Under his own name, Daniel Handler has a diverse and busy career. First and foremost, he's a writer, with two novels (1999's psychological thriller The Basic Eight and 2000's sex-soaked operatic incest story Watch Your Mouth) under his belt. A third literary novel, Adverbs, is due out next May, and his McSweeney's humor book How To Dress For Every Occasion, By The Pope will hit stores at the beginning of December. Handler has also played accordion with various small ensembles, and with The Magnetic Fields, most notably on 69 Love Songs. He's scripted two films—the modern opera Rick, starring Bill Pullman, and the screen adaptation of Joel Rose's novel Kill The Poor—and he and Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merritt are currently collaborating on a musical.
But in spite of all his other projects, Handler is still best known as Lemony Snicket, the broody, dour pseudonymous author of the gothic children's books collectively known as A Series Of Unfortunate Events. From its start with The Bad Beginning, the series was a runaway hit; at one point, they claimed seven of the 10 slots on the New York Times' children's-lit bestseller list. In 2004, the first three books were loosely adapted into a feature film, Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events; Handler was pushed off the project before it was completed, but returned to do a hilarious commentary track as the dismally bitter Snicket, alongside apologetic director Brad Silberling. With the 12th Snicket book, The Penultimate Peril, recently in stores, and the 13th and final book approaching, Handler talked to The A.V. Club about the books, the film, and what it's like to be the best and only accordion player anyone knows.
The AV Club: How did you initially sell your agent and publisher on a series of dour, dark, vocabulary-building kids' books?
Daniel Handler: I guess through naïveté, which is pretty much a motif in my professional life. [Laughs.] I'd written my first novel for adults, which was called Basic Eight and was set in a high school, and we were having a devil of a time selling it. It ended up in the hands of an editor of a children's publishing house, for which it was entirely inappropriate. She said, "Well, we can't publish this, but I think you should write something for children," which I thought was a really terrible idea. She kept pestering me, saying, "I think you'd be great to write for children," and "I'm looking for new writers." I was so broke and so desperate that I couldn't believe I was turning away an editor who was interested in my work, but I honestly thought that there was no way a children's publishing house would take any interest in my work.
And so, to get her off my back as much as anything else, I agreed to meet her in a bar to discuss an idea I had, because I figured she would say it was a really lousy idea. So if we were meeting in her office, it would be really awkward, but if we were meeting in a bar, then at least we would both have a drink in our hands. And I told her I had an idea for a gothic novel, which had been falling apart as I was writing it, but I thought instead it could be the story of children growing through all these terrible things. I expected she would hate that idea, and instead she said she liked it, which embarrassed me even more, because I just thought it meant she was a lightweight. All I could picture was that the next morning, she was going to call me and say, "I've sobered up, and you're right, it's a terrible idea." But instead, she called and said, "I'm not drinking anything, and I still like the idea," so it went from there. I wrote some of the book and gave it to her, and I kept being amazed that people weren't horrified by it. I kept waiting for someone to say, "What is anyone thinking? We're not going to publish this," but they didn't, and then the books were published. [Laughs.]
AVC: The series' anti-marketing irony level is so high, with the author, the dust jackets, and the merchandising constantly emphasizing, "Don't read this, don't buy these, they're awful." Doesn't that make publishers and marketers uncomfortable?
DH: Well, not on purpose. The way that the stories go in the Snicket books is just the way stories naturally go to me. They're full of misery, and yet the misery ends up being slightly hilarious. And in terms of the warnings on the back of the books, that really started as an honest assessment of their marketability. [Laughs.] I'd finished the first two and they were going to publish them, and they said, "We need you to write a summary that will drive people to these books." And it took forever. I couldn't think of a thing to say. I looked at the back of other children's books that were full of giddy praise and corny rhetorical questions, you know, "Will she have a better time at summer camp than she thinks?" "How will she escape from the troll's dungeon?" All these terrible, terrible summaries of books, and I just couldn't… I was so convinced that the books were going to fail that I couldn't imagine how I could write something on the back that would drive people to them. Then I was in a pharmacy and I saw the warnings on the backs of poisonous substances, and I thought, "Well, that's what I can do." So I wrote a list of ingredients in the book, and warnings that they shouldn't consume those ingredients. The editor and the publisher thought that it was a great way to go in terms of reverse psychology, but it honestly hadn't occurred to me that it was reverse psychology. I just thought that it was sort of an honest assessment making clear that if you were timid or easily disturbed, you could turn away.
