Most Active Stories
Mon December 10, 2012
Lemony Snicket Dons A Trenchcoat
Originally published on Mon December 10, 2012 1:53 pm
It's been more than six years since Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, concluded his enormously popular 13-volume young adult series, A Series of Unfortunate Events. Now Handler has revived the Snicket narrator in his YA novel Who Could That Be at This Hour?
The book is the first of a series — All the Wrong Questions — and a prequel to A Series of Unfortunate Events. It tracks the young Snicket's adventures during his apprenticeship at the V.F.D., a mysterious organization that readers familiar with the Snicket stories will recognize.
While the Unfortunate Events books play with ideas about gothic literature, All the Wrong Questions explores detective-noir conventions. Handler tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that initially, he had concerns about writing in a noir style for younger readers, not least because of the central role of the genre's femme fatale characters and their sexualized personas. But then he had an epiphany that freed him from this worry: In noir, he realized, the detective and the femme fatale are doing the exact same thing.
"They're both confined by their circumstances," he says, "and they're both making their own moral path through a world that is sinister and secretive. ... I think it's what draws them together, and also what makes them fight. ... You could have a detective and a mysterious young girl who are birds of a feather and who can't stand one another, and who are unapologetic about making their way in a world that seems to have no place for them."
While the genres and storylines may vary, the common denominator among the Snicket books, says Handler, is a "proud Snicket tradition of a reassurance that dark things are, in fact, there. ... That a terrible thing can happen at any moment, and it is up to you to persevere through it." This is true, as well, he says, of his new picture book and collaboration with illustrator Jon Klassen for younger readers, The Dark.
On how the journey of a detective mirrors that of childhood
"An outsider is trying to make his way in a mysteriously corrupt world, and ... all instructions turn out to be false. ... All people turn out to have secrets that are hidden, and ... the detective tries to find his own moral stance and own path through that environment. And that seemed to me to also be like the journey of childhood."
On using sophisticated vocabulary in his books
"[C]ertainly when the 12th volume of A Series of Unfortunate Events came out, which was called The Penultimate Peril, I found that there were people who knew what that word ['penultimate'] meant and people who didn't, but that that line was not along age lines at all. I remember there was an article in a newspaper that said, 'It's the penultimate book from the penultimate author.' They were just sort of using the word as some kind of placeholder, whereas children learned quickly what it meant and were more quick to adopt it.
"You see failed vocabulary in the adult world so often, and it's often because once you reach a certain age you're kind of embarrassed to go look up a word if you don't know what it means. And then you just start using it however it feels right. ... I think children are less embarrassed to go look up the truth."
On how Peter and the Wolf inspired Handler's new opera with composer Nathaniel Stookey
"I was asked to narrate ... a performance of Peter and the Wolf, and the music is beautiful, and the story is insipid. And so I said to Mr. Stookey [my collaborator on the project], 'Why don't we do something that could actually introduce the instruments to young people, but isn't as really a boring a story as Peter and the Wolf?' And so from that The Composer Is Dead was born. ... [E]ach section of the orchestra demonstrates its sonic color and is also interrogated. It's a mystery — the composer is dead [literally] — and so we like to say it's like Peter and the Wolf meets an episode of Law and Order."
On his formative experiences with classical music
"My parents met at the opera, met at a performance of the opera. They were both in the audience. And classical music was the only music that I heard for many, many years. ... And then I was also a member of the San Francisco Boys Chorus growing up, which performed with the opera and with the symphony and all sorts of classical opportunities. I had a very, very strict and traditional musical upbringing, and then I had puberty, which wrecked my career as a boy soprano. My parents like to say they considered castration in order that I could continue to be a soprano, but in the long run having secondary sex characteristics has really paid off for me, so I don't regret it."
On what scared him as a child
"Everything. Tall trees. People in tall trees climbing up to the top of them and leaping upon my window. That was a large source of concern for me. Kidnapping. I remember when my mother finally explained to me that it would be extremely unlikely that I would get kidnapped because they didn't have any money, that kidnappers were after money. ... I wish that had been explained to me years previously. She said, 'You know ... we couldn't possibly pay ransom for you that would be rewarding for a kidnapper, so you probably won't be snatched up.' That was of intense relief."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Lemony Snicket is back. That's the pen name of my guest, Daniel Handler, who wrote the series of satirical gothic novels for young adults called "A Series of Unfortunate Events." Handler's new book begins a new series called "All the Wrong Questions," a prequel of sorts in which the 12-year-old Snicket becomes the detective investigating a series of mysteries. The first book in the series is called "Who Could That Be At This Hour?"
I asked Handler to bring his accordion, and a little later, he's going to play and sing a couple of great and funny Snicket songs, but first let's talk about his new book. At the heart of the mystery is a precious sculpture that has disappeared, a sculpture of a beast. Think "The Maltese Falcon" and other noir classics rewritten as a satire for young adults. In fact, let's hear a scene from the 1941 film "The Maltese Falcon."
