Structo talks to Daniel Handler
“I always thought of children’s literature and young adult literature both as genres and not as categories”
This interview first appeared in issue 18, published November 2017. Author photo by Meredith Heuer.
Daniel Handler is the author of six novels under his own name—most recently All the Dirty Parts—and many more under the name of Lemony Snicket, including the books that make up A Series of Unfortunate Events (1999–2006) and All the Wrong Questions (2012–2015). The announcement in 2014 that Netflix would be adapting A Series of Unfortunate Events noted that “Mr. Snicket’s participation will be limited, given his emotional distress, but the project has the full involvement of his legal, literary and social representative Daniel Handler, who is often mistaken for him”. We talked over coffee in Handler’s home town of San Francisco. — Euan
To what extent am I disrupting your writing day?
Not at all. I like to think I stop working when everyone wants to stop working but most people have to fake it for a couple of hours.
You have a regular routine?
Yeah pretty regular, I’m working on a television show so it’s structured differently than working on a book, but still. I try to get some exercise in the morning and then work until [4pm].
Creative writing is so romanticised that just saying, “Well I sit down and work for a while”, is actually quite a helpful thing to hear if you’re a writer.
I guess, yeah. When I was first starting out I had a mentor, and towards the end of college I said to her, “Do you think I’m good enough that I could do this?” And she said, “Well you’ll have to try and see if you like it enough”. That kind of ticked me off because I thought, “Just tell me if I’m good enough! All I want to know is my whole future! Why don’t you just tell me instead of giving me some line about whether it’s really about if you like it or not?” Of course I now repeat that line to anyone foolish enough to ask for advice. Because that is what it turns out to be and actually so many writers are miserable because it turns out they don’t like it—they don’t like the writing part. Everyone likes the romantic part. [Laughs]
They like having it written.
The romantic part doesn’t happen, but everyone likes it. But if you don’t like staring at a sentence there’s nothing you can do for yourself.
You studied poetry at college?
I started in poetry and I still read a lot of poetry. I think that helped me. I think that’s a great way to start writing first sentences, frankly, because you start with a thing that you’re working on at a microscopic level. You’re not in a workshop with someone saying, “I don’t even know if we like this person”, or “Doesn’t she need to have some grand arc?” No one talks about that, everyone says, “You use the word ‘yellowish’ and that’s a weird word. Why did you use the word ‘yellowish’?” My poems were just getting longer and longer and more narrative, and my poetry professor finally said, very kindly, to me, “You know you actually appear to be participating in a long-standing tradition. You’re not inventing a new poetic form; you’re doing a thing everyone’s done, and that some people actually read. Why don’t you try that?”
When you went to college were you writing shorter, more ‘poemy’, poems?
I always thought I would be a novelist when I was very young. Then I got interested in poetry and I liked it and it was something that, when you’re in college, gives you something of a high level of return. You can actually write a poem and be pleased with it. You have to write many, many horrible short stories before you’re any good at all, and you know that. You can trick yourself that your poem is as good as you want it to be.
Because you find a nice turn of phrase, or you capture an image or whatever it is?
Yeah, and everyone else is pretentious too, so you read it out loud and everyone has a reaction. But if you read your own short story and you’re secretly bored because nothing is happening in it you know deep in your heart you’re not good at it.
Speaking of pretension–
The Basic Eight, it’s fair to say, is full of pretentious teenagers. Was that written during college?
No. Right after college I wrote a novel that was no good and then I wrote The Basic Eight, so I guess I started writing The Basic Eight when I was about 25 or so. It took a while to write and a long time to sell.
Was the first book useful just to get the words out and learn your craft?
Yeah. It was another lesson that my mentor had warned me about. She was working with me on this novel and she said, “You know, most people write a novel that is the novel they write when they’re learning how to write a novel, and then they throw it away”, and I remember that my first reaction was, “Those poor suckers … I’m so glad that won’t happen to me”. [Laughter]
At what point did you realize, “Oh, that was also me”?
