A Series of Unfortunate Questions for Daniel Handler
The legendary Lemony Snicket is headed to the high seas for a new adventure under his other name. But where's he coming from?
Daniel Handler’s latest novel, We Are Pirates, is about a pair of disaffected teenage girls who decide, in present-day San Francisco, to take to the high seas under the black flag. This September, Why Is This Night Different From All Other Nights?,, the last book in his most recent Lemony Snicket series, All The Wrong Questions, will hit bookstore shelves. Netflix is adapting A Series of Unfortunate Events, also written under the Snicket nom de plume, as a series.
Is Daniel Handler Pugsley Addams, all grown up? Like the boy in the Addams Family films, Handler—known to you as Lemony Snicket, author of the ironic-gothic children’s books, A Series of Unfortunate Events—wears his hair in a burr cut and has a round, baby-faced mug that makes him look far more boyish than his 45 years. Charles Addams once described Pugsley as “a dedicated troublemaker” and a “genius in his own way,” and Handler is both, though whether he builds “toy guillotines, full-size racks, threatens to poison his sister, [and] can turn himself into a Mr. Hyde with an ordinary chemical set,” who knows? That said, I can easily imagine him decapitating his sister’s doll. (He does, in fact, have a sister.) And he reportedly makes a mean martini, a drink that has been known to bring out the Mr. Hyde in even the most demure, well-manicured types.
It’s a treacly truism of the bookchat set, as Gore Vidal called it, that the best writers of children’s books are adults who haven’t forgotten what it was like to be a kid, and Handler fits the bill. “Before he could talk,” he says, of his son Otto, “we would go for a walk and I would say: ‘If I see a tree, I’m going to go crazy,’ and he would point at a tree and I would pretend to go crazy. Or I’d say: ‘If I see a piece of gum on the sidewalk I’m going to fall on the ground,’ and he’d point at the gum. I still meet children who, when I make that kind of joke, are alarmed. Some of them are my nieces. You can’t win them all.”
Clearly, Handler wears his adulthood lightly. He keeps his manuscripts-in-progress in the refrigerator’s crisper drawer, he claims, “in case the house burns down.” Asked what brings a tear to his eye, he says, “The scene towards the end of The Life Aquatic, when Bill Murray’s character says of the shark, ‘I wonder if it remembers me.’” What does he want his gravestone to say? “Please keep off the grass,” a parting shot that’s in a league with the Surrealist artist (and irrepressible prankster) Marcel Duchamp’s epitaph: D’ailleurs, c’est toujours les autres qui meurent (“Anyway, it’s always the other guy who dies.”) In his novel, The Adverbs, he quips, “It’s always dawnest before dark,” which sounds like Larry David’s idea of Taoist wisdom. The best job he ever had, as an unpublished young writer, was working as an executive assistant to a man who was in the hospital, busy dying, a honey of a job that left Handler ample time for writing. Oh, and the “aura of doom that hung over it was very helpful to me as a beginning novelist as well.” His advice to aspiring authors? “Try to work for someone who’s dying. You get a lot of time.” The fact that he hasn’t read Proust is a source of undying shame. “I’m trying to start a Dive Bar Proust Club, where we meet regularly at dive bars to discuss Proust, but the people I invite keep asking, ‘Do we have to meet at dive bars?’ or ‘Do we have to read Proust?’”
Not that he’s some kind of man-boy. Because, paradoxically, the best children’s authors don’t try to pass as overgrown children (is there anything creepier?), nor, on the other hand, do they treat kids like miniature adults. Handler’s narrator, Lemony Snicket, speaks to his young readers in a voice that’s perfectly poised between arch and earnest, portentous and twee, chronicling one Unfortunate Event after another in a deadpan that never cracks. Like the mock-moralizing books of Edward Gorey, whom Handler admires, A Series of Unfortunate Events is at once a send-up of moralizing children’s literature and, in its own amusingly lugubrious way, a useful lesson in the survival skill of wringing black comedy from life’s million little agonies and absurdities.