AVC: So you've never had any resistance to that approach from people who don't get the joke?
DH: I think there've been a few pockets of people here and there, but there was certainly never any organized resistance. And I love meeting people who have absolutely no sense of irony. It's really fascinating to imagine what it would be like to go through life without understanding even the most basic of ironies. It's sort of like trying to imagine what it's like to walk around without a torso. So every so often, when I meet someone who's honestly appalled by these books and doesn't understand why they would be attractive to people… I find such people sort of charming, even though they usually don't like me.
AVC: The books are marketed to kids, but the linguistic jokes, literary references, and political jabs seem to be aimed at an older audience. Do you have an ideal reader in mind?
DH: No. The thing with the literary references and other in-jokes is that some young people get them and some old people get them, and some young people don't and some old people don't, so I'm always loath to make generalizations about what is for children and what isn't. Certainly children's literature as a genre has some restrictions, so certain things will never pop up in a Snicket book. But I didn't know anything about writing for children when I started—this is the theme of naïveté creeping up on us once more—and I sort of still don't, and I'm happy that adults are reading them as well as children. But I think there are probably just as many adults who would miss the humor of these books, if not more, as there are children.
AVC: Your two adult novels have noticeably different narrative voices, and then Lemony Snicket has a third style. Was there a process to finding the voice for those books?
DH: Not really. The Basic Eight and Watch Your Mouth both have first-person voices, and I ended up investigating those voices and investing so much in them that I think many people took them more seriously than they ought to have. With the publishing of The Basic Eight, it was often assumed that I was really immature and callow, and with the publishing of Watch Your Mouth, it was assumed that I was oversexualized, and with Lemony Snicket, it's often assumed that I'm erudite and depressed. But all the voices more or less came naturally to me. I mean, I like to think that I get better and better as a writer, but it seems pretty easy to me to slip on disguises of various people.
AVC: So are all those assumptions untrue?
DH: [Laughs.] I can't believe I'm actually being asked to comment on my own erudition. [Laughs again.] If I were to say, "Yes, I am a fascinating, erudite person," what would that say about me? I don't know. I mean, I think they're all pieces of me, they're all to be found somewhere in the muddle, but I don't think I'm as monochromatic as any of the narrators I've adopted.
AVC: Has working on the Lemony Snicket books changed your manner of writing for adults?
DH: Not really, though it's taken me much longer to write the third novel than it took to write the first two, because what has happened with the Snicket books has been so enormous, and it takes up a lot of time.
AVC: How has that lack of free time affected your musical career?
DH: Well, I've never had a musical career. [Laughs.] So I think it's been unaffected. I play the accordion. In terms of thinking of it as a musical career, I think it's sort of like calling yourself an astronaut because you have a shiny suit. I ended up playing with The Magnetic Fields because I met Stephin Merritt—well, I pursued him, really—in order to work on a musical together that we're still at work on. And I had just had the idea for the Lemony Snicket books, and he had just had the idea for 69 Love Songs, and we said, "Well, as soon as we just finish these little projects that we've both thought of individually, we'll work on this group thing," and then both of those projects turned out to be much, much bigger than we thought they would. So I ended up playing accordion simply because he was trying to get the album finished, and he knew I played the accordion, and if you play the accordion, you're usually the best accordion player anyone knows. [Laughs.] So then being on the Magnetic Fields album led to a couple of other gigs. But I'm not very good at the accordion. If I played guitar, I wouldn't be on anyone's album. But because I play the accordion and no one else does, I end up doing strange things.
AVC: What about The Edith Head Trio, or your work with The 6ths? You've had your own bands—
DH: The Edith Head Trio, I would say, would be even less of a musical career than playing the accordion, particularly because I played the accordion in The Edith Head Trio. I'm very impressed by your Googling. The Edith Head Trio and another band, Tzamboni, were two bands I was in after college that played at tiny clubs to little acclaim. Our Gypsy tango version of "When Doves Cry" was our biggest hit. [Laughs.] But we were not destined for greatness.
AVC: When you do public readings, you appear as Daniel Handler, and tell the audience that Lemony Snicket met some kind of horrible fate on the way over. Do kids generally seem to get the joke, or do you have to deal with weeping children who've just basically been told, "Oh dear, you just missed Santa Claus, and then he got eaten by a bear"?
