For a bunch of years when I worked in magazines, I was lucky enough to have the chance to work with David Sedaris. For an editor, this was like being a baseball-loving kid and having had the chance to be the bat boy for Lou Gehrig. (Or maybe that’s not the best example here, but you get the idea. It was, as Abby would say, a priv-uh-lege.) Anyway, those years were some of the best and most fun I ever had, professionally — and personally, too, as David proved as kind and generous a person as he was talented as a writer. A few months ago, we had him over for some dinner (we made a version of our yogurt-marinated chicken) and he arrived with gifts for the kids: bottle-shaped candles, magnets that looked like leaves, chocolates, Japanese note cards, and two books: Strange Stories for Strange Kids and It Was a Dark and Stormy Night. They’re two parts of a remarkable three-part series, called Little Lit, which was edited by the great Art Spiegelman (of Maus fame) and his equally talented wife, Francoise Mouly. As much as the kids liked their candles and magnets, it was the books that really stuck: particularly since one of them contained a story by David, illustrated by the Olivia guy, Ian Falconer. (The simple yet genius idea of these books was to pair well-known writers and well-known illustrators and then…ask them to create something strange and wonderful. The table of contents alone offers some absurdly high-density creativity: Jules Feiffer, Barbara McClintock, Lemony Snicket, Maurice Sendak, Neil Gaiman, William Joyce, Richard Sala, Chris Ware, etc.) David’s story is called “Pretty Ugly,” and it is both strange and wonderful. Here’s how Phoebe describes it: “It’s about a girl named Anna Van Ogre, and she lives in a world where everything is sort of backwards. Like, you’re pretty if you’re ugly. These people don’t look like people; they kind of look like trolls mixed with pigs.” It sounds weird, and it is. And that’s also why our kids love it. They wanted to ask David some questions about how he did it, and what it all meant, and what he liked to read as a kid, and if he has plans for more kid stories. He was kind enough to oblige. — Andy
Phoebe: How did you get the idea for Pretty Ugly?
David Sedaris: I like the idea of a world turned upside. In the U.S., for example, straight teeth are considered attractive while in Japan a woman is considered much prettier if her teeth are jumbled and crammed into her mouth at odd angles. In Africa, it’s considered beautiful to have holes the size of dinner plates in your ears while in the US, most of us find that pretty creepy. It all depends on which culture you were raised in. In the ogre culture of Pretty Ugly, being cute means being hideous, and in ours it’s just the opposite.
P: How did you get someone as famous as Ian Falconer to do the illustrations?
DS: It was Art Speigelman’s plan to combine writers with illustrators. Well, his and his wife’s plan. Her name is Francoise Mouly. She is the art director of the New Yorker, and a co-founder of the group that put the book together. That said, Ian and I already knew each other. He did the sets for the original New York production of “The Santaland Diaries.” I remember going to his apartment one day and seeing these great drawings of a pig. He told me that he had a three year old niece named Olivia, and that he was thinking of writing a children’s book about her. That book, of course, became Olivia.
P: What was your inspiration for this story?
DS: I’d never tried anything like this, so when Art invited me to do it I said yes. “Pretty Ugly” was my third or fourth idea. I don’t now remember what the other ones were, but this one ultimately made more sense. When I was young, whenever a kid made an ugly face, his parents would warn him that if he didn’t quit, his face would stay that way. I like it when the girl turns inside out. It seemed that that might be a fun thing to draw.
P: What kinds of books did you like when you were a kid?
DS: I liked biographies of famous people. It didn’t matter who it was, if he was famous, I’d check his biography out of the library. What always surprised me was the person wasn’t born famous, or born knowing he’d be famous. Abraham Lincoln or George Washington of Daniel Boone — they were just normal people until lightning struck.
And now Abby has a few questions, too:
Abby: Did you tell Ian Falconer what to draw, or did you give him the choice?
DS: I’d never tell Ian what to do. He’s the artist, and because he puts a lot of thought into what he does, I can automatically assume that his visual ideas will be better than mine. Ian illustrated my last book, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, and again, I never made any suggestions.
A: What is the moral of your story?
DS: When nothing else works, you need to go that one extra mile.
A: Do you think all kid stories should have morals?
DS: It’s nice when it works out, but I don’t know that a moral should always be imposed. Some stories are simply meant to be entertaining, and not necessarily enlightening. Does Stuart Little have a moral? I don’t remember.
A: Why don’t you do more kids books?
DS: I just did this one because Art asked me to. Aside from you and Phoebe, I don’t know too many children. What people your age want is a complete mystery to me. That’s why I gave you those candles shaped like bottles. What do I know?