Daniel Handler is an absolutely charming person’s interviews to read. For example, a recent one from The Guardian, where he reveals his simple test to see if a child might enjoy the Lemony Snicket books: “If there was a small child here who said, ‘Can I have one of those cookies?’, I might say, ‘One of those cookies is poisoned. We have no idea which one.’… there’s the sort of child who is alarmed by that and the sort of child who delights in it.” Or this one from The New York Times, where he admits that, like lots of us, he hasn’t read Proust. “It’s mortifying. There are episodes of “The Golden Girls” I’ve seen a dozen times, and I haven’t cracked open Proust.”
But why read those interviews when you can read my paraphrased summary of his premiere reading of We are Pirates at Barnes and Noble, complete with digitized cell phone pictures?
He opened: “I’ve stopped bringing my accordion to events unless asked. Because the question ‘Why didn’t you bring your accordion?’ is charming, whereas ‘Why did you bring your accordion?’ is less so.” The full story went something like, on a recent trip, he arrived at his hotel, and was alarmed to find a note that read, “I’m going to kill you” on his door. He then had to repeat the words to the woman at the front desk. After some security guards (who seemed excited to make use of their badges inspected the area, including some of his things, and the accordion case was produced- which apparently looks alarmingly like a bomb and has the tendency to only make people more uncomfortable when it turns out to contain, of all things, an accordion. The story didn’t quite finish, but we were left to infer that, as fantastically as it was presented, that traveling with an accordion is just a little too much of a hassle to keep up at the stage he’s reached.
Just as with the Lemony Snicket example, there are some adults who delight in these kinds of stories and some who don’t…. If you chuckled, then you might be a Daniel Handler fan.
He did, however, chart some fairly linear connections between this book and his personal life. In elementary school, he was forced to take an excruciatingly boring test to determine what he wanted to be when he grew up. He led a rebellion and convinced every other kid in the class to also check off the box marked “Other” and write in “Pirate.” It turned out that their class was part of some sort of study sample, and his teacher was not happy about the impact of their little experiment. Next, he spoke of how he admired the fury with which his sister flared through adolescence- that this really highlighted for him the extent to which teenage girls are marginalized, and made them an ideal group to seek out piracy. For an adult to agree to piracy, seriously, though- (s)he would have to be out of their minds: dementia. That was where the book stalled for many years. He just couldn’t capture someone suffering from dementia in anything other than a cliche until his father succumbed. Since his father used to offer/threaten to go to sporting events wearing sandwich boards advertizing his books to help sales, Handler felt he would have enjoyed seeping into as much of this book as he did.
Of course, the real question on everyone’s minds: where did Lemony Snicket come from? When fishing for information about a conservative religious group early in his career, the representative asked for his name to send him mailing materials, and he panicked: out came Lemony Snicket. Thus the pseudonym was born.
Ideal Date: A Wesleyan Reunion. Because I went to Wesleyan University, too, and the moment Daniel Handler opened his mouth, I was transported back to those days.