On the subject of children and childhood, Handler says, “I think the basic questions you ask yourself as a child—What are people doing? Why are we thinking about this and not that?—I think those questions never get answered in adulthood. You learn that it’s rude to ask them, and you learn that what you’re really supposed to do is get up and go to work. But they’re never answered so they continue to haunt me. And I think that they haunt everybody. I think that people are different degrees of dishonest about it.”
As for Handler’s own childhood, it would be nice to think that he grew up a forlorn orphan, in a vast Victorian pile subsiding into a moor, but aside from a longer-than-average list of morbid fears and a tendency to brood over injustice, he appears to have had a more or less happy boyhood, regrettably, in the San Francisco of the 1980s. He was, of course, a ravenous reader, and can remember where he was when he first read J.D. Salinger’s nutty, disturbing story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” better than he can any birthday party. But it was The Blue Aspic, by Edward Gorey—the first book he bought with his own money—that made him who is, he insists: “It opened up a curious and shady world—you know, the one we all live in—I am still exploring.”
Not that his childhood was nothing but blue skies: Handler is Jewish, and his father fled Germany as a little boy, in 1939, to escape the gathering Nazi horror. “I knew about the Holocaust at an earlier age than most people learn about it, I think, and so the idea that the world could suddenly go very wrong, and that it had no bearing on what sort of person you were, sunk in pretty early,” he told an interviewer. “And it’s affected my politics and my writing and my life.”
We spoke by e-mail.
Mark Dery: The Lemony Snicket voice—arch, ironic, Edward Goreyesque—flirts, at times, with camp. To my ear, it borrows some of its tone from pre-Stonewall gay humor, specifically the pricking wit of 1920’s British writers such as E.F. Benson, author of the Mapp & Lucia series; Ronald Firbank (whom you once said would be your ideal biographer); and Ivy Compton-Burnett. (All of whom Gorey, one of your biggest influences, loved.) There’s a tongue-in-cheek tone to that voice, not quite bitchy but definitely insinuating, which some adults relish, but kids don’t get. Or do they?
Daniel Handler: I was just at a party where a small child was wolfing down cookies, and I said to her, “You probably shouldn’t eat very many of those, because one of them is poisoned.” The deadpan juxtaposition of the mundane and the frightening is always interesting—and often hilarious—to me, and it comes not only from the sort of authors you mentioned but is also at the root of Jewish humor. I grew up in a household that understood that just because you’d escaped Germany in 1939 by the skin of your teeth didn’t mean it wasn’t also terrible when you were out of pudding. It’s no surprise to me that, culturally, this type of humor tends to spring from people who are treated atrociously but are somehow thriving anyway, nor that someone of the next generation would find Woody Allen and Ronald Firbank more or less saying the same thing. The Snicket voice is in there somewhere, and its insinuations find appreciation in a certain type of person, independent, in my experience, of age. It’s difficult to say exactly what this sort is, but we know each other when we find each other. The child immediately fell writhing to the ground. That’s the sort I mean.
MD: In your latest Lemony Snicket series, All the Wrong Questions, you’ve transposed Snicket’s voice from the key of ironic gothic into that of tongue-in-cheek noir. It’s an intriguing move, because the gothic often plays with gender, queering it in weird and wonderful ways, whereas noir, especially the hardboiled Raymond Chandler version you’re riffing on, is all about a particularly American brand of tough-guy masculinity—humorless, not great at anger management, its emotions repressed behind an iron-jawed façade or drowned in a bottle of rye. There’s a misogynistic strain in noir, and, not incidentally, an undertone of homophobia. (I’m thinking of Chandler’s sneering caricature of the effeminate playboy in “Mandarin’s Jade,” a gigolo clearly coded as gay with “a soft brown neck, like the neck of a very strong woman,” who walks “like a dancer” and uses exclamations like “Gracious!”) I’m wondering if you’re exploiting the tension between the knowing, deadpan Snicket persona and the noir genre as a way of satirizing American ideas about masculinity, among other things.
