Daniel Handler

Daniel Handler knows how to stay busy. As a children’s author under the name Lemony Snicket, he wrote the 13-volume, bestselling A Series Of Unfortunate Events novels, plus a series of standalone books, including Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid, The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming, and 13 Words. As a musician, he’s written songs with Stephin Merritt and played accordion in Merritt’s bands The Magnetic Fields and The Gothic Archies. He’s scripted two movies, Rick and Kill The Poor, and wrote an early draft of the 2004 movie Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events, before being “more or less fired as a screenwriter.” And his adult books include The Basic Eight, Watch Your Mouth, and Adverbs.

But there was one area of literature he hadn’t tried yet: the young-adult novel. Handler rectified that in late December with Why We Broke Up, an illustrated novel written in the form of a break-up note from a teenage girl named Min to her boyfriend Ed, centering on a series of mundane objects she’s returning to him—items artistically rendered by Handler’s 13 Words collaborator, Maira Kalman—and using each item to illustrate how they came together, and how he failed her, leading to the breakup. While gearing up for the Why We Broke Up book tour, Handler called The A.V. Club to talk about surrounding himself with teenagers, unwittingly being a high-school “playa,” his next Lemony Snicket series, and getting dissed by his own mom.

The A.V. Club: What was involved with developing the voice of the book? How do you go about getting into the character of a teenage girl?

Daniel Handler: I think what helped was that I take public transportation every day. I walk my kid to school, and I take the bus to go swim laps, and it’s full of high-school students. I didn’t do any conscious research about it, but I’m just always surrounded by high-school girls. Does that sound creepy? Maybe it does.

AVC: Maybe less so because it’s a running bit in Young Adult, where Charlize Theron plays a YA author who eavesdrops on teenage girls and inserts their words into her work, verbatim.  Did you go that far with it?

DH: No, they were just kind of around me, so I didn’t get quite as out of touch with teenager-dom as most people do when they grow up. I mean, I didn’t really take notes, because it’s so part of my everyday existence that it never occurred to me as source material. When I sat down to write the book, I didn’t find it very challenging, and I’ve decided that it’s because I was around it.

AVC: Did anyone in particular inspire the POV protagonist, Min?

DH: No, I think it’s just an amalgam. I also live near a couple of arthouse theaters, so it’s always charming to see young people discovering different aspects of classic cinema. I just think it’s fun to hear people saying, “You know, I’ve never actually seen a Clark Gable movie” as the lights are going down, and I’m thinking, “The adventure is beginning for you, and I’m in the middle of it.” So I noticed those people, too, but certainly there wasn’t any particular teenage girl I was stalking and taking notes on to put her in a novel.

AVC: How much of your own high-school experience still sticks with you?

DH: A lot of it, I think. I’m very close to my old high-school gang, still. It was a big formative time for me, in many ways more than college. I had a good crowd, and we were all pretentious creative types, and so we discovered a lot of books and music and film and art together. We were all of course hopelessly incestuous, so I got a lot of romantic lessons, and learned the importance of being friends with the people you were romantically involved with. I think that’s never left me, in a way.

AVC: Speaking of music and film, Why We Broke Up is packed with specific detail about the obscure movies Min watches, down to discussing individual scenes and actors and cinematographers. It reads like you’re promoting films you love, but every detail is invented.

DH: They are, in fact, all made up.

AVC: Detail makes a story, but putting so much focus on the intricacies of specific nonexistent films seems like an odd choice. What were you going for there?

DH: Well it seems that Min would get into those details, and it was fun to do. I always have trouble naming characters, so to give a bunch of fictional characters names that sound like movie-star names, but didn’t directly mimic any particular movie star, that was kind of a headache. But once I made up a movie, I could see it all. I could enter Min’s kind of film-geeky brain and figure out all of those details. And, I always think it’s more fun to make up a pop-culture detail, particularly in books written for teenagers. Now there’s often so much lazy pop-culture references in lieu of making things up that it seemed a shame to join that sad parade.

AVC: How did you hit on the structure of basing each chapter around a specific item?

