Daniel Handler is the author of the literary novels The Basic Eight, Watch Your Mouth, and, most recently, Adverbs. Under the name Lemony Snicket he has also written a sequence of books for children, known collectively as A Series of Unfortunate Events, which have sold more than 60 million copies and were the basis of a feature film. His intricate and witty writing style has won him numerous fans for his critically-acclaimed literary work and his wildly successful children’s books. His latest book is Lemony Snicket’s Who Could That Be at This Hour?, the first in a new series called All the Wrong Questions.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.
Last year you wrote a piece called “13 Observations Made by Lemony Snicket While Watching Occupy Wall Street From a Discreet Distance.” What motivated you to write that piece?
Um, I guess watching Occupy Wall Street from a discreet distance, and also Occupy Writers—the organization—asked me if I would write a piece, and I said no, because I didn’t think I had anything to say. And then I was swimming laps at the place where I swim laps and I had a rude experience with a clearly successful capitalist, and it ticked me off, and so I thought, “I can write something about what’s wrong with capitalists being greedy,” and it went from there.
What sort of reaction did you get to that piece?
Well, I’m not as plugged in to the online world of social networking as I might be, so probably most of the reaction I was shielded from. But some people told me they liked it, and Rachel Maddow liked it, I guess, and then I ended up on The Rachel Maddow Show, which was curious.
Yeah, so what was it like going on The Rachel Maddow Show?
It was strange, because I don’t think of myself as a political figure, and I was worried that I would be called upon to have the kind of fake expertise that many people have on those political shows where someone who actually doesn’t know what they’re talking about just has an opinion. And I was grateful that we really didn’t talk much about politics, so that I didn’t have to come up with opinions that I later would have to stand by.
Does that make you really nervous going in front of a camera, or have you done enough public events now that it’s no big deal?
I’ve done it a lot—I have a kind of self-hypnosis thing that I go through where I say, “No one cares!” That’s what I tell myself over and over. The first time I was on TV it was a disaster, because I was nervous, so after that I just began to say to myself, “Who cares? No one is watching. It doesn’t matter. No one watches TV,” and I convince myself of that before I go on.
I don’t know if you saw this, but there was this recent J.K. Rowling quote where she was asked why she doesn’t use more tricks to avoid paying taxes, and she said, “I’m indebted to the British welfare state . . . When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net . . . was there to break the fall, and I cannot help feeling therefore that it would have been contemptible to scarper for the West Indies at the first sniff of a seven-figure royalty check.” As an author yourself, what do you think about that?
I did hear about that, and I was proud of Ms. Rowling, and I also don’t live in the West Indies, so I’m glad that neither of us headed for the hills. [laughs] I didn’t have a hardscrabble youth the way she did, and so I have not had to rely on public assistance, but I’m certainly in favor of it and try not to duck paying taxes any more than is necessary.
Well, I think it’s really striking that she’s this billion-dollar industry now, and if it weren’t for welfare and arts grants as well, this whole Harry Potter phenomenon which has done so much for young adult literature wouldn’t have existed at all.
No, it’s absolutely true. I think she’s a prime example of public assistance being well worth the investment. I mean, the amount of business that she’s created in Britain I’m sure far outweighs the taxes that people paid that went to her.
So regarding the Occupy Wall Street movement, what do you think about the current situation with that and where do you think things are headed?
Oh gosh, I don’t know. I mean, I continue to watch from a discreet distance, and I would be loath to speak for a movement of which I’m not officially a part. But it does seem like they’ve had quite a bit of triumph in just having income inequality end up being an issue in this campaign. I mean, the widening gap between rich and poor in America has been going on for a long time, but it’s never been discussed as a top shelf issue that presidential candidates have to deal with. And it seems to me like it’s the first time that a very successful businessman actually has to account for his success, and how he pays for it, and what kind of effect it has on other people. I mean, previously successful businessmen ran for president all the time, and it went without saying that they must be geniuses, and now actually it seems if anything a bit of baggage for him. So that seems like a triumph for the movement to me.
Speaking of politics, the name Lemony Snicket actually came out of politics, in a way. Can you tell us about that?
