You Have to Take It Home: Daniel Handler on Lemony Snicket

When I go to meet Lemony Snicket, bestselling children’s author and alter ego of novelist Daniel Handler, outside his hotel in midtown Manhattan, it is a dreary day in October and there seem to be an unusual number of men milling about the rain wearing dress coats and fedoras. This seems entirely in keeping with the tone of his new series, All the Wrong Questions, the first since his Series of Unfortunate Events concluded in 2006, at unlucky book number thirteen.

While the first series, about the trials of the three Baudelaire orphans, riffed on gothic literature, the inspiration for the new series is clear from the first line: “There was a town, and there was a girl, and there was a theft.” Yes, this time Snicket intends to introduce children to the hardboiled noir fiction of Chandler, Hammett, and Ellroy.

But those are hardly his only references. Much as his earlier childrens’ novels were dense with literary allusions, vocabulary words, and sophisticated recipes, the first novel of the new series, Who Could That Be at This Hour? includes references to novels by Vladimir Nabokov, George Orwell, Roald Dahl, Louise Fitzhugh, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. This time, however, the references are even more oblique than before (The Dahl allusion, for example, comes when Snicket suggests that his cabdriver check out a book about “a champion of the world,” to which the cabdriver replies, “By that author with all the chocolate?”)

The Snicket who narrated A Series of Unfortunate Events was a morose older gentleman, perpetually mooning after his lost love, Beatrice. The Snicket of the new series is a wisecracking, fresh-faced youth, on the cusp of thirteen.

Both Handler and Snicket have had collaborated with some of the coolest graphic artists and musicians around: Brett Helquist illustrated the first series; Maira Kalman illustrated both a Lemony Snicket title and Why We Broke Up, Handler’s book for young adults; Handler’s wife, children’s author and illustrator Lisa Brown, illustrated several other titles; the new series is illustrated by graphic novelist Seth, best known for Palookaville. Handler has also been a collaborator, occasional touring member and accordion player for the Magnetic Fields since the 1990s; lead songwriter Stephin Merritt has written many songs for Snicket novels, including the new series.  

Daniel Handler greets me in the lobby, bearing two green apples. “My son is reading that book,” he says. That book is a pocket-sized version of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems. Otto, son of Daniel Handler and Lisa Brown, is eight years old.

We stay inside, looking out at the rain, and discuss pen names, old records, imaginary films, Agatha Christie, precocious children, the Occupy movement and, of course, Frank O’Hara. —Amy Benfer

The Barnes & Noble Review: In this new novel — as in your first series — you play with the idea of pen names right off — one of the characters is named S. Theodora Markson, which clearly is a name a person would only use as an author. How do you feel about Lemony Snicket, your own literary persona, nearly fifteen years on?

Daniel Handler: I keep going back to the beginning: When the first two Snicket volumes were published, HarperCollins sent me to see a bunch of other children’s authors do their presentations. They were mostly terrible. They had this notion of, “Let’s deconstruct, let’s demystify what literature is.” “I’m going to show a slide of the desk where I work and different drafts,” and stuff like that. 826 [the writing centers started by McSweeney’s] does that, and I think that’s an excellent way to teach kids who are actually engaged with writing how to write. But if you are just a reader, and you’re young, I didn’t see the point in demystifying it. I wanted to mystify it. So I saw those presentations and I thought, Oh I’m going to not say, “OK, it’s me. I’m Lemony Snicket.” Is that more interesting? I don’t know. I hope it is, because now I am stuck with it.

BNR: The first pen names, especially in children’s literature, weren’t single authors at all, but multiple authors, all writing for a literary syndicate. There wasn’t a real Carolyn Keene; there were many. But many children who grew up in reading those books had no idea. I told my mother this when she was in her fifties. She had never known. She said it was like learning there was no Santa Claus.

DH: At the height of Snicket madness, with the film and all, you could definitely see that was the assumption some companies began to work towards. They would say, “We’re going to launch fifty books, to all different audiences.” And I’d say, “I don’t have the time or the interest to write fifty books.” And they’d say, “We’ll take care of that part for you.” And I would say, “No, no. That’s the only thing!” There are plenty of authors who are writing series who can’t wait to get to the part where they get to sit at a desk with their feet up and not write anymore. I’m not interested in that. I want to put my feet down on the ground.

It’s great to see children’s literature out of the ghetto that it once was in. But I think there’s still an assumption that it’s not literature, that it can be moved around in such a way that I don’t think, say,  Denis Johnson gets asked to do.

BNR: Right, that it can be manipulated, that children’s literature can be treated like genre or commercial fiction.