Peter Lorre's character, the mysterious Joel Cairo, is hiring Humphrey Bogart's character, detective Sam Spade, to find the valuable sculpture known as the Maltese Falcon.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE MALTESE FALCON")
HUMPHREY BOGART: (As Sam Spade) Now what can I do for you, Mr. Cairo?
PETER LORRE: (As Joel Cairo) See, Mr. Spade, I'm trying to recover an ornament that, shall we say, has been mislaid. I thought and hoped you could assist me. The ornament is a statuette, black figure of a bird. I am prepared to pay, on behalf to the figure's rightful owner, the sum of $5,000 for its recovery. I'm prepared to promise that, what is the phrase, no questions will be asked.
GROSS: Now let's hear a passage inspired by that scene in Daniel Handler's new Lemony Snicket detective novel.
DANIEL HANDLER: (Reading) I'm in desperate need of your assistance, she began. A priceless item has been stolen from my home, and I need to get it back. First, Theodore said, we'll need to know what the item is. I know that, the woman snapped. I was just about to tell you. It's a small statue about the size of a bottle of milk. It's made of an extremely rare species of wood that is very shiny and black in color.
(Reading) The statue has been in my family for generations and has been valued of upward of a great deal of money. A great deal of money, Theodore repeated thoughtfully. When was it stolen?
(Reading) That I do not know, Mrs. Sallis said. I have not been in this room for quite some time, and normally the statue is kept there in the library, on the mantel over there. We looked at the mantel. Sure enough, there was nothing on it.
GROSS: Daniel Handler, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So when we last left off, you were writing gothic novels for children. Why did you switch now to the detective genre?
HANDLER: Well, towards the end of writing "A Series of Unfortunate Events," I just picked up a Raymond Chandler novel, more or less at random, and I found it so magical and so astonishing, and also that the journey of the detective in such - in the novel and then in other novels that I read that followed, seemed to mirror that of childhood, that an outsider is trying to make his way in a mysteriously corrupt world, and that all instructions turn out to be false, that all people turn out to have secrets that are hidden and that the detective tries to find his own moral stance and own path through that environment.
And that seemed to me to be also like the journey of childhood. So I said to myself if I ever write another series, it would be to noir novels what "A Series of Unfortunate Events" was to the gothic novel.
GROSS: So now let's start with a reading from the beginning of your new book, "Who Could That Be At This Hour?" by Lemony Snicket, aka Daniel Handler.
HANDLER: (Reading) There was a town, and there was a girl, and there was a theft. I was living in the town, and I was hired to investigate the theft, and I thought the girl had nothing to do with it. I was almost 13, and I was wrong. I was wrong about all of it. I should have asked the question why would someone say something was stolen when it was never there to begin with. Instead I asked the wrong question, four wrong questions, more or less. This is the account of the first.
(Reading) The Hemlock Tea Room and Stationery Shop is the sort of place where the floors always feel dirty, even when they are clean. They were not clean on the day in question. The food at The Hemlock is too awful to eat, particularly the eggs, which are probably the worst eggs in the entire city, including those on exhibit at the Museum of Bad Breakfast, where visitors can learn just how badly eggs can be prepared.
(Reading) The Hemlock sells paper and pens that are damaged and useless, but the tea is drinkable, and the place is located across the street from the train station. So it is an acceptable place to sit with one's parents before boarding a train for a new life.
(Reading) I was wearing the suit I'd been given as a graduation present. It had hung in my closet for weeks, like an empty person. I felt glum and thirsty. When the tea arrived, for a moment the steam was all I could see. I'd said goodbye to someone very quickly and was wishing I'd taken longer. I told myself that it didn't matter and that certainly it was no time to frown around town.
(Reading) You have work to do, Snicket, I told myself. There was no time for moping. You'll see her soon enough in any case, I thought, incorrectly.
GROSS: And that's Daniel Handler, reading from his new Lemony Snicket novel "Who Could That Be At This Hour?" Well, I think you found, like, one more connection there between children and detectives. Detectives are always eating bad food at, like, cheap diners. And in this case it's bad eggs. And children are always being told to eat their eggs, and a lot of kids don't like eggs.
HANDLER: Well, I think bad food is frightening when you're a child. You can't believe that you're being served something that you don't like and that you're expected to eat it. And I think you have that experience in adulthood, but it tends to be your own fault. You know, you're hungry, and you're in an airport, and you've ordered a sandwich, and you think oh, well, here we go. I'm trapped here. I'm actually going to put this in my mouth.
And when you're a child, you're being served that someplace.
GROSS: Oh, and one more connection: Detectives are always being told contradictory things, you know, from all the, you know, mysterious people who are misleading them in different directions. And children are always getting advice from adults, and the advice that they get isn't always the same from adult to adult, and it's very confusing.