DH: Well, Maira [Kalman] and I worked on this picture book together, 13 Words, and had a wonderful time. And then we decided we wanted to do another book. And with 13 Words, I had just given Maira a manuscript. The whole idea and concept was mine from the start, so I thought this time, we should let her take the first step. So she just showed me a bunch of things she wanted to paint, a bunch of small objects. I said, “You know, we can do a book about whatever you want,” and she showed me ticket stubs and hat-check claims, and all these tiny items I knew once she painted, would become beautiful. I just began to think about what makes an ordinary object beautiful in life. One of the things that can do it is just a memory. You can look at something, and it’s renewed with life, and you can say, “Oh my goodness, look at this sock I just found, remember when I wore this?” Something that looks like, to everyone else, something to throw away will look magical to you.

So then all the objects seemed like they could fit in a box. I just had a vision that it was all leftovers from a relationship. Then I just pictured how satisfying it would be to dump a box of those memories on someone’s stoop, and it came from there. Then it seemed like if you were writing a letter you’d just take the objects one by one and rant about them. And then, after a couple experiments, I decided it should be chronologically straightforward, otherwise it began to seem like a collaboration between a scattered, post-structuralist poet and whoever wrote (500) Days Of Summer.

AVC: Did you create the book solely around the items she came up with, or did you create items to stage the story? What was the process there?

DH: Both. She showed me things she wanted to paint, and I started there, and then there was a lot of give and take. We like talking to each other, Ms. Kalman and I, so we were happy to get on the phone and say, “Should it be a tube of toothpaste, or maybe a comb?” And then she kept—she’s a big photographer, not a professional photographer, but she’s constantly taking pictures of things. So she would just send me odd things that she would find, and we went from there.

AVC: Where do your sympathies lie in the relationship? 

DH: The relationship in the book, I take it, not my relationship with Maira Kalman? [Laughs.] I guess ultimately my sympathies are with myself in my relationship with Maira Kalman. Well, I think my sympathies are for both people. I had a lot of girlfriends in high school. In fact, I just saw my eighth-grade girlfriend for the first time in a long time, and she described me as a “playa,” which is not a term that existed when we were in eighth grade. I was shocked at that, because I thought of myself as an endless romantic. I just kept falling for girl after girl after girl. And she thought of me as a playa. I thought it was interesting that there’s kind of a fine line between those things. So I’m sympathetic with Ed, even though he behaves caddishly. He doesn’t really have the tools to behave any better. And I’m sympathetic with Min, of course, because she’s betrayed. But also, you could see it was doomed from the start. The relationship had to do with the cinematic fantasy she was attaching to it.

AVC: You talk about being a romantic, but the book seems a repudiation of romance. This is one of those “two people who seem like opposites resist each other but find love” stories, briefly, but it abruptly falls apart at the end. You know it’s going to from the title on, but it’s still a stark reversal of the genre. Do you see this as an anti-romance book, or an anti-romantic book?

DH: Um. It’s probably both. I’ve always been suspicious of the notion that it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, because you only say that to someone who is utterly shattered, and then it doesn’t seem worth it. But I think the interesting thing about romance is that you can’t pin it down, and I think the book in some ways tries to pin in down in the way Adverbs did, in that, when you take coldhearted, clear-eyed stock of a romantic relationship, it rarely seems worth the trouble. But nobody feels that way when they’re in love—they’ll do anything.

AVC: A great deal of your work is about love, on some level. That’s a common topic in art, especially art for young people, but it’s still noticeable how often you come back to it. Why does it particularly appeal to you as a subject?

DH: Well, Adverbs was written during time stolen from working on A Series Of Unfortunate Events, and I always thought the matter of Adverbs was the one thing that doesn’t belong in a book for young children, which is that kind of love. Certainly absent in the world of the Baudelaire orphans is the idea that they’d be in that kind of love. I just think romance is interesting. I don’t know, it’s probably also that I’ve been with my wife forever, because I met her very young, so through luck, I’ve exempted myself from the usual string of romantic disasters that many people go through in their 20s, and instead got to watch it from a safe, secure post as it happened to everyone I knew. It was always interesting to me.

AVC: Does having all those romantic experiences as a teenager, then settling down with somebody, make it easier to recapture those intense teenage relationships in your books, because those are your points of comparison?

