From "Goldfish Ghost" by Lisa Brown and Daniel Handler
From "Goldfish Ghost" by Lisa Brown and Daniel Handler

Q&A: An illustrator you might call Mrs. Lemony Snicket

Name: Lisa Brown
Age: 45
City: San Francisco
Profession: Children’s book author/illustrator

J.: Tell us about the beginnings of Lisa Brown.

Lisa Brown: I grew up in Connecticut in a traditional Jewish family. “Lisa Brown”is so plain it sounds like an alias, but it’s my actual maiden name, an Ellis Island name. I went to Wesleyan University, where I studied humanities. It was literature, history and philosophy all mushed together. I met my husband, [“Lemony Snicket” author] Daniel Handler, there when I was 20. We took a class on Chaucer together. He hated it, I loved it.

Lisa Brown
Lisa Brown

With titles like “Vampire Boy’s Good Night” and “The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming” — a collaboration with your husband — you reveal an attraction to the odd and dark and twisted side of life, even though you make light of it. Where does this come from?

I don’t know. It was absolutely always there. I think there are just some kids who are fascinated with that and they turn into adults who are fascinated with it. Like right now I’m working on a graphic novel that is a story of conjoined twins in a circus sideshow in the early 1920s. My favorite picture books growing up were by Maurice Sendak and Edward Gorey; they’re still my top two.

You and your husband seem to share a sensibility about the lack of a clear line between childhood and adulthood. Would you agree?

I feel like I’m still a kid. A friend of mine says that everyone has an age that they feel like inside, no matter what their chronological age: I feel like I’m 11 or 12. I also feel like kids are people; I can’t stand some of them and really like others. I create what appeals to me, and some kids will like it and some won’t. I relate to kids who are dark and funny, who seem to relate to my work.

You and Daniel have a 13-year-old son. Has becoming a mother affected your work as a creator of children’s books?

I wrote my first picture book before I was even pregnant, though it didn’t come out until after he was born, so it took more time to create a book than it did to create a human being. Do I have more insights into children now? Again, my child is a particular child, and he’s very much like me.

Is Judaism is an important part of your identity?

I feel a deep connection with it. It’s my second nationality. What’s great about Judaism is that it evolves, and there are different ways to be Jewish that can be contemporary. We felt it was important that our son be a bar mitzvah, and he was really into it. But the Judaism we’re connected with as a family is more social justice oriented. For my son and our synagogue, it’s crucial. We try to be socially active ourselves. For example, we support the educational nonprofit 826 Valencia. It’s a huge [cause] in our lives. We recently made a big donation to Planned Parenthood. Publicly. We felt it was that important.

From "Goldfish Ghost" by Lisa Brown and Daniel Handler
From “Goldfish Ghost” by Lisa Brown and Daniel Handler

Besides social values, cocktails also play an important role in your lives, no?

Oh, they really do. I turned 21 while we were dating and Daniel bought me my first legal drink. We like the fetishization of alcohol, the culture around it. We’ve had cocktail hour with our kid since he was little, when he would eat early and we would join him with cocktails and talk about our day. He learned how to make martinis for us at a very young age.

You’re going to be at the Contemporary Jewish Museum on Aug. 24 with another San Francisco illustrator, Wendy MacNaughton. Who’s interviewing whom? What do you plan to talk about?

I guess we’ll just talk to each other, which is what we do anyway. We’re very good friends, we connect when we’re in an illustration crisis, and spend a lot of time together. It’s nice to have a friend doing the same sort of thing so you can really get into the nitty gritty of it, like what paper you’re using or your latest idea.

What’s your process in terms of finding what you want to draw?

Aside from commissions and collaborations, I made a New Year’s resolution four years ago to do a sketch from life every day, and I think it’s really grown my art and the way ideas come to me. The last project I did with Daniel, called “Goldfish Ghost,” is about a dead goldfish who wanders around a seaside town. Much of it originates in sketches I made in the town we visit every year on the East Coast. Wendy is actually in that book several times. She’s painting on the beach.

“Talking With” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to sueb@jweekly.com.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s Culture Editor, and was a longtime J. freelance writer before that.