You’ve said before that you’re more interested in stories that ask questions than try to provide answers. If you could summarize A Series of Unfortunate Events by the question or questions that you’re asking what would that be?
Oh goodness. What is happening? Why is it happening? And what can we do about it?
Well what about your adult novels. We Are Pirates is out this spring. What sort of questions are you asking in that book?
We Are Pirates is about some teenage girls and some old people in a retirement home who would both like to get away from the surveillance of their very narrowed and surveilled worlds; they’d like to escape and they’d like to escape somewhere off the map and do something forbidden. And they do and it’s terrible. The moral is: there is no place outside the world. We’re all in it. So you can escape from your own circumstances, but then you’re invading someone else’s.
Like, you can’t really run away from the problem? There’s always going to be one?
Yeah, there’s not even a way, I think. And the book asks, “Is it possible to go someplace that is really away and be beyond the arm of not just the law, but civilization?” And the answer is well, yes, and then you’re outside of civilization – and that’s terrible.
I thought it was interesting in the introduction you said you had to sort of shelf the novel for a while because you didn’t have the appropriate life context to address a missing child or dementia, and to me that sort of speaks to a writer’s life and experiences impacting their work.
Mostly I would have felt really self-conscious about doing that kind of research. I thought am I really going to have to go to a home and have to spend a lot of time with people with Alzheimer’s for my own purposes?
In the novel one of the young girls, Gwen, isn’t particularly excited about spending time with someone with Alzheimer’s either. She’s there for punishment.
It was actually in examining this that I learned so many kids were spending time with old people as punishment and how that made every body feel terrible. It’s hard to believe that whatever companionship they offered was worse than the overall feeling of being punished.
What drew you to a piracy story? To me they’re so inherently adventurous. Pirates are these rough people, but at the same time they’re completely ridiculous.
It was in my head from high school. We had this list of occupations and you were supposed to check off the ones that you were interested in. At the end of the list it said “other”. At the time I remember thinking, how could you check “other”? What isn’t listed here? And it was “Pirate”, and that always stayed in my head. I liked the idea exactly what you said, that pirates are kind of horrifying and yet goofy because we don’t think of them in a modern context we think of them in a swashbuckling movie context. At some point I was reading about how pirates worked with local mapmakers — they were in cahoots with them. Sometimes if you were a ship captain you would buy a map and it would show you a shortcut and then it would turn out to be an ambush. And that was interesting to me, and it really became interesting to me as technology advanced because now you don’t give any one directions. You don’t give directions to your house anymore. Everyone just gets there, so you couldn’t fool anyone with a false map. You couldn’t say like, “You just go over here… and it’s open water.” They’d say, “No it isn’t. “
You’re hosting the National Book Awards next month. I don’t know if you can comment as the host but do you have any favorites?
No favorites. I think it’s an interesting list. I blurbed the John Darnielle novel so I was really happy to see that on the longlist and I was a little bummed to see it didn’t make the short list. I just bought the Emily St. John Mandel — I’ve actually read her previous novels, but I haven’t read this one and so I’m excited to read that.
And Best American Non-Required Reading just published too. It’s listed as “Everything that should be on the radar of America’s youth” and I thought, no pressure right?
There is always a titular editor for Best American Non-Required Reading, which was me this year, but there’s actually a group of high school students who are reading all this stuff and meeting weekly in the basement of McSweeny’s to talk about it. So there’s some confusion, because when people don’t really know about it they say, “Hey, how did you choose everything that high school students would like?” and I’m like, “I didn’t. High school students chose them.” I chose some things to put in front of them, but there was a lot of stuff that I loved that didn’t get in and there’s a lot of stuff that I thought everyone loves and they’re like people in that way — they have their own opinions that are different from mine. But it was always interesting to see what they liked and what hey responded too.
Because so often adult readers have their own idea about what students should be reading.
Yes. One big thing was it was a very diverse group of high school students and the finished anthology is fairly white. Me and the other editor — who are both white guys — were constantly like, “Hey look we found this Hispanic poet! Let’s all read her!” and the group was more like, “Nah. We’re more into David Sedaris.”
(Laughing) Let’s have some cultural diversity, please!
Yes (laughing). Then it felt weird to be saying to a very diverse room: “You guys need to be thinking about diversity!” Says me and another white guy: “Think about that! Don’t be so selfish!” So that was unusual. But for the most part it was a pleasure and I think the anthology is full of good stuff. I’ve always liked that anthology because it’s cross genre so to me every year it feels like a big, thick, great magazine. There’s poetry and interviews and nonfiction and fiction and there’s all sorts of styles and genres and I like that. And some anthologies that are held together by genre are tougher to read.
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