HANDLER: It is, it's very confusing. You know, one thing that is different since the last time we spoke is that I now have a child. And so I'm now forced...
GROSS: Who is how old?
HANDLER: He's nine. He's just turned nine. And I'm forced to explain the world to him all the time, and I'm aghast at my own complete failure.
HANDLER: I just can't - yeah.
HANDLER: My wife and I tell this story a lot.
GROSS: Are you an unreliable narrator?
HANDLER: Well, I just realized I have hardly any explanation for anything at all. We were listening to this song by Kraftwerk, "We Are the Robots," and he said to me: Are they pretending to be robots? And I said yes, they are. And then he said: Are the Beetles pretending to be Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band? And I said: I think they are.
HANDLER: And he said: But aren't they pretending to be beetles? And I felt suddenly the knowledge of the world just absolutely slipping out of my brain. I thought: Why did they call themselves The Beatles? That doesn't make any sense at all.
GROSS: Well, one story is that it was a play on Buddy Holly and The Crickets, and they were The Beatles.
HANDLER: Right, but when did musicians start calling themselves things that they weren't?
Like yes, exactly.
HANDLER: When did that happen, and how do I explain that to my child in such a way that it makes sense, let alone, you know, explaining the horrors of the world or anything.
GROSS: So one thing you can't have in a children's detective book is the kind of sexual sparks that fly between the detective and the femme fatale. And also the detective is often slipped a Mickey by the villain. And, you know, it's like a Mickey Finn, which is, you know, a drink with a drug that's secretly slipped in to, kind of, knock...
HANDLER: Yes, oh I know what a Mickey is, Terry Gross.
GROSS: No, I'm explaining it to anybody who is not familiar with noir film. But anyways, so in your novel, your children's detective novel, there's a drink with laudanum in it. And my goodness, laudanum is like an opiate, which you explain. What is an opiate doing in your book for children?
HANDLER: Well, I think in some ways it comes out of the same fear of food that we were just discussing, that the novel begins with Lemony Snicket at this Hemlock Tea Room and Stationery Shop, and he's being served a cup of tea by people who may or may not be his parents, and it turns out that the tea is laced with something that would knock him unconscious.
And I think that that's - both fits into the noir tradition of people drinking the wrong thing and ending up unconscious, and to the tradition of childhood in which beverages that you don't know about are scary. And what is scary about them is you imagine some unearthly thing might happen to you.
GROSS: So not that I object, but do you think some parent is going to think opiate? I guess you're not worried about that? It's not that I'm worried, yeah.
HANDLER: I couldn't agree more, as a parent. I strongly urge people not to serve opiates to their children.
HANDLER: And I think if anything, "Who Could That Be At This Hour?" makes a very powerful case for not drugging children. I don't mind getting on a soapbox about this: You shouldn't drug children.
GROSS: So there's (unintelligible)...
HANDLER: Other children's authors have expressed no opinion on this. Where's Beverly Cleary on this issue, I wonder?
GROSS: So there's all kinds of references in jokes which no child is going to get in your book, just like Ellington alone, there's a character named Ellington Feint. There's a room that's called The Far East Suite, which is of course named after one of his extended works. There's a book that the main character finds on a bookshelf, which is called "An Analysis of Brown, Black and Beige," which is of course a reference "Black, Brown and Beige," an Ellington composition.
You know, it's so much fun to read all the references in your book, and - but every time I came across a proper noun that I didn't get as a reference, I thought, like, uh, missing something.
GROSS: I'm missing something here; I don't get it. But one I'm patting myself on the back for is Dr. Flamarian, which I assume is named after "The Great Flamarian," which is a 1945 film starring Erich von Stroheim as a sharpshooter who has a stage act where the femme fatale in this movie, his girlfriend, is his assistant, and he's always kind of like shooting things out of her arms and shooting targets behind her, and then she cons him into doing a murder on her behalf.
HANDLER: Yeah, it's really a depressing bit of sexual projection that he spends a lot of time shooting things off her.
GROSS: Perfect for a children's book, yes. So what made you name a character after that movie?
HANDLER: Well, in the years before writing "Who Could That Be At This Hour?" I was ingesting a whole lot of noir, mostly books but then moving on to movies. And I mean, the movie of Dr. Flamarian is especially ridiculous and especially delightful. I was just trying to construct a world that's driven by noir and driven by jazz and other cultural landmarks of that genre.
So it's not - they're not necessarily very specific allusions for people to feel smart about getting or ignorant for not getting. It's more just about creating a world in which all that has some inner logic, and the world of the new series "All The Wrong Questions" is a world of noir. And so as I read and watched and listened to all the hallmark culture of that time, it ended up seeping into the book.
GROSS: My guest is Daniel Handler, who writes satirical novels for children and young adults under the pen name Lemony Snicket. His new Snicket novel is called "Who Could That Be At This Hour?" More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Daniel Handler, who writes under the name Lemony Snicket. And he's best known for his series of children's books "A Series of Unfortunate Events," and that was in the kind of gothic genre. His new book is the first in a new series of books for children in the hardboiled detective genre, and this new one is called "Who Could That Be At This Hour?"