[laughs] I don’t know if that counts as coming out of politics, but I was researching my first novel for adults, which is called The Basic Eight, which is about a girl in high school who kills a boy in high school, and part of it is about the media uproar that follows, and I was interested in cultural commentary, and I began to contact groups that like to appear on TV and state their opinion on things they don’t know about. A lot of those groups are conservative, and I was on the phone with a conservative organization and I wanted their materials sent to me, but I had a sudden thought that I shouldn’t be on their mailing list permanently, and so the woman on the phone asked me my name and I just said the first thing that came into my head, which was “Lemony Snicket,” which was not a name that I’d ever heard before or ever thought of before.
And I thought to myself—during the pause that followed on the phone—I thought, “That was a really terrible name to say. Out of all the fake names you could have given, that’s the least believable one.” And then she just said, “Is that spelled how it sounds?” And I said, “Yes,” and I said, “Read that back to me,” because I had no idea how it sounded like it was spelled. And that was the first time that the name Lemony Snicket existed, and I began to use it for various pseudonymous, prankish things.
I was in my early twenties, and a friend of mine made me some Lemony Snicket business cards for my birthday, and I used to give them out at bars, and I used to write long, rambling letters to the editors of newspapers and sign them “Lemony Snicket.” And so then years later when I started writing for children, it occurred to me that it would be fun to write them and publish them under the name of the narrator rather than the name of the author. And then I had this name lying around gathering dust. So I guess it had its roots in politics, slightly. I don’t know if making fun of right-wingers when you’re in your early twenties really can count as a political movement. [laughs]
Years ago I saw you on tour for A Series of Unfortunate Events, and it was certainly the most entertaining book appearance I’ve ever seen, and even just one of the most entertaining public appearances of any kind I’ve ever seen. You talked about how Lemony Snicket couldn’t be there because he’d been bitten in the armpit by a giant bug, and you played the accordion, and I was just wondering if you did that same routine at every stop? Did the routine develop over time?
Well, much of it I’m still doing. The presentation kind of waxes and wanes and evolves and devolves, but definitely Lemony Snicket is never able to make it to a book appearance, and so I am his stuttering, suspicious stand-in. And that just came from when the first book was being published under the name of Lemony Snicket, and we had these mysterious photographs of Lemony Snicket, and the publisher said, “What are you going to do when we send you to a bookstore and they say, ‘Lemony Snicket is here,’ and you’re not a mysterious person who doesn’t show his face?” And I said, “I don’t know.” And they said, “Well, we think you should figure that out.”
So they sent me to go see some other authors present, and I watched another children’s author present and I thought she was terrible. And she told me later that what she liked to do was to dispel the mystery behind writing. And I thought, “Why would you want to dispel the mystery behind writing?” I mean, the mystery of writing is kind of, “Where do these stories come from, and these mysterious ideas?” But the actual writing is someone sitting at a desk writing, which is very boring. And so I thought, “What can I do to increase the mystery of writing rather than decrease it?” And the answer proved to be what has become a kind of stuttering, performance art thing. But I’m glad you liked it.
You did this thing where you said you had the bug that bit Lemony Snicket, and you took out a box, and then inside that was a smaller box, and then inside that an even smaller box, and then you were running around showing this plastic beetle or something. And the kids loved it, but I was just wondering, have you ever had kids just start crying or freaking out when you’re running around showing them this big, plastic bug?
I guess sometimes, yeah. I’ve learned that the really good bookstore for a crowded children’s event will have a plan for when a child vomits. I’m sure some people have cried. Most people enjoy it, but some kids get so excited they vomit. And you know you’re at a good bookstore when they say, “So here’s our plan if somebody vomits, and here’s what we’re going to do, and here’s how it’s all going to be fine.” Because there’s nothing worse than a child vomiting and nobody has the slightest idea what to do.
The first time you stepped in front of a crowd like that, and were planning to tell them that Lemony Snicket couldn’t be there but you would play the accordion for them instead, did you have any trepidation about how that would go over? Did it go over well from the start?
I didn’t really have any trepidation because I was certain the whole thing would be a disaster. I mean, I agreed to write books about terrible things that were happening to children over and over again and then publish them under a ridiculous name. I thought the whole thing was certainly going to be a commercial disaster. And, I mean, you asked me about the first time that I performed in front of a crowd like that, but the first hundred times I performed it, it wasn’t a crowd at all.