Well, I finished the novel. I vaguely tried to sell it but I got the reaction– They were the only rejection letters that I’d ever gotten that I’d thoroughly agree with. Usually if you get a rejection letter you think, “What do you know?!”, and this time I thought “Well, okay, good point”.
Did you get helpful feedback?
It was kind of a breakthrough, because it made me write The Basic Eight, and The Basic Eight I had a lot of fun with. It wasn’t easy but it was comparatively much easier and it was much more like me, whereas the novel that I’d thrown away was extremely earnest and serious because I was under the impression that’s what novels had to be. I’ve seen that with so many writers, and of writers I know personally, my favourites of their works tend to be the most like them. Sometimes they need to realize how digressive they are, or realize how funny they are, or realize how strange they are.
When did you write All The Dirty Parts?
I wrote All The Dirty Parts more than two years ago. There was a publisher that had to think about it for about a year because they were not sure they could publish it for young people. They decided they could and then they decided they couldn’t. It’s never happened to me before. Early in my career it took a long time to sell something, but this was a constant dance where my editor would feel very enthusiastic and then she would go and talk to other people at the publishing house and there’d be some reaction.
What was the concern?
I think the concern was that sexuality was not being presented in such a way that would calm down adults who were nervous about teenagers being exposed to sexuality.
Yeah, and so I didn’t, that didn’t … that wasn’t really a big concern of mine.
The book is not judgemental.
Sex in young adult novels, in the States anyway and as far as I can tell in Britain, is either utopian or disastrous. Those were the choices.
It’s not just a fact of life.
Right. So it’s either wonderful and soft and feminist and there’s no doubt that these two people are meant to be together, or it’s like heroin or something, it’s a thing that you’ve done and it’s a disaster and aren’t you sorry. And as anyone who has had sex knows that’s not actually how that works. They were really nervous about it, and not without reason in terms of the publication plan. I wasn’t panicked about ruining young minds, and neither was the publisher, but they were concerned about various guardians of young people’s culture that couldn’t take that, and I think not entirely irrationally.
It’s more about which section of the bookstore it goes in?
I guess so. It’s, in my mind, designed for young people, but I always thought of children’s literature and young adult literature both as genres and not as categories. I think that children’s literature has some traditions and, perhaps you could say, some rules, that you can stretch or bend or ignore at your will but it’s a genre thing, like a mystery. That’s always how it felt to me, and it doesn’t really matter to me that All The Dirty Parts is in one place or another. We know that people of all ages read all kinds of books, particularly in children’s literature. My wife is primarily a picture book illustrator and those books are not read by children. They’re read by adults, out loud, to children. They’re chosen by adults, they’re purchased by adults, they’re read by adults, and we understand that a picture book is a kind of thing. The kind of thing it is is not governed by whose eyes are staring at it. That’s interesting to me. And young adult literature in particular is consumed by all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons, and so the fact that it will be on some bookshelf and not another bookshelf might mean that it will be further from certain types of readers than others. But it’s not worth staying up all night about it. It just reminds me of endless genre conversations you can have about anything. Is this really indie-rock? No one cares. “I don’t know if I’d call it jazz.” Well, no one asked you.
The viewpoint of your books is often through the eyes of a child, whether it’s the narrator or the stories are about children or young adults.
I just think it’s automatically more interesting. If we had to cough up the first chapter of a novel right now in fifteen minutes, if we began with a grown man walking down the road we’d have to invent more things and if we began with an eight-year-old girl walking down the road we’re already worried about her. That’s just fraught to me and I think it’s interesting. When you’re a reader you can always go back in time and it’s harder to go forward. The older you get the more concerns you can understand. The older I get the more narrators I could have. Nowadays people are always panicky about writing cross-culturally but I actually think age is a more difficult gap, and when I read books with old narrators written by younger writers it often feels very put-on. They say, “I’ll just mention my fragile body or my many memories” or something, and it doesn’t feel real to me. Of course I don’t know because I haven’t reached much of an old age either …
Did you have a lot of books around the house growing up?