DH: For the most part, it seems that children are quite used to adults standing in front of them, calling for attention, and telling them a complete lie. So they usually have figured out what the gig is. The problem is actually more with adults. I was once almost forced off the stage at a large chain bookstore that shall remain nameless, because she introduced me as Lemony Snicket, and I immediately interrupted her and said, "Oh no, Lemony Snicket isn't here," and then she tried to cancel the event right then and there.
AVC: Did she not get it, or did she just not like the approach?
DH: She didn't get it. Upon questioning on another matter, she also was not aware that Canada was a different country from the United States. Whatever that may say about bookstore managers, she was the most trouble I ever had. And then occasionally there are parents who say, "I brought my child so he or she could learn what the career of a writer is like, and you did this long theatrical performance instead, and I'm very disappointed."
AVC: Because… writers never perform at public readings?
DH: I don't know. I can't imagine why you would want to take your child to see what the career of a writer is like, because it mostly consists of sitting in a room typing, or going to the library and looking something up. Those are not exciting things to watch. They might be exciting things to do, but they're not exciting to observe or hear about. I'm always puzzled by that.
AVC: While you don't play Lemony Snicket at those appearances, "Lemony Snicket's literary representative Daniel Handler" also seems like a larger-than-life character. How much of him is you?
DH: Well… I'm really somebody pretending to be somebody pretending to be somebody up on that stage. The more I protest that I'm not Lemony Snicket, and that I'm Daniel Handler instead, the more it becomes clear to the audience that I am in fact Lemony Snicket, that I am in fact standing in front of them. I think there are probably too many layers of interpretation there. Certainly there are too many layers for me to interpret them.
AVC: The idea of people pretending to be people pretending to be people comes up in a way during the DVD commentary track for Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events, where you play Snicket and director Brad Silberling tries to defend himself from your emphatic dismay over the film. What was it like recording that commentary?
DH: We walked into a room, and they showed us the movie, and we spoke into microphones. There was pretty much no prep whatsoever. And the director was immediately game, for which I am grateful, because if he hadn't been, I don't know what would have happened. Most people ask if we were intoxicated at the time, and we were not.
AVC: As far as you know, did he have any idea what he was getting into?
DH: Well, it wasn't the first time we'd met or anything, so I think he was more or less up for it. I'd made pretty clear to the people at Paramount and Dreamworks that, if they wanted Lemony Snicket to comment, he would be completely horrified by the entire film. And as long as they understood that, it was okay. I'm not much of a fan of DVD commentaries myself, so this was my way of getting revenge, in a sense, for all the puffed-up directors and stars who talk endlessly about the self-aggrandizing minutiae of making a movie.
AVC: What were your feelings on the movie?
DH: Well, for a while, it seemed like it was going to be the most exciting motion picture ever made, and then there was a huge changing of the guard in which I was more or less fired as a screenwriter, and the producer quit, and the director was either fired or quit, depending on whom you ask. If you ask him, he says he was fired. So then for a while it looked like it was going to be the worst movie ever made, hopelessly embarrassing, and by the time it was finishing up, I was so grateful that it wasn't the worst movie ever made that I overlooked many things that might have otherwise upset me.
AVC: Could you discuss why you were fired as a writer from the movie?
DH: Well, it was somewhere between fired and quitting. I had written eight drafts of the screenplay when this changing-of-the-guard thing happened, and I said to the new producers, "I don't think I could write any more drafts." I guess I was sort of hoping they would say, "Well that's okay, this last one is perfect." But instead, they said, "It's funny you should say that. We don't think you can write any more drafts either." So they hired this guy, Robert Gordon, and he ended up rewriting so much of the script that it made more sense to me that he be the sole author of it. Again with the theme of naïveté… It was interpreted in various ways I didn't anticipate. But I honestly just meant that it was the work of Robert Gordon, and even though there's all sorts of cloak-and-dagger stories about who gets credit on movies, it just made the most sense to me that the credit should go to the person who wrote it.
AVC: Is it possible that some version of your screenplays might see publication, so your fans can see how you would have done the film?
DH: I guess it's possible. I hadn't thought of it. I find reading screenplays difficult, as they're only a roadmap for what a movie might end up being. I mean, I wrote those screenplays for Barry Sonnenfeld, because he was the person directing the film. The stuff that I wrote shouldn't be looked at as a holy grail for how I thought the film should be, I was adapting it for the purposes of people who were making the movie then, and by the time they weren't making the movie any more, I couldn't imagine starting over and remaking it for someone else. Which I think is why fairly little of my writing ended up in the finished product, because Brad Silberling is an entirely different director from Barry Sonnenfeld… even though they both have the same, somewhat Hollywood-appropriate initials.
