They both wear seersucker suits and have a fondness for accordions. The Decemberists singer Colin Meloy and Daniel Handler (better known as Lemony Snicket, author of A Series of Unfortunate Events) have a lot in common, with their morose and macabre sensibilities. Handler is on tour promoting his newest adult-oriented book, Adverbs, a clever, collection of interwoven stories about love. Not only can the man write adult fiction, children's books, and collaborate on symphony compositions, but he also played accordion on the Magnetic Fields' seminal 69 Love Songs. If that's not cool enough, a reader's survey in The Believer just declared Adverbs one of the 10 best books of 2006. And let's not even get into the level of success the literary-minded Decemberists are experiencing right now.
This Sunday at the Beaverton Powell's, these two bookish titans will sit down and shoot the shit, at an event they're calling "Daniel Handler in Conversation with Colin Meloy." It's anyone's guess what will happen at this interview, but in the meantime, here's a teaser.
MERCURY: How's it going?
DANIEL HANDLER: I'm a little raggedy this morning, so I apologize ahead of time. I sat in with a band last night, and you know, I'm a writer guy with a three-year-old, so I don't normally indulge in a rock star lifestyle.
What band were you playing with?
I played with Memphis. One half of Memphis is Torquil Campbell, who is the lead singer of Stars. That was my long way of saying that they're not a side band.
So how do you and Colin know each other?
Carson [Ellis, Meloy's girlfriend] and I share an editor. And Carson is illustrating the new Lemony Snicket book. So we have a dense web of connections. Yeah, it sounds like we know each other a lot better than we do.
What's the new Lemony Snicket book about?
It's called The Composer Is Dead. And it's a piece for a narrator and orchestra, like "Peter and the Wolf," which I did with composer Nathaniel Stookey. We've performed with a few orchestras, and now there's going to be a book with a CD in the back.
Colin mentioned that you came to a couple Decemberists shows, before you met.
That's true. I guess I should say that my wife and I are big fans of the Decemberists. Their first album samples a Guy Maddin movie, and we love Guy Maddin movies.
What adverbs would you use to describe Colin?
Colin's a noun. Adverbs can modify adjectives, verbs, or other adverbs, but they can't modify nouns. But I'll say when I hear the Decemberists, they play "winningly." The Decemberists run counter to the common notion that if you're a band you should be as nonchalant as possible, like mutter and not care about what you're wearing and not talk to the audience between songs. The Decemberists definitely feel they're there to entertain, so they play "willingly," err, "winningly." Presumably "willingly" too. I don't think there are any hostage situations going on there. Like our armed forces, they're an all-volunteer army.
Colin tells me that you have an open invitation to play accordion with them.
The trouble with the Decemberists is that they're the one band that already has an accordion player. Maybe Ms. [Jenny] Conlee and I could play dueling accordions.
How was it to work on the Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs?
For about two years after the albums came out, we did a bunch of great shows all over the place where we performed all 69 Love Songs in order. Those were really magical shows, particularly for me because I don't play on very many 69 Love Songs. We had a fake living room set up on stage, where people who weren't playing would go and sit. I was sitting for most of the show. I had to pour cognac for everyone onstage.
Colin got a little worried that you might ask him to do a duet at the reading.
[Laughs] I should email him and say, "I assume we're going to perform, 'I Got You Babe.'" I always feel sorry for musicians because I think they're often expected to play in all different scenarios. I feel like whenever I'm at a party and there are musicians there, someone inevitably gets drunk and says, "I got a guitar upstairs—play something for me." Thank goodness no one ever says that to a writer. No one ever says, "Hey, read this chapter."
"Hey, write me a haiku."
[Laughs] "Hey, write a poem about me."
MERCURY: How do you know Daniel Handler?
COLIN MELOY: There's a bunch of circuitous connections. He has seen our band play. His editor contacted Carson [Ellis], my girlfriend, who does the Decemberists' illustrations, saying, "You have a kids' book in you, and I want to work with you." All of a sudden Daniel's editor became Carson's editor.
Have you come up with some questions for Daniel?
Actually, I'm a really bad interviewer. I recently interviewed Mike Scott from the Waterboys, and it was a terrifying process. I'm so conscious of what a bad interview is, so I'm desperately afraid of being that bad interviewer. Inevitably I panic, and I start asking bad interview questions.
Umm... what's a bad interview question?
The entire time I was interviewing Mike Scott, I was fighting the temptation to ask him where his band name came from. I told myself [before the interview], "You have to not ask where the band name came from. You have to not ask, 'Where do your ideas come from? How do you write your songs?'" But there were moments when I was so panicked and unsure of what to say that those were the only questions jumping to mind.
Why did you interview Mike Scott?
For The Believer. I'm curious to see how it turned out, but it was rather terrifying. So I hope it will be more of a conversation [with Daniel]. Daniel Handler also happens to be a great conversationalist. He's been to one too many dinner parties. He's full of pithy witticisms.
Have you read Adverbs?
I'm working on it right now. I've only read the first couple [of chapters] and I really like it so far. Don't tell Daniel. Things being as they are, my reading life is always complicated by my touring life. I'll read on the bus, but I'm always passing out in the middle of pages. I'll just creep through a book over the course of a tour.
So you and Daniel seem to have quite a bit in common, aesthetically.
Yeah, he's an accordion player, and I like accordions. I think A Series of Unfortunate Events is a great work of childlike imagination, and that's the sort of stuff that I really like, especially the really dark and morose modern fairy tales.
I heard that you were working on a musical?
Actually I've been approached on bizarrely numerous occasions to do musicals. There was one that nearly worked out, but it fell through. It was based on Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, which is the prequel to Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie.
I also read that Daniel was working on a musical.
Our lives parallel. In fact, he wears seersucker suits, which I've had a tendency to do recently.
Have you and Daniel ever thought about doing a musical collaboration?
We've invited him to come and play accordion—I think he has a standing invitation if ever he'd like to step onstage with us. That hasn't come to fruition yet, but I'd be curious to work on music with him. He's a creative wellspring.
I know that in the past, he has sung at his readings. Any chance you two might do a duet at the Powell's event?
I would hope I'd get the music beforehand. I'm stepping very blindly into this conversation. He could throw anything at me, and I guess I'll just have to be ready to take whatever comes along.
Do you have anything you'd like me to tell him, when I talk with him tomorrow?
Tell him that I'm excited to see him. Tell him if he's going to make me sing a duet with him he should get me the music soon and not spring it on me the day of. Also I'm busily making my way through a big chunk of his body of work.
I thought I wasn't supposed to mention that?
Yeah, maybe don't say that.
Daniel Handler in conversation with Colin Meloy at Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing, 3415 SW Cedar Hills, Beaverton, Sun May 20, 5 pm, free.