If you are interested in interviews where people say smart things and cover interesting topics, then you’ve come to the wrong place. You don’t want to read this interview — you don’t. It might be the most terrible interview you’ve ever read.
An enormous thanks to Daniel Handler, AKA Lemony Snicket, for speaking with us this month for our October Scarefest. Daniel Handler is author of the novels The Basic Eight, Watch Your Mouth, Adverbs, and, with Maira Kalman, Why We Broke Up. His novel, We Are Pirates publishes in the spring of 2015. As Lemony Snicket, he has written the best-selling series All The Wrong Questions as well as A Series of Unfortunate Events, which has sold more than 60 million copies, and was the basis of a feature film starring Jim Carrey. Most recently he was the titular editor for Best American Non-Required Reading 2014 and will host the National Book Awards this November. You can learn more about Daniel Handler and Lemony Snicket, here.
As a publication that focuses on new and emerging writers, our readership is always interested in hearing how the writers that they admire got their start. Can you talk about your beginning? Specifically The Basic Eight and the start of The Lemony Snicket books?
I had just graduated from college and stayed on campus for almost a year working in the basement of the restored mansion at Wesleyan University where they gave poetry readings and things like that. So in exchange for keeping an eye on the place, and laying out catered food and coffee and cleaning up, I had free rent. I worked on a novel that I ended up throwing away, then I moved to San Francisco, which was my hometown, and I began a series of office jobs that paid the most amount of money for the least amount of time so I could work on The Basic Eight. I didn’t know anything about anything in terms of publishing.
Did you have to query an agent? Was that an entirely new process for you?
It was entirely new and not only was it new to me it was new to anyone I knew — I didn’t know anyone who was doing it. I would read these kinds of magazines that are helping you to be a writer and that always felt to me kind of like scams. I couldn’t put my finger on it. They’re focused mostly on genre writing and the kind of a quasi-professional writing as opposed to artistic writing. I wish there were a nicer way to put it because I have nothing against any of it, I just didn’t think that’s what I was doing.
Did you get your MFA?
No. I took writing as an undergraduate with a really valuable teacher and she said she would write me a recommendation for an MFA program, but that she was really against it. She basically said, “You should only do this if you cannot find a set up under which you can write.” And I kept doing it. I kept finding jobs that paid me enough to pay the rent and have a not-terrible life for a twenty-four-year-old.
Right, in San Francisco, which is an expensive city.
Yeah, enough to get a burrito or whatever. I didn’t want anything, so I didn’t have anything (laughs) and . . . then I found a literary agent. She was representing the father of a friend of mine. Not even that a great a friend, really. She said, “Oh my father wrote a book about psychology and it’s being represented by this woman . . . so I wrote her. And I gave her 50 pages or something of my book — and a toy robot — I remember I went to this kinda wacky toy store and I bought a robot and I put it in the package, and you know there aren’t any robots in The Basic Eight, so I don’t know what I was doing, I just felt self conscious and stupid.
Well that’s a nice personal touch.
Ha ha yeah. And she called me at my work. That’s what I remember — I was working a terrible job and she said she would represent me and I didn’t really know what that meant. And it was almost six years between then and when it was published.
You shopped it for a long time?
For a super long time.
I was working on a mock-gothic novel I was calling A Series of Unfortunate Events. And it wasn’t for children and it wasn’t about children. It wasn’t working at all. That was kind of a terrible time because I had this novel that wasn’t selling and I had maybe 100 pages of a novel that wasn’t working. Even I knew it wasn’t working. As opposed to The Basic Eight, which I thought worked fine but which no publisher had bid on yet. So that was really terrible to think that I was getting worse as a writer. You know, less sellable.
How did you decide to change the novel you were working on when it wasn’t for children or about children?
What sparked the change was that in desperation my agent was giving The Basic Eight to some children’s book editors. And YA was not in the place that it is today, but my agent was kind of desperate. Whenever there was a new, young editor she would give them The Basic Eight and they would reject it. So then she met a couple editors for young people and gave them the book and they all also rejected it. They said, “We can’t publish a book for teenagers that has murder and drinking and drug use and sex in it.” Which is funny because now it would be the opposite of course. But one person said, “I don’t even think this book is for children really or for teenagers. But it’s about them. You write well about young people, so would you be interested in writing something for young people?” And I thought it was a terrible idea. But then I went home and I was working on Watch Your Mouth and I had this hundred pages of A Series of Unfortunate Events and sort of despite myself I began to think, well wait a minute, if all these things were happening to children it works much better.
Well the stakes are higher somehow. Terrible things happening to kids draws more of a reaction from the reader.
I think it’s distancing. Because it’s so absurd that it’s happening to children that the line between it being terrifying and funny is more easily straddled.
RL Stine says the line between funny and frightening is closely related. It sounds like you agree.
