Thurber Prize–winning humorist and essayist David Sedaris makes his children’s book debut with Pretty Ugly—sort of. The story originated more than two decades ago as a short comic in the anthology Little Lit: Strange Stories for Strange Kids (HarperCollins/Cotler, 2001), and was illustrated by the late Ian Falconer. This month, it will appear in picture book format for the first time. Turning standard notions of beauty inside out, the book stars a young ogre with a talent for making “terrible faces." But one day, just as her family warned, her face gets stuck in the most hideous form of all: an adorable human girl. PW spoke with Sedaris about his friendship and collaboration with Falconer, the joy of grossing out loved ones and strangers alike, and the best kind of audience reaction.

What was it like pivoting to the picture book form?

Well, I think it was more than 20 years ago, and it never would have occurred to me to do. But Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly invited me to. They put out a book of comics for kids [Little Lit: Strange Stories for Strange Kids]. I was never really a comics reader. So, I guess I thought, it can’t be too hard, you know, children aren’t that bright. [Laughs sarcastically.] And a lot of people who read comics don’t seem to me all that bright. But then I realized, it’s a different way that you have to write. Karl Stevens does those cartoons for the New Yorker and he’s done graphic novels. And when I look at the way he does it... I mean, he does the drawings and the words. He’s fluent in both those kinds of languages.

Your friendship and collaboration with Ian Falconer dates back to before this story, though?

Yes, he did the Santaland Diaries production that was in New York. And so I think we met when he was hired to do those sets, or we might have met at a New Yorker Christmas party. And then I would see him over the years from time to time. He did the illustrations for a book of mine called Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. I have to tell you, I didn’t really consider anyone but Ian, and I was so grateful that he was allowed to do it. I didn’t want to tell him what to draw for each story, because I knew he would be so much better at it.

What was it about your creative partnership that made it special?

We didn’t interfere with each other. Really, I mean, if he had said, like, “Oh, we need to do this, instead,” I would have listened to him, and I would have done it. But we both respected each other and let each other do what we did.

And how does it feel to be bringing Pretty Ugly into the world in this standalone picture book form, sadly after Ian’s passing?

I mean, it’s too bad that he’s not around. I was really shocked and saddened to hear that he had died. I don’t think he would have objected to this. Maybe if he were alive, he and I could have sat down and said, “How do we make this better?” [The original story] was just a page or two in the Little Lit anthology. It was challenging to pick up something that was done so long ago and then to think how I could have expanded that on my own, because there weren’t Ian’s drawings to sustain it. But I wouldn’t have had his go ahead if I added a bunch of things. That didn’t seem fair.

I’m very curious to see how it’s received. Like I said, I don’t know about the workings of the children’s book world. I have no idea of how it might do; I have no expectations. I could see somebody buying it for the pictures because they’re great. It’s more than a little bit sad that Ian isn’t here to sit at a table and sign books with. That would have been nice.

In your author’s note, you credit your sister and fellow comedian Amy Sedaris, who you say “makes the world’s scariest faces,” as a key source of inspiration. Could you talk more about her influence?

Oh, well, Amy just has a rubber face and makes a lot of faces, so I guess I was thinking about her. Gosh, usually I write about real people, so I’m taking part of this person and part of that person and fictionalizing them. Like in Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, that was all fiction, but most of those short stories were me—the faults that each of those characters had were faults that I have, that I was magnifying.

There’s also an interplay of humor and horror in the book, in the imagery. Now be honest: do you delight in creeping out your readers?

I mean, I love it. I was just on the elevator with somebody, and he had some kind of... I don’t know, it was just a monstrosity, like eyes were bulging out of its head. I don’t know if it was a French Bull Terrier or something like that. And I said to him, “I know someone whose dog is so inbred that it’s allergic to its own teeth.” And then I remembered as I said it that it was actually a cat. The person was just horrified.

I’m used to reading things out loud. So, a difference here is I’ve never read this book out loud [in front of an audience]. I recorded it for the audiobook—I added “he said,” “she said,” and simple descriptions, so if somebody was just listening, they could kind of understand what was going on. But usually, I read things out loud. And there are different kinds of laughs, and then there’s a groan, and then there’s a “that’s so hideous, I can’t believe it” groan. And I count that as, you know—if you can gross somebody out like that, I think that’s different than offending somebody. Grossing people out—as an older brother, it was my job in the family to do that, and I still think of it as my job.

It’s a very personal connection you have with the audience.

Because again, you’re having them make a sound. I’d never want to get up in front of people and read something that was serious, to have them be quiet. And then you hear them shift in their seats and cough and then at the end they applaud. How do you know you did a good job, if they’re not making some kind of noise? I mean, I get booed every now and then, but then there’s kind of a grumbling that comes from the audience, like “I don’t know about that.” And I love that.

In the book, your subversion of standard ideas of beauty and especially the scene with the surgeon trying to fix the girl’s face are reminiscent of that classic Twilight Zone episode, “The Eye of the Beholder.” Was Rod Serling on your mind at all when you wrote this fractured fable?

I didn’t think of it until afterwards. And then I thought like, “Oh, right!” That was such a good episode. That was like one of the best of all time.

There’s that twist ending and that universality in your story, too. But it’s not heavy handed with the moral, “beauty is on the inside.” And there’s the yuck factor.

Well, plus, how many lessons can a kid take?

My publisher sent me all these children’s books a couple of years ago, and they really wanted me to write a children’s book. I’m the only writer I know who doesn’t want to write a children’s book. [Laughs.] So I wrote this little thing and then you know, there were notes like, “you have to be more positive” or “you have to teach them something,” and I’m just not interested in that. And it’s not like those lessons stick. If they stuck, we’d all be perfect.

I just love the idea of somebody turning themselves inside out. I mean, can you imagine what you’d really look like if you turned yourself inside out?

There’s a kind of continuity between your essays, which are filled with, shall we say, vivid descriptions of family dynamics, and Anna Van Ogre’s endearingly grotesque family. Were there any surprises or discoveries in bringing your satirical eye and voice to a children’s book? Or did it happen organically?

You’ve got so little time, just in terms of telling a story; it’s a pretty short book. The parts with the grandparents, they’re just supportive. I think Ian made them interesting with his drawings. It goes to show, it really is a two-person job. He took a flimsy story and made it something with his illustrations. And again, I can’t imagine anybody else could have done it as well as he did.

Do you see yourself revisiting this age group?

Well, I mean, if I could dig Ian up.

I wrote something a couple of months ago, but it is so offensive that no one would ever publish it. I guarantee you. It’s not dirty in any way, but it’s just deeply offensive to everyone. Everyone in the world would be offended by this book. But you know, everyone would be offended by it equally.

Pretty Ugly by David Sedaris, illus. by Ian Falconer. Toon, $18.99 Feb. 27 ISBN 978-1-66266-527-1