The first Lemony Snicket event that I ever did had two people—it was at a huge chain bookstore in Michigan, and they’d set up a million folding chairs in this room that was like the size of a football field, and there were two people—two adults—sitting in the back. And so I did my whole shtick, feeling like a moron, a sad moron. And then the two people came up to me and they said, “We’re actually from the other bookstore, and we hate your books, and we just were so curious who in the world could be behind them.” And I thought, “Yes, this is exactly what I thought would happen. Everyone would be horrified.” It was kind of satisfying.
Wow, that might be worse than George R.R. Martin’s story about Clifford the Big Red Dog drawing more people than him when he did a book signing.
Clifford the Big Red Dog I bet still has a pretty enormous following. I wonder how that would go with Clifford the Big Red Dog versus George R.R. Martin now.
Yeah, right. Have a cage match.
So the A Series of Unfortunate Events books were recently re-released with some bonus material. Could you tell us about that?
Yeah, we put a few volumes in paperback, and we put a kind of penny dreadful magazine in the back, which had a serialized story and some comics by Michael Kupperman, and some other things like that. The books hadn’t been in paperback really, they’d only been in those hardcover gothic novel editions, and so I thought, well, if they were in paperback, they’d probably look like penny dreadfuls—something full of exclamation points and lurid stories. And I’d just experienced the work of Michael Kupperman, who I think is amazing. For a while he had a comic strip about The Adventures of Snake and Bacon—a snake and a slice of bacon who try to solve crimes. So he did a serial story for that. That was fun.
So who’s better at solving crimes, the snake or the piece of bacon?
Well, the snake only says, “Sssss!” over and over again, and the bacon says things like, “Crumble me in a salad.” So neither of them really do a very good job of solving crimes. It’s an almost completely deflated detective story from the start, which is why I liked it.
Actually, speaking of crime stories, tell us about your new series, All the Wrong Questions.
Yeah, All the Wrong Questions is about Lemony Snicket’s childhood and apprenticeship in a secret organization. A Series of Unfortunate Events was kind of a take on a gothic novel, and All the Wrong Questions is kind of a take on a noir novel. So he’s in a fading industrial town, and he’s solving a very complicated murder involving a stolen, mysterious statue. There’s kind of a femme fatale in the figure of Ellington Feint, who’s a young girl who is either plotting with Mr. Snicket or plotting against him, depending on the way it goes. It’s a four volume series, and the first volume is out in stores now.
What are some of your major influences when it comes to noir fiction?
Well, Raymond Chandler is definitely the king, for me. I started reading him when I was young, and then I returned to him recently as I started thinking about this idea, and I just think he has a beautiful way of making mysteries alluring and having all the kinds of philosophical and moral digressions that the Snicket books have, so it seemed like a good fit. Charles Willeford is another really great one. Dashiell Hammett.
Dashiell Hammett certainly seems to be an influence in terms of the missing statue.
Sure. Well, I mean, I think out of all those kinds of mysteries, the most interesting MacGuffin is the Maltese Falcon, and so there’s a black statue in this that kind of tips its hat to that.
Were there any references in the book that were just really amusing to you, or just really obscure?
Well, I try to bury as many references as I can. Some are only references to things I think I could find, so I get to have endless layers of reference, and one of the things I like about going on tour and meeting my readers is, I meet readers who have found things I wanted them to find, found things I didn’t want them to find, and then found things I didn’t put there. [laughs]
So the book is illustrated by an artist known as Seth. How did he get involved with the project?
I stalked him basically and asked him to do it. I’ve admired his work forever. He’s a graphic novelist who I’m sure will be familiar to many geeks in our audience, and while I was working on the first volume in All the Wrong Questions, I saw a drawing he did on the cover of Poetry magazine that was kind of a lonely seaside town that looked exactly like the lonely seaside town that I was writing about. So he was coming to WonderCon in San Francisco, where I live, and I’d never been to WonderCon, so I thought, “I’ll just go there and he’ll be signing books, and maybe the line won’t be so long that I could actually talk to him.”