As you did the research for the book, and you were watching and reading a lot of noir, what are some of the things you noticed that you didn't notice when you were watching and reading more casually?
HANDLER: Well, the big thing I got very interested in was the relationship between the detective and the femme fatale because that was something that at first glance seemed that you couldn't put in a children's book because it's so sexualized. But what actually became clear is that the detective and the femme fatale are both doing the exact same thing in a noir story.
They're both confined by their circumstances, and they're both making their own moral path through a world that is sinister and secretive. And so a femme fatale is a showgirl or the displaced daughter of a tycoon or a girl who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks and will do anything not to return there.
And a detective often has similar circumstances, and they're both involved in this same mystery, and I think it's what draws them together and also what makes them fight. And once I realized that, that they were really doing the same thing, I saw a way to put that into a children's book, that you could have a detective and a mysterious young girl who are birds of a feather and also sometimes can't stand one another and who are unapologetic about making their own way in a world that seems to have no place for them.
So that was the most exciting thing I figure out when I was watching noir. It made me want to write a dissertation about it because I had seen a lot of condemnation of the idea of a femme fatale from the feminist point of view, and then some people try to reclaim it. I mean, there are some feminist noir authors who are trying to reclaim the femme fatale, but I never heard it stated that the femme fatale and the detective are really the same person, and that was exciting for me.
GROSS: So one of the things you've done in your new detective book for children, "Who Could That Be At This Hour?" is you've revived some really old slang, like, you know, roadster for car, ruffian and then gimcrack or gimcrack. I've never even known - I've run across this word. I've never known what it manes. I've never even been sure how to pronounce G-I-M-C-R-A-C-K. So I'm turning to you. What does it mean?
HANDLER: Well, it means a piece of junk, although also sometimes it's used an adjective. I'm seen gimcrack construction, but - so it can both be a word for a kind of a white elephant, for a useless object that somebody gives you, but it can also be a synonym for shoddy, and that charmed me.
But I mean, I like a weird word. So I like reading a book and finding a word that has fallen out of use. I'm happy to return roadster to the lexicon. If one child mentions roadster when they're talking about their carpool, then I will have won.
GROSS: Don't count on it.
HANDLER: I don't know. There's - an astonishing number of children use the word ersatz and penultimate in my presence. So I can only hope that roadster, that gets added to the list.
GROSS: Wow, that's amazing, actually, to...
HANDLER: It is, it's astonishing.
GROSS: You're always putting in, like, interesting words that are above the vocabulary level of the children that you're writing for, and you find funny words, funny ways of defining those words in context. So good for you.
HANDLER: Well thank you. I mean, it's not - what I found certainly when the 12th volume of "A Series of Unfortunate Events" came out, which was called "The Penultimate Peril," I found that there were people who knew what that word meant, and there were people who didn't, but that line was not along age lines at all.
So I remember there was an article in the newspaper that said it's the penultimate book from the penultimate author.
HANDLER: They were just using the word as some kind of placeholder, whereas children learned quickly what it meant and were more quickly to adopt it. I mean, I think that, yeah, you see failed vocabulary in the adult world so often that it's often because once you reach a certain age, you're kind of embarrassed to go look up a word if you don't know what it means, and then you just start using it however it feels right.
So I think children are less embarrassed to go find out the truth.
GROSS: My favorite misused words are penultimate when people think it's the absolute ultimate, as opposed to the next to the last.
GROSS: And then bemused when people think it's amused instead of confused.
HANDLER: Right. We used to have an ad from the Hearst Castle taped up to our refrigerator. We had it there for years because it said: Come have your wedding at the Hearst Castle. Rates include a mandatory tour.
HANDLER: And I assume they meant complimentary, but somehow this fantasy that you would be sipping champagne at a wedding at the Hearst Castle, and then they would say: And now it's time for a tour. And you would say no thank you, I'd just rather talk with my friends. And they say: You don't have a choice in the matter. We're taking you on a tour now.
GROSS: That's really great.
HANDLER: You're going to learn about William Randolph Hearst if it kills you.
GROSS: I'm kind of charmed by the size of your book because it's - do you know how many inches it is?
HANDLER: I do not, not offhand.
GROSS: OK, so it's like a little - it's a small, hardcover book, and it's like, you know, 250 pages or so, which is a lot, but it's a kind of miniature-sized hardback or semi-miniature-sized. And it just reminds me of a book that I had when I was young that I especially liked that was that size. Did you have books that size? Did you ask for it to be that size?
HANDLER: We looked at a lot of noir books, and we liked the idea of it being a small object that you can tuck into your coat or under your arm. I don't know if you've removed the dust jacket, but many delights await those who remove the dust jacket of this book.
GROSS: Oh nice.
