a conversation with daniel handler
By KAITLYN TIFFANY
Daniel Handler, who was born on the same day that bikes were first permitted on the Golden Gate bridge, is the author of four novels under his own name (including one described by his publisher as an “incest opera”), as well as 23 under a fake name (including three that were turned into one movie, starring a little-known actress named Meryl Streep).
Handler is best known for the children’s series A Series of Unfortunate Events, which he wrote and narrated between the years 1999 and 2006 (otherwise known as “the editor of this magazine’s formative years”) under the name Lemony Snicket, a pseudonym derived as a bastardization of Jiminy Cricket, “exactly the kind of overly moralistic, cheerful narrator” whom Handler despises, for the purposes of discretely acquiring materials from conservative political organizations.
Due to a combination of aggressive Twitter activity and unprofessional behavior that was, luckily, considered charming, kitsch was able to sit down (a phrase which here means, “conduct heavily-mediated communication from a great distance, at great risk but with much excitement”) with Mr. Handler to talk about A Series of Unfortunate Events, its impending television adaptation and the many frustrations of love and careers in writing.
“Most things written about him are not true, but this is.”
kitsch: Are you going to be answering these questions as Lemony Snicket or as Daniel Handler? Maybe you could alternate. I thought it was funny when Willem Dafoe did that in Spider-Man.
Daniel Handler: I am Daniel Handler, though doubtless I will be played by Willem Dafoe eventually someday.
kitsch: My dad is the type of dad who only reads Malcolm Gladwell and biographies of white comedians. He is an engineer employed in a rather vague capacity by the United States government and a utilitarian, though he has fallen for the ruse of professional sports to a degree. Recently I compelled him to read Dave Eggers and he was medium into it. What books would you recommend for a person like that?
D.H.: Hmm. Peter Omer’s Love and Shame and Love is a great novel and about the politics of a previous generation. Also about Chicago. So he might like that. I just read a fun book about a drunken sailor, McGlue by Otessa Moshfegh, which has the advantage of being very short. I like recommending short books to people because, really, how could they complain?
kitsch: A Series of Unfortunate Events was quite heavily inspired by gothic literature and the All the Wrong Questions series deals mostly in the mystery genre. Can you talk a little bit about your interest in genre fiction? Are there any other genres you’re interested in writing in?
D.H.: I’m of the opinion that all fiction is genre fiction. I am investigating a genre now, but I will not reveal what it is. But someday I would like to write a medical romance — something with a brave and sassy nurse perhaps.
kitsch: When I was seven, I was given as a Christmas present my first two novels — The Secret Garden and The Bad Beginning — I blame my Aunt Patty for creating an avid reader and a conspiracy theorist. Do you remember the first novels that you read and who is to blame?
D.H.: My first grade teacher Mrs. Parrot handed me Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary, which was my first chapter book, I think. But it was the librarian at the West Portal Branch of the library who gave me The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. That was really the gateway drug.
kitsch: Do you watch American Horror Story? The new season, Freak Show, reminds all of us at kitsch of The Carnivorous Carnival and we hope that you love Jessica Lange as much as we do.
D.H.: Jessica Lange will forever be the heroine of King Kong — ”Put me down, you male chauvinist pig ape!” — and Poison Ivy.
kitsch: Who are your favorite competitors and/or dead people who also wrote children’s books? (You should know that if you reference Barbara Park you will trigger an extended weeping session for me.)
D.H.: My favorite children’s book was written by Dino Buzzati, who mostly wrote moving and angry political novels for adults. But I try not to be competitive. I don’t worry about what writers to beat — I concentrate on what I can steal from them.
kitsch: NETFLIX! I have to tell you, my boyfriend was skimming Reddit instead of listening to me talk the other day, and there was a thread asking “What book series should be adapted into a TV show?” and A Series of Unfortunate Events was the top-rated comment and both of us literally convulsed with joy at the thought of it. And then it came true! On my birthday! Anyway, the real question is, how much creative involvement do you think you’ll have with the adaptation, and how does that compare to your involvement with the film?
D.H.: I am still exhausted from coordinating all this to happen on your birthday. Netflix found that request of mine odd. I’m sure they will find future requests of mine odd, too. I was eventually fired from the Lemony Snicket movie; we’ll see what happens here.
kitsch: Related: Who do you imagine the audience being for this show? Most of the original A Series of Unfortunate Events readers are now in their 20s, I’d imagine. Do you think they’re going to aim for them or for a younger demographic? Do kids use Netflix? I don’t even know.
D.H.: I don’t think about audience that much. But if I must, I imagine a family with children of assorted ages ranging from first grade to graduate school. They make popcorn and pull out the sofa bed and lounge around watching something interesting on television. They have some flecks of Japanese seaweed that they sprinkle on their popcorn. Those are the families I’m after.
kitsch: Related: Would you be willing to use Netflix’s helpful “Viewing Activity” feature to tell us the last five things you’ve watched on Netflix?
D.H.: My Netflix viewing is top secret, as we are currently watching things directed by people who might direct the Snicket series. But I’ll take this opportunity to recommend five films: Lair of the White Worm, Paranoiac, Happy Endings, Saboteur, Careful.
kitsch: Do you know how frustrating The Beatrice Letters were for 12 year olds who were neurotic and had lots of free time? I am asking on behalf of all of them but especially on behalf of me.
D.H.: Love is often frustrating, particularly at 12.
kitsch: This year you awarded the first Lemony Snicket Prize for Noble Librarians Faced with Adversity. Can you talk a little bit about how you decided to establish this prize? Would you tell me about the best librarian you ever knew?
D.H.: The idea for the prize was actually my editor’s. She said something along the lines of, “You have some extra money. You should give it to a librarian.” And I said, “Yes of course! But maybe I should let the American Library Association choose, instead of just giving it out randomly.” And the American Library Association said, “Yes of course.” As for the best librarian I ever knew, that’s a little like talking about old girlfriends. They were all splendid. I was in need of them. It worked out fine.
kitsch: Can you talk a little about the inspiration for Girls Standing on Lawns and specifically the line, “There will come a time when you can’t believe it’s you standing on the lawn.” I felt that this collection was something that would make basically any female viewer shiver with recognition, but I can’t quite describe the feeling that I’m recognizing.
D.H.: I think the feeling you’re recognizing is the somewhat existential realization that the world marches on. It is also encapsulated by the phrase “Time flies.” I don’t know if this is particularly female, as so far I’ve only been male.
kitsch: At kitsch, we are incapable of thinking of anything to do with our lives besides becoming writers. From reading A Series of Unfortunate Events we have learned that the world is unjust and by looking around this university we have learned that it is especially unjust for those who want to dedicate their lives to things that aren’t worth much money. Do you have any advice for us?
D.H.: Read a lot. Write things down. Don’t drink too much. Be kind to your friends and people who might turn out to be your friends. Marry someone sensible.
kitsch: For when you are trapped in an elevator, what one card trick, two jokes and three memorized poems do you keep on hand?
D.H.: The punchlines are “It’s only a hobby” and “Fat.” The poems are by James Schulyer, Robin Robertson — this is the one that makes people cry — and Dorothy Parker. The card trick is indescribable, but professionals have been amazed by it.
kitsch: As a girl child, I found your books to be among the rare few that had a variety of interesting and complicated female characters, as well as the rarer few that didn’t treat children like they were stupid. That’s not a question, just a thank you.
D.H.: You are very kind. You seem like an interesting and complicated female character yourself, if you don’t mind my saying so.