Lemony Snicket’s latest picture book begins with the end of a pet’s life, following its ghost into the afterlife as it figures out what to do next. Inspired by a series of unfortunate pet events in their own family, the story is illustrated by Lisa Brown, who calls her husband by his real name, Daniel Handler. The couple has been touring for two weeks in support of the book while the Netflix crew shooting next season’s episodes of Snicket’s series about the Baudelaire orphans tries to keep the child actors from growing…
Is this your first picture book collaboration?
Lisa Brown: It’s our first from a major publisher but we have published two or three—depending on how you count them—with McSweeney’s. One of those I did under a pseudonym.
Daniel Handler: All of them I wrote under a pseudonym.
Okay, so I was going to ask next if there was any chance this would be your last collaboration but it looks like you’re going to survive this.
Handler: We still love each other very much but it’s sweet of Publishers Weekly to worry about us.
Did an editor or agent suggest Lisa would be the perfect choice for this manuscript or did the writer say, “Can you pass the salt and illustrate my next book?”
Handler: Our collaborations usually begin when we are lying around on the sofa cracking each other up, but in this case I believe Lisa Brown thought up the idea of a goldfish ghost when we were away at a conference, eating at a Thai restaurant. She started drawing the upside-down goldfish.
Brown: All I need is a title and a character to get me started.
Handler: Hardly a week goes by that we don’t come up with an idea for a picture book but usually it is a truly terrible idea for a picture book.
Given your history of writing about unfortunate events, Mr. Snicket, I am surprised to learn that you are not the source of this idea.
Handler: I’m more publically macabre but my wife is more actually macabre.
Brown: I have illustrated a young adult novel written by Adele Griffin about ghosts during the Civil War (Picture the Dead), a book about a little vampire (Vampire Boy’s Good Night), and one about a mummified cat (Mummy Cat by Marcus Ewert). I cover the waterfront.
Did any real goldfish die in the making of this book?
Handler: Between Lisa’s childhood and mine, and our early days as a family, it is safe to say that we are responsible for the slaughter of a small school of goldfish. And now we have a dog. He has not died. But any time it seems like there is anything wrong with him, there is a great deal of consultation and anxiety.
Brown: A goldfish is a perfect starter death but the dog is a member of the family. We had some very exciting funerals for our goldfish.
Brown: Oh, yes. Otto (the couple’s 13-year-old son) insisted that they all be buried in jewelry boxes in the backyard. He took to calling jewelry boxes “goldfish coffins.” We figure when our son is going to propose to someone he will probably say, ‘Please accept this goldfish coffin as a token of my love.’
You’re on tour for the book now. Are you reading it aloud at bookstores?
Handler: Yes, we are.
Has any sensitive little person cried at the death on the opening page?
Handler: Not yet.
Brown: Although we do have a great story. We read it to a class of third graders and their class cockatiel died the next day. The kids were kind of excited imagining that he was now a ghost, out looking for company.
That’s a really beautiful line in the book, one that maybe has even more resonance for adults than kids: “It can be hard to find the company you are looking for.”
Handler: I think there are a lot of elementary school students who know that feeling very well at the start of every school year, or maybe even every lunch period. I wouldn’t be a fourth grader again for all the tea in China.
Brown: We tell kids when we do events that the book is about loneliness and observation and ask them, ‘Do any of you like being alone?’ and so many kids raise their hands. A lot of them like not just being alone but being alone with their thoughts. I do.
Finally, I must ask you, Mr. Snicket, how the Netflix adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events is going?
Handler: They are shooting season two right now and I am writing season three. We’re in a bit of a hurry because these child actors are aging quickly. We’ve got to get it done before they look like they’re in their mid-30s and people wonder, “Why don’t these orphans just go get jobs?”
Sunny may no longer be a baby by the time we see her again. Is Sunny one baby or is she twins?
Handler: In the Paramount movie, Sunny was played by twins, who were a replacement for the triplets who were initially cast but who had to be replaced because they developed separation anxiety. But the Netflix Sunny is one extremely good-natured baby.
Is it gratifying that this latest version has been so well received?
Handler: I’m not a big reader of reaction to my work but I have gathered that people enjoyed the first season. It’s a huge challenge to collaborate on something like this.
So what you are saying is that you prefer to collaborate with Lisa?
Handler: For sure. Neil Patrick Harris and I have never once curled up on the couch. I’m completely spoiled in terms of working with my wife.
Goldfish Ghost. Lemony Snicket and Lisa Brown. Roaring Brook/Porter, $17.99, May ISBN 9781626725072