HANDLER: It's probably not the most thrilling thing to put on the radio.
GROSS: Why don't you describe it.
HANDLER: And now I'll do some shadow puppets for your listeners.
HANDLER: (Makes noises) What is this animal? But - and the illustrator, Seth, is also a designer. He's not one of those illustrators who just draws something and lets it go. He's someone who's intensely involved in the design. And so that has resulted in quite the handsome package.
GROSS: It's actually a beautiful, like, copperish(ph), orange-colored, almost engraving on the cover under the dust jacket of somebody falling head-first, danger.
HANDLER: Well, as someone who frequented many libraries growing up, where dust jackets have often been banished for years, and you have these weird etchings or geometric shapes on the covers, that's what I remember, and it always seemed so mysterious. And so my dream that in a few years "Who Could That Be At This Hour?" will be in used bookshops with the dust jacket long gone and just that mysterious etching calling out to a potential reader, that charms me.
GROSS: Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, will be back in the second half of a show. The new Snicket book, a satirical detective novel, is called "Who Could That Be At This Hour?" I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Daniel Handler who writes satirical novels for children and young adults under the pen name Lemony Snicket. His best-selling series called, "A Series of Unfortunate Events," satirized the Gothic genre. His new book "Who Could That Be at This Hour?" - a prequel of sorts - begins a new series of detective novels in which the 12-year-old Snicket has to investigate a series of events.
I'm going to ask you now, you've brought your accordion with you and...
HANDLER: Because I was asked. I was asked.
GROSS: Because I asked you.
GROSS: Yes, we asked you because I love accordion. And it's...
HANDLER: Well, but I have a policy that I only bring it when someone asks me. Because the question, why haven't you brought your accordion is charming.
HANDLER: And the question, why have you brought your accordion is alarming.
GROSS: So you have a song you wrote especially for your new book, which I haven't...
HANDLER: I didn't write it.
GROSS: Oh, you didn't write it?
GROSS: Who wrote it?
HANDLER: No. This song was written especially for me by Mr. Stephin Merritt...
HANDLER: ...known I'm sure to many, many FRESH AIR listeners as the leader of The Magnetic Fields. He's written a number of songs for me. He wrote more than 13 songs for the 13 volumes of "A Series of Unfortunate Events" and he wrote this song for me for "Who Could That Be At This Hour?"
(SOUNDBITE OF "IF I DID THE CARIOCA")
HANDLER: (Singing) When things explode we hit the road. Well, it's been a lovely visit but if we can decode our secret code, it isn't a secret, is it? Dressed a la mode, and furbelowed, we're working to change this planet.
(Singing) Now if we can decode our secret code it can't be a secret, can it? We never do the Carioca which is a dance that goes like this. But if we did the Carioca it would be heaven, it would be bliss. We never do the Carioca which is a dance that goes like this. But if I did the Carioca it would be heaven, it would be bliss. Strange seeds we've sowed. Hard rows we've hoed. So please don't say easy does it. We don't agree 'cause if we can decode our secret code it wasn't a secret, was it?
(Singing) Into town we rode. Their bows are stowed. And they rarely wear our hair long. But if we can decode our secret code it won't be a secret erelong. Then we can do the Carioca indefinitely if we like. And those who pooh pooh Carioca well, they can all go take a hike. We never do the Carioca which is a dance that goes like this. But if we did the Carioca it would be heaven, it would be bliss.
(Singing) Tralalalalalalala. Trala trala trala trala. Tralalalalalalala. Latra latra latra. Tralalalalalatata. Tralalalalalalala. Tralalalalalalala. Latra latra latra.
GROSS: That was really great.
HANDLER: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Oh, wow. That is so much fun.
HANDLER: Yeah. It's a lot of fun to do that at a Barnes & Noble outside Philadelphia or an elementary school in Albuquerque.
GROSS: So how did you start playing the accordion?
HANDLER: Well, I played piano my whole life and when I got to college I wanted to be in a band and it was doing a strange moment in American pop music when no keyboard instruments were cool. If I'd lugged around a synthesizer I would've been scorned. And so I took up the accordion. So I'd like to say that I'm one of the few people in the history of the world to take up the accordion basically in order to meet women.
GROSS: And did it work?
HANDLER: I did, in fact, meet my wife in college, so there you go.
GROSS: Because of the accordion?
HANDLER: No. But in fact, I think the accordion was probably a drawback. But...
HANDLER: But alls well that ends well. Yeah. And the accordion is well, I mean, one nice thing is that if you play the accordion you're probably the best accordion player anybody knows. And so I've had opportunities, as a result of playing the accordion despite not being very good, that never would've come my way if I played some more ordinary instrument.
GROSS: So did you ever play accordion favorites like "Lady of Spain" and "Beer Barrel Poker?" Or since you were already a musician, could you like skip right past that to stuff you really wanted to play?