DH: I find the voices not so far apart—and the distance is on the same path, I think. Noir’s hyper-masculinity feels as slippery and stagey as the gothic novel’s troubled heroes—Joseph Hansen’s gay noirs make some nice hay with this, I think—and certainly the treatment of women seems like very similar shades, ahem, of grey. (Whether you’d rather be married off at a young age to a seething, violent count in a castle, or slapped around in a hotel room by a hard-drinking tough, is really just a matter of taste.) I hope that Violet Baudelaire, whose inventiveness is in nimble contrast to gothic heroine’s pearl-clutching passivity, and Ellington Feint, who makes the femme fatale stand toe-to-toe with the detective, where she belongs, looks askance at both genres’ ghastly sides.
But more to my point: the noir and gothic poses both are strategies to work one’s way through a mysterious and thoroughly corrupt universe, which is why they both fit so neatly into the journey of childhood. It makes sense to me that young Snicket would be trying on an ill-fitting tough-guy stance on his way to the softer, more flourishy persona in which he finds himself as an adult. Both genre universes represent ways in which we can gaze at the actual world, which rarely falls into such neat tropes. I had a wonderful conversation with Guy Maddin, another touchstone, in which we talked about how much easier it is for us to think about the world when the story is writ very, very large, in the tropes of melodrama.
MD: While we’re on the subject of gender and sexuality, you’ve joked about being a “simpering sissy,” having no muscles (except for the bizarrely overdeveloped shoulder muscles you’ve gotten from playing that least macho of all instruments, the accordion), and being mistaken, by everyone at your high-school graduation, for the guy another student speaker was referring to when he said, “I think it says something about this school that a gay man can address the crowd,” when he was, in fact, outing himself.
I wonder if you’d be willing to talk about how normative notions of what’s manly—masculinity, American-style—and, inversely, what’s sissy-ish affected you as a kid? And how you’ve responded, in your work, to those experiences (if you have)?
DH: It is so easy to overdramatize the alienation of one’s childhood, when it is clear that any thinking person on earth feels disenfranchised from the culture, particularly during one’s tenderest years. But as a boy with a deep love of classical music (as a listener and a performer) and an equally deep disinterest in sports, an emerging gastronome who ran the literary magazine whilst finding action movies tedious and the one-up-manship culture of bro-talk painfully offensive, I was subject to teasing of various stages of aggression. Literature, for the most part, pointed me to a world in which I could forge my own way as a man. Wodehouse, Marquez, Hijuelos, Durrell, Kundera, Auster, Firbank, Chandler, Wilde—these writers showed me a path forward, and by late high school I was more or less in place. I have a distinct memory of changing my clothes after gym class, and the guys in the locker room, hunched over a centerfold, calling me “fag” because I wasn’t interested. I wasn’t interested because my girlfriend was waiting for me, and we were going to go back to her place to have sex, while these guys hung around in their underwear looking at porn. I felt very heterosexual in comparison.
MD: Wodehouse seems obvious enough, but the thought of a high-school kid discovering Firbank in the 1980s, much less liking him, frankly staggers me. Even now, Firbank is obscure, known only to a tiny cult of devotees, and is very much an acquired taste. What was it about Firbank that spoke to you as a teen? Are you still an admirer of his work? Gorey, a fellow Firbankian, told an interviewer he was “reluctant to admit” his youthful obsession with Firbank “because I’ve outgrown him in one way, although in another I don’t suppose I ever will.”
