A Place to Unwind

Author Daniel Handler feels at home in Chatham

By Lisa Necheles
Photography by Meredith Heuer

You may expect Daniel Handler, the author of the wildly popular “Series of Unfortunate Events” children’s books, to arrive in disguise. His “Unfortunate Events” books impart a mysteriousness that provides a perfect foil to a child’s vivid imagination: Is that a ghost rattling the windowpane? Might that odd-looking man across the street be harboring sinister secrets? That the books are written under a pseudonym adds to the intrigue.

So it’s a surprise when Handler arrives at Chatham Cookware wearing a cheerful oxford shirt and striped socks and carrying a perfectly ordinary satchel. He looks like what he is. A guy you’d like to be friends with, i.e., not Count Olaf. Or Lemony Snicket.

Here is the real mystery about Daniel Handler. Why Chatham? He grew up in San Francisco and lives there now. Why does he travel 3,000 miles every year to spend his summers on Cape Cod?

His wife, illustrator Lisa Brown, grew up in Connecticut. When their son, Otto, was born, they wanted to make sure he knew his East Coast cousins. So they started looking for a place in New England to visit regularly.

In 2003, “We basically stumbled onto Chatham the first summer,” says Handler, “and lay around on Hardings Beach in between bouts of lobster from Chatham Fish & Lobster and walks on the dunes with white wine in hand. Whenever we visited another town on the Cape, we felt homesick for Chatham. So we just stayed.”

Each summer since then, Handler settles into a quieter life here. Chatham is his summer treat, a respite from the busy whirlwind of social commitments that surround him in San Francisco. A busy day in Chatham may include croquet on the lawn, a swim at Hardings Beach and an afternoon cocktail.

That he has alit in a place so different from his San Francisco home is probably appropriate. He thrives on dichotomies. Big city, small town. West Coast, East Coast. Lemony Snicket, Daniel Handler.

His work similarly refuses to fit into neat boxes. There are the Lemony Snicket books for which he may be best known and which he is currently working to make into a Netflix original series. But there is far more to Daniel Handler’s work, including picture books written for adults (“Girls Standing on Lawns,” inspired by found photographs) and quirky how-to guides (“How to Dress for Every Occasion by the Pope”).

Last year, Handler’s adult novel, “We Are Pirates,” had the physical look and feel of a swashbuckling adventure story. And it was that. But it was also about the angst of growing older, both from a teenage perspective and a middle-age perspective. There are plenty of angst-ridden themes in books, but never before have they been so well camouflaged in an old-fashioned pirate story.

It’s evident in his work that Handler refuses to fit into one genre. He likes to think outside the box. It may be why he has so much fun with his alter ego, Lemony Snicket.

But he’s serious, too. He tackles heavy literature in the periodical The Believer in his regular column, “What the Swedes Read: A Reader Makes His Way Through One Book By Each Nobel Laureate.” Think “Julie and Julia,” but instead of cooking boeuf bourguignon, Handler’s challenge is digesting and synthesizing “Sceptical Essays,” by Bertrand Russell or “Arcadia Borealis (Selected Poems),” by Erik Axel Karlfeldt for the rest of us. It’s a downright lofty goal.

It’s hard to believe that these essays will be anything other than a chore to read, something one may turn to simply to procrastinate from writing the profile of Handler that she is assigned to write (for instance). But, in fact, they are highly entertaining essays, resurrecting authors and poets whom we’d mostly ignore. His essay on Russell’s “Sceptical Essays” concludes: “In other words, I’d become skeptical of skepticism, and damned if I can tell if that means the book is a powerful one or a ridiculous one. What is he talking about, really?” He’s the guy you wish you had as a section leader in your college English classes. His essays make you laugh. And they educate. No small feat.

It takes a lot of work to write best-selling books, executive produce (and write for) an original Netflix Series, play the accordion in “bands naïve enough to ask me” and plow through all those Nobel laureates with an eye toward Cliffs-Noting them (with great humor) for the rest of us.

So, even though he spends his summers in Chatham, Handler’s not on vacation. He’s walking down the street with his briefcase slung over his shoulder. Or he’s sitting at the Eldredge Public Library with a manuscript in front of him.

He’s at home here.