If circus maestro P.T. Barnum, champion of comic cracks Groucho Marx, and marathon runner/surreal novelist Haruki Murakami somehow teamed to create a contemporary author who lives in a Victorian mansion, swims every morning in the San Francisco Bay, and crafts books that sell millions (and millions), collisions of anarchy and optimism, bedlam and grotesques, allegory, social commentary, mischief, and quip, that writer would have to be Daniel Handler. If the name doesn’t crack your bell hard enough to make it actually ring, that’s because most of the more than 60-million books the 44-year old author has penned have been published under the name, Lemony Snicket. Through 16 books – the franchise A Series of Unfortunate Events, headed to Netflix in a live-action adaptation next winter, and the All the Wrong Questions set, headed to its conclusion with this fall’s Why Is This Night Different From All Other Nights? – Handler, working as the enigmatic, reclusive Snicket, has become the favorite author of an entire generation.
With 2011’s acclaimed, bestselling “grown-up” book, the glorious, poignant, mixed-media epistolary Why We Broke Up, created in collaboration with Maira Kalman, Handler expanded his readership considerably. This month, Handler releases We Are Pirates which, despite its fanciful title, is another one for folks old enough to vote, the stirring, frequently knee-slappingly funny, unexpectedly moving story of a father and daughter, both hollow and unfulfilled, who team up with a crew of 21st century outlaws off the coast of Fog City. Clearly, Handler, an accomplished accordion player, marches to the beat of his own drummer.
Considering the wide range of offbeat subjects – from opera to incest, standardized testing in public schools to 12-step programs, love letters and bric-a-brac, arson and genocide, secret societies and revolution – that you’ve approached in previous novels, both for children and adults, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that pirates figure prominently in the new book. They’re even “advertised” in the novel’s title!
When I was in high school, everyone had to take a career test and check off careers they were interested in. Every possible career was listed, but I convinced everyone in my homeroom to check “other,” and then write in “Pirate.” For years I thought about what sort of people would try to be pirates nowadays in America, and when I realized it would be teenage girls and the denizens of an old age home, the novel truly began.
The novel’s protagonist, Phil, dreams of a life he does not have. He yearns to be an outlaw and a treasure hunter. Can you relate to those specific dreams?
I treasure my life and don’t think about escaping it. But I do enjoy cooking and watching people eat what I cook.
The novel has been described as being about our search for happiness and freedom. How does that connect with your life?
I’m a happy person, and I think anyone happy feels free. I don’t think Phil Needle has any idea what would make him happy, and I wouldn’t use his self-actualization, what little there is of it, as a model.
What are three things your readers might do to become happier in their lives?
1. Take walks alone.
2. Read poetry.
3. Try to believe and remember that everyone is doing the best they can.
The novelist Jess (Beautiful Ruins) Walter describes We Are Pirates as dazzling, disturbing, and delightful. Seems like the “disturbing” part, considering the anarchic feel of so much of your work, might particularly tickle you. Thoughts?
I don’t consider myself a provocateur, but I think good stories are surprising. I like a surprising sentence. I like a sudden shift in plot.
You’re often intrinsically involved in the books penned by Lemony Snicket. Does he have any input on your work, specifically We Are Pirates?
We’re both interested in the sheer insensibility of the world. That’s about all I can say about that.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
My parents tell a story that when I was five, someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I said I wanted to be an old man who lived on the top of a mountain giving advice. If that’s true, then that is the only other career I ever really considered. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. When I was six, I wrote a story about a talking egg that ate radios. I suppose I was trying for surprise, even then.
The characters in your books often have unusual, frequently catastrophic childhoods. Is this a process of exorcism and autobiography for you, or are you just weaving great tales?
I had, and have, a fierce and loyal sister. But for the most part my childhood was uneventful.
Who are some of the artists and writers who have influenced your work?
When I was a child, it was Edward Gorey and Roald Dahl and Zilpha Keatley Snyder. When I was a teenager, it was Carson McCullers and Paul Auster and Rachel Ingalls. When I was first writing, it was Haruki Murakami and Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison. All these influences linger, and anything I experience and admire changes my life. The most recent things I read and loved were Lois Lowry’s Anastasia Krupnik, which I just reread for the umpteenth time, and some very good poems by Rodney Koeneke.
You are an alumnus of the San Francisco Boys Chorus. You’ve written a good amount of songs. You’ve played with indie rock band Magnetic Fields. Any chance we’ll one day get to enjoy the Daniel Handler Series of Unfortunate Songs?
My role in music has always been that of performing the music of others. I like it that way.
Tell me about taking the leap to professional writer. Your first novel, The Basic Eight, was reportedly rejected 37 times before it hit bookstores. What kept you going?
Getting rejected is miserable, but I was supported by good friends, a great sister, a wonderful literary agent, and the love of a terrific woman.
What’s been the highlight of your career to date?
Having money to give away.