DH: Well, I grew up in San Francisco, which was even more bookish then—stuffed with used bookstores stuffed with cheap used editions friendly to a high school allowance. Who knows what attracted me to Firbank - a loopy title, an eye-catching edition, or perhaps some reference to him someplace that put his name in my head. By then there was an aesthetic to which I was attracted; I guess we’d call it twee now, but back then I couldn’t have described it, really. More even than the content of his work—though certainly some of the characteristics you describe were in the Snicket loam—was the entire notion of an obscure, strange author. The finds in those bookstores were always so wondrous, and my dreams of a literary career were along those lines, especially the Snicket work, which I assumed would be invisible in the marketplace but unforgettable to a tiny handful who managed to find the work. I first read Wodehouse in one of those hardcover library editions without dustjackets; it took me maybe 25 pages before I realized it was supposed to be funny. I first read Master and Margarita [by Mikhail Bulgakov] as a used paperback with both cover and title page missing, so the author’s name was unknown to me for years. I miss that kind of blind reading, virtually impossible in the Internet age.
I recently reread Firbank for the first time in years, and found him even stranger than I’d remembered. I’d call him “notably out of step” with everything, but as a writer, I have an appreciation for the writers who venture far, far out; Reverdy’s A Haunted House, the littlest of Lydia Davis’s short fiction, Aram Saroyan’s poetry. It’s always tempting to pretend to have outgrown the charms of such work, but its delights never falter for me.
MD: And what was it about Chandler that jumped off the page? I would’ve thought Hammett would’ve struck a more responsive chord, since he sets his stories in San Francisco. Or maybe the bleaker, more mordantly existentialist noir writers, such as Patricia Highsmith or James M. Cain or, closer to the depraved end of the spectrum, David Goodis or Jim Thompson. Chandler is fascinatingly perverse, in many ways: a textbook example of the hardboiled style, yet his stuff is often as Baroque, especially in its florid metaphors and similes, as the Aesthetes at their most mauve. And his plots are notoriously incoherent and improbable, straining the suspension of disbelief to the breaking point, even though he’s synonymous with gritty realism. What have you taken away from him? Is there anything of his—a novel, a short story, or even just a sentence or for that matter a turn of phrase—you’d kill to have written?
DH: I put Chandler head and shoulders above the other writers you mention, glorious as they are, for precisely the reasons you describe. His language put an aura of glamor over all of the sordidness of the plots, and the overdone similes made the whole thing slightly askew. I’ve swiped enough overdone language and melodramatic plotting—not to mention an inscrutable code of honor and some highly opinionated digressions—from Chandler not to ask for anything more, but I do think The Long Goodbye is an American masterpiece, up there with Lolita.
MD: A masterpiece in what way? Your use of the adjective makes me wonder if you think it’s especially revealing about the American psyche or social landscape? Likewise, what makes Lolita a masterpiece? Does Nabokov, in Russian émigré whose alien perspective made him a kind of Martian anthropologist, tell us something profound about ourselves as Americans?
DH: The Long Goodbye manages to convey something enormous about American culture, particularly American masculinity—the adherence to a certain set of principles past all reason, creating a thread from those principles that wends its way through an otherwise incomprehensible, ravaged world. Chandler brings to fruition the bigger idea of the detective story, first hinted at in Poe, that it’s really a search for self, with which later noirists like Ellroy and Auster—even even later, Mosley and Abbott—made much hay.
Not too dissimilarly, Lolita shows us that our ideas of America are foreign-born and have as much tether to reality as the perversions of a pedophile’s imagination. And they’re both whopping good reads, rewarding endless (as far as I can tell) rereading, which is more important in my vague “masterpiece” definition.
MD: You mentioned loving classical music and playing it, in high school. You’re known as a self-deprecating but ardent accordion player who occasionally tours with The Magnetic Fields. You’ve said that you listen to music while you’re writing—playlists inspired by the mood of the book-in-progress, such as the “classical music from the Romantic era” you listened to while writing your adult novel, We Are Pirates, since it had “the kind of swashbuckling dazzle” you hoped to capture on the page. Your tastes run from the quirky electronic duo Matmos to ”strange classical and squawky 20th-century jazz.” Is there any bleedthrough, so to speak, from the musical side of your mind to your writerly consciousness, or vice versa? If A Series of Unfortunate Events had been a symphony, which symphony would it have been? If The Basic Eight were a pop song, which one would it be?
