David Sedaris is going to do his laundry.
“I’ve been investigating laundromats,” he says from a hotel room at the Little America in Salt Lake City on a Saturday morning. “There’s a laundromat 3.8 miles away. I have the map and the address and I’m terrifically excited about this.”
Sedaris refuses to pay — rather, allow his publisher to pay — for hotel laundry service. So while he tours North America’s bookstores, as he does after every book release, he does his laundry himself.
This time around, the 54-year-old bestselling humorist is meeting and greeting fans to promote his seventh book, a collection of fables titled “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary.”
Since its Sept. 28 release, Sedaris has done 78 interviews for the new book. Preceding this interview, Sedaris took a string of phone calls from journalists in Europe, where the writer has lived for 12 years.
Yet of those 78 articles spread across newspapers, magazines and the Web, Sedaris says he’ll never read a single word. He’s too embarrassed.
“I never read anything about myself,” he says, “You can go ahead and say that I sound like a girl.”
Sedaris, in fact, does not sound like a girl. His voice is meek and his speech fast-paced, twirled with a Virginia twang, but far from feminine. He seems genuine when he says he is “terrifically excited,” though coming from anyone else, it would sound sarcastic. He litters his short monologues with childish slang such as “gosh” and “gollee,” then uses the same tone to say something vulgar.
He often goes off topic from the conversation, inquiring why a young journalist is working on a Saturday morning, describing his love for iPads (he uses his to watch “Glee” and write) and his disdain for cell phones, or laughing about a woman he saw at the airport wearing a shirt with the phrase, “I wish these were brains,” printed across her large breasts.
It’s easy to connect his voice to the funny, self-deprecating autobiographical essays Sedaris has become famous for in every book preceding “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk.” Sedaris not only steps away from non-fiction with his new book; he also takes a break from humor.
The book is a collection of short stories about animals in darkly human situations. A loving, doting mouse is eaten by its pet snake, a dog and cat meet in Alcoholics Anonymous and a chipmunk and squirrel share a failed romance.
“If it’s a humor book, it’s a failed humor book,” says Sedaris, who was inspired by an audio book of “awful” South African folk tales.
The transition from writing personal essays to pure fiction was easy for Sedaris, though he suspects it’s taking fans time to adjust. Before the book was a book, Sedaris would read early versions of “Squirrel Meets Chipmunk” stories to audiences on his lecture tour.
“I would notice when I said the words ‘I’ or ‘life,’ the audience would react strangely because they thought I was talking about myself,” he says. “When I’m telling a story about a dog, I am not talking about myself.”
Writing about animals also took more research than Sedaris initially expected.
While putting together a story about two birds that migrate yearly to Central America, he learned that most birds don’t actually migrate to Central America. He found one kind that does — warblers — and used it for the book.
“I also talked to a zoologist who said owls are good at their jobs, but they’re hardly brainiacs,” he says. “She said she would bet on a crow if she had to choose a smart bird.”
Sedaris isn’t sure what kind of book his next will be. He’s always toyed with the idea of writing a novel, but he finds it easier to write about what he knows best: himself.
“With the other books, I would do interviews and everyone would ask me when I was going to try something different,” he says. “Now people are asking me when I’m going back.”
Sedaris has also kept a diary for the past 33 years. He reads excerpts to audiences while on tour and has considered publishing bits and pieces.
The diary entries are popular with his crowds — so are the autobiographical essays, which wrap Sedaris’ biting sarcasm around everyday observations about his childhood, family and France.
But the “Squirrel Meets Chipmunk” stories are different; Sedaris delivers the short grown-up fables in the same bitingly eloquent style that has landed him on NPR dozens of times, and yet the crowds respond differently to the new material. As soon as he cracks the spine and begins to read, a calm comes over his audiences.
Sedaris is spinning tales in a way he hasn’t before, and the effect on his readers is akin to tucking in a child with a story before bed. (Though parents should probably stick to traditional fables like “Little Red Riding Hood.”) The audience is transported to Sedaris’ magic land of human-like animals with human-like problems living out their days like humans — sometimes tragically, sometimes humorously.
“The laughs will always feel good to me, but there’s something about the storybook quality of the new book that I really like,” Sedaris says. “I don’t know that I would have traded that for more laughs.”
David Sedaris will appear at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 1. Tickets for his talk have sold out, but there are an unlimited number of tickets for his meet-and-greet.
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