The Kids Aren’t All Right, They’re Dead
A conversation with Daniel Handler, the author behind Lemony Snicket
By Naomi Sharp
Most people know Daniel Handler as Lemony Snicket, his gloomy alter-ego who claims authorship of the thirteen books in the bestselling A Series of Unfortunate Events. The latest Snicket book for young audiences, Shouldn’t You Be In School?, is the third in the four-part series All the Wrong Questions. Handler’s work under his own name includes Watch Your Mouth, described by HarperCollins as an “ incest opera”; Why We Broke Up, a novel in letter form; and We Are Pirates, scheduled for publication next year. Handler also recently edited The Best American Nonrequired Reading of 2014. Even more recently, he sat good-naturedly through a long phone call with Senior Editor Naomi Sharp. (They both are alums of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships, a program most succinctly described as “a Jewish thing.”)
The Blue and White: Is there a story behind the name Lemony Snicket?
Daniel Handler: I was researching my first novel The Basic Eight, and I was with a right-wing organization because I wanted them to send me some materials that I could mock in my novel. But I didn’t want to be on their mailing list, and so they asked me my name and I said Lemony Snicket. And then years later when I started writing A Series of Unfortunate Events, I had this name that was gathering dust.
B&W: So it wasn’t because he’s so sour.
DH: No—I mean, it seems appropriate. If I’d called him Bernie Schnikelvitz, I don’t think that would have had the same effect. It seems kind of bitter and it seems ridiculous, but maybe believable. And slightly Edwardian
or Victorian or something.
B&W: How did you originally pitch A Series of Unfortunate Events?
DH: I pitched it unprofessionally. I called the editor and I said “Look, I have a really terrible idea for children’s books. So don’t make me write it down—I can’t behave professionally about it because it’s such a terrible idea—but I’ll meet you at a bar and then I’ll tell you the idea and then you’ll say yes, that’s terrible, and then at least we’ll be at a bar and we’ll have another drink and it won’t be a complete waste for everyone. And so she met me at a bar. And then she said that she liked it.
I’ve never been good at pitching. To this day, sometimes a magazine will write me and they’ll say, “We like your writing and you should write something for us—why don’t you pitch it?” And I’ll always write back and say, “If I pitch it, the pitch will take longer than the article. So if you want me to write something I’ll write it, but I won’t pitch.” And then usually they say “Yeah, never mind.”
B&W: What you have for A Series of Unfortunate Events is kind of the anti-pitch.
DH: I guess so, yeah. It’s like when you’re in a store with a friend and you’re trying to get them to buy a book that you like. It’s hard to pitch that. And the summary of just about any classic work of literature sounds ridiculous. If you say, “They’re on a boat, and one guy’s really obsessed with a white whale,” you think—I don’t want to read that, that’s terrible. And so the whole idea of pitching is kind of difficult for me. When they were publishing the first volumes of A Series of Unfortunate Events, they said “Do you want to write something on the back to get people to read it?” And I thought, “Why would anyone want to read this?” So I was at a drugstore buying something and I saw poison warning labels. I thought, that’s what they should put on the back of the book. And then I wrote something like that.
B&W: In All The Wrong Questions, Lemony Snicket sheds some light on his mysterious childhood. What does the persona of Lemony Snicket allow you to do that Daniel Handler couldn’t?
DH: Hm. I don’t know. That might be the wrong question too. I thought it would be interesting when I started A Series of Unfortunate Events to publish the books under the name of a narrator rather than under the name of the author, so that the world of the books would feel like it had very loose boundaries. So that when you finished the book, you’d feel like it still existed in the world in which you lived. I don’t know it’s something I couldn’t have done had it been published under the name Daniel Handler, it’s just that Lemony Snicket is the character.
I was really struck by gothic literature and I thought that would be interesting to bring into the world of children’s books. So I was studying a lot of gothic literature, and one of the ways that it works is that it often has a very overwrought narrator. And so I thought that in order for the books to not seem like a carnival of horrors that they should have some kind of narrator wringing his hands over every moment that happens. I think that’s why the books don’t depress and upset too many people.
B&W: There are books marketed to children that have this darker tone—yours, obviously, but then books like The Book Thief, even Harry Potter—that have become incredibly popular. So do you think publishers have just historically underestimated what children can handle?
DH: That’s how I thought of it when I was writing, certainly. I thought, Well, most books are cheerful and I’m writing miserable books. But the truth of the matter is that children’s literature in particular is rife with really terrible things. You know, the orphaned hero is pretty standard in children’s literature because if you kill off the parents then the kid can go off and do something by themselves. They become a kind of self-actuated hero. The Grimm’s fairy tales are unrelentingly dark, and those are the first stories that most kids are really aware of. So I think there’s a long tradition of darkness.
B&W: Why do you think miserable things are often so funny?
DH: I think what’s funny about them is how overwrought it is. When I say, “And then the worst thing in the world happened, and then something terrible happened after that,” that’s automatically giggly. I mean, it’s the same when you’re talking to children. If you say, “You can’t have another piece of cake because if you do, you’ll turn blue and your arms will fall off,” they’re already laughing. Even though of course if that actually happened it would be horrifying.
It’s the hysteria that is funny, I don’t think it’s the events. I think you could rewrite A Series of Unfortunate Events in a different kind of tone and then it would be horrifying.
B&W: Your books also subvert the idea that people get what they deserve—the stories take place generally in a world where that isn’t true. Why?