DH: Music moves my work a lot, though not my participation in it, I think. A rigorous classical music education surely taught me kinds of discipline that help me stay at a desk for hours, and gave me a good eye for structure, which I’ve used a lot. And then, yes, a good playlist can help in an emotional-ambient sort of way, which is why I can match music to any of my books (Unfortunate Events, Shostakovich; The Basic Eight, the Darling Buds). But my music gigs, such as they are, are always beholden to someone else’s instructions: I show up, and add a little flourish to the chords they’ve provided, and this, too, is good for me as a writer, to spend some time on someone else’s artistic vision. But for this reason I don’t think the music I make has anything to do with my books.
MD: I’d like to dig a little deeper into the theme of Jewishness, which you touched on earlier. You mentioned the Jewishness of your sense of humor, which made me think of the British writer Will Self’s essay about “resigning” as a Jew, in response to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Self uses the occasion to question everything we think we know about Jewish identity. In an interview, he told me, “When in my ‘20s and ‘30s, I kind of self-identified as a Jew, but there was really something bogus about it, I now think. What was I laying claim to—the fact that I kind of liked Woody Allen? Or that I was clever? I just reviewed this book by Shlomo Sand, How I Stopped Being a Jew, and I think he’s nailed a lot of this stuff. I do think that an awful lot of secular Jewish identity, for people of Jewish heritage like me, there’s nothing to it, really; what it amounts to is that we’re the sort of people the Nazis would kill first, that’s all.” (Oddly, a 2013 Pew poll seems to bear this out: Asked “What does it mean to be Jewish?,” the most common response, given by 73% of American Jews, was, “remembering the Holocaust.”)
This is a two-part question, I guess: What does it mean, to you, to be Jewish? And how does your sense of your Jewishness inform your writing, beyond your sense of humor? Do you see yourself in the tradition of American Jewish literature—Roth, Bellow, Paul Auster (whom you’ve mentioned here), Cynthia Ozick, Nora Ephron, Michael Chabon, the Three Jonathans (Franzen, Lethem, Safran Foer)--?
DH: Jewish identity is indeed slippery, and far be it from me to imagine reaching a consensus with Will Self. I do think there’s a sensibility that comes from being raised Jewish, which for my generation is indeed often in the shadow of having survived the Holocaust. My father’s stories of leaving Germany in 1939—who made it and who did not—shaped me growing up, and I’m never surprised that others share this aspect of Judaism. (Most cultures tend to keep recent catastrophes in mind, yet people seem surprised when the Jews do.) It’s a dark form of humor, which looks askance at the world at all times, distrusting sentiment and other easy narratives. I think it’s a difficult sensibility to pin down—a bit like describing exactly what jazz is—but I know it when it’s there. Will Self can renounce anything he likes; My Idea of Fun is a Jewish book.
As for a literary tradition, there’s a line that runs Kafka-(Gertrude) Stein-Sendak. With all due respect to (almost) all of the writers you mention, I find my Jewish thread there.
MD: I’m surprised that Maurice Sendak doesn’t come up in your interviews. His grimly funny take on childhood, the gothic themes in Outside Over There, his philosophy of children’s literature (“I don’t believe in childhood. I don’t believe that there’s a demarcation. ... You tell [children] anything you want. Just tell them if it’s true”), even his lifelong obsession with the Lindbergh kidnapping: you and he seem to be birds of the same dark feather. Did you read him when you were a kid? Is he an influence, or at least a writer whose work opened the door for yours?
