October 2008

Ronnie Scott


An Interview with Daniel Handler

If you ever go down to a bookstore to meet Lemony Snicket, you’ll be greeted by a representative by the name of Daniel Handler. Mr. Handler will apologize for Mr. Snicket’s absence and proceed to entertain you himself; perhaps whipping out his accordion to distract you. But it’s a trick! They are the same person.

Besides writing the second-most ubiquitous children’s books of the decade, Daniel Handler is the author of three lovable books for adults. As an examination of some very topical '90s themes -- high school cliques, absinthe abuse, high school violence, Oprah Winfrey -- The Basic Eight is unmatched for its interplay of sensitive humour and outright cool. Watch Your Mouth is a structurally awkward incest comedy: the first half is an opera, the second half is a twelve-step program, and there’s a golem near the middle. Adverbs, Handler’s most recent novel, is a walking tour of how love is done, with chapters labeled "Frigidly," "Often," "Not particularly" and so on -- besides a funny book, it’s all class. Its scope of character and tone is comparable to 69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields, an album to which Mr. Handler contributes his accordion.

Dave Eggers may blurb many good things, but his blurb for Adverbs is dead-on: "Anyone who lives to read gorgeous writing will want to lick this book and sleep with it between their legs." Daniel Handler’s books are bright and funny and intoxicating. You’ll give them to your friends and want them back immediately. Mr. Handler spoke to Bookslut via e-mail.

You've said elsewhere that Adverbs took five years to write, and the first draft was more than a thousand pages. Was there anything useful in the cuts? I remember reading your short story, "Delmonico," thinking it might have been cut from Adverbs.

With a few tiny exceptions, the only useful thing about the cuts is that they were cut. The material included further (mis)adventures of the participants, and much linkage that began to make the book into a Robert Altman film, which I didn't want. "Delmonico" was written on assignment -- [Michael] Chabon called me and said he was doing this anthology, and I said (without thinking) "I'd like to do a locked-room mystery" and he said "great" and then I had to figure out how to write one.

Right; one of the most memorable things about Adverbs is the pitch at which the characters and events are linked -- sometimes it was Short Cuts, but sometimes different people just (probably) had the same name. This felt like a heightened version of some reality principle, like how I happen to know a lot of people named Ben, but there isn't one ubiquitous Ben who affects my whole life.

Not to be coy, but I'm not sure what you mean by a reality principle. Nabokov famously said that "reality" is the only word in the English language that only makes sense with quotes around it.

Sure; I guess I mean it in quotes. In other interviews, you've expressed frustration with "realism.” But when you respond to "realism,” I think your novels end up feeling more "like life.” In A Series of Unfortunate Events, I get the same "like life" feeling from the mysterious question mark. Throughout the books, I wanted very badly for the hundreds of intricate mysteries to be solved. But what you ended up doing with them was much more satisfying.

There's nothing more unrealistic than having the mysteries of life laid bare and exposed. So much of supposed realism actually traffics in the stalest of narrative clichés -- plot devices that feel lifted from the cheapest of dramas. I don't mind narrative clichés -- how could I, given my work? -- but it drives me nuts when it's called realism. I was just reading reviews of Richard Price's most recent novel, which I enjoyed very much, and one by one the critics called the dialog realistic, when it's clearly the result of careful styling. Realistic dialog would have all sorts of hemming and hawing and redundancies. Just about every line of dialog in Adverbs is something I overheard, but of course I shaped it and recontextualized it. I suppose one could make a case for calling that realism.

Maybe the mistake is using "realism" to mean "a thing that rings the 'truth' bell.” I mean, you couldn't call A Series of Unfortunate Events realistic, but it feels uncommonly truthful. The last book also felt to me, as a reader, like you were walking a tightrope. Realistic or not, the trope is for the mysteries of life, or at least of the first twelve books, to be laid bare. Did you feel like you were doing an amazing thing, or a strange thing at all? I'm not sure that's the right question - what I'm interested in is how the last book in the series works. I found it exciting, and I'm not sure you've talked about it elsewhere.

Writing a book is always a tightrope walk, and always feels strange -- one must care about something so thoroughly, in an embryonic state, that one has made up to begin with. It was actually fairly easy to write the last volume of A Series of Unfortunate Events -- it was the twelfth volume, in which the stage had to be cleared for The End, that proved difficult. The Penultimate Peril is more of an ending, with the recurrence of many characters from previous volumes, a few secrets revealed, and a finale of sorts. In The End I simply wanted to open up the story a bit, so that the lives of the characters would feel like lives, while the story would feel like a story, but the lives would move past the story, carrying their own questions. It's always difficult to talk about books this way without sounding like an idiot.