DH: I think that that’s the world that young people are beginning to figure out when they’re of the age that they’re reading their own books. And I don’t mean the great injustices of the world, although certainly plenty of people have exposure to that. I just think in the way that when you’re in first grade and there’s an argument on the playground, and the teacher comes and says “I don’t care who started it! You’re both in trouble!” —that you think, But I didn’t start it, this is injustice that’s happening. I think that you start to be aware of that when you’re young. And the books reflect this, so in some ways seem less fantastic than books that say, “And if you work hard you’ll be rewarded.” You begin to think Oh, it’s actually this chaotic world, and you can take delight in hiding from it or you can take delight in facing it. I don’t know what made me interested in thinking that it was true rather than convincing myself it wasn’t.
B&W: Do you think it has anything to do with your Jewish background?
DH: Definitely. From what I can tell, Judaism is the religion that most embraces that idea. And certainly the history of Jewish suffering is not laced with salvation. No one thinks, Oh, it’s going to be so good for Jews in the future because there’s been so much suffering. My father left Germany in 1939 when he was a child, so the stories I grew up hearing were of my family leaving Germany. Some of them made it and some of them didn’t. And certainly the ones who made it weren’t better than the ones who didn’t. They weren’t braver or smarter or better-looking or more successful. It was just luck. I think if that’s your family story, your own tiny sufferings—in my case—made sense to me. Things happen, you don’t have very much control over them. And for me Judaism embodies that.
B&W: Do you think you have a particularly Jewish sense of humor?
DH: Huh. I think so. I mean, I think humor is part of looking askance at the world. A joke is something that ruptures a typical story line—something funny happens instead of something expected. That’s why I think humor is part of admitting the chaos of life, and why humor is such a huge part of Judaism.
B&W: At Columbia, we have this core curriculum that includes a canon of literature that theoretically an educated person should read. If you were to make your own canon, what are some books that would be on it?
DH: Oh gosh. There are books that mean a lot to me, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I think that everyone should read them. The poetry of Elizabeth Bishop is really important to me. The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler is a novel that I like a lot. The writings of William Maxwell, he’s really important to me. I think Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret are both really beautiful novels by Louise Fitzhugh. But I would be a bad person to make up a canon. I like to think of literature as being so vast that it’s a matter of hooking up people with the right book in the right moment. And if you’ve ever loved a book and then you reread it a few years later and it doesn’t mean anything to you—or vice versa, you didn’t like a book and for some reason you open it again and you find it fascinating—it’s just proof that literature is a breathing creature and so are you.
B&W: You have a pretty distinctive writing style that seems like it would be difficult to divorce from the original English version. Have you ever wondered how your books turn out in translations?
DH: I’ve been curious about that before. And then every so often a translator will ask me a question, will say “Oh, do you think I should do this?” and I always think Wow, I wonder why no other translator has asked me that. And it kind of panics me. Years ago we had a question from the Italian translator who was asking about—I would make a joke about ranch dressing versus ranch, like being on a ranch, and obviously it’s an untranslatable joke. And as soon as the publisher mentioned it, I thought, Okay, these books have been published in about 40 other languages and no one else has asked me that. I wonder what people did. So I think about it.
And I think about it when I read literature in translation a lot. I think, I believe I love this novel, but actually I have no idea. I was reading a review of this Italian novel and the reviewer said that it was an elegant translation. And I thought, how does she know? Does she speak Italian? Or does she just mean, “I read it and I liked it.”
B&W: She could have rewritten a very awkwardly-worded book very elegantly.
DH: Right, there’s no way to know. It’s one of those threads where once you tug at it, the entire sweater can come unraveled. So I try not think about it.
B&W: All right, I have a series of quicker questions for you. What advice would you give writers?
DH: When people want to be a writer for a career and they ask me for advice, I always say don’t do it. If you’re asking, you shouldn’t do it because your chances of anything happening are really slim. And then as you think to yourself, “I’m not gonna listen to that guy, because all I want to do is write,” then you’ve already figured out something about what you want to do. So that’s a good litmus test, is to listen to someone tell you not to do it. And if you think, “Oh okay, it probably is too much,” then writing probably isn’t for you.
B&W: What’s the most unfortunate thing that’s happened to you this week?
DH: This week? I was stung by a jellyfish this week.
B&W: Really? That is unfortunate.
DH: And it was on my face, I kind of swam right into it. That wasn’t fun.
B&W: What’s a word you overuse?
DH: I feel slightly addicted to the word “wrong.” I like that a lot. The word “wrong” automatically makes a story, I think. If you say “He opened the wrong window,” that’s already interesting.
B&W: I’ve read that you like to give cocktail parties. What’s your favorite drink?
DH: My favorite drink is a Delmonico, which is basically a gin martini but with a little cognac and a little bitters in it. I like that a lot. My favorite basic drink would be a Manhattan or a martini. If I’m having a cocktail party, I’ll make Sidecars. Everybody likes those because they’re sweet, so then everybody gets knackered right away. That’s the best drink to know, a Sidecar. It might not always be the best drink to have.
B&W: What does Lemony Snicket drink, incidentally? A Dark and Stormy?
DH: Well, a Dark and Stormy has a charming name but the drink itself is kind of rum-soaked and tropical, which I don’t think is what Mr. Snicket would like. I think he would probably like a gimlet, because it’s citrus so it kind of matches his name a little bit. It’s also what Marlowe drinks in The Long Goodbye, and The Long Goodbye was a big inspiration for the series.
B&W: And then the last thing that I’m going to ask you: In one of the stories from your book Adverbs, you write “It’s always dawnest before dark.” I thought maybe you’d agree to provide new endings for some platitudes that you might find painfully optimistic.
DH: Okay, I’m ready.
B&W: What doesn’t kill you…
DH: Might kill you later.
B&W: Good things come to those…
DH: You probably don’t know personally.
B&W: And finally, if life gives you lemons…
DH: Mix them with bitters and sugar and a little bourbon.