DH: I believe that children’s literature is a genre. I resisted the idea that children’s literature is just anything that children are reading. And I certainly resisted the idea that certain books should get promoted out of children’s literature just because adults are reading them. That idea is enraging too. That’s what happens to any genre, right? First you say, “Margaret Atwood isn’t really a science fiction writer.” Then you say, “There really aren’t any good science fiction writers.” That’s because you promoted them all!

BNR: What appeals to you about doing original series fiction, with repeating characters?

DH: P. G. Wodehouse has always been a model for me. He’s not a children’s writer, but — this is going to sound self-lacerating — I take comfort in P. G. Wodehouse. One of the reasons I take comfort is in the sum of the parts working together. You think of P. G. Wodehouse as a massive work, and you take pleasure reading it. You might have a favorite P. G. Wodehouse, but there’s not one P. G. Wodehouse novel everyone should read. You read one, and if you like it, you should read twenty.

BNR: This book is the first of the new series. But in between the last book of  A Series of Unfortunate Events, and the first book of this series, you’ve had a couple of stand-alone Lemony Snicket books, and a YA book, Why We Broke Up, as Daniel Handler. How do you choose which books are Handler books and which ones are Snicket?

DH: It’s hard for me to pin down what a young adult novel is. I have a much easier time pinning down what a children’s book is. In terms of whether it’s Handler or Snicket: Snicket has his own voice, and he’s narrating events that are somehow important to him. He might stop and tell a story, like Thirteen Words. But he’s not going to pretend to be a teenage girl. That would be a complicated layering.

BNR: Your very first novel, The Basic Eight, also had teenage protagonists, and that’s part of the reason your editor thought you might be good at writing for children. But that was still very much considered a novel for adults — with all the sex and murder and mayhem and all.

DH: One of the reasons I ended up writing for children is because it took a long time to get The Basic Eight published. And kind of in desperation, my agent said, “Why don’t we give this to some people who are publishing YA?” It was a different time. It was 1997, I think. Everyone said, “There is no way we can publish this for young people. It has sex! It has drugs! It has drinking! It has violence!”

Now, it would be hard to get a YA novel published that didn’t have one of those things. If you said to someone, “I’ve written a YA novel, but it has no drinking, drugs, sex or violence in it,” they would say, “It had better have vampires in it. I’m telling you now!”

There’s been talk — I don’t know if it will happen — but there has been talk of re-packaging The Basic Eight as a YA novel, which just tickles me. Years later, it would be repackaged for the exact same reasons it was rejected. So that doesn’t help me figure out YA literature.

BNR: The new novels are a portrait of the artist as a young Snicket. Did you have any idea of what Snicket was like as a child when you were writing Unfortunate Events?

DH: When I was writing the later ones, I thought if I ever did another series, it would concern itself with noir fiction, the way that the earlier series concerns itself with gothic fiction. And then it seemed to me that if he was going to go back and write real things that were important to him, it would be about his own childhood. I couldn’t imagine him saying, “Now, I’ve completed thirteen volumes about these children who concern me very much, but there’s this other thing happening.” That seems exhausting. But the idea that he would say, “Here are some things I wrote down when I was young,” that was interesting to me.

The other idea that interested me was that this lonely, Byronic figure was, in his childhood, Philip Marlowe. That he would be a brash detective with a mouth on him, who was observant, but mystified, and willing to get into a scrape that maybe he didn’t have to get into. Those are all things that felt like childhood to me. Being told to lay off the case when there’s something that really interests you. I liked the idea that you’re born Philip Marlowe and you end up Heathcliff.

BNR: We also discover that, in his youth, Snicket, like Sunny, is an eater and cooker.

DH: There is a lot of food in both series. I’m an eater and a cooker. I think it’s something you can actually do when you are young that is empowering and makes you feel sophisticated. When I was in high school, I had a lot of dinner parties. It made me feel like a grown-up, that I could buy fish and prepare it and make pasta sauce. It’s that world I always wanted access to when I was young, and it’s the allure of that world that happens in the Snicket books, too.

BNR: I kept a running tally of all your allusions in this book. With most of them, you would have to know the original to get it. Do you think the kids will go running off to solve the riddle right away, or are you anticipating them having a jolt somewhere in the future when they finally run into it somewhere else and figure it out?

DH: When A Series of Unfortunate Events was just starting up, the world was such that I thought, these kids are going to read about the Baudelaire orphans and then, ten years later, they’re going to be in a college poetry class and they’re going to say, Oh, my goodness.