AVC: What do you think of the prospects for another movie?
DH: Well, I know they spent a great deal of money making the first movie, and although I don't know a lot about the motion-picture industry, I know that they like to make a profit. So I think they're still making sure that they've made enough of a profit that it would make sense to make a second movie.
AVC: Doesn't the studio need to worry about the actors aging out of the roles and needing to be replaced if a second film happens?
DH: I guess so. I have this fantasy that the second movie would begin with a brief statement by all of the young actors who had played the children in the first movie, explaining how it had ruined their lives, so we would catch up with Emily Browning drinking heavily in the back of a burlesque bar, and maybe Liam Aiken would be living underneath a bridge, and then instead of the twins who played Sunny, we would just try to find the oldest woman in the world, and get an interview with her sitting in a trailer park. I cannot guarantee that if there is a second movie, that it would open that way, but that was my immediate vision to take care of the casting problem.
AVC: Film is sort of a sincere medium, in that it's hard to tell audiences what to think about what they're seeing. It seems like that would make the self-conscious irony in your work difficult to bring across.
DH: Well, I think it's interesting to see what people did with the story. I don't think film is the writer's medium, and so I was interested to see what a director would do with it. I never thought about whether film is inherently more sincere, because certainly I think if Guy Maddin had directed A Series Of Unfortunate Events, there probably could have been more of the stage-y irony that is in the books. But I was just interested to see what people would do with it, and worrying that Brad Silberling wouldn't do what I had in mind.
AVC: Do you have any particular unified theory about the purpose of irony in literature, or in your work in particular?
DH: The trouble with talking about irony is, it's such a slippery thing that the second you start talking about it, you're a better example of it than you are an analyst. I do think of emotions as being on a circular path, so you can feel terrible and terrible and terrible, and then all of a sudden it becomes quite funny. So I think that has something to do with irony, and certainly has something to do with the part of that circle that the Snicket books investigate.
AVC: Speaking of your experiences with cinema, what was it like putting Rick together?
DH: What was fun about putting Rick together is that it got put together at the same moment that Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events was getting put together, so I would be in one part of New York, in a meeting about how they were going to build a lake indoors, and then I would take the subway down to another part of New York, where we would talk about the fact that if it snowed that night there would be snow in the movie, and if it didn't, there wouldn't. And I also wished that I could steal a tiny portion of the budget for the Lemony Snicket movie, like the budget for the lunches that we had, and put that money in a sack and take it downtown and give it to the production of Rick. So the two experiences were about as far apart as you could be and still be in the same medium.
With Rick, the actors were all making enormous sacrifices to be in the film. Just looking at Bill Pullman changing clothes behind a screen in the corner of a rented hotel meeting room was fascinating, and then to go to the opposite end of the country where they were filming the Snicket movie, and watch Jim Carrey in a ring of trailers—one where he works, and one where he got dressed, and one where he got makeup on, in this sort of Wild West arrangement on the parking lot of the Paramount lot… It was fascinating. And then, also, everyone involved in the production of Rick didn't want to change anything—sometimes, I think, maybe even to the film's detriment. While in the Snicket movie, everyone had an opinion, and all the content was constantly in flux, and I often can't remember which scenes are and aren't in the final product, because I saw so many different versions of the movie that I forget which ended up on the cutting-room floor.
AVC: How close to your original vision for Rick was the final film?
DH: Well, I wrote Rick before I was published, and I had no vision of it, really. It was just a story that occurred to me, and that put its little claws in my brain, and I wrote it, and I showed it to a couple people, and they all said, "This is ghastly." One producer said that she liked it, and I said, "Well, knock yourself out. No one else wants to touch this thing." So I had really no original vision, and I was shocked when years later, she said, "I think I've found the right director for Rick." I had assumed that Rick was in a long-lost dusty drawer of hers, and so I was again excited to hand it over to someone else, if only for the reason that I couldn't believe that someone wanted to take it. So I was quite happy with the finished product, but because I really had no original vision, I can't say whether it conformed to it.
AVC: Its story comes from the opera Rigoletto, and your novel Watch Your Mouth has a strong opera theme and structure, and your books are often called operatic in general. What is it about opera that's haunted you throughout your career?