HANDLER: I skipped right past most of the beginning accordion tunes. But I mean I was in a band that played a lot of polkas. I was in a tango band, a Klezmer band, a kind of country western band. And I mean if you play the accordion you can really play almost any kind of music.
GROSS: And to prove that I'm now going to ask you...
GROSS: ...something that is very un-accordion.
HANDLER: Can I - what is this? Is this stomp the author? What is this?
GROSS: Is this stomp the author. Yes. I'm going to ask you to play something that we would never think of as being perfect for accordion, but you have made it work.
HANDLER: Oh. OK.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN DOVES CLY")
HANDLER: (Singing) Dig if you will a picture of you and I engaged in a kiss. The sweat of your body covers me. Can you my darling. Can you picture this? Dream if you will a courtyard. An ocean of violets in bloom. Animals strike curious poses. They feel the heat the heat between me and...
(Singing) How can you just leave me standing alone in a world so cold? Maybe I'm just too demanding. Maybe I'm just like my father too bold. Maybe I'm just like my mother. She's never satisfied. Why do we scream at each other? This is what it sounds like when doves cry.
GROSS: Prince would've loved it.
HANDLER: That's one of my go to songs.
GROSS: Has Prince heard you do that?
HANDLER: I'm not aware of his doing it. I assume if he had and disapproved I'd be dead by now. That's what I understand from the power of Prince. So either he hasn't heard it or he's heard it and liked it.
GROSS: That's really great.
HANDLER: But that's kind of my go to. Sometimes I'm someone will learn, I play the accordion at a dinner party or something and then they'll have accordion in their closet and they'll say take it and play something and that's when I play, and then there's never ever a cry for an encore after that. Everyone says he's made his point, whatever that point might be.
GROSS: My guest is Daniel Handler who writes satirical novels for young adults under the pen name Lemony Snicket. His new Snicket novel is called "Who Could That Be at This Hour?"
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Daniel Handler who writes satirical novels for children and young adults under the pen name Lemony Snicket. He just launched a new satirical detective series. The first book is called "Who Could That Be At This Hour?"
So I want to continue the musical portion of our program.
GROSS: And the explanation for this will come...
HANDLER: Why on earth, I wonder?
GROSS: Well, the explanation for this will come momentarily.
(SOUNDBITE OF EXCERPT, "THE COMPOSER IS DEAD")
HANDLER: OK. "The Composer is Dead."
GROSS: And that is the opening track of Daniel Handler's like symphonic children's story, which is called "The Composer is Dead." He has a book and it comes with a CD. And it's basically kind of like a "Peter and the Wolf" kind of thing, where you have all the sections having parts in this and their parts kind of explain what they do in the orchestra. But why don't you explain it, Daniel.
HANDLER: "The Composer is Dead" is a piece for narrator and orchestra, certainly inspired by "Peter and the Wolf." It's in collaboration with the composer Nathaniel Stookey with whom I went to high school. And we ran into each other and got back in touch and exchanged work and admired one another's work and we're trying to figure out if there was something we could do together. And then I was asked to narrate "Peter and the Wolf," a performance of "Peter and the Wolf," and the music is beautiful and the story is insipid. And so I said to Mr. Stookey, why don't we do something that could actually introduce the instruments of the orchestra to young people but as really boring a story as "Peter and the Wolf." And so from that "The Composer is Dead" was born. So each section of the orchestra demonstrates its sonic color and then is also interrogated. It's a mystery "The Composer is Dead" and so we like to say it's like "Peter and the Wolf" meets an episode of "Law and Order."
GROSS: Because the composer is dead and the narrator is interrogating each section of the orchestra, asking like did you do it? Where were you?
HANDLER: And each section of the orchestra has a wimpy and suspicious alibi.
GROSS: Let's hear the viola section and their response.
(SOUNDBITE OF EXCERPT FROM, "THE COMPOSER IS DEAD")
HANDLER: Well I guess that takes care of the strings. The inspectors said all, the violas. I forgot all about you. Everyone forgets about us, said the violas bitterly.
We play the notes and chords that nobody cares about.
We play crucial counter melodies nobody hears. We often have to stay late after performances and stack up all of the chairs. We spent last night feeling sorry for ourselves as usual.
GROSS: That's an excerpt of Daniel Handler's, "The Composer is Dead" with music by Nathaniel Stookey. So do you think violas think of themselves as being like that, as being so taken for granted?
HANDLER: Oh, most certainly. Violas are kind of the butt of many, many a joke. And so they're, yeah, I mean each of the sections of the orchestra in "The Composer is Dead" make use of some inside jokes among symphony musicians.
GROSS: The ending of this is really wonderful. You don't mind if I give away the ending, do you?
HANDLER: Of "The Composer is Dead."
GROSS: Yeah. OK.
GROSS: So this is after, like, all the sections have been interrogated and the concertmaster has been interrogated. The only person left is the conductor and it's clear to the narrator the conductor must have killed the composer. And so here's part of the finale.