Yes. My parents were big readers, and I was a big reader as a child. I mean literature was part of a wide number of things they wanted to expose me to. I think in the case of literature they thought, “Oh we didn’t mean that much!” [Laughs] “We meant grow with an appreciation of books, not become obsessive of various literary genres and decide to spend your life wallowing in it.”
Did they tell you stories?
Reading them out loud but not inventing them.
I ask because if there is anything that connects your books it’s the storytelling aspect. From the direct telling of a story in All The Dirty Parts right through to Unfortunate Events with their opening letter from Snicket. [Each book in A Series of Unfortunate Events begins with a letter from the author, in which Snicket attempts to dissuade the reader from reading any further. The note from the beginning of The Hostile Hospital ends with the line: “I have sworn to research this story, and to write it down as best as I can, so I should know that this book is something best left on the ground, where you undoubtedly found it”.—Ed.] I was wondering if that came from a storytelling tradition.
I think that’s just what I like. I’m unsatisfied by books that lack at least a kernel of a story or [are not] centred around telling something. There are so many books and short stories that, if they happened to you and then you met someone for drinks that night and they said “So what happened to you today?” you would say “Nothing”. And I don’t mean that there’s no way to capture the ordinary or something, but I think there are many books where they seem consciously to have excised the remarkable, and I don’t understand that at all. Not so long ago I reviewed a novel for The [New York] Times that really confounded me because it seemed, by design, not to want to be interesting. Not in language, not in story, not in voice, not in structure. And in the review I tried to express bewilderment because it felt to me as if I’d heard a form of music I didn’t know or something. I think it ended up sounding like a very mean review, which I didn’t mean, but I thought, “If someone could explain to me what this is, because I’m not sure I’m getting it”.
It often seems that within your stories there is a kind of detachment, with the narrator somewhat at a remove from the story whether it’s through the use of pen names or the reading notes in The Basic Eight. By the way, when I picked up The Basic Eight I wondered if I’d got a school edition. [Laughter] [The novel is ostensibly a book written by one of its characters, and comes complete with reading notes, which become increasingly sardonic as the book progresses.—Ed.] But as a writer, you often draw attention to the unusual within the narrative, or at least your narrators do.
I think that’s the world that we’re in. I think if you are very upset and you’re crying in a railway station you can’t help but think what a romantic cliché you are, sitting here crying in a railway station. I think that’s part of the emotional experience. Part of storytelling. I also think that nowadays the novel has to some way defend itself for being a novel, as opposed to all the other kinds of storytelling, and the novels I like best are things that could only be novels, that have some quality to them that can’t really be transferred over.
You’re screenwriting at the moment. That process must be very different. The viewer is missing a whole bunch of information that is there in the novel.
Yeah, and vice versa.
Right. You can’t drop something in the back of a scene in a novel–
–and hope someone notices. You either show it them or you don’t show it to them. And you can’t have someone speaking uninterrupted for three minutes or as long as it might take to read paragraphs of narration. There’s all that to think about.
Is it about recognizing what you can and can’t do with film and novels?
Well you start there, and when something is actually in production there are a million other things you have to do. You know they say, “Well we’ve built this thing and it turns out they can’t have this conversation over here” or “We’ve just lost this actress so she can’t be in this scene after all”. There are a million things like that. And the writer is not in control of it at all. It’s not even in the classic Hollywood sense where they’re berating the writer—though Lord knows there’s plenty of that—but there are also things where you can’t insist. You can’t say “No, the actress absolutely has to be there”. “Well she’s not going to be, you’ve written this thing and it’s not going to happen, write something else.” And you never get that with a novel, your editor doesn’t call you and say “We’ve heard from this character and she absolutely refuses to be in the last three scenes”.
Although the Snicket books veer towards that territory. Is it the Unauthorized Autobiography that has an introduction by someone called Daniel Handler that—I’m pretty sure—isn’t you? You seem to have a great joy of playing with things like that.
Well, in A Series of Unfortunate Events certainly there’s the sense that behind every question there is another question, or whatever mystery you thought you were interested in solving is not really the mystery that you wanted to solve. I like to confound those things over and over again. That was interesting to me.
