more Wrong Questions
An Interview with Daniel Handler
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl and John Lachausse
DANIEL HANDLER, occasionally known as LEMONY SNICKET, is an international best-selling novelist, screenwriter, and musician. Daniel's latest book, We Are Pirates, was released in February 2015. His latest work as Snicket, as part of the All the Wrong Questions series, Why is This Night Different From All Other Nights? came out in September of the same year. A Netflix series based off of A Series of Unfortunate Events is currently in the works. You can find Daniel on Twitter at @danielhandler and visit his website at www.danielhandler.com.
TMR: With ATWQ now finished, do you have any more plans for the A Series of Unfortunate Events world, aside from the Netflix series?
DH: I have a few pieces of wool I have gathered but I'm not quite ready to make the sweater.
TMR: Speaking of the Netflix series, how is that going? If you're not sworn to secrecy, that is.
DH: Reports from the front are optimistic. I am occasionally sent bits of footage which I squint at with a Manhattan in hand. My admiration for Joan Cusack in particular grows steadily.
TMR: Let's rewind, all the way back to before you had any books out. Did you publish in any literary magazines?
DH: I published a few poems in college magazines, but nothing otherwise. Once I turned away from writing poetry I was very interested in novels, rather than short stories or other things likely to be published. Also, this was in the Stone Age, when the Internet was in the womb and literary magazines were only on paper. Such enterprises were difficult to find outside of English Department waiting rooms and the occasional ambitious library, where they seemed intimidating and distant and not eager to hear from me.
TMR: Why did you keep going, trying to get The Basic Eight published, when it had been rejected so many times? What kept you hopeful?
DH: The love of a good woman, the diligence and integrity of my literary agent, and the opinions of several people I respected.
TMR: Wikipedia says that The Basic Eight was rejected for its subject matter and tone, and we're curious: did you make any changes to it that may have caused Thomas Dunne Books to publish it? Or were they just unique in that the subject matter didn't frighten them, like it may have the other publishing houses?
DH: One shouldn't read too much into rejection letters. It's like asking someone why they won't go out with you—they have to say something. So who knows why so many editors weren't interested in The Basic Eight, but Thomas Dunne Books was trying an experiment in which they bought and published many first novels for very little money, and waited to see if anything stuck.
TMR: Tell us a little bit about your childhood. We know that you were a voracious reader, and that William Maxwell was one of your favorite writers. Who else were you reading, then? What did you like about these stories?
What I have always liked in literature is things happening--things happening and glorious sentences.
DH: I discovered Maxwell in high school, along with Oscar Hijuelos, Rachel Ingalls, Mikhail Bulgakov, Toni Morrison, Lawrence Durrell, Elizabeth Bishop and other building blocks for me. Before that, I was a huge fan of Roald Dahl and Zilpha Keatley Snyder; before that, Edward Gorey and Ellen Raskin. What I have always liked in literature is things happening—things happening and glorious sentences.
TMR: At what time during your childhood did you know that you wanted to be a writer? Did you have a specific inspiration?
DH: My inspiration was these books—they offered a conversation I wanted to be a part of.
TMR: Can you tell us about the first story you remember writing?
DH: My parents saved a few scraps, but a key memory for me is a story I wrote in fifth grade. The assignment was to write a story about leaves. I wrote about a man looking at a beautiful tree in autumn, with the leaves falling, but soon the leaves begin to stick to him and they end up eating him, like leeches. My teacher was horrified, but I knew instantly that I'd written something good. Thus began my pursuit.
TMR: The Guardian reported that a school in Decatur, Georgia banned The Bad Beginning for implications of incest and Count Olaf's use of the word 'damn.' We know you oppose censorship. When, if ever, could it be acceptable? What can literature's role be in ending unfair censorship?
DH: In these conversations I think we can begin by saying, no one should be prevented from writing something down or from giving it to other people to read. And also, it is not possible to have everything on our shelves. A number of people have decided that Lemony Snicket books shouldn't be in their particular library. If we call this censorship, then publishers are censoring every book they do not publish, booksellers are censoring every book they do not sell, readers are censoring every book they do not read. Surely we do not think this, not in a world where honest-to-goodness censorship, and its punishments from the state, is causing actual pain to actual people.
What we might do to transform this situation is to shout from the hightops, to the best of our abilities, about the literature we find crucial and beautiful and worthwhile.
There is, however, a real predicament in literature, even in regions in which censorship hardly exists, which is that so many voices, so many books which are interesting and startling and vital and necessary, don't get read. What we might do to transform this situation is to shout from the hightops, to the best of our abilities, about the literature we find crucial and beautiful and worthwhile. Telling a librarian about a fantastic book about which he might not know adds more to the discussion than complaining about one he already put on the shelf. Buying an extra copy of a book you enjoyed to give to a friend, posting a list of ten overlooked books that you love, writing the name of a worthy author in the sand with a stick, is quite literally the opposite of censorship.
TMR: How, as a grown man, are you so able to put yourself in a place of empathy in order to write an excellent children's series?
