July 20, 2024
Stephan Pastis, creator of the comic “Pearls Before Swine,” is a lot of things. But one thing he probably never expected was to be the guy who predicted January 6.

Stephan Pastis is a lot of things – creator of the comic “Pearls Before Swine,” New York Times bestselling author, Disney movie writer — but one thing he probably never expected was to be a guy who predicted January 6.

The moment came in a “Pearls” strip when Rat, a character who’s become president of the United States, is overthrown in a coup staged by a pith helmet-wearing duck. Pastis wrote this plot in 2020 but, due to advanced scheduling, they were slated to run right after the Trump-fueled D.C. riots.

“If you do a strip about a plane crash, it’s always a risk because you never know what’s going to happen in the news when the strip comes out much later,” Pastis says. “But when you do a strip about an attempted coup in the federal government — you NEVER think that’s going to happen. That was so strange and unexpected.”

The syndicate wound up temporarily pulling the strips. But you can find them in Pastis’ newest comics compendium, “Pearls Seeks Enlightenment,” where they fit right in with the artist’s blend of political commentary and railings against American stupidity (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $19.99). The book is actually Pastis’ second of the year. He also put out “Looking Up,” an illustrated children’s novel about a girl fighting gentrification and latte-sipping hipsters to save her neighborhood (Simon & Schuster, $13.99).

Pastis is gearing up for a 19-city book tour across America — he’s appearing at Danville’s Rakestraw Books at 6 p.m. on Oct. 9 — but found the time to speak from his Santa Rosa home about his busy year, his Jack Reacher-esque travel ethic and his eerie knack for prophesy.

Q: This book tour is a little different in that you’re appearing at a lot of schools. Are kids a harsh audience?

A: Nah, they’re great. For grade-school children, when you draw in front of them it’s like you’re doing magic. The character appears and you’ll hear “Ooh! Aah!” like I pulled a rabbit out of my hat. You forget how impressionable kids are at that age. Now I think once you’re in high school, that’s all gone. So if you do a kid’s book, don’t go to high schools.

Then of course they’re so blunt in their questions. Sometimes it’s easy, like, “Do you have a dog?” But my favorite one, which gets thrown out at least once a city, is, “How much money do you make?” I always say, “Enough that I can be on the road and travel and meet all of you.”

Q: Nineteen cities is a lot. But it seems like you enjoy traveling?

A: I read a ton of travel books. I think I’ve read every Paul Theroux book, and Bill Bryson, and I’m a big Anthony Bourdain addict. I think when you drop yourself into a new city, particularly if it’s in a new country — like I was just in Cambodia — you’re very alive, because the input is constant and the unknown is exciting. All of that goes into an adrenaline high, which I live for. I think for anyone creative, if you’re not experiencing new things your work is probably going to go stale.

“Pearls Before Swine” (Stephan Pastis/Andrews McMeel Publishing) 

Q: The new “Pearls” treasury includes your travel photos, like the Sod House Museum in Oklahoma. Is there a rhyme or reason to where you go?

A: I tell you exactly what I do. I’ve divided up the country into 14 zones. I pick one of those zones and put hundreds of pins into Google Maps, then plan out how many days it would take me to see all those things. It’s not always obvious things, but odd places like where a president has died, or Three Mile Island, or where Jesse James pulled off the first train robbery, or the Field of Dreams in Iowa.

This serves two purposes: One, I love seeing that stuff. And two, I know I’m going to write about it. I actually have a travel book I’m working on, already have 400 pages written. It’s almost like a David Sedaris book — if I could be half as funny as him, it’d be great.

Q: What inspired your new kid’s novel, “Looking Up”?

A: I’d never written a book about a little girl. and I always wanted to try that. I had this girl who absolutely loved this toy store she goes to, and it gets torn down because the neighborhood is changing and gentrifying and it just crushes her. I liked that. There’s something in there that’s a little bit Don Quixote — she’s tilting at windmills and trying to save her neighborhood, but she’s a little kid so it’s going to be hard.

Q: Is gentrification a big concern of yours?

A: I spend more time in New Orleans than anywhere else except home, and it’s a real problem there. The Airbnbs come into a neighborhood, they’re successful, so investors come in buy up more properties and rent them. Before long you realize you’ve lost what’s special about the city. You’ve lost the person who’s the trumpeter in the band, or the person who marches in the Mardi Gras parades, or the great cook at the restaurant you like.

“Pearls Before Swine” (Stephan Pastis/Andrews McMeel Publishing) 

Q: This is a children’s book. To what extent have your own kids influenced your work?

A: A lot, especially when they were younger. They were always the first people I showed stuff to. I would — boy, they found this annoying, and for good reason — watch when they read it, so I could see when they’d laugh or didn’t laugh. I’d ask why or why not and, based on their responses, would often tweak the book.

Q: Do they demand royalties for their childhood input?

A: Effectively they’re getting it — my support of them. So, yes.

Q: Aside from an attempted coup, is there anything else you’ve recently predicted?

A: In “Pearls,” at the very end of 2019 I had Baby New Year — you know, the little baby with the sash and top hat — coming up to Pig at the front door and saying, “New Year.” Pig says, “I think the expression is, “Happy New Year.” And the little baby says, “Yeah, but I can see what’s coming next year,” and drinks so much he passes out. Then of course the pandemic hits. That was a strange one — sometimes it just happens.