You’ve said that those are your gothic books, or at least in the gothic tradition.
I think so, yeah. I think in a classic gothic novel there is some horrible secret the family is hiding in the mansion, or something like that. It’s always a little ridiculous because it doesn’t really matter what the secret is and if you come back and reread the novel eight years later you don’t remember what the secret is and of course you begin to think, “Well if I were actually married into that family and living in that house I wouldn’t care much what the secret was”. Obviously it’s terrible. The secret isn’t, “We’re all perfectly healthy, well-adjusted people and there’s no problem whatsoever”. That’s not the secret. And so the idea that your obsession with solving the mystery is as wrong as whatever the secret is, that’s interesting to me. And the Baudelaires learn that the mystery of their circumstances is endlessly on-going and so they have to stop pursuing it and pursue something else. It’s a difficult question for Netflix to think about, I don’t mind saying. [Laughs]
I can’t stop thinking about all the books written by young people about old people.
You’re welcome. I have spoiled several novels for you. In We Are Pirates, which was a novel that I started and then put away for a long time, part of what [made me] put it away is that I was writing about a father and I wasn’t a father. When I returned to [it], one of the things that I had was the girl who went off to be a pirate. I had her gone for a long time, months, and I hadn’t thought through how utterly devastated parents would be by that. You know that you wouldn’t just continue to just go to work and have it nagging at you. You know it isn’t like a girlfriend that hadn’t called or something. I don’t think that was something I could really understand until I had a child. Certainly I could have researched it more, and I was really just stumbling around in the dark on the first draft, but I am so glad I didn’t keep at it before I had a child because once you do have a child you have this emotional reservoir of attachment and if you think, if this child were gone for months and I didn’t know where they were it would be utterly, utterly devastating. It couldn’t have gone the way I wanted it to go. I think that is the experience that is certainly as difficult to duplicate as it was if you’re not Korean and you’re going to write about Korea or something and it’s at least unwise.
A lot of the adults in your books are either incompetent or actively mean.
Not just in the books, really. [Laughter]
Fair point. So they’re reflecting reality: got it. I can recognize parts of the faculty in The Basic Eight in characters in A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Whether it’s complete obliviousness or just a streak of meanness.
I think one of the things my fiction grapples with, and ought to grapple with, is that the haunting questions of childhood are never answered to your satisfaction, and that the older you get the more you’re discouraged from even asking those questions. They seem babyish and they’re not babyish. All The Dirty Parts is the third book I’ve set in a high school, but I just think it’s an institution where we place people who we know are at their most vulnerable, their most mercurial, and every scenario we’ve devised, all over the world, for people of that age is just a disaster. And we know it’s a disaster; it’s openly joked about. If anyone says “Oh, when I was 16 I was miserable”, everyone says, “Of course you were miserable, everyone’s miserable at 16”, and it’s haunting to me. You’d think I’d get over it.
How was your school experience?
I always say I’m a writer who actually had friends in high school. I had friends and I was pretentious and bopped around San Francisco. As far as adolescences go, even by first world standards it was pretty good. But I think there is an essential confusion about adolescents and that certainly leads to despair on a regular basis. The world is really inexplicable. Now I have a child. He is officially a teenager but he’s going into true teenager-dom and he has questions about the world all the time. My answers are feeble and ridiculous. And I try not to lie to him, which probably makes it worse. [Laughs] Because I’m not sure why I don’t lie to him, except that I get to feel better by saying, “Well at least I’m not lying to him”. That’s virtuous of me.
Does he read your books?
He is reading A Series of Unfortunate Events right now. He was very hesitant about Unfortunate Events for a long time. He really liked All The Wrong Questions and that’s as far as he’s gotten. He likes a mystery but he’s timid about violence and things like that.
Yeah, I quite agree.
Coming back to the collaboration aspect. You’ve done a bunch of others. Some musical ones with Stephin Merritt, in particular, stand out.