DH: The who-me? shiver when I read 'as a grown man' probably has something to do with it. But suffice to say that when the young heroes of my books find themselves feeling lost and helpless in a chaotic world they are powerless to understand, the author is not engaging in empathy. He is engaging in identification.
TMR: Can you recall any of fan letters that may have affected you, that made you feel like you were doing a good job?
DH: Recently, a young girl wrote me that she had started reading the Lemony Snicket books when she arrived in America and needed to learn English, and that learning English made her feel distant from her parents. The books, however, made her realize that her parents would not live forever, so she started reading the books out loud to them, linking her roots to her new home through Lemony Snicket. My books, she told me, made her realize that she would always be Chinese. This did not make me feel necessarily that I was doing a good job, but it made me feel like I had a good job, which is better.
TMR: Can you recall any that may have done the opposite, that made you doubt yourself?
DH: I have more than enough self-doubt all by myself, but a number of conspiracy theorists of one stripe or another have found coded messages in my work, and this does tend to start cocktail hour a little early for me.
TMR: If you could say anything to any one of your characters, who would it be and what would you say to them?
DH: I've spent plenty of time with all my characters. I would be more interested in hearing what they had to say to me.
TMR: If you could say anything to any character in any literature, who would it be and what would you say to them?
DH: I think I might call on Moby-Dick—the whale itself—just because it would be such an amazing materialization.
TMR: Who were some of your favorite poets when you were younger? What about now?
DH: Elizabeth Bishop and Stevie Smith were my favorite poets when I was young, and one still can't go wrong with them. I read much more poetry now than I ever have—it appears to be a hunger that gets less sated over time—and Elizabeth Willis, Morgan Parker and Graham Foust are some recent favorites.
TMR: You've written about orphans, pirates, high schoolers, and more. What's next for you?
DH: I have finished a novel about sex, which my publisher had to think about for awhile before deciding to publish. I am also working on some picture books with illustrators I admire, including my charming wife.
TMR: Some authors make playlists, others exercise. How do you get in the mood for writing?
DH: I love every part of my writing process: the research, the outlining, the wild first draft, the stern edits. But I often write in cafés, which requires wearing headphones, which requires appropriate playlists.
TMR: What do you do to cope with writer's block?
DH: It is not an affliction which besets me often. A brisk walk, a listen to an album by The Flying Lizards, a shot of bourbon, a good night's sleep, and it has usually passed.
TMR: Tell us about the last story or piece of media that deeply affected you.
DH: Derrek Hines' translation of Gilgamesh struck me deeply with these lines: "How could we know the ribbon of hubris/we hung from/was burning?" I was also moved to tears at the end of the film The Danish Girl, when Lily says, in answer to "how are you?" "I am entirely myself," although to be fair I was on an airplane, where—and I'm told this is something of a medical condition—nearly everything moves me to tears.
TMR: Why is the accordion as your instrument of choice?
DH: It was the piano first. I played for years and years and then, when I was in college, wanted to join a band. It was a curious time in pop history—no keyboard instruments were cool at all. So I took up the accordion—the first person in history, perhaps, doing it in the hopes of meeting women.
TMR: What bands and musicians are you listening to these days?
DH: It has been difficult, in recent weeks, to listen to anything else but Prince, an astonishing talent and an enormous influence on me. But life goes on. The self-titled HeCTA album is a fun puzzle. Matmos' new album about their washing machine is entrancing. Dvorak's From the Bohemian Forest is good in the morning, and my son is quite taken with Empress Of, so they're often on the stereo.
TMR: What are some good bands/musicians for writers to listen to as they write?
DH: It depends, of course, what one is writing. Sometimes only Morton Feldman will do. David Lang's The Passing Measures often works for me, or various 12" singles by New Order. I am starting a new project and looking for piano music that contains empty space but not so much empty space that some irritating tune pops into my head.
TMR: Now that your son is 12-13, what are you encouraging him to read?
DH: I say, Sherman Alexie. He says, S.E. Hinton. I say, perhaps a Jeeves book. He says, the Warriors series. I say, look at this Frank O'Hara poem. He says, I like this.
TMR: Who is a modern writer that you would love to do a collaboration with?
DH: I enjoy collaborations with artists and musicians, but I cannot imagine what I would do with a writer. Still, it would be fun to tour the country with Ada Limon and watch her poetry have its keen effect.
TMR: Given your difficulty in getting The Basic Eight published, could you offer some advice for writers who are currently struggling to publish their work?
It is a difficult time, a type of heartbreak I think only other writers can really grasp.
DH: I have more sympathy than advice. It is a difficult time, a type of heartbreak I think only other writers can really grasp. Keep reading. Keep writing. Do not envy writers you do not admire. Don't drink too much. Be kind to your friends. The Internet is not one of them.
TMR: We have one important question about Lemony Snicket: what is his favorite flavor of tea?
DH: Lapsang Souchong, if only because it is fun to say.
TMR: Lastly, who is your hero?
DH: Sun Ra. Startling, catchy, engaged, prolific, irreplaceable.