(SOUNDBITE OF EXCERPT FROM, "THE COMPOSER IS DEAD")
HANDLER: A strange noise caught the inspector's ear. Of course, he said. The conductor, you've been murdering composers for years. In fact, wherever there's conductor you're sure to find a dead composer.
GROSS: So that's the finale of Daniel Handler's "The Composer is Dead," with music by Nathaniel Stookey, and it's in book form and the book comes with the CD that we've been hearing. So this really has a beautiful message at the end, which is orchestras play music by dead composers and bad orchestras butcher and kill composer's work. But it's also those orchestras that keep those composers alive. And that's really such a, it's such a fun and nice message.
HANDLER: Well, thank you. It's, I mean I think that one thing that classical music and literature have in common is that they both have one eye, perhaps egotistically, on the long game, on immortality. And I mean Nathaniel Stookey, the composer of "The Composer is Dead" always likes to say that he can't wait until he is dead because he'll finally be able to make a living. That is only when...
HANDLER: ...he's dead that anyone will take an interest in his work.
GROSS: How were you introduced the classical music?
HANDLER: My parents met at the opera, met at a performance of the opera. They were both in the audience. And classical music was the only music that I heard for many, many years. And then I was also a member of the San Francisco Boys Chorus growing up, which performed in the opera and with the symphony and all sorts of classical opportunities. So I had a very, very strict and traditional musical upbringing, and then I had puberty, which wrecked my career as a boy soprano.
My parents like to say that they considered castration in order that I could continue to be a soprano. But in the long run, having secondary sex characteristics has really paid off for me, so I don't regret it.
GROSS: Now, I read that your father fled Germany during Hitler's regime. I don't know whether it was...
GROSS: ...like at what point...
GROSS: '38. OK.
HANDLER: A good time to leave.
GROSS: Yeah, I'll say. I'll say. Did he have to, like, sneak out? Was it still acceptable for Jews to emigrate? I'm assuming he was Jewish. That might not be true.
HANDLER: Yes. He was Jewish. He was a child, and so his recollection of it is somewhat lost in the sands of time. But he - yeah, he got out just in time and was raised by his mother and my extended family. Growing up, when I went to family events with my extended family, the stories passed around the dinner table were all stories of who got out and who didn't, and daring escapes and lucky rescues and the whole chaotic tumble of living through that era. And I think that also had a huge effect on "A Series of Unfortunate Events," that - just the notion that terrible things can happen for any reason, and not - they're not punishments for bad behavior, just as good things happening are not rewards for good behavior.
GROSS: And that sense of - you know, I grew up with so many World War II movies and movies about, like, getting out just in time, like, you were describing actually happened to your father, thankfully, that he got out just in time. But it brings a sense of relief - like, oh, boy, they got out just in time - but also this sense of constant fear, like, how do you when just in time is?
How do you know if you're waiting too long or doing it just in time? How do you know when it's - your time is up, and - so did you grow up with this constant fear that maybe you wouldn't know, and you wouldn't get out just in time?
HANDLER: I definitely have a slice of that Jewish paranoia. On this book tour that I just finished, I was recently in Vancouver, and I always had this feeling of Vancouver that that's my fantasy city for when the United States has gone completely mad and I must flee for the border. Part of my fantasy is that, oh, then I'll live in one of these beautiful condos in Vancouver and eat sushi. So - but, I mean, I don't think to other - I think when other people fantasize about living someplace else, it's not because they're fleeing from a fascist government.
HANDLER: But I think if you're raised Jewish, that paranoia comes with the territory.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Daniel Handler, who writes under the name Lemony Snicket. He writes children's books. He did a series of Gothic children's books called "A Series of Unfortunate Events." Now he's just done the first in a series of noir detective novels for children, and the first is called "Who Could That Be at This Hour?"
Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Daniel Handler. He writes children's books under the name Lemony Snicket. And he did the Gothic series "A Series of Unfortunate Events," and now he has a new detective series for children, and the first one is called "Who Could That Be At This Hour?"
In 2013, you have a new book coming out that's for younger children, maybe like three to five, or something like that.
HANDLER: Yeah. Well, the new book is a picture book...
HANDLER: ...yeah, with Jon Klassen, an illustrator I've long admired.
GROSS: And it's a wonderful little book. It's all about a child's fear of the dark. And I'd love it if you could read the opening of this forthcoming book...
GROSS: ...which is called "The Dark," and it has a very dark cover. It's a child at the foot of the stairs.
HANDLER: More visuals for the radio audience. Yes.
GROSS: And the stairs and the child are just surrounded by dark. So any time you're ready.
HANDLER: (Reading) Laszlo was afraid of the dark. The dark lived in the same house as Laszlo - a big place with a creaky roof, smooth, cold windows, and several sets of stairs. Sometimes the dark hid in the closet. Sometimes it sat behind the shower curtain. But mostly, it spent its time in the basement. All day long, the dark would wait in a distant corner, far from the squeaks and rattles of the washing machine, pressed up against some old, damp boxes and a chest of drawers nobody ever opened.
