The Composer is Dead - Talking to Lemony Snicket

Talking to Lemony Snicket

The Composer is Dead

Dearest Newsarama Reader, I beseech you not to read any further into this article, for it contains material that may prove most upsetting to your fragile constitutions. Recently, we were obligated to converse with one “Daniel Handler,” a representative of notorious recluse Lemony Snicket. Mr. Snicket, of course, is a renowned investigator and researcher, whose records of the case of the Baudelaire children were brazenly chronicled for young readers in the publication A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Mr. Snicket has recently returned to bookshelves with a series of picture books, and his latest volume, The Composer is Dead, reaches shelves this week. It is the dreadful and unnerving tale of the investigation into an orchestra whose composer is no longer among the living, and the terrible secrets held by each section. The piece had its roots in a symphony Mr. Snicket composed with one Nathaniel Stookey, and has toured across the country before appearing in a new volume that includes a CD and illustrations by Ms. Carson Ellis, an illustrator who has provided covers for a group of minstrels calling themselves “The Decemberists.”

Mr. Handler’s efforts on behalf of Mr. Snicket have somehow led to this book not only being published, but a national tour that includes a performance at Carnegie Hall, an achievement doubtlessly accomplished through severe treachery and blackmail. When granted an audience of 20 minutes with Mr. Handler, he spoke of plans to inflict still more horrific and uncanny tales upon young readers, and perhaps even adults as well. Dear Reader, we urge you to turn back while you still can, and spare yourself the horrific plans of Daniel Handler.

You have been warned.

Newsarama Note: Portions of this interview originally appeared in The Independent Weekly of Durham, NC.

Newsarama: What are you doing to prepare for your tour?

Daniel Handler: Making sure that I don’t wear out my nice clothes now, and making a pile of books that I think will be nice company during my travels.

NRAMA: How does it feel to get to play Carnegie Hall?

DH: 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.

NRAMA: You came through the North Carolina area last year with the show. Has it evolved since then, or is it pretty much set in stone?

DH: Well, the piece of music is set in stone. I’ve had a little more practice at it, and the composer will be there this time, and he’s excited because he’s been the composer-in-residence for the NC State Symphony.

NRAMA: How did you become involved with Nathaniel Stookey?

DH: 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 that – suspiciously soon – I ran into Nathaniel Stookey.

We became reacquainted, and I had become a writer, and he a composer. We knew we wanted to collaborate, but we didn’t know what on, and then 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.

NRAMA: How did you develop the storyline for The Composer is Dead from there?

DH: 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.

NRAMA: What’s it been like touring with the show?

DH: It’s been a lot of fun. I mean, the piece has been performed everywhere without me, and then I’ve performed here or there, and it’s always interesting to go to a new orchestra and hand them the piece. And I think in each city where I’ve performed the piece, we’ve managed to insult at least one member of the orchestra, so that seems like a good track record.

Mr. Snicket, photograph by Meredith Heuer

NRAMA: What was it like working with Carson Ellis? It’s an interesting choice given her indy cred for working with the Decemberists…

DH: It’s a lot of fun working with Carson, because if you go off to Portland, Oregon, she and her charming husband are hanging out in a house full of musicians and artwork. I had the pleasure of being at their wedding a few months back, and eating barbecue and drinking beer under the Oregonian sun. That’s a delightful creative process, as far as I’m concerned. I’m particularly creative when it’s a process where my part’s already done, and I can have as much barbecue and beer as I want, while reminding the illustrator that she still has work to do.

NRAMA: 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?

DH: 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.

NRAMA: What can you tell us about this new series, if anything?

DH: I can’t really say anything just yet. It’s kind of like a pregnancy. You don’t want to talk about it too early…

NRAMA: And you’re working on a novel for adults about pirates…

DH: 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.

NRAMA: Did you start this before or after the current trouble with the economy?

DH: 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.

NRAMA: Do you see yourself doing any more films in the future?

DH: 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.

NRAMA: How will this be different from the first film?

DH: It covers books four through six, and the Baudelaire children will probably be played by new actors, as the children who played them in the first film are now, I don’t know, in their mid-50s.

NRAMA: Will it include some of the darker aspects of the book that had to be cut from the previous adaptation?

DH: 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.

NRAMA: Would you be working on more adult-oriented screenplays…

DH: “Adult-oriented screenplays” sounds a lot filthier than I think you intend.

NRAMA: …that didn’t come out right.

DH: I can see where your mind is. You don’t want to be doing this interview; you want to be watching adult films. (laughs)

NRAMA: What I mean is, would you do another film like Rick or Kill the Poor?

DH: Yeah, there are a couple of film projects at work. But the thing about film projects is that they take a long time to do, and they can always get derailed. So I don’t like to talk about film projects, because they might not happen.

NRAMA: 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?

DH: 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.

NRAMA: 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?

DH: Well, I’m in favor of it. (laughs) But I’ve never been able to make heads or tails of the publishing industry. I’m grateful that it’s my job to write the books, and not my job to figure out how to make that into a profitable industry.

The history of publishing is mostly non-profit 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.

NRAMA: Do you see the current movement toward self-publishing as the future of the industry?

DH: Well, I think self-publishing has always been the past, present and future of the industry. There are many writers I admire who have been self-published, and I imagine that’ll keep going.

NRAMA: 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?

DH: 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.

NRAMA: Why do you feel musical education is important in general?

DH: Well, for the same reason that any education is important in general. One wants to learn about things in the world that are interesting and enthralling, and classical music is one of those things.

NRAMA: Do you see yourself doing more collaborations with Nathan in the future?

DH: Absolutely! Mr. Stookey and I are trying to get someone interested in commissioning an opera for us. We’d like to keep on working together, and happily?

NRAMA: Do you see this as something more adult-oriented…there that phrase is again…or something like Unfortunate Events?

DH: 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.

NRAMA: What do you feel are the greatest advantages and disadvantages you’ve had from working in so many different mediums?

DH: Let’s see….well, the advantages are that they’ve brought me unending delight. The disadvantages…gosh, I can’t think of any. I suppose I know nothing about organized sports, which is especially a disadvantage at an all-male gathering.

NRAMA: 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?

DH: 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.

NRAMA: Anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t discussed?

DH: The dangers of falling into open manholes.

The Composer is Dead is in stores now.

Elsewhere on Newsarama:

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