I think it’s more the line between funny and sad. In the way that there’s nothing sadder than a comedian who can’t make people laugh. And then also when just too many sad things happen it begins to get a little goofy. To me that’s the line. When I read your invitation to talk it was all about things being scary and I don’t know if I know that much about things being scary, I don’t think my books are all that scary. But I think the emotional catharsis is because they’re sad, but they’re also funny. I think that’s what most people see. And certainly that was the difference between A Series of Unfortunate Events when it had grown ups in it and when it had children in it. I was trying to do kind of gothic oversized things that were happening to adults over and over and over again and it just became this sick joke. If a woman is forced into marriage that’s not funny because it has sexual assault in it. And when a child is forced into marriage, from the child’s point of view, sexual assault is so unthinkable, that’s not really what you’re worried about, what you’re worried about is: Ew! I’m marrying this guy!
Do you think when children are reading A Series of Unfortunate Events they’re interpreting it as sad? Because there are some really terrible events that happen to the Baudelaire children. They are abused, abandoned, orphaned—and that could generate a lot of anxiety. But kids are so drawn to the stories.
I think it’s because of the distancing of the narration and distancing of the story. In the later volumes of A Series of Unfortunate Events some of them take place over the course of a single day. And you think, wow, it hasn’t even been a year since your parents have been killed and look at this day that you’re having. But I don’t think readers really inhabit it that way. Because I think Lemony Snicket is busy saying, “This is the most terrible thing you’ll ever read,” and so then you feel like you’re in some other place.
Have you ever received any criticism about inappropriate content or content being too dark in your books? I don’t recall seeing any, but similar books for children — Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and The Graveyard Book and certainly Harry Potter often receive criticism for being inappropriate for kids or being too darkly themed.
Every so often we’ll get complaints. One thing — and this is not to insult those other authors –is I don’t care about it that much. I don’t take it personally. I don’t like to hold myself up like, “Oh my goodness I caused so much controversy and isn’t this fiery and interesting.” I just think, “Oh they didn’t like it, that’s all they mean.”
I’m always a bad writer on Banned Books Week because I don’t really like to participate in it. If some school says they don’t want to carry my books that’s fine. I disagree with them — of course I do — but they can make their own decisions about that.
But do you ever receive feedback that’s more specific than your work being “inappropriate”? More context around the reason why?
There is a handful of specific things that people complain about in A Series of Unfortunate Events. There’s a paragraph in The Bad Beginning in which Violet thinks about marrying Count Olaf and how terrible it would be, and it says: “to wake up with him every morning.” And some people are very worried about that. And I’m always in agreement. They always say, “He’s terrible!” and I think, yeah, he’s a villain. It’s really awful — he shouldn’t marry a child. And in fact, doesn’t marry the child. The other stuff is tiny. There was a bilingual joke about orgasms in one of the books and then Count Olaf says: “blasted furnaces of hell”. And then there’s a location on a map that says, “The Church of the Alleged Virgin”.
It seems content with religious context is catching more attention than say, children being abused.
Yeah and I just can’t get too incensed about it.
In A Series of Unfortunate Events there is this sort of a permission for the Baudelaire children to be bad. In The Penultimate Peril they burn down a hotel and Snicket writes: “It is very difficult to make one’s way in this world without being wicked at one point or another, when the world’s way is so wicked to begin with.” And in The Wide Window: “Stealing, of course, is a crime, and a very impolite thing to do. But like most impolite things, it is excusable under certain circumstances.” And obviously, you’re not encouraging arson or theft, but it seems important or valuable for kids to examine both sides of this issue. So often it seems kids are being molded by being shown what is good and not in a way that says it’s okay to be bad. Sometimes the world is a bad place.
It’s just that the world is complicated and you can’t make a really clear rule about it. That the Baudelaires end up choosing to light a hotel on fire in order to serve as a signal is a terrible choice. And every kid kind of knows that. They know that the rule isn’t hard fast, and yet we pretend that it is, which is weird.
You’ve said before that you’re more interested in stories that ask questions than try to provide answers. If you could summarize A Series of Unfortunate Events by the question or questions that you’re asking what would that be?
Oh goodness. What is happening? Why is it happening? And what can we do about it?
Well what about your adult novels. We Are Pirates is out this spring. What sort of questions are you asking in that book?
We Are Pirates is about some teenage girls and some old people in a retirement home who would both like to get away from the surveillance of their very narrowed and surveilled worlds; they’d like to escape and they’d like to escape somewhere off the map and do something forbidden. And they do and it’s terrible. The moral is: there is no place outside the world. We’re all in it. So you can escape from your own circumstances, but then you’re invading someone else’s.
Like, you can’t really run away from the problem? There’s always going to be one?
Yeah, there’s not even a way, I think. And the book asks, “Is it possible to go someplace that is really away and be beyond the arm of not just the law, but civilization?” And the answer is well, yes, and then you’re outside of civilization – and that’s terrible.