I don’t know why I thought WonderCon would be different than it was. People had told me that it was kind of a smaller, brainier Comic-Con, so I guess I assumed that it would be dedicated more to the arty end of graphic novels rather than comics, but when I walked in there I was immediately surrounded by people in stormtrooper costumes, and I thought, “Oh, this is funny.” And then I went and found Seth, who likes to dress in old ’30s suits, so he was sitting lonely, utterly ignored, while people were meeting guys in Spider-Man costumes and going to re-enactments of certain battles in the Star Wars milieu, and so I said, “Hello,” and introduced myself, and said that I admired his work and asked him if he would want to work on something with me, and then we kept in touch, and he foolishly said yes.
So when you go to an event like that, do people recognize you, or do they not know what you look like well enough since you sort of hide your face on the books?
I guess I’m recognized sometimes. In San Francisco, I think I’m recognized as much for having grown up there as for anything I’ve done, so it’s a great check on your ego, because you’ll be sitting in a restaurant and then someone will say, “Aren’t you Daniel Handler?” and you’ll say, “Yes,” and so then they’ll say, “Yeah, my sister dumped you in 8th grade.” [laughs] And I didn’t go to WonderCon as any kind of presenter or performer or anything, I just went to see Seth, and my wife was on a panel about her own work, and so I don’t think I was recognized that day. Also, if you’re surrounded by stormtroopers, no one’s looking at you.
In the book, the characters start to get into an argument about whether books like The Lord of the Rings are good or not, and one character starts complaining that the wizards in these kinds of stories never seem to be very helpful. Which side would you take in that argument?
Well, far be it from me to argue against a wizard—that just seems foolhardy. You never know what a wizard will do when he becomes irritated. But yeah, I think of all literary genres, probably the fantasy one was the one that was least alluring to me when I was young. I think I have a lot more respect for it now than I did when I was young, but when I was young I always thought, “Why doesn’t the wizard just fix stuff?” The wizard is always explaining, “I have unlimited power, but it’s you, young person, who has to go and climb this mountain or battle this thing.” And I always thought, “Really? The wizard can’t help you just a little bit?” [laughs] I mean, I understand that narratively you don’t want the wizard to say, “There’s someone threatening our kingdom, but luckily it’s not a problem because I’m a very powerful wizard.” But from the point of view of the reader, I always thought, “What are you hanging around for?”
What do you think of fantasy and science fiction now? Do you have any particular stories or authors that you’re a fan of?
I tend to go into the past with literary genres, so with science fiction and fantasy I tend to read more from authors who are dead. But I remain a big William Gibson fan. I think he’s always interesting. And I like a lot of writing that has a touch of that but maybe doesn’t neatly fit into the genre. Like, Rachel Ingalls is one of my favorite writers, and she’s American, actually, but she’s lived in Britain forever, and her stories tend to have strange things happening in them, but you don’t find them in the science fiction section of the bookstore. Kelly Link is like that—she’s another great American writer.
I mean, it’s always that weird thing with science fiction that many of the good authors get promoted by marketing departments or literary critics out of science fiction into literary fiction, and then everyone says, “Oh, science fiction doesn’t have any good writers,” because if you’re a good enough writer they decide you’re not science fiction, so it’s like an endlessly circular argument.
Are you familiar with the term “slipstream”? It sort of sounds like what you’re talking about—literary fiction that has some strange aspects to it, maybe not quite fully science fiction or fantasy, but it has something unusual or strange happening in it. We actually talked about that in our Junot Díaz episode and talked about the same thing you were talking about, where writers sort of get promoted out of the genre and thus it’s sort of this self-fulfilling prophecy.
Yeah, and I think it happens in every genre. You know, if you decide Margaret Atwood isn’t a science fiction author and you decide that Paul Auster isn’t a mystery author, you can’t then complain that those genres don’t have good enough writers in them. And then of course there’s just kind of the ghetto that so many writers who like to write about unearthly things end up in, where they’re not taken seriously or noticed by a certain segment of the audience that would love them, because they’re put in that category.
So do you think you would ever write science fiction or fantasy yourself?