With Stephin Merritt it’s quite a manageable scenario because he’s in charge. So when I go into the studio there’s some tiny little shape in an enormous picture book that I’m filling in with one of three coloured pencils that he gives me. I like it a lot. Most of what I like about it is to be around someone who is so good at what they do, because he’s a marvellous songwriter and then he’s also a marvellous producer. In the studio he’s entirely in his element. He’s taking a beautiful melody and a clever turn of phrase and over the course of just a couple of hours you’ll see something becoming more and more beautiful under his tutelage. I just like being around that. It doesn’t really feel like collaboration because he’s letting me do a thing and if he likes it he keeps it in and if he doesn’t like it he throws it out. I’ve never had an argument with Mr Merritt over something that we’re doing in the studio. It would be ridiculous.
Was The Tragic Treasury a case of, “I would like Mr Merritt to do this”, or was it something that just came up? [The Tragic Treasury: Songs from A Series of Unfortunate Events is an album by Merritt’s ‘gothbubblegum’ band The Gothic Archies. Other highlights of The Tragic Treasury include ‘The World Is a Very Scary Place’ and ‘Smile! No One Cares How You Feel’.—Ed.]
The first song he wrote for me to perform when I was in front of children. Then we liked it so we recorded it and then we threw it on the audiobook and [the publishers] said, “Would you do the rest of the songs?” But even that wasn’t very collaborative because I would write a book and I would give it to him and then he would write a song. I liked working with him.
That was ‘Scream and Run Away’?
‘Scream and Run Away’ was the first one, yeah.
You’ve performed that at readings I think.
Oh, countless times.
With the accordion?
With the accordion. I still perform it occasionally when asked. I’ve been lucky to have a long association with Stephin. He has a new record that’s out now [50 Song Memoir, the 2017 album by Merritt’s incredibly prolific band The Magnetic Fields—Ed.]. It’s very beautiful and has many discs. I worked on that with him for a time. He came out to San Francisco and we were in a studio and I went to New York to do a little bit there. I like that, but it doesn’t feel like a collaboration. Work that I’ve done with illustrators, and certainly in film and television, that’s what real collaboration is: when briefly you can’t stand each other.
Is A Series of Unfortunate Events a writers’ room-type scenario?
The first season of Snicket was a very typical writers’ room and it didn’t work and so all the writers but one were dismissed and I was called back in and we worked on scripts that way. For the second and third seasons there’s a tiny number of writers, including this writer who was a holdover from the first season, me, two other writers, and an assistant, and we meet in my dining room. That works much better. It’s an unusual scenario and I took some convincing, but it forced me to think about collaboration in very concrete ways. These writers now have very little television experience and their writing did not necessarily have much in common with Snicket. I could just tell that [their writing] was good and imaginative and when I talked to them they seemed willing to do a bunch of things for a lark, including come to San Francisco and stay in a hotel for a long time. I’d make them lunch, we’d have cocktails at day’s end. They’re here for a few weeks and then they’d go off and write, and come back, and we’d read things out loud. It’s a dedication to a friendly atmosphere [whereas] in most writers’ rooms by design it’s dedication to a competitive atmosphere. I think that it works for certain kinds of writing, but it’s not something that excites me and it’s also not what we were doing here. We were adapting something as faithfully as we could and trying to figure out what made it tick and what we could add and what we couldn’t add. That just seems to be a different project from, “Okay it’s a scene in a sitcom and we need the funniest lines we can”. But it’s forced me to think hard about what collaboration is, to try to figure out a template for it. Previously I would just try something with somebody and it would work or it wouldn’t.
Speaking of San Francisco, I’m staying near Ocean Beach and I was looking around all the tsunami evacuation signs thinking, “Is this why everything is so dangerous in A Series of Unfortunate Events?” The looming threat of the San Andreas Fault, and the city falling into the Pacific Ocean… You were brought up here, right?
Yeah, yeah. It’s a rare week when I’m not at Ocean Beach, actually.
It is. And there’s that sign there, “People who have swum here have drowned”. I like it. For some reason “Danger!” doesn’t seem enough of a warning, they have to tell you a story. “Do you know that guy Norman? Dead now. He died right over there.”