essay C.O.G. (from Naked) about the author's experience working for a religious fanatic making stone clocks shaped like the state of Oregon.

Surprisingly, Sedaris has no interest in writing the screenplay or in any other aspect of the filmmaking process, for that matter. Mainly, he just wants to watch the results.

"I don't have any desire to be in it. As for who would play me, I don't care," Sedaris said. "I want to see his interpretation. I think he'll make the movie a lot more interesting than the story ever was."



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