I thought it was interesting in the introduction you said you had to sort of shelf the novel for a while because you didn’t have the appropriate life context to address a missing child or dementia, and to me that sort of speaks to a writer’s life and experiences impacting their work.
Mostly I would have felt really self-conscious about doing that kind of research. I thought am I really going to have to go to a home and have to spend a lot of time with people with Alzheimer’s for my own purposes?
In the novel one of the young girls, Gwen, isn’t particularly excited about spending time with someone with Alzheimer’s either. She’s there for punishment.
It was actually in examining this that I learned so many kids were spending time with old people as punishment and how that made everybody feel terrible. It’s hard to believe that whatever companionship they offered was worse than the overall feeling of being punished.
What drew you to a piracy story? To me they’re so inherently adventurous. Pirates are these rough people, but at the same time they’re completely ridiculous.
It was in my head from high school. We had this list of occupations and you were supposed to check off the ones that you were interested in. At the end of the list it said “other”. At the time I remember thinking, how could you check “other”? What isn’t listed here? And it was “Pirate”, and that always stayed in my head. I liked the idea of exactly what you said, that pirates are kind of horrifying and yet goofy because we don’t think of them in a modern context we think of them in a swashbuckling movie context. At some point I was reading about how pirates worked with local mapmakers — they were in cahoots with them. Sometimes if you were a ship captain you would buy a map and it would show you a shortcut and then it would turn out to be an ambush. And that was interesting to me, and it really became interesting to me as technology advanced because now you don’t give any one directions. You don’t give directions to your house anymore. Everyone just gets there, so you couldn’t fool anyone with a false map. You couldn’t say like, “You just go over here and it’s open water.” They’d say, “No it isn’t.”
You’re hosting the National Book Awards next month. I don’t know if you can comment as the host but do you have any favorites?
No favorites. I think it’s an interesting list. I blurbed the John Darnielle novel so I was really happy to see that on the longlist and I was a little bummed to see it didn’t make the short list. I just bought the Emily St. John Mandel — I’ve actually read her previous novels, but I haven’t read this one and so I’m excited to read that.
And Best American Non-Required Reading just published too. It’s listed as “Everything that should be on the radar of America’s youth” and I thought, no pressure right?
There is always a titular editor for Best American Non-Required Reading, which was me this year, but there’s actually a group of high school students who are reading all this stuff and meeting weekly in the basement of McSweeny’s to talk about it. So there’s some confusion, because when people don’t really know about it they say, “Hey, how did you choose everything that high school students would like?” and I’m like, “I didn’t. High school students chose them.” I chose some things to put in front of them, but there was a lot of stuff that I loved that didn’t get in and there’s a lot of stuff that I thought everyone loves and they’re like people in that way — they have their own opinions that are different from mine. But it was always interesting to see what they liked and what hey responded too.
Because so often adult readers have their own idea about what students should be reading.
Yes. One big thing was it was a very diverse group of high school students and the finished anthology is fairly white. Me and the other editor — who are both white guys — were constantly like, “Hey look we found this Hispanic poet! Let’s all read her!” and the group was more like, “Nah. We’re more into David Sedaris.”
(Laughing) Let’s have some cultural diversity, please!
Yes (laughing). Then it felt weird to be saying to a very diverse room: “You guys need to be thinking about diversity!” Says me and another white guy: “Think about that! Don’t be so selfish!” So that was unusual. But for the most part it was a pleasure and I think the anthology is full of good stuff. I’ve always liked that anthology because it’s cross genre so to me every year it feels like a big, thick, great magazine. There’s poetry and interviews and nonfiction and fiction and there’s all sorts of styles and genres and I like that. And some anthologies that are held together by genre are tougher to read.
Writing for children and writing for adults is so different — what do you take into consideration when you’re writing for a younger demographic?
My take on children’s literature is that it isn’t really for a different audience it’s just a different genre. I think of children’s literature the same way I think of mysteries or romance or science fiction. That there’s some traditions in the genre that you want to tweak or stay faithful to, but it’s not about whose reading it, it’s about what kind of story it is, and I think with A Series of Unfortunate Events and with All the Wrong Questions, they are in the genre of children’s literature, but it’s being read by all sorts of ages and shapes and sizes. So I don’t think of the audience, I think of the traditions in that genre.
Yes, because you incorporate other genres into your writing: gothic literature, noir, for example, so it becomes more like a cross-genre project than a specific choice you’ve made to write for kids.
Yes and I think if you decide you want to write a sonnet you can look at sonnets and figure out how you’re going to write your sonnet, but you’re not necessarily going to think: What sort of person reads sonnets and what do they want to read about? For me, it’s the same thing. I don’t think, what do nine-year-olds think is cool? Because, I don’t know, and nine-year-olds are individuals. You can see what some kids like and what some kids don’t, but I don’t think that’s going to help you.
Daniel Handler, thank you so much for talking with me today. It was wonderful speaking with you.
And you too. Thank you for having me!