I guess what I wrote would probably be more of the slipstream category that you’re talking about. I mean, certainly I’ve written a bunch of books where things that can’t possibly happen are happening—I mean, as the author of a book in which a baby climbs up an elevator shaft using only her teeth, I feel I can’t say, “No, I would never write a fantasy book!” . . . because that’s fairly outlandish. But I don’t have any idea for a book now that takes place on another planet, for instance. But that’s probably because the books I write take place on an Earth that is so unrecognizable that the idea of calling it another planet just hasn’t occurred to me.
I’ve heard some writers say that once they become parents they have to stop writing stories about children in danger, because it just becomes too nerve-wracking. As a parent who writes a lot about children in danger, what do you think about that?
Well, for me having a baby was a tremendous boon in writing about terrible things happening to children because—I mean, he’s not a baby now, he’s nine years old, but when you’re a new parent you spend the majority of your time brainstorming about dangerous things that can happen to your child. You learn to enter a room with a crawling baby looking for things that are on the ground, looking where the electrical outlets are, looking for a bunch of things that never occur to you before you have a child. And I think as someone who was then in the later stages of A Series of Unfortunate Events, I just needed to brainstorm all the time about terrible things that could happen to children, and having a child kind of kept me in that zone. So yeah, I certainly don’t think I’ve become gentler on children since I had one. My son is terrified of my own books, though. He refuses to read them. So maybe that tells you something.
You wrote eight drafts of the film adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events, none of which were used. Based on those sorts of experiences, do you have any advice you’d pass along to other writers?
I don’t know. I mean, I wouldn’t go so far as to say the drafts weren’t used. The drafting of a screenplay is kind of an evolving process, so I was fired and then someone came in to rewrite my script a few more times, so there’s some lines that remain, but . . . what can I say about that? It was a long, dramatic experience. The only thing I think is that some writers who are hired to adapt their own work kind of assume it won’t be a challenge, and I think it always is.
I think everyone who works for Hollywood has that experience sometime, which is that they are being driven totally to the edge by films and development and it’s stressful. But films are really expensive, so if you are in charge of making a $200 million film, you’re going to be nervous, and if you’re nervous then you’re going to want to make sure that the script can’t go wrong, and you’re going to be a nervous person bossing around a screenwriter, and you’re probably going to be unhappy. [laughs]
Are there going to be any more movies based on the series?
I mean, they hired me to write a few drafts of the second one, and they say that they continue to work on it. I never know whether to believe them. But it seems there’s always somebody interested—the ball gets passed to someone who’s interested, so we’ll see.
I don’t know if you saw this New York Times review, but they wrote, “Lemony Snicket has burned us before. Like The X-Files, Lost, and countless other conspiracy-driven sagas, Snicket’s thirteen volumes of A Series of Unfortunate Events left fans with far more questions than answers.” What do you think about that? Do you think that you burned people?
Burned? Gosh, I don’t know. I mean, I’m just interested in stories that ask more questions than they answer, and I understand that some people feel the other way and that’s fine. I never thought that I was writing a book that everybody would love. I tend to hate books that everybody loves. So I’m sorry someone feels burned, but also, I mean, if you’ve ever actually been burned, for instance—like, if your skin has come in contact with something really, really hot, I think that’s a way worse feeling than experiencing a piece of culture that you find unsatisfying.
Well, you’re sort of damned if you do and damned if you don’t, right? Because if you leave any mysteries, people want to know the solutions to the mysteries, but then no solution to a mystery is ever as intriguing as the mystery itself. So people are going to be dissatisfied either way.
Well, I think it goes back to the conversation about, do you want to dispel the mystery of writing or do you want to keep the mystery alive? Because mysteries are more intriguing than solutions, and so this new series is all about asking the wrong questions, and some of those questions lead to more questions, and some of them get answered, and some of them are never answered, and I can understand people who get frustrated by that, but oh well.
I mean, what did you think of the endings of Lost and The X-Files? And do you think that you’re doing something different with the mysteries in your books?
I honestly don’t remember the ending of The X-Files, because I kind of ended up falling off that boat. But in the gothic novels I read that fueled A Series of Unfortunate Events, there’s always lost threads and dark shadows that never get explained, and certainly now in reading noir to prepare for All the Wrong Questions, there’s also those kinds of mysteries that don’t quite fit together, and I think that’s way more alluring. There’s a famous story about when Howard Hawks was making The Big Sleep and they suddenly realized there was some part of the plot that they didn’t understand. They said, “How could he have known about this and gone over there in the middle of the night?” And so they called Raymond Chandler and said, “We don’t understand why this would happen,” and Raymond Chandler said, “How would I know?” Which I really liked.