I don't think you sound like an idiot. I think that answer was a great success. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but the lack of news suggests there won't be a sequel to the film anytime soon.

Believe it or not a sequel does seem to be in the works. Paramount has had quite a few corporate shakeups, widely documented in articles I find too stupefying to finish, which has led to many a delay. Of course many, many plans in Hollywood come to naught, but I'm assured that another film will be made. Someday. Perhaps.

Whoa! I don't even think about movies being based on your books very much, but in googling you, it comes up constantly. In your dream cast, who's Flannery from The Basic Eight?

Oh, I'm lousy at casting. I pretty much got thrown out of the Snicket movie casting conversation by insisting on James Mason as Count Olaf, his death notwithstanding.

Do you write short stories when you haven't been commissioned? Your novels each have deliberate, complex structures and balances, so I don't know how that changes with scale.

I write short stories from time to time, although frankly an assignment always helps, because I don't think I really have a grip on the form. I prefer novels -- writing them and reading them -- and even collections from masters (i.e. Munro, Murakami, Wallace, Williams) are often not as satisfying to me as a novel. But every so often I read an excellent story -- one that could never be a novel, or a chapter -- and I'm reminded how powerful they can be. I have a sort of long-term plan with a handful of other writers to do a book together, so at the moment that's the assignment that's keeping me writing a few stories.

Have you seen that your high school graduation video is on YouTube? Do you know who put it there?

I can't watch the YouTube video -- I get mortified by the sound of my own voice -- but I don't mind it up there. My wife tells me that the video seems to have been professionally recorded, so I suppose there was an official Lowell High School 1988 Graduation videographer, although I have no memory of that. My strongest memory of my high school graduation is that the other student speaker said, "I think it says something about this school that a gay man can address the crowd," and afterwards everyone thought he was outing me, when he was actually outing himself. Ah, youth.

Is San Francisco as fun as it looks? The Australian cover of The Basic Eight has a girl, presumably Flannery, looking coolly out at what I've always assumed is San Francisco, and it's reflected in her glasses.

I very much like the image on the cover of The Basic Eight, although in the states it appears on the cover of a John O'Hara novel so we can't use it. I don't recognize the skyline, but last night I had a dinner party in which much local cheese, wine and bourbon were consumed, and this morning we're hurriedly throwing together a Mexican brunch, involving many heirloom tomatoes, which we're wolfing down before heading on over to an outside music festival. That description makes San Francisco sound quite fun indeed, but I'm prejudiced -- my love for San Francisco is such that I'm always saying, "You can't get this anywhere else but here," to which the listener will occasionally reply, "That's Early Grey tea, Daniel. You can get that anywhere."

There's not much more wonderful than civic pride. Do you do most of your socialising with writers?

I have a great number of friends who aren't writers, thank goodness, but I also have a great desire to take walks at 4 PM and talk about how lousily a particular paragraph is going. My companions tend to be writers, as I can't imagine who else would be interested in such a thing.

It feels a little strange to be asking questions about YouTube, and casting, and whether most of your friends are writers, but I think you have a reputation for being a fun guy. I want to ask you about humour in your writing. Have you reached the point where you pretty much know if a joke works or doesn't?

The question is never if a joke works or not -- not because I know whether or not it works, simply because it doesn't seem like the question. The question is, is the joke worth it? Sometimes I go to too-great lengths for a joke. I'm trying to see both sides of the seesaw, as it were. I'm reading Julie Hecht at the moment, and I like to see when her jokes work, and when they go horribly -- and gloriously -- awry.

There are bits in Adverbs where it feels like the humour hits critical mass; there's just one absurd line too many and suddenly the whole thing tips over. I'm thinking of "Collectively." Is that something like what you mean by the joke going awry?

Hopefully I've caught all my seriously awry moments before publication, although I'm sure readers will disagree. I'm just attracted to jokes; a good joke can sum up the state of the world (and of language) with more grace than most sonnets. I always think it's interesting that comedy isn't taken seriously -- a funny novel never gets the respect of some slim weeper -- although even the phrase "comedy isn't taken seriously" is a joke right there.

That's interesting. I thought you were talking about jokes going awry as a good thing. You've published a couple of small jokey books with McSweeney's, illustrated by your wife, Lisa Brown. The Pope one and the Latke one. Did they evolve formally?

