Authors Maira Kalman and Daniel Handler open up
On a Bookshop Santa Cruz wall, notes are taped above a pile of books whose covers depict a luminous white coffee mug suspended against a red backdrop.
“We broke up because I’m not a gorgeous Australian who lives in China. Accents, right?” reads one note. The words, “We broke up because…” are printed on pages of a notepad near the shop’s display, prompting book shop visitors to share their break up stories. The notes correspond directly with the title of the books piled below: “Why We Broke Up,” by Daniel Handler (a.k.a. popular children’s author Lemony Snicket).
The novel follows a box full of items and a note from the protagonist to her ex, explaining the reason they broke up. The cover art, painted by well-known illustrator/author Maira Kalman, is one of many illustrations scattered through the novel’s pages.
The display anticipates an upcoming visit from Handler and Kalman who are scheduled to appear at the Santa Cruz High School auditorium Feb. 1.
Handler says the event includes a prize and a clue given to the audience.
“There is much merriment to be had,” says Handler. “Maira and I will be talking and giggling.”
Susan McCloskey, events coordinator for Bookshop Santa Cruz, helped bookshop staff compile something appealing for the visit, consisting of a notebook full of Kalmanesque artwork and notes in a Handler sort of tone. McCloskey says although the book is aimed at high school audiences, Santa Cruzans big and small will love it.
“[Handler] has a very good knack for making the dire appealing,” she says. “We’re an artistic community that’s unique because we build off of one another, so there’s this way that the art and writing combined, which is what they’ve done here.”
Kalman says the presence of both paintings and words is fulfilling for the reader.
“When you look at a painting you evoke different moods and feelings that you don’t necessarily from words, so you can go off on a tangent … into some dream of your own,” she says. “There are momentary respites from the world and the word, then you revert back to the content of the book and the beautiful prose.”
In fact, Kalman’s illustrations of everyday items such as a rubber band and bottle caps, inspired the book’s plot.
Handler and Kalman collaborated previously on the children’s picture book, “13 Words.” For that project, Handler shared a manuscript with Kalman over dinner and from there she began painting.
“When we decided to do something else, I asked, ‘What is it you would like to paint, why don’t you start?” says Handler. “And so she told me she wanted to paint tiny, ordinary objects.”
Kalman says there are many things she wanted to paint, but a few favorites come to mind.
“I loved painting the rhino for the card in the jazz club because I’m just crazy about rhinos,” she says. “I loved painting the odd pod, which was just a beautiful shaped pod that I found in California.”
Handler and Kalman share a publisher, and met years ago, which Handler says was no accident.
“I slowly, and maybe creepily, cultivated a friendship so that she would be bamboozled into working with me,” he says. “So far, so good. She doesn’t seem to be on to me yet, but maybe after she reads this story in Good Times Santa Cruz she will realize how shrewdly I manipulated her.”
Handler, who lives in San Francisco, says
he wrote “Why We Broke Up” in coffee houses longhand, sans computer, in order to maintain his focus.
When asked how his own high school experiences influenced the book’s creation, Handler says in high school he was never the dumper, always the dumpee. “I just said on the radio that I was dumped three times in high school,” he notes. “I actually just heard from a high school friend of mine who said, ‘I would say it was five, and maybe seven.’”
Out of the novel has blossomed the “Why We Broke Up Project,” which asks people to post their own break up stories on the Tumblr blog account, WhyWeBrokeUpProject.Tumblr.com, which Handler calls hypnotic.
“I guess [the idea for ‘Why We Broke Up Project’] started when I was writing the book. Whenever I would mention to people what I was writing about they would tell me their own break up stories, which is kind of unusual. Usually when I’m writing a book and I tell people what it’s about they say, ‘Oh.’ And then they change the subject,” he laughs.
Kalman says the book strikes many chords.
“It’s funny and it’s tragic, and it’s very contemporary,” she says. “And there isn’t anybody on planet Earth who doesn’t have their heart broken eventually, so I think it really talks about that and asks, ‘What do you do about that?’”
Purchase tickets for the Feb. 1 event at Bookshop Santa Cruz or online at bookshopsantacruz.com. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.; event at 7 p.m. in the Santa Cruz High School auditorium. Handler and Kalman will sign copies of “Why We Broke Up” as well as one additional title of any of their previous books. Tickets are free with the purchase of a copy of the book from Bookshop.