It’s kind of a sad commentary on book reviewing culture that in The New York Times they’re reviewing a book and they have to compare the ending of the books they’re complaining about to TV shows, that they couldn’t come up with any actual book endings to compare it to.
Yeah, I guess. I mean, I guess it shows more respect for TV? And I welcome literature being brought into the mainstream culture and not kind of ghettoized as this hopelessly arty art form that we can only compare with other classics of literature. You know, I think it’s nice that people can think across different media and see things they have in common. But I admit, having a book compared to the last season of Lost is not maybe my favorite thing that’s ever happened to me.
Yeah, that was a low blow. I mean, come on.
[laughs] Yeah, I try not to—I mean, I’m not one of those writers who refuses to read his reviews or anything, but I’m also not a writer who obsesses over it, and I’m not much of a self-Googler. You’re always going to get stung. You can always find someone who’s hating on you for some reason. And, I don’t know, life’s too short.
You recently wrote an introduction for Chris Van Allsburg’s new book, The Chronicles of Harris Burdick. How’d you get involved with that project?
It’s kind of an embarrassing story, but when I was young I saw The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, which is—I guess I should explain for those who are unfamiliar—is a children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg in which he says, “These are some illustrations that a mysterious man brought. They’re just full-page illustrations with a caption, and there’s a matching story, but the man never reappeared, and so we don’t know what the stories are.” So they’re just these very striking images and strange captions, and you’re forced to kind of invent the story in your head.
And I saw it when I was a child, and I never forgot it, but I also never saw it again, and I never really examined my memory of it—the way you do when you were a child. And so when the Lemony Snicket series was starting, I was talking to the publisher about how important mysteries are, and I said, “When I was a child I saw this book that was nothing but illustrations, and the stories were missing, and it was so intriguing. And, you know, I always wondered what happened to that author.”
And he said, “That’s Chris Van Allsburg. He’s one of the most famous children’s authors working today, and that is a book that’s meant to fool 8-year-olds, and you’re almost 30. Get a grip on yourself.” But I always thought it was a testament to the power of that book, that even though I hadn’t really thought about it concretely for a long time, that the mystery had lurked in my mind.
So a couple years ago, Chris Van Allsburg’s publisher had the idea of asking a bunch of writers to write the stories that might go with these images, and they contacted me. And I said I wasn’t interested in writing a story that went with one of the images, but I would be interested in writing a new introduction, because it was the introduction of the original book, all about this mysterious author, that intrigued me so much when I was young. So then I got to write a new introduction explaining the existence of all these other stories, which was fun to do.
One piece of advice you give to new writers is to get a job where you can steal paper, except now that everything’s going digital is there something else that new writers should be stealing instead?
[laughs] I guess if I started encouraging people to steal their computers from work, that seems quite irresponsible. I don’t know. I mean, I’m still a paper person. I print all my work out when I’m reading it, and I recommend that writers do that, so I still think you should steal stuff from work. But I think when you’re a writer, the important thing is to find the time to write, because you probably need to write one book and throw it away—if only one book. You need to get a lot of bad writing out of the way before you can get the good writing done. And so you just need a job where there’s time to do that.
So my best job that I had before I was published was when I was an executive assistant to a man that was dying in the hospital. So I had absolutely nothing to do but sit in an office, and occasionally the phone would ring from increasingly distant business acquaintances, and I would have to explain to them in muted tones that he was sick and not likely to come back to the office at all. But the rest of the time I worked on my novel. And I actually think the kind of aura of doom that hung over it was very helpful to me as a beginning novelist as well. So I guess I could suggest: Try to work for someone who’s dying. You get a lot of time.
Are there any other new or upcoming projects you’d like to mention?
Well, now it’s just this book. I’m on tour for this book now, so I’m excited about Who Could That Be at This Hour? And I’m going around and asking children mysterious questions, and hopefully not leaving them burned.