DH: Well, opera was an enormous part of my childhood. My parents were both opera buffs, and they met in the box seat of an opera performance. And I also was a boy soprano, so before puberty hit, I was onstage playing a wide variety of orphans and urchins in all sorts of operas, and the sheer melodrama of their stories was just always appealing to me. The idea that the curtain rises on what is often more or less a happy scene, and it will fall just a few hours later, and everyone will be dead or have gone mad… I find that kind of narrative very appealing. When I wrote Rick, I had the idea that I would take the plot of nearly every opera and turn it into a dark film, which is something I still may do.
AVC: In some of your earliest interviews, you discussed selling the movie rights to The Basic Eight. Based on your other moviemaking experiences, at this point do you want films made of your other work?
DH: Um, I think at this point I would hesitate before I were involved, as I was involved for a long time in writing the Unfortunate Events movie. But I would be happy to see a filmmaker's vision of The Basic Eight. Or of Watch Your Mouth, for that matter. Though that seems less likely. Everyone reads it and shudders. But The Basic Eight is just being re-optioned now, and the people who are interested in optioning it are interested in moving it forward. It was languishing for a long while. When it was first optioned, I was told that the chances of The Basic Eight becoming a film were slim because no one was making teen movies, and then later, I was told that the chances were slim because there were so many teen movies, and then I was later told that the chances were slim because teen films were over. I'm not sure when the magic window of opportunity was, but perhaps it's still on the horizon.
AVC: Is it true that The Basic Eight was rejected 37 times before it got published?
AVC: What went through your mind when it was finally published?
DH: It seemed like possibly a hoax. I had written the first draft of Watch Your Mouth while waiting for The Basic Eight to be sold, so I had two unsold novels that I was dragging around with me, and they were feeling like cement shoes. It was bad enough to have one, but to have two… My chances of survival felt about nil.
AVC: What was it that kept your confidence with the book? How did you keep your will going through 37 rejections?
DH: Strong drink. [Laughs.]
AVC: Your work in general tends to be morbid and dark, from your writing to your films to your music. Have you ever produced anything you would describe as cheerful?
DH: Well… Yes, I have produced things that I would say were sincerely cheerful. But then I am reminded by other people that no one else would see them that way. Adverbs is a book about love, and I thought that was pretty cheerful, but people who are reading it now are telling me that it's actually quite dark. And then I wrote a comedy, which hopefully [Rick director] Curtiss Clayton will bring to the screen, that I thought was the antithesis of all my work. I thought it was light and sunshiny, and Mr. Clayton reminded me that it is the story of a woman kidnapped and forced to do things against her will, which is not what most people think of as light and sunshiny. [Laughs.]
AVC: You often come across as detached and distanced from your art, especially given that your best-known work comes through a pseudonymous character. Is there a reason for that detachment?
DH: I guess it just comes naturally to me. My work is very dear to me, and certainly I have had all the emotional highs and lows that go with trying to get it to an audience. But I do have some kind of detachment that seems somewhat unusual in my trade. I'm a writer who writes every day. I don't have a period of months where I can't get anything done and I wander around tearing my hair out. When I come back from a book tour, for instance, I might have one day where I sleep late and then check my e-mail, and then go for a walk, and then the next day I'm really itching to get back at writing a story. I don't know if that's detachment… [Laughs.] It must be the opposite of detachment, come to think of it.
AVC: The Series Of Unfortunate Events books have featured an intricate, unfolding mystery, with the narrator changing his role throughout. How much of it did you have planned when you started out?
DH: It's all evolved. Even the stuff I planned out beforehand has turned out differently. My general writing preface is to write an outline and then ignore about half of it, both on a micro level with the individual book, and on a macro level with the series as a whole, and that's pretty much what's happened.
AVC: Six years and a dozen books down the line, if you could go back and rewrite the first ones, would you change anything?
DH: Probably everything. [Laughs.] Like most writers, I look back on all of my finished works with utter regret, and the trouble with writing a series of novels is that you have to go back and read them, and make sure that you haven't forgotten anything you've created, and then when you do that, you're faced with your own mistakes on every trick, from the wrong word in places to entirely the wrong incident. One has to adopt a sort of Zen calm, in which you know you wrote the best book that you could at the time.
AVC: Some of your fans are very obsessive about scouring your books for clues to how they'll come out. Is it ever intimidating meeting the truly fixated fans?
DH: Mostly, it's flattering to meet such people. As long as it's in a planned, professional meeting, rather than, say, someone dropping by my home, which is not as pleasant. I was never a fan of anything, and yet some people are fans of my books. That's a bit odd. But I like meeting them.