How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Some would say “practice,” but in Daniel Handler’s case, all he had to do was kill a composer.
Handler is best known by his pseudonym: Lemony Snicket, author of the bestselling children’s books A Series of Unfortunate Events, which were adapted into a 2004 film with Jim Carrey. Along with being a novelist and screenwriter, Handler is also a musician, and his latest children’s book, The Composer Is Dead, combines his passions.
The Composer Is Dead, which was created with composer and former Triangle resident Nathaniel Stookey, is a mock murder-mystery where various members of an orchestra are interrogated about their role in the death of a composer. Handler performed the work with the N.C. Symphony last year, and he is returning to the area to celebrate the work’s release as a book/ CD combination with illustrations from Decemberists cover artist Carson Ellis.
We spoke to Handler recently about his book, music, movie career and the dangers of everyday life.
Independent Weekly: How does it feel to get to play Carnegie Hall?
Daniel Handler: It’s quite exciting. I played accordion once on the stage of Alice Tully Hall, and I thought for sure that would be the highlight of my musical career, but I seem to have managed to overcome myself.
How did you become involved with Nathaniel Stookey?
We went to high school together, then lost touch, and I was actually being interviewed in an outdoor restaurant in San Francisco, and I was telling the interviewer that one of the things I liked about being in my home town of San Francisco was that I could run into people I knew from my childhood. And as soon as I said thatsuspiciously soonI ran into Nathaniel Stookey.
We became reacquainted. […] Through his connections with the San Francisco Symphony, he got me a job narrating Peter and the Wolf. And Peter and the Wolf has very beautiful music, but an insipid, unpleasant story. So I suggested we could work on something that could introduce the orchestra to young people without introducing them to a really boring story about a grandfather and a wolf. And he agreed, and we did.
How did you develop the storyline for The Composer Is Dead from there?
It seems to me that the one thing everyone knows about composers, even if they don’t know anything about classical music at all, is that all the composers are dead. And so I had the idea that the composer would be dead, and all the different sections of the orchestra would be questioned about his death, being that most symphony orchestras contain a few suspicious musicians. And it became the duty of the piece to ferret out who was the most treacherous member of the orchestra, who was responsible for the death of the composer.
You’ve mainly focused on shorter works for children the last few years. Do you see yourself doing another long-form series in the future?
I am in fact at work on one. The little books have been kind of warning shots to scare people away, knowing that something larger and more unpleasant is on the horizon.
And you’re working on a novel for adults about pirates.
Yes. It’s about an attempt by people in the present day to be pirates in the classical mode, and their utter failure to do so.
Did you start this before or after the current trouble with the economy?
I started work on this about 10 years ago, so it was during some trouble with the economy, but not the current trouble. And I started working on it again when it looks like we’re headed into a new Depression, so hopefully when it’s finished, the economic crisis will be solved, though I dare say I’ll never be given credit for that.
Do you see yourself doing any more films in the future?
Well, I’m working on the second Snicket film. For the first Snicket film, I wrote nine drafts, and then I was fired. For this, I’ve written about three drafts, so there’s still plenty of time to fire me.
Will it include some of the darker aspects of the book that had to be cut from the previous adaptation?
It’s still too early to tell. In my opinion, my versions of screenplays tend to be darker no matter what movie I’m working on, and once I’m fired, they get lighter. I haven’t been fired yet, so it’s still darker.
Well, this does bring us to another question I wanted to ask. Kids are smart. Do they make the connection between the loveable Lemony Snicket and your older-skewing work, and if so, have you had any problems with that?
I have not had any problems with that. I would imagine it would cause some stress in families if young people who were interested in my Snicket books did some Googling and found, say, my book about incest, or the girl in high school who bludgeons a boy to death. But the young people I talk to all seem quite happy to read those books.
What is your take on the success of children’s and young adult books, which are considered one of the few growth areas in the otherwise Titanic-esque publishing industry?
The history of publishing is mostly nonprofit and private. It began in monasteries, and then it moved on to other rich people operating publishing houses, so it’s only been in the past 50 years that anyone’s expected to make any money from it. So it’ll be curious to see how long they can keep that up.
With The Composer Is Dead, you’re making an effort to introduce kids to classical music. What were your experiences with classical music like while you were growing up?
I was lucky, because I grew up in a household full of classical music. I didn’t really know there was any other kind of music besides classical music until I was about 13. I took a lot of piano lessons, and my parents regularly took me to the opera, so I had a sort of privileged upbringing when it came to classical music.
But I’m also a product of the San Francisco public schools, so from a young age I watched all the classical music programs, even in San Francisco, slowly be invaded by budgetary types. That seems to be coming back a bit in San Francisco; I don’t know how it’s doing in North Carolina.
Do you see this as something more adult-oriented … there that phrase is again … or something like Unfortunate Events?
Well, I think my childhood exposure to opera has a lot to do with the way I write children’s books, with incredibly melodramatic things happening every 15 minutes, because that’s the way opera operates. Opera always has a wide appeal for children; there’s always something sinister going on. The opera Mr. Stookey and I are working on is full of dramatic entanglements.
And of course, the question your young fans want to know: Do you ever see yourself visiting the unfortunate circumstances of the Baudelaire children again?
Well, I would not visit them myself, but I think in the longer series I’m working on, there will be some brush-ups with some familiar characters.
Anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t discussed?
The dangers of falling into open manholes.
Handler appears for a signing (not reading) Monday, March 9, at Quail Ridge Books and Music, two days after premiering the book at a concert at Carnegie Hall. Tickets are required for the Quail Ridge event, which takes place at 4 p.m. Other restrictions apply: Visit quailridgebooks.com.