(Reading) At night, of course, the dark went out and spread itself against the windows and doors of Laszlo's house. But in the morning, the dark would be back in the basement, where it belonged. Laszlo would peek at the dark every morning. Hi, he would say. Hi, dark. Laszlo thought that if he visited the dark in the dark's room maybe the dark wouldn't come visit him in his room. But one night it did.
GROSS: You know, this book is an oddly reassuring book. The end is very reassuring. And I say oddly because your books are never reassuring.
GROSS: But I guess maybe this is because it's for a much younger child, and because you're a father and you child used to be three years old. Maybe you wanted it to be reassuring?
HANDLER: Well, I mean, I think this book stands in a proud Snicket tradition of a reassurance that dark things are, in fact, there. So "A Series of Unfortunate Events" reminds you that a terrible thing can happen at any moment, and that it is up to you to persevere through it. And I think "The Dark" teaches that same message.
It may stop at a slightly different part of the story, whereas a volume in "A Series of Unfortunate Events" would usually have the story be more or less complete, and then the villain would get away at the last minute or some other terrible thing would happen.
But "The Dark," I think, teaches that message, that there is a scary thing there. It's just up to you to work through it.
GROSS: And you can. You can work through it.
GROSS: You can make your peace with it. What scared you as a child?
HANDLER: And if you can't, well, then you perish, and there's no reason to worry about that.
GROSS: What scared you as a child?
HANDLER: Oh, everything. Tall trees - yeah, people in tall trees climbing up to the top of them and leaping upon my window. That was a large source of concern for me. Kidnapping. I remember when my mother finally explained to me that it would be extremely unlikely I would get kidnapped, because they didn't have any money, that kidnappers were after money.
And so the idea that you would be kidnapped was very rare if you didn't have money. That was just such a relief to me. I wish that had been explained to me years previously. She said, oh, you know, no one want - we don't have enough money. We couldn't possibly pay ransom for you that would be rewarding for a kidnapper, so you probably won't be snatched up. That was of intense relief.
GROSS: That's great.
HANDLER: And so sometimes, when children are standing in line at a Snicket event, while I'm making small talk with them, I ask if they've ever been kidnapped, and they never have. And then I say, well, do you have parents who would pay a lot of money for your safe return? And then we'd try to figure out exactly what sum of money that is. And, you know, it's under the guise of whether I'm calculating enough. So if it seems like enough money for me to kidnap them. But I hope that it's also reassuring when they realize they probably won't be kidnapped. There's probably just not enough money at stake.
GROSS: What if you're talking to a wealthy kid, and you scare the heck out of him because his parents would have enough money?
HANDLER: Well, I always say, have you been kidnapped? And then I often say have you ever been locked in the trunk of a car? And then do you like trying new things? Those kind of the three questions.
GROSS: Oh, gosh. So we're going to run out of time momentarily, and I can't let you leave without playing us another song. OK?
HANDLER: I don't really know if I have another song.
GROSS: You must have another song.
HANDLER: Had I known, man, I would've done a lot more practicing this morning instead of reading smug articles on how the election was won. All right.
HANDLER: Well, I have this song about Count Olaf. I really don't have a lot I can do offhand, because I'm usually sitting in with other people.
GROSS: OK. Excuse accepted.
HANDLER: Oh, man.
GROSS: So Count Olaf is...
HANDLER: Gross plays hardball.
GROSS: Yeah, you bet.
HANDLER: Excuse accepted.
GROSS: So Count Olaf is from Daniel Handler-Lemony Snicket's Gothic novel series for children, "A Series of Unfortunate Events."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HANDLER: (Singing) The count has an eye on his ankle, and lives in a horrible place. He wants all your money. He's never at all funny. He wants to remove your face. And you might be thinking what a romp this is, but wait till you meet his accomplices. When you see Count Olaf, you're suddenly full of disgust and despair and dismay. In the whole of the soul of Count Olaf, there's no love. When you see Count Olaf count to zero, then scream and run away.
(Singing) Scream, scream, scream and run away. Run, run, run, run, run, run, run or die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die. Run. Run, run, run, run, run, run. Or die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die.
GROSS: Oh, that's so enjoyable. Thank you so much.
HANDLER: You're quite welcome. My delight.
GROSS: It's just really been a pleasure to have you back on FRESH AIR. Thank you for performing and for reading from your books. And I wish you good luck with your new book, "Who Could That Be at This Hour?" and your forthcoming book next year, "The Dark."
HANDLER: Well, thank you very much for having me. It's a delight to be here.
GROSS: You can read an excerpt of Daniel Handler's new Lemony Snicket novel "Who Could That Be At This Hour?" on our website where we also have links to the two Lemony Snicket songs he performed. That's at freshair.npr.org, or you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.