The Pope book evolved from sitting around in bed with my wife, cracking each other up. Much of our marriage is enacted this way. (I recently mentioned this to another novelist and she said, "You know what I do with my husband, when we're in bed? Make love.") The Latke book was the result of a title I had for a long time in my head, to which I finally was able to fit a story. My wife and I started a zine early in our relationship -- American Chickens! -- so collaboration via cracking-each-other-up-in-bed comes naturally.

You do a lot of "small" work. How does that fit practically around the novels?

Well, the McSweeney’s books are fun from start to finish -- the composing of them is quick enough to be almost instant gratification, and the folks at McSweeney’s are always imaginative in thinking about packaging and publishing. It's a nice break to do books like the Pope book, and then return to the lengthier, more brow-furrowing pursuits.

What else has been taking up your time since Adverbs and A Series of Unfortunate Events? Are you still writing The Song from Venus, the musical with Stephin Merritt?

The Song From Venus, after some time on the back burner, has recently moved to what is perhaps a middle burner. I am also at work on a puppet show, in collaboration with Phantom Limb.

And you played accordion for Stars, right? In researching this interview, I saw some variation of the phrase "The thing about being an accordionist is that you're the best accordionist anybody knows" a bunch of times. What would an accordion fight be like?

Yep, that's me on one song on the most recent Stars album. Whenever I meet a competent accordion player I do the equivalent of rolling over and showing my belly, often in the form of buying a drink. Today, however, I went on a local carousel with my son, and to my astonishment the music they played was The Magnetic Fields's "Zebra," featuring me double-tracked on accordion. I'm sure there aren't too many musicians who can claim to play indie rock and on carousel soundtracks.

What's The Song From Venus about?

The Song From Venus is so outlandish that to discuss it in-progress would be even more foolish than writing it.

Sure. Is your book about a modern day pirate who wants to be an olden-day pirate still happening?

The pirate book is about people who are trying to be pirates in the present day. I do hope it's still "happening," because I'm trying to finish it.

Are you enjoying it?

All's well with the pirate novel because I'm in the early stages, where I believe I can fix anything that isn't perfect yet. As with the pirates themselves, despair and failure will set in soon enough.

When you say you're in the early stages, do you mean you've got a "complete" draft, or that it's still being written for the first time?

There's no such thing as a "complete" draft. I have some pages now. I will add to them, and then subtract, and then subtract again, and then I will let my wife read them, and then I will subtract again, and perhaps then someone from the publishing industry will read them. I am lucky enough not to be bound by financial necessity in terms of finishing a draft and selling a book, but this means that the process is even more haphazard than it is for most writers.

Haphazard? What's your working process, day-by-day?

Well, I'm at my desk Monday through Friday, about 9 AM to about 3 PM, after which I take a walk. My day isn't haphazard, but one can never predict how long it will take until a manuscript is worth reading, let alone until a manuscript is a book. A good part of writing well is writing lousily.

What happens at your desk for that six hours?

Well, at present I'm writing and rewriting for about six hours. I have stacks of notes on what I'm reworking in the text itself, and I'll consult those notes while typing into a computer or writing into a legal pad and then typing into the computer what I wrote on the legal pad. While I'm thinking I toss unsharpened pencils around the room and eat a lot of raw carrots. I listen to music more or less constantly -- for the pirate novel, it's a lot of classical music from the Romantic era, as it has the kind of swashbuckling dazzle that I'm often going for, although the latest Matmos album is getting a lot of play, too.

Do you and Lisa work from home?

My wife has a studio walking-distance away, but I work at home. I'd never be able to figure out which books I'd keep at the office and which I'd keep at home. I like the reminder that life is an integration of work and not-work -- the fact that the chair I sit in while editing manuscripts is the same chair I use to read for pleasure is a symbol of the pleasures and terrors of literary life.

I like how you emphasise the integration of work and not-work. Did it take you a long time to figure out how not to work too much, or too little, and not to feel guilty when you weren't working?

For me, the issue is not when I am working too hard (i.e., forgetting to eat) or when I am not working enough (i.e., afternoons at the movies). I have enough of an innate work ethic not to do too much of either. The times I feel bad are the times I am working but not getting anything done -- I'll write eight pages, knowing full well the whole time that there's not a sentence in there to keep. Then I'll give myself a hard time about it. I can never quite escape the feeling that the dismal results of trying are due to not enough trying. But that's a Jewish mother for you.

Before the Snicket books took off, what did you do for money?

Before the Snicket books took off I answered phones, sold books, wrote for radio, read manuscripts for a literary agent, played cocktail piano and reviewed films. None of this made any money, really, but it made enough.

