Newsmaker: Neil Patrick Harris

On reading, writing, and why he owes librarians a lot

January 3, 2017

Neil Patrick Harris

Tony Award—winning actor Neil Patrick Harris made his writing debut three years ago with the publication of his memoir, Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography. Now the energetic Harris is trying his hand at fiction with a new middle-grade series, The Magic Misfits; the first book in the series comes out in September. Harris spoke with American Libraries about his new work, how his literary and magical tastes overlap, and what his children think when he plays a villain.

We’ve heard that Bridge to Terabithia is one of your favorite books. That can be an emotionally difficult read, given its tragic ending. Has becoming a father changed the way you approach children’s literature?

Oh, absolutely. It’s important to us that our children not only read but understand the morals and messages behind the words. Bridge to Terabithia is magnificent in its descriptive specificity—the world created is so vivid. I think that’s what makes the unexpected death all the more emotional. You have so much invested. Thankfully, our children are still mastering the Bob Books, so those conversations are a ways away.

Why did you want to write your memoir in a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure format, and how difficult was it to convince your agent and publishing house that it could be done?

I’m a big fan of unique structures. I love puzzles, locked-room mysteries, cryptics, codes, and the like, so a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book was right up my alley. I was fascinated with how they were crafted, the process behind all of the ending options—admittedly much less fascinated after learning just how difficult it became. Also, my professional life has consisted of many random and disparate chapters. I’ve been really fortunate to play in many different sandboxes. The unique format seemed like a proper fit.

You’re a magician—largely self-taught. Have you learned much of your magic from books? How was magic an inspiration for your upcoming series The Magic Misfits?

One of the greatest things about magic as a hobby is that the more interested you become, the more there is to learn. It’s a very dense hobby, historically, and since most secrets are hard to discover, it takes a keen mind to seek them out. I so fondly remember sitting in my local library at 8 or 9 years old, tracking down magical explanations like I was a kid detective or sorcerer’s apprentice, dusty books filled with hidden treasures—a concept that still makes me quiver with excitement. I hope that The Magic Misfits elicits that excitement while also helping kids embrace the uniqueness within them.

You’re about to appear in Netflix’s adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events, playing Count Olaf. Are your children familiar with the books it’s based on? If so, how do they feel about you playing the villain?

I’m on book 10 right now! I’m absolutely loving them. [Author] Daniel Handler did something quite remarkable—he created a series of books that simultaneously and unwittingly lure children into a dark, foreboding, cynical world of sorrow and despair, yet that teach these children a wicked sense of humor and a love for vocabulary. Oh wait, you asked about Harper and Gideon. Sorry. They’ve seen the first two episodes and laughed their heads off. Reading the book was a bit more challenging. They were slightly unnerved when Olaf backhanded Klaus across the face. I may wait a year or two for them to delve much deeper.

What role have libraries and librarians played in your life?

I grew up in a very rural, small New Mexico town, well before the internet, so access to the outside world was quite limited. The library was my singular escape into all kinds of worlds: geographical, historical, fantastical. The respectful and dedicated librarians taught me skills beyond reading—math, problem solving, sharing, organization, patience. I owe librarians a lot.

As you may know, there’s quite a bit of fan fiction out there for various movies and shows you’ve appeared in, including How I Met Your Mother, Glee, and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. What are your thoughts about fan fiction in general?

Has there been? I honestly haven’t really followed fan fiction, not sure what to make of it. I suppose if it’s respectful and creative, I’m all for it. If it’s crass and base and lewd, well … I guess that could be fun, too.