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 decided 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.
To read the full interview, click here.