Say you'd never written the Lemony Snicket books, and The Basic Eight had sold decently, but you still had to work other jobs to support yourself. What would you be happiest doing?

It is quite easy to imagine myself without the benefit of the Snicket books, because I'd be in the same boat as nearly every writer I know -- teaching, freelancing, the occasional grant. I always assumed that I'd end up teaching someplace, and it's still a career I find interesting. There's something about interviews like these (however charmingly conducted) that feels a little free-floating and unanchored -- talking about writing without knowing exactly to what the talk is being applied. It's easier for me to think and talk about writing when it's being applied to a particular piece, so I think I've been a fairly good teacher. (Of course, there's the time-sucking aspects of teaching, but as this career is largely in my imagination, I'm leaving those aspects out.)

Do you ever edit your friends' manuscripts?

Recently, when a friend was stuck, I read two drafts of the same novel, back to back, and then had a long lunch with him, but that's the deepest I've ever dove into someone else's in-progress work. I look at friends' manuscripts all the time, but mostly, among writers, the only question we have of each other is "Have I gone completely off the deep end?" Usually the answer is no. 

You've said elsewhere that you don't understand writers who hate to sit down and write; why do it? But recently, I heard "becoming a writer" likened to giving yourself homework for the rest of your life. Is your sense of a workday purely to do with putting in the six hours?

There's no question that you can never really turn off the writing process -- I am in fact answering this question because I snuck back to my office, while guests are in my home, to jot down a note about Chapter 5. You can't shut it off, but by the same token, you can't stay in your office forever, either. Guests await a second martini, after all.

Are you inventive with cocktails, or do you stick to classics and standards?

I don't invent my own cocktails, but I enjoy recreating drinks from a bygone era. This weekend we're having a small gathering to drink the last Aviation (gin, lemon, maraschino, drop of violet) of the summer. I think of the Aviation as a classic cocktail, but I suppose it's like thinking of Murakami as a classic author -- those who consume him have probably already drunk themselves through the real classics.

It's sort of refreshing and fun to hear a present-day writer talk about enjoying cocktails. It pulls me up a bit, like when Javier Marias writes essays on his love of smoking, which of course is different. As a "man of a certain age,” does your love of alcohol get you any flak?

I'm too much of a lightweight to earn much flak, I'm afraid. I enjoy cocktails immensely but not in immense qualities. I didn't really drink until I met my wife (wait, that came out wrong) so perhaps I'm making up for a misspent youth.

My partner said, when we discussed your answer, "Don't be ridiculous. What about all the absinthe he drank in high school?" I think of The Basic Eight and Adverbs as well-loved books; my copies, I lend to someone and they lend them on. But not as many people borrow Watch Your Mouth. Besides how it's an incest comedy, do you think there's any reason behind that? The title displays “attitude.”

I just read from Watch Your Mouth for the first time in eight years, at the end of an event at which authors read from dirty books. I was reminded once more that Watch Your Mouth actually tackles subject matter that many people find genuinely unsettling -- the audience had been giggling at blowjobs all evening, but when actually confronted with something dirty they were much more nervous. I certainly don't fault people for being wary of the novel. Does the title really display "attitude?" It's the only time I found a title for a novel that I thought was absolutely perfect, but nobody can ever remember it.

Well, it's an imperative, and it has sass -- maybe people block it out, it has too much sass for them. The Australian cover shows two young people tangled up and kissing in an airbrushed way, so maybe this has influenced me; it's magazine-y. The title and that cover sit uneasily together, even though neither feels subversive on its own. Did you help pick the cover?

I just found this cover on Google images. I've never seen it in my life, which is odd but sadly not unprecedented. There was a British edition that was cheerfully obscene -- a vintage portrait of a family with an accidentally suggestive image -- and the American paperback is quite nice, complete with differently-colored ink for the first and second parts. We even talked about publishing the book in two slim volumes, like Murakami's Norwegian Wood, as I always think of the book as in two very distinct parts. But mostly I have a very poor visual sense (thank goodness for my designer spouse, otherwise I'd live in one of those hideous bachelor places, with the furniture all wrong) and so I'm more interested than opinionated in the design. I did, however, ask Dan Clowes, who's a friend, to do the cover for the American edition of Adverbs, and I think it turned out splendidly, although Australia didn't like it, and the Australian edition won a design award, so there you go.

I've pasted all this into Word, thinking it's about time to go through and pick up any questions we missed. Are there any threads you wish we'd followed, or any secret questions you're just begging to be asked, if only I could see?

I was about to sign off the interview "It's cocktail hour" but I think I sound like enough of a lush.