DH: Huh, maybe. I don’t know. Or it could be the love I feel for my wife reaches the same desperation and ridiculousness that young love has. That’s probably a better guess. It didn’t seem hard to me to capture what that was like. I always think when people think back on high school, the number of memories that take place in a classroom, or have something to do with actual work they were possibly doing there, is nil. It’s all about these moments that are mostly internal, when you’re thinking about something that’s happening, or some disaster. I think I would find it harder to write about someone who was my age who was happily married, frankly.

AVC: A lot of people in books and films these days—girls particularly—get defined by a list of quirks that stand in for a personality. Min is struggling with that in the book, fighting the labels people put on her, like “arty” and “quirky.” How do you go about creating a character that’s more than just the sum of what she likes, or what she likes to do?

DH: I don’t know. I’m always hesitant about talking about character in the abstract, because I believe character in literature is just developed in the story, and the way we get to know Min is because of what happens to her, what she says and how she describes things. So many people are defined by their interest in some kind of art form or piece of culture, but they aren’t practitioners of that, they aren’t even going to be practitioners of that. That just was interesting to me. It does seem like a big gap between life and life as portrayed in not-very-well-written books for young people is that—you can know plenty of people who are crazy about The Smiths, or never miss a Martin Scorsese movie, but that’s not actually what’s defining about them, and wasn’t even when they were 15. So I think maybe Min finds her voice in that space between what people define her as and what she really is.

AVC: People certainly attempt to self-define and define their relationships through what they like, which is one of the interesting things between Min and Ed: She doesn’t think their relationship is doomed just because they don’t like the same things. Do you think pop-culture tastes are a defining part of a relationship?

DH: Well, I guess it depends on what the pop culture is, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. I think that when people define themselves based on what they like, it tends to be kind of a shorthand. And so even if you actually think three or four Lady Gaga songs are really catchy, and you like listening to them over and over again, you might not put on your match.com profile that you’re a big Lady Gaga fan, because that will automatically carry a bunch of baggage. So I think when people do use stuff they like, it’s because it carries a lot of baggage they feel applies to them. [Exaggerated, pretentious voice.] Or so I hear, what would I know about match.com? [Laughs.] I’ve been with someone since before the Internet.

I tend to be the recipient of things, where [a fan will] say, “Oh, I really like your work,” and they’ll give me something they think I’ll like. It’s always a bit distressing when someone who’s a big fan of yours gives you something that they also love, and you don’t like it. You begin to think, “I seem to be making things that appeal to people who have horrendous taste. What’s wrong with me?” I don’t know what that anecdote illustrates, frankly. It’s just what it made me think of. Particularly of gothic culture—I just have stacks and stacks of things that people send me that they assume I will like. And some of it is good, but most of it is terrible.

AVC: Are you talking about gothic music, or gothic literature, or art, or what?

DH: Kind of the whole shebang. I think people imagine that I’d like a huge ring with a skull on it. I know what they mean, but I don’t want that on my finger.

AVC: The book follows some the pattern of a modern indie-romance movie: quirky girl, conventional boy, overlooked best friend waiting in the wings. Given your work in cinema, when you were writing this, did you think at all about what it would look like as a screenplay or movie?

DH: No. I kind of always think my work is unfilmable, and when I meet people who are interested in filming it, I’m always stunned. Why We Broke Up was just sold to the movies, and when my film agent said he was going to show it to people, I said, “But there’s no plot. They just fall in love, and then they’re not in love anymore.” And he said, “No, no, no. There’s a movie here.” And as often happens, he was right and I was wrong. I don’t think about what a movie would look like. In some ways, I don’t have much of a visual sense. I’m working on a project now, and I’m looking at the first drawings from an illustrator, and suddenly all these things that are actually described in manuscripts, I’m seeing for the first time, and I don’t think I’ve had a vision of them, which is probably handy if you work with a film studio.

AVC: That said, you have worked in film. Do you want to get back to that world? Would you want to be involved in the film version of Why We Broke Up?

DH: Well, I am involved in the film version of Why We Broke Up, at least for now. I like writing for movies. It’s nice to be alone working on fiction in your room, and then it’s nice to be in a room with a bunch of people working on a movie. It’s also my source of health insurance. But I like it, it’s an interesting challenge, and it feels good for me not to be isolated all the time, as I am when I’m writing fiction.

AVC: You’re supposedly working on another Lemony Snicket project. Is that the four-book project launching in 2012?