DH: I have an enormous admiration for Sendak. I guess the reason he hasn’t come up in too many interviews—although I do remember various newspapers calling me when he died—is because I think for children’s writers he’s so revered that it goes without saying. (“Gosh, Shakespeare’s good.”) His work has a central mystery to it that always entrances me. The stories, like their illustrations, unfold surprisingly but inevitably, like all the best literature.
MD: And then there’s Roald Dahl, who, like you, wrote for both children and adults, but waded deeper into the bog of the unconscious than Sendak, at least, seemed willing to go. Some of his stuff is unabashedly nasty—depraved, even. Any thoughts on Dahl’s work?
DH: I like Dahl a lot. His work is admittedly of varying quality—it certainly seems that his editors played a crucial role in his best books—but he’s always been an inspiration, too.
MD: Which of his books is your favorite?
DH: Danny, the Champion of the World, which lifts off from the real world so gracefully, so magically, and lets in far more kindness than so much of his work.
MD: I’ve always wondered if Count Olaf was descended from Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker in James and the Giant Peach. They—and he—are truly horrid in a way that few villains in children’s books are. I remember being shocked when Count Olaf backhanded Klaus Baudelaire in The Bad Beginning. Where did the Count come from? His relation to Max Schreck’s vampire Count Orlok, in Nosferatu, seems obvious enough, but I’m wondering if there’s any Hollywood Nazi in there, or a bit of some Dickensian villain, maybe Quilp from The Old Curiosity Shop, or perhaps even a caricature drawn from life, as they say?
DH: That’s pretty much the Rolodex of my villainous sources. What I wanted most of all was the person one thinks of when one hears “villain” - he’s ridiculous until he’s scary until he’s ridiculous.
MD: Sendak told a story about the best response he ever got to his work: "Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, 'Dear Jim: I loved your card.' Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, 'Jim loved your card so much he ate it.' That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it." What's the best response you've ever gotten from a kid who's read one of your books? And: What's the worst response you've ever gotten from a parent, perhaps to something you've said to his or her child?
DH: I’ve always loved this story, although my wife wrote Sendak when she was a child and never received a reply. I get more letters from children than I can possibly answer, and my favorites are always from children who are utterly and easily participating in the world of Snicket—alerting me to suspicions in their own lives that are connected with the books—rather than any sort of compliment. There is a letter from a child I often use in my talks, which I can recite in its entirety: “Dear Mr. Snicket, I read your books. Why do I like them so much? I am always curious when something happens. Your Friend, Brandy.” I think of this letter daily, whenever something happens to me and I am curious about it.
The negative responses all blur into one, frankly. The banality of objection: “You're inappropriate, children shouldn’t think about such things, there’s nothing funny about x and I should know because I have an excellent sense of humor.” I’ve signed many books “to a future orphan” and there are apparently many parents who think their children would rather hear that their parents will outlive them.
MD: What trend in children's literature or YA fiction, as we're instructed to call it, do you most regret?
DH: I can’t think of one. Even the vilest of trends has usually been done very well once. For a while there were too many vampires, for instance, but Bram Stoker remains a wonderful YA author.
MD: I find it incredible, just short of unbelievable, that your son Otto hasn't read A Series of Unfortunate Events. Can this really be true? Why, I wonder? And if he isn't reading you, who is the poor, deprived child reading?
DH: My son has a great appreciation for All The Wrong Questions, which is Snicket enough for any child, let alone mine. He has a keen and startling interest in nonfiction, a sort of literature I never read voluntarily at his age. Watching him read a children’s biography of Benedict Arnold is a powerful reminder of the endless variety of reading, and having him ask me questions about it is a powerful reminder, like much of parenting is, of how little I know.
MD: You've said that you think “character is bunk,” and that “good fiction comes from good story and good tone,” which “create circumstances that are interesting and thus feel ‘real,’ even though the story is of course not a realistic one.” In the same vein, you’ve said that you “try to write dialogue that reflects the accidental stylization” of actual, overheard conversation, dialogue that both “feels like life and yet also more interesting than life.”