Now with interactivity, and the world becoming a search engine, you actually can find that out instantly. So then I thought it’s more interesting to have Snicket get in a conversation about a book, but there’s nothing you can Google. I’m sure there will still be forums, or chat rooms where one person has figured it out. But you have to figure it out in some other way.

BNR: That’s interesting: the idea that greater technological transparency pushes you towards greater literary obscurity.

DH: I recently had this really incredible experience. I’m writing a column for the Believer in which I read one book by each Nobel Prize winners in literature. I read this French novel by someone who had won the prize some years back. There was this sheet of notes tucked into my old used copy. Most of them were just page numbers. But then it had a few jotted down phrases, as if someone was planning an essay. One of them was a quote. I put that quote into Google, and I found this review of the novel in Time magazine from the 1950s, in which all those phrases are used. So probably I have the literary critic’s copy of the book, with all the notes that were used to write the article.

I loved how all of the technology came together. That wouldn’t have happened with an eBook, that you found someone’s old notes. But then, you couldn’t have found who it was without Google. I wouldn’t have said, “These look like a critic’s notes. Let’s find every extant review of this novel.” It was a goose-pimply moment.

BNR: Do you still write marginalia in your books? I used to mark up everything, but now find I mark up galleys, but I like to keep my  hardcovers neat.

DH: I don’t mark them up too much. I put a list of pages in the back. Then a little dot on the table of contents next to the ones I like. [He brings out a hardcover copy of Theodore Roethke poems, which has been marked up in such a way.] I read poetry when I’m on the road. I find it’s the best thing to read on the road, because you can actually read two poems in a green room and be transformed someplace, whereas if you have a novel under your arm, you are thinking, What was happening again? Then you’re out of time.

I always have three books on my bedstand. I have the book I’m reading, then I have a little book of poetry, then I have some big thick thing that I am going through slowly, which is often collected poetry.

BNR: So how did your son get into Frank O’Hara?

DH: We go to Dog-Eared Books a lot. We’ll have a taco, and then we’ll walk down to Dog-Eared Books. He has not been the quickest reader, but he saw a copy of Lunch Poems, and those were two words he could read right away. Then he saw it was poetry. He’s seen me marking a dot in the table of contents next to poems I liked, and he was really into the idea that you could do that. So he said, “I want to get this copy of Lunch Poems and put a dot next to the poems I really like.”

And I said, “Of course, we’re going to buy you a copy of Lunch Poems.” Why wouldn’t we? He remains a sophisticated favorite of the staff at Dog-Eared books, largely because he walked right past the giant Harry Potter display to put a copy of Lunch Poems right on the counter.

BNR: That sounds like something right out of a Snicket novel. You started writing the Snicket novels many years before you had a child. Now he is Snicket reading age, right?

DH: He’s scared of the books. He has not read them. He’s timid about the subject matter and we’ve raised him, perhaps irresponsibly, on a very low media diet so he hasn’t had a lot of scary stuff in his world. He’s uncomfortable with that, because certainly his classmates are reading Snicket. He’s certainly excited this year to have a dad who does what I do, but he’s still scared of the shadowy villain on the cover.

BNR: We’ve talked about the Philip Marlowe references, but you also mention a “roadster,” which seems to be a wink to the books put by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which included Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys novels.

DH: I wasn’t a big Hardy Boys fan. I think the only time I read a Nancy Drew book was in a women’s studies class at Wesleyan University. Isn’t that pathetic? But I liked Agatha Christie. I hopscotched past the Hardy Boys and read a ton of Agatha Christie in fifth and sixth grade. I’ve reread a couple of them, and they’re full of things I couldn’t possibly understand in fifth and sixth grade. I really wish I could peek at my brain then and see what I was getting out of it.

BNR: I remember jumping to adult books really early, too, and I’m not at all sure I understood everything. Although I did learn a lot about sex and drugs and drinking and all the rest from adult fiction.

DH: I do wonder about that with young adult fiction. I read John O’Hara at a fairly young age. My parents had a copy of Sermons and Soda Water. I thought, “That’s a cool title. I’ll try that.” In John O’Hara, a drink goes without saying. Everyone is having whiskey. It’s not a sign of anything. Now, in young adult literature, there’s not a lot of drinking in young adult literature that’s harmless. It’s a character study, it’s how you know someone is a villain or reckless or in trouble. In John O’Hara, it’s like a necktie. Everyone has a drink. I wonder if it makes alcohol more tempting — to have all these novels where it is the ultimate sin. When I read John O’Hara, I thought, well, my dad drinks bourbon. It smells gross to me, but I didn’t think, “Oh, it’s a sign of social disintegration.”