DH: That is supposedly what it is. I like the word “supposedly,” because it’s true. If I die tomorrow, it definitely won’t happen. It’s true, yes. There’s a new series. The first volume will be out next fall of 2012.

AVC: Is it too soon to talk about that? Can you say anything about it?

DH: It’s mostly too soon. I’m trying to think of things that I could talk about that would be of interest.

AVC: For instance, can you say whether it involves any of the same characters, or whether it’s a spin-off, or an entirely new thing?

DH: Oh, well, it takes place a long time before A Series Of Unfortunate Events. I can say that. Not a long time geologically. It’s before the Baudelaire orphans are born. So they’re not in it, what with not being born. But I guess if these personhood initiatives take, then the pre-born will start appearing in literature.

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AVC: Speaking of supposed projects, the IMDB has you as a writer on something called “Untitled Lemony Snicket Sequel.”

DH: [Laughs.] No, that is the final title. I mean, there’s always someone holding a flag for a Lemony Snicket sequel, a sequel to A Series Of Unfortunate Events. And there is a script. I wrote a script. I’m trying to think of when I wrote that draft of the script. It was quite some time ago. But just when I had given up absolutely all hope of it, it kind of got turned around, and people started getting interested, and I did another draft of the script. So right now we’re in another period where no one seems interested, and it does not at all seem likely to happen. But I’ve thought that before, then it got closer, so I don’t know.

AVC: Given your distaste for the first film and the fallout there, how actively do you want to see a sequel happen?

DH: I’m always interested to see what films are made of books. I kind of don’t participate as a filmgoer in any kind of debate about what’s better, the book or the movie. So I think it’s interesting when people want to do it. I did have a long time working on the first film that was full of joy and sadness, so if there ever were concerted work on the second one, I would certainly prefer more joy than sadness. It’s funny, that way. I’m not down in Hollywood beating the bushes, saying, “That was such a great one, let’s make another one.” It’s more that every so often, people are interested in it, and I’m flattered, and then I participate for a while.

AVC: You used to appear at bookstore events as “Daniel Handler, Lemony Snicket’s representative.” Do you still do events related to A Series Of Unfortunate Events or subsequent Lemony Snicket stuff?

DH: I have. I’ve kept a lower profile, and I anticipate for the new series, it will be something else. But I’ve never done an event as Lemony Snicket—it’s always “Lemony Snicket can’t show up, and I’m here,” which I always thought was not as dishonest as everyone said it was, because Lemony Snicket is the narrator of the books, so he couldn’t possibly show up. So it wasn’t a lie to say I was his representative, really. But I like that people thought it was a lie, and liked it anyway. That charmed me. 

AVC: Do you miss the glory days of that character, when Lemony Snicket was more of a going concern than Daniel Handler? Or is it more fun to be out there as yourself?

DH: I liked both, I guess. I was happy when it was going on, then I was happy when it stopped going on. I don’t think I would want it to be going on all the time. It was such a higher level of recognition than I ever thought I would get about anything that it never stopped being weird. And then, as I’ve continued to go out and do work, I’ve met a bunch of people who are quite famous, and there’s really very little that seems enviable about that. So I think with the new Snicket series, the thing I’m most self-conscious about is, I hope I don’t seem like someone who’s trying to reclaim former glory or something. I find that embarrassing, every part of it. Former glory, reclaiming, all of it, embarrassing. But it was something to pull up at a Barnes & Noble and have hundreds and hundreds of people there. That was really fun. They don’t stop by my house anymore, and I don’t miss that.

AVC: Was that happening with kids, or adults, or adults with children?

DH: Both. And then—I go and talk at colleges and in creative-writing classes. It’s fun to meet people who were young when these books started who are now basically grownups, as far as that goes. The age when I thought of myself as a grownup, even though they don’t look like grownups to me now. I just taught this undergraduate class, and this woman spoke fleetingly of her lover, and I hope that my face did not express the sort of shock I felt, because my first thought when she said that was, “She’s far too young to be having sex.” And then I had to remind myself that that’s certainly not how I felt when I was 20.

AVC: Do you still get people, given all the mysteries of the Unfortunate Events series, who are either picking them over, or are newly discovering them, who are contacting you frantically with, “What was in the sugar bowl?”

