Daniel Handler, who has on occasion slyly identified himself as Lemony Snicket’s “representative,” recently took time from a tour promoting his new book, We Are Pirates, to talk to The Santa Barbara Independent. He’d just flown in from wintry New York City and was back in his unseasonably warm hometown of San Francisco. The author of A Series of Unfortunate Events, as Lemony Snicket — and numerous grown-up books as Daniel Handler — was gracious and impressively cheerful that morning, considering most of us would be using jet lag as an excuse to lie about and groan.
Are book tours as grueling as they sound? I actually like book tours. That’s not to say that every moment sitting in an airport is an unmitigated pleasure, but I work all day in my office, and it’s nice to get out in the world. I’ve been to the U.K., Australia, and Italy — the only country where I didn’t speak the language. I tried talking to a room of children, but that’s hard even when you do speak the language.
We Are Pirates is not your first book to feature a disaffected teenager. Were you a disaffected teenager yourself? I felt hemmed in and had glimpses of an exciting life that I was being denied. Of course I blamed my parents. I thought I was an adult. All youths think they’re ready to have an adult life.
Piracy, both metaphorically and actually, are a theme of We Are Pirates. I understand you have you always wanted to be a pirate, is that right? I dreamed of the swashbuckling pirates of the 19th century. I read books by Robert Louis Stevenson and others. I wanted to climb aboard a ship and take it over by sword. I loved the swashbuckly pirate books, loved the old Errol Flynn films. I had no interest in starving and getting scurvy, but the fantasy of flouncing aboard a ship and taking it over by sword … [Laughs.]
Gwen, the desperate and isolated 14-year-old that she is, goes to rather shocking lengths in the book to break out of what she feels is a life doomed to dreary sameness, but she doesn’t seem to think about consequences. I’d say that’s the definition of teenagers, of living a life without consequences, but I think she feels remorse, and as time passes and she grows up, she’ll feel it more. She hasn’t really “gotten away with murder,” because she’ll continue to be haunted, like all of us, like when you have insomnia…
Looking at bits of your high school address on YouTube, it seems you had already established yourself as the class wit. [Laughs.] To call me a wit would be a compliment. But people did like my humor. Even though I read all the time, a lot of books, I was popular because that wasn’t all I did. We live in a world where serious readers are alienated, so you have to engage in things that are popular because otherwise you’re just reading and not participating, and you end up being a loner.
You play accordion, sometimes with The Magnetic Fields. How do you come by your interest in music? I had a big classical training, in piano and a boys’ choir [the renowned San Francisco Boys Chorus], but puberty wrecked my career. My parents later told me they considered castration to save my career.
What kind of music do you listen to? Shostakovich, for one, and I’ve been listening to Sun Ra. When I start a new book, I spend time choosing the right mood music. For the Unfortunate Events, books I listened to Shostakovich’s string quartets; until now I can’t hear them without thinking of the Baudelaires [the three unfortunate children of the title]. You have to choose music you like — if you chose music you didn’t like, it wouldn’t be mood music, would it? It would be the wrong music.
What did you think of the 2004 movie Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events? I worked on it for five years and then got fired. [Laughs.] But I’m not going to say anything against somebody who bought me a house. If you bought me a house, for instance, and somebody said bad things about you, I’d say, “I still like her.”
The Royal Shakespeare Company has commissioned you and longtime collaborator Stephin Merritt to write a musical. How’s that coming? I’ve written the book, and Stephin’s written the songs, but sometimes I have to crack the whip and say, “Come on, Stephin, we’re getting behind.” The book will need some work, or the songs will need some work, but I think it’s not the first time the Royal Shakespeare Company has had a work that comes in late.
What sort of work schedule do you have? We have a child, so we wake up early, and I work all day long. I knock off about 3 p.m., when everybody else is thinking of knocking off but has to stay longer. I do a lot of research … so I’m prepared when I sit down to write. I don’t self-criticize. The first draft is long and baggy. Then I start the cutting down. Sometimes I work hard on one paragraph; other times I write a lot and go back. There are tons and tons of rewrites.
Your talk at UCSB Arts & Lectures on February 23 is titled Who Is Lemony Snicket? Will you answer that question? Probably not to anyone’s satisfaction.
Daniel Handler will be in town Monday, February 23, at 8 p.m. at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.