The path from wickedly sardonic but miserable attorney to wildly successful, blissfully happy -- but still wickedly sardonic -- cartoonist is something that still gives Stephan Pastis pause.
It wasn't all that long ago that the UC Berkeley grad was defending insurance companies in courtrooms here and in Los Angeles after the Northridge earthquake -- and reading rejections from cartoon syndicates, the media distribution companies that act as go-betweens for cartoonists and newspapers.
It took an arrogant, hand-drawn rat and his comic foil, a warmhearted piglet, to turn the tide. Now the Santa Rosa resident and his "Pearls Before Swine" characters are household names. The strip appears in 650 newspapers worldwide, and he has three books coming out in the next few months, including a children's book, a comic strip treasury -- "Pearl Freaks the #*%# Out" -- and a gift book that is emphatically not for children.
We caught up with Pastis halfway through a series of book tours that stretches from Dublin, Ireland, to Alameda.
Q You've been writing Pearls for nearly 20 years and limning these indelible characters: the gentle, naive Pig; anxious Zeeba and his hungry, clueless crocodile neighbors; and the sardonic megalomaniacal Rat. Which character is most like you?
A Rat. I say it without hesitation -- and that always scares people (at book signings) because I'm in the room with them. (Laughs) I'm all of them, but I'm one and the same with Rat.
Q Oh. (Edging away) That's ... er, nice. What can we expect at your book events? Tapdancing zeebas? Screaming fans? Paparazzi?
A As a cartoonist, you're really such a hermit. You know people read it, but you are in no way famous. You go all the places you go and nobody has any idea who you are, and then you go to a location on these book tours and you see this big queue -- 200, 300 people -- and your first instinct is, "Who are they here for?" It's really something.
Q You've mentioned before that you get a lot of hate mail. You and Rat, anyway. What seems to trigger it?
A The whole panoply. I don't consider this strip edgy at all, but when the comics page has "Blondie" and "Beetle Bailey," you definitely get people who think you're Satan. One woman said Satan had obviously possessed my soul because we beat up Jeffy from "Family Circus." She was deadly serious.
Q We heard you're venturing into kid lit territory next, with a book aimed at 8- to 12-year-olds, and starring a kid called ... Timmy Failure?
A "Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made" is about a little boy who is a detective, but unlike other little boys who are detectives in fiction, he is an utter moron. He can't solve anything -- and he thinks he's the best detective currently working.
Q So he's the anti-Encyclopedia Brown?
A I literally bought a big box set of Encyclopedia Brown before I started writing, so I could figure out the genre -- before I made fun of the genre. Those kids are always brilliant, so I thought: What if you did that genre, but the kid was not brilliant in any way?
Q You have your own little focus group at home. What did your kids think of Timmy?
A Tom is 14, but Julia is 10 years old. They both read it. Julia doesn't really care for the (Pearls) strip that much, but she really liked Timmy. That was a good sign.
Q Timmy has a sidekick?
A A polar bear, named Total. Together they're Total Failure, Inc. It comes out in February here, but I've been on a great little trip in London and Dublin promoting the book there.
Q Wait, a polar bear? Why?
A I'd done a rat, a pig, crocodiles, zebras, cats. I ran out of animals, and I just liked him. Timmy doesn't have a dad, and the polar bear is big and protective. I thought it fit. Timmy believes he's a terribly incompetent business partner, but Total is just a bear. Obviously, he can't do dictation or filing, to the constant irritation of Timmy.
Q You have a third book coming out, too?
A It's as different from these other two as can be. I owed (my publisher) a gift book, and we were going to do a Pearls one, but I went to the gift store and was nauseated by how sickeningly sweet all of these books are -- all rainbows, puppies.
Q So this one is called ... ?
A "Friends Should Know When They're Not Wanted: A Sociopath's Guide to Friendship." Clearly, it's not for the Timmy reader. It would be woefully inappropriate for the Timmy reader.
Meet the author of "Pearls Freaks the #*%# Out: A (Freaky) Pearls Before Swine Treasury" (Andrews McMeel, $16.99, 264 pages) at 7 p.m. Friday at Corte Madera's Book Passage (51 Tamal Vista Blvd.) and at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 24 at Alameda's branch of Books Inc. (1344 Park St.).
A second Bay Area book tour, for "Timmy Failure," will coincide with the book's release in February.