DH: Oh, absolutely. I still get an unbelievable amount of mail that I can’t answer. The nice thing about children’s books, children don’t really care about what’s hip or what’s currently happening. I have a second-grade son, and all the second-graders are reading my books, and some of them are obsessed with various details. The only startling thing is sometimes I have to wrack my brain to remember the details.

AVC: In 2011, you published an explanation of Occupy Wall Street under the Lemony Snicket name. Does having that identity, which has a very strong, distinct personality, give you freedom to say things you feel you couldn’t say under your name, or to say them in ways you couldn’t say under your name?

DH: I don’t know if it’s freedom. It seemed like there was some opportunity there that I might write something about Occupy Wall Street that somebody might read, and that the tone Lemony Snicket might take toward something like Occupy Wall Street, I think, can be more easily digested in the guise of somebody more mysterious like Lemony Snicket than in the guise of a regular person. I often think of a TV appearance I saw with Jim Henson once, where he said that the jokes on The Muppet Show are terrible, that if they were said by people, no one would laugh, but when Gonzo makes a terrible pun, it all works out. And I think in some cases, the distant, over-sophisticated, ironic tone of Lemony Snicket would not come across well if it were just a person.

AVC: That piece got passed around a lot, and the press responses were pretty positive. Did you get any negative responses from it, any blowback in your career?

DH: [Laughs.] I guess that remains to be seen, since it wasn’t that long ago. No, I don’t think so. I have a friend who likes to send me negative comments about me that he finds on the Internet. Everybody needs a friend like that, and so I got sent a couple of sarcastic and/or conservative responses, I guess. That always charms me. Because of the Occupy Wall Street piece, I was also on The Rachel Maddow Show, and actually someone just pointed this out, one of the comments on the YouTube of me on The Rachel Maddow Show is “Lemony Stupid.” [Laughs.] I like every part of that. I like thinking it, I like that someone wrote it, I like that it was sent to me. Everything about that is charming. So I guess there was some blowback, but it seems so minor as to not be worth mentioning.

AVC: A lot of effort must have gone into crafting that comment and conceiving of a repudiation of your ideas.

DH: Yeah! It made me wish we were in some public arena in which he’d come up to me and slap me with a glove and say, “Lemony Stupid!” “Dear God! How thoroughly I’ve been humiliated by this person.”

AVC: As a promo for Why We Broke Up, you went to Grand Central Terminal in New York and interviewed people about their breakups. What was that experience like?

DH: I loved it. In fact, I’ve been trying to get Little, Brown to let me do it in every city I visit on the book tour for Why We Broke Up. I don’t think it’s going to happen, given the cost of having someone film you. But it was another—it’s a little like the question about “the freedom given you by the Lemony Snicket name.” If you’re well-dressed and carrying a microphone and people are filming you, people will talk about themselves. If you just wandered around a train station by yourself, saying, “Hey, does anybody have a good ex-girlfriend story?” people would think you were a creep, but somehow, with a microphone… I was nervous about it when we came up with the idea, because I thought, “It’ll just be a typical New Yorker experience, where I will be utterly ignored and scorned.” But people were literally lined up, and they didn’t know who I was. They just thought it would be interesting to say something into a microphone that might end up on YouTube. 

AVC: Almost all the people you interview in the finished video are women. Was it easier to get them to talk, or was that just a choice in editing?

DH: It was just easier to get women to talk. And I think I’m more likely to approach women, too. And then, for some reason, there were quite a few men whom I talked to, but for some reason wouldn’t sign the release form. I wonder what that says about men and women. Maybe men realized, “Hey wait a minute, what I said will make me look like a moron,” or something. I like women, so.

AVC: One of the things you emphasized the last time we talked was that when you started writing the Lemony Snicket books, you didn’t know how to write for children, and you aren’t really writing for any particular age. Is that true with this book, too? Do you feel the same way about young-adult books or adult books?

DH: I certainly feel even more that way about young-adult books. I have no idea what “young-adult books” are. I was on the committee for the National Book Award for children’s literature a few years ago, and most of what we read were young-adult books, and they didn’t have anything in common, as far as I could see. I’m completely puzzled by the notion of it as a genre. And when I meet young-adult authors, they either also don’t know, or they try to explain it, and then I’m more confused. So I’ve kind of stopped asking. But I’m curious to see who reads and picks up Why We Broke Up, and when I think about what I read when I was 15 years old, it was not about 15-year-olds. So I don’t know if I was atypical—I’m sure I was in many ways, but I don’t know whether that was atypical. I don’t know what it is. Do you have any sense of what a YA novel is?