I read my first noir in early high school. A man has a party and a woman comes and says, “I really need to talk to you.” And then they leave and they go to the roof of the building and they have a drink. I thought that was the most glamorous thing in the world. I waited for that to happen to me throughout high school. To go to a party, and to be led away, then handed a drink by a woman on a roof, fraught with trouble.

BNR: I guess one could say that in that way, presenting salacious content — sex, drugs and drink — and associating them with the “bad” kids is actually a form of moralizing.

DH: That has a deep history. Victorian pornography novels would always have these introductions that say, “This is a case study in what you should never do.” And you turn the page and it’s, “I met three sailors and I took them up to my room.”

BNR: In Why We Broke Up, all your didactic moments were for films. But they were all films that didn’t exist. Some of those films sounded wonderful. I imagine many readers were disappointed they were ones they could never see.

DH: That’s a good example of how the Web works. A reader said, “The first thing I did was go to buy a Hawke Davies record on iTunes. And then I was really frustrated to learn that he didn’t exist.”
That might be a decade long search of record stores back in the day.

I sound like Andy Rooney when I talk about this, but when I think about how accessible pop music is now…I just did it. I watched an episode of Girls on the plane and I heard a song I really liked. When I got to the hotel, I Googled “Girls, episode, music list,” I found the song, I downloaded the song, it’s on my iPod. It used to be you would hear a song in a restaurant and you would think, What is that beautiful song? And then you would hear it five years later and pray that the DJ would outro it. You’d buy the wrong record sometimes. You’d say, “Oh, I like this song by New Order. New Order has a new record out.” You’d buy the album, you’d take it home, and the song wouldn’t be on there. Now I see kids wave the phone in the air, and they buy it right there on their phone.

BNR: But on the plus side, you might find something else you like on the album. I’m a record collector, and sometimes DJ, and I have made it a point sometimes to intentionally buy records I don’t know. I’ll look at the cover art, the track listing.

DH: That’s more the experience of literature. You can read a paragraph online, or a few pages in the bookstore, but it’s going to take you seventy-five pages or so to see if you really love a book. You have to take it home. There’s nothing else that can convince you.

BNR: Last year, when you wrote a statement for Occupy, the statement was from Snicket, not from Handler. Was there an intention behind that?

DH: It was a way that I could talk about that kind of archly, so that someone might read it. I had an encounter with a successful, entitled jerk and I thought I want to say something about this. If you work hard, and you’re wealthy, it doesn’t mean you’re wealthy because you work hard. I thought if it came from me, it would sound sneering, but if it came from Snicket, it just seemed charming. Tweetable, as they say.

BNR: And it’s a way to help children understand the movement too, perhaps.

DH: Part of it was definitely having a child. We get The New York Times and the Chronicle every morning, and he likes to look at the front photograph and ask me about it. It’s like a pop quiz every morning at six-thirty. And it was Occupy one day, and I tried to explain about how we gave the banks money, but now they are not giving other people money and he said, “That makes me so mad, I want to smash a window.” He said that! And it was funny, because I could say, “Well, look over here on page A12, it made these people mad enough that they are actually smashing windows!”

I thought, I can’t be the only one having this conversation, so maybe I can give somebody a sound bite, because I wish someone had given me one when I had to explain it.

BNR: Are you still working with Magnetic Fields?

DH: Yes. I haven’t played with them on the East Coast for a while, but I still do often on the West Coast. It’s the fulfillment of the rock star fantasy: I don’t have to do any of the hard work, and sometimes I get to go into a studio and have fun, and sometimes I get to be onstage and feel like a rock star, and when they say, “Would you like to go with us to the Deep South in the middle of the summer to play shows?” I get to say no.

My son loves the Magnetic Fields. That’s another example. His favorite song is “God Wants Us to Wait.” That’s deadpan, mocking look at a fundamentalist view on sexuality. Every part of that is unknown to my son. So I don’t know what he gets out of it.

BNR: My friend and I used to play Magnetic Fields for our kids when they were around that age. It was the late nineties, so that was the 69 Love Songs era. They loved those songs.

DH: It’s a big children’s record. It’s fascinating. I’ve worked with Stephin forever. He just wrote me a new song that I’m performing on this tour. Both of us have ended up with a large audience of children that we never in our lives thought we would have. His production on 69 Love Songs, because it changes genres so much, is great for a short attention span. He didn’t plan that it meant you could listen to it in kindergarten, but it totally works out that way. You just have to run to the skip button before “How Fucking Romantic,” comes on, that’s what I’ve learned. I think it’s track 14 on the first disc. I’m still a disc person. [Ed. Note: The song in question is, in fact, track 14.]