I feel as if you're pushing back against the compulsory naturalism of the American novel, going back to Hemingway, or maybe Dreiser—planting the flag for a counter-aesthetic of—what? unnaturalism?—in fiction. I’m reminded of the poet Frank O’Hara, who according to his biographer Brad Gooch “knew that he didn’t want to be a Hemingway, the sort of popular writer who reduced the complexities of felt life to an ‘elegant machinery’ while his characters pretended to a deceptive lifelikeness. [He] wanted rather ‘to move towards a complexity which makes life within the work and which does not (necessarily, although it may) resemble life as much as most people think it is lived...’”
DH: It’s true that the stylistics of so-called “realism” are not very realistic—a paragraph of Virginia Woolf or Stephen Dixon captures more about the human brain than the high melodrama of Dreiser—but that to me is more a conversation about labeling; Belgian waffles aren’t Belgian, but they’re still delicious, and my love for An American Tragedy is not diminished by the fact that the author isn’t doing what they say he is.
There is a wave of American fiction, ascendant now, with charms to which I am immune, in which all strangeness, in story and language, has been seemingly purposefully scrubbed. Nobody—author, character, reader—seems to be having any trace of fun. There is an overemphasis on character-building at the expense of plot or even incident, such that we know everything about a person to whom nothing is happening. This is boring. It is also not like life.
I’m interested in invoking the strangeness of our nonetheless familiar existence. O’Hara does this magnificently.
MD: You've said that your latest novel, We Are Pirates, asks, "'Is it possible to go someplace that is really away and be beyond the arm of not just the law, but civilization?' And the answer is well, yes, and then you’re outside of civilization – and that’s terrible."
MD: I take it you didn't stumble on the literature of pirate utopias when researching the book? Peter Lamborn Wilson in Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs & European Renegadoes and William S. Burroughs in his novel Cities of the Red Night use Libertatia, a pirate colony that may or may not have existed in Madagascar in the late 17th century and may or may not have been run according to anarchist principles, as an example of a pirate utopia. (It's mentioned in Johnson's General History of the Pyrates.) Or maybe you did, but opted for a more Lord of the Flies vision of the pirate's life?
Also, I'm wondering if your dim view of the countercultural fantasy of striking off society's shackles--"to live outside the law, you must be honest," etc.--is a product of growing up in California, where the road to utopia has often ended in places like Spahn Ranch and Jonestown.
DH: Burroughs led me to Libertatia, although I don’t know if you can label a likely-fictional anarchist colony that dissolved into bloodshed a successful enterprise. Utopian narratives are generally doomed, although the Californian version—the Didion version, if you will—probably casts a little shadow on We Are Pirates. It was interesting to me, as I started work on this book, that the history of utopias is more catastrophic than the history of civilization. It’s a little like winning the Lottery; it wrecks people, but everyone still wants to do it.
MD: What role did Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean play in your imaginative life, as a kid? (I'm guessing The Haunted Mansion was more your style.)
DH: I didn’t have much Disney in childhood. My parents took me to Disneyland once or twice—we had cousins in L.A.—but it wasn’t until high school that a reading of A High Wind in Jamaica put piracy in my brain.
MD: Edward Gorey is one of your acknowledged influences, as we've discussed at some length on another occasion. Can you put your finger on just what it is about Gorey's work—his style, his sensibility, his philosophy of life—that makes his work reverberate in your mind?
DH: The deadpan tone of being aghast, the elliptical presentation of a world familiar and strange, the dark but fluttery considerations of catastrophe and strife, the departure from “realism” in order to make more sense. Mystery and language, genre and art, theatricality and philosophy. Even his treatment of masculinity, such as it is, has been of interest. To look askance at the world by being honest about its sinister forces. What else should literature do, really?
Portrait: Meredith Heuer
Premiering January 13, 2017, Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” stars Neil Patrick Harris as the creepy Count Olaf.
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