AVC: Maybe 10 years ago it was clearer, but given the way it’s expanded as a genre post-Harry Potter, these days the only commonality seems to be that it doesn’t include graphic sex or a focus on adult careers like accounting.

DH: To some extent because of Twilight, I guess, and some other highly successful YA books, there’s been a focus on it, which is pleasing for people who write it. But I’m also puzzled by that. I’m no expert, but it seems to me that the success of Twilight might have to do with the fact that it’s about vampires, and not that it’s about young people. So it feels to me, like at the height of John Grisham’s success, people said, “People just love reading about the American South, that’s what they love, we’re going to put these Flannery O’Connor books with showy new titles in the windows, because people just love the South.” Whereas actually what people liked is thrillers about lawyers. I’m a bit confused by YA-ness, and maybe when I’m going out on tour for this book, I’ll learn something. Or maybe I won’t.

AVC: You were working on a musical with Stephin Merritt, and he put out an album in 2011 featuring a couple of songs from that musical. What’s the status of the project as a whole?

DH: I don’t know. [Laughs.] He and I have since been commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company to do another musical, so we’re doing that right now. But he told me he was releasing these songs, and then we talked about them, and our interest grew in the musical. But the original musical, Music From Venus, from which those songs are, is an enormous project that I feel has taken on Smile-esque—it might be like Chinese Democracy. [Laughs.] It might be something we work on forever. But we like working on it, so I hope it comes to fruition.

AVC: The one for the Shakespeare Company, does that have any specific progress timeline or deadline?

DH: It had a workshop, which I’d never done before. It was some actors in a room, and then they rehearse it for a week, then they perform it for about five people. And then we’re changing it, and then there’s going to be another workshop next year. So it’s proceeding more like an actual project and less like a pipe dream. Do you want to hear what my mother said when I told her I had a commission from the Royal Shakespeare Company? She said, “I didn’t know there was another Royal Shakespeare Company besides the one in England.”

AVC: What, like a smaller one with a different spelling, based out of Akron, Ohio?

DH: Just her assumption was, obviously it’s not the Royal Shakespeare Company.

AVC: So you’re working on that, on the possible other Lemony Snicket movie, the new Lemony Snicket series, the screenplay for Why We Broke Up… anything else currently in the works?

DH: Well, I’ve started writing this column for The Believer, which is called “What The Swedes Read,” in which I’m reading one book by each of the Nobel Prize winners in literature. And the project is predicted to be done, because there are just over 100 Nobel prizes in literature, I think it’s 2025, based on the publication schedule of The Believer. So we’re going to have a big party in Stockholm in 2025 that I feel A.V. Club readers should know about now. I’m trying to have The Believer start selling tickets for it now on the website, but they seem hesitant. And what else? And this long—probably not long-awaited by anyone else, but long-awaited by me—pirate novel. I’m doing the last edit on that, and that will be out in a couple of years, I think.

AVC: You’re about to finish it now, and you think it won’t be out until 2014?

DH: Well, I thought I finished it, but then I had to think about it for a little while longer, and there was an upheaval—I’m with a new publisher now, which was a long drama that is not interesting. There was apparently a lot of financial upheaval in 2008, I don’t know if you heard about this. You heard it here first. There was some financial tumult in 2008, and my then publisher HarperCollins fired my editor, in the kind of aftermath of that tumult, and she had to look for a new home. And part of that quest for a new home was the delay of the publication of the pirate novel. But that’s all over.

AVC:  From what I’ve read, it seemed like one of your conditions for moving to a new publisher was that they take on your editor, which seems unusual.

DH: Well, I really like her, and she’s a fantastic editor, and we worked really well together. It’s not actually that unusual. Oftentimes when an editor leaves a publishing house, the editor will take authors with them. This was a kind of splashier version of that. But it wasn’t fun. It made me feel like an orphan for a while. Though if anyone karmically deserves to feel like an orphan, it would have to be me.

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