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A Mismatched Crew Dreams Of Swashbuckling In 'We Are Pirates'


This winter, Daniel Handler has been acclaimed as brilliant for his writing, but also a boor for making a racist comment when he hosted a prestigious literary event. Mr. Handler is the bestselling and celebrated author of novels for young readers, both as himself and Lemony Snicket. His new novel is "We Are Pirates" in which a rum group of seniors, teenagers and dreamers come together to sail the San Francisco Bay and plunder. Daniel Handler says his writing was interrupted by real life.

DANIEL HANDLER: "We Are Pirates" has a major character who is suffering from Alzheimer's. That was a condition that I knew very little about. And I thought it would be appropriate if the older man who becomes the head of a ragtag group of pirates - if he had Alzheimer's because losing grip of reality would make it more believable that he might embark on such a voyage. But I didn't know anything aside from the broadest cultural stereotypes about the disease.

And then as fate would have it, my father began to suffer from it. And I had put the novel aside, and then suddenly I, in fact, had a front-row seat with exactly the sort of mind-leaving that dementia provides. I used to think when other writers told me that they put books aside for a year and then return to them - I used to think they were lying. I used to think that was their way of saying that actually they were just running a year behind. But as it turns out, other writers knew something. Who knew?

SIMON: Tell me about your crew. Let's begin them with Captain Errol.

HANDLER: (Laughter) Tell me about your crew - there's something a novelist never gets asked. Errol is an older gentleman suffering from dementia. He is at a retirement center where he is more or less under the care of a man of Haitian descent. And Gwen Needle, our young heroin who's 14. And after she's caught shoplifting, she's forced by her family as punishment to go volunteer at the senior center and to become a companion for Errol. They don't have much in common. But as it turned out, Errol likes to be read from old pirate yarns. And soon they hatch this plan together - Gwen along with her best friend and Errol along with Manny - and they end up kidnapping someone else so it becomes five - steal a boat and commit acts of piracy on the San Francisco Bay.

Their dream of piracy is one of a classical mode of swashbuckling novels and movies that I know we're all familiar with. Of course, the reality turns out to be much more daunting and much more violent and much more depressing. The theme of the book, in effect, is that while we all want to escape from the world, it turns out that there is no escape from the world. You're still attached to the culture that you're in. And if you step outside the bounds of the law, you'll soon regret it.

SIMON: Yeah. There's a line I can't get out of my mind. Gwen says at one point one day you have taken enough and then you begin to take it all back.

HANDLER: Yes, when I first thought of the idea of people who would try to become pirates in a classical mode in the modern day, I began to think of what sort of people it would be interesting to read about doing that. I didn't want to use kind of strapping young men, as that's what we think of as a typical pirate crew. But I looked around and really two groups of people came to me that - adolescent girls and the elderly both are shunted in ways of society. They're respected kind of and encouraged kind of, but have often very hemmed-in realities. And so when I began to think about those two people getting resentful and wanting to go somewhere off the map.

SIMON: Yeah, maybe there's a section in your book that would be good to read here.

HANDLER: Sure. Well, before she becomes a pirate, she tries shoplifting. And when Gwen is shoplifting, she imagines herself as named Octavia. She imagines herself to much more glamorous persons, so there's a little bit in this book that's here.

(Reading) She remembered what it was called - shoplifting - and pictured lifting the whole place, the aisles tilting and tumbling their baubles and trinkety treasures into her pockets. Pink razors for her burnt leg and then a keychain she thought Naomi would like. And when she realized she could steal for other people, it was an avalanche, a chew bone for Toby the II, more stuff for Naomi, a stuffed bear and a tiny license plate that said Naomi. Three flasks of perfume, curvy and shapey like internal organs in her pockets, and she was done with Mother's Day for ages.

Her father liked the electronic things, which were behind locked cabinets. But she grabbed a slick stereo magazine and managed to slip into one of her boots. It would be a way to warm him for taking the bus by herself. By now she was thirsty and rounded a corner to open a fridge and grab an iced tea in a bottle that felt so good in her hands. It was One Universe Green Tea, which the label said was good for the immune system and for Octavia's skin. No one had stopped her. No one had spoken to her. It was smooth sailing. All for one and one for all.

SIMON: So is there a straight line from that to piracy or just adolescence?

HANDLER: (Laughter). You think shoplifting is the gateway drug that eventually leads people to board other people's ships? It could be. I think the fantasy of wanting things and wanting to evade the law is certainly something that shoplifters and pirates, in this case, have in common.

SIMON: I have to ask this, Mr. Handler. This is the first chance we've had to speak with you since you emceed the National Book Awards in November and made a watermelon joke. Did I say state that incorrectly? I didn't want to tell the whole joke, but if you want to...

HANDLER: Well, it's true. There was a disaster of my own making at the National Book Awards. In my capacity as emcee, when Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award for children's literature, which was a wonderful moment for everyone, but certainly also for me, Jackie is a friend of mine. So after her win, I told a story about her and me. And the story did not go out well and many, many people were very upset by it, and rightfully so.

SIMON: Yeah. It certainly made me react a little differently when I was reading this book. One of the first signs we get that Errol, the pirate captain, has lost his ability to track is that he falls into racist jokes.

HANDLER: Anyone who's had someone with dementia knows that terrible things often begin to come out of their mouths, which is shocking and mysterious and, of course, very upsetting and hurtful for their families.

SIMON: Yeah. I think anyone reading this book would decide - not giving anything away - maybe being a pirate isn't the good idea that I thought it was.


HANDLER: It was - if I can convey one message to the people of the world, it's don't try piracy.

SIMON: Daniel Handler. His new novel "We Are Pirates." Thanks so much for being with us.

HANDLER: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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