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.
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 to 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.
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, the 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.
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