In the opening to his first children’s book under the pen name Lemony Snicket, The Bad Beginning: Or, Orphans!, Daniel Handler writes of its three protagonists, the ill-fated Baudelaire children: ‘They were extremely unlucky, and most everything that happened to them was rife with misfortune, misery and despair.’
Handler has now written twenty-seven books as Snicket – most famously, thirteen novels in the Unfortunate Events series – among many other credits, including a novella written as the Pope and three novels for adults under his own name (oh, and he also played accordion on The Magnetic Fields’ album 69 Love Songs).
He is a uniquely and deliberately elusive author; as he put it to me in the below interview during his current visit to Australia, ‘remystify(ing) the process of creation itself just makes for a better story’. Given the current age of acute media-fuelled panic over childhood trauma and accidentally fucking them up, Handler’s dastardly depictions of children fighting to survive (which have sold more than 65 million copies) can be read as tales of wonder. In his books, children are strong, clever and self-determining protagonists, rather than delicate jewels in need of over-bearing adult protection.
You grew up in San Francisco in the 1970s. Was there an ‘unfortunate event’ in your early life that became the foundation for your persistent fascination with childhood?
My father fled Germany as a child, and ended up in San Francisco with the scattered remnants of his family. In my childhood I heard their stories of Nazi terror and odd, circumstantial escapes, which appear to have shaped me considerably. I grew up believing that anything could happen, but that it would likely be dreadful, and that one might escape, but not as a reward for any good deeds, and that one should do good deeds in any case, because life is cruel enough without adding to it.
Which themes do you find yourself returning to again and again in your children’s books, and why do you think you’re drawn to them?
I’m interested in terrible things happening while others fail to notice or fail to be alarmed. Is this a theme? It’s certainly the human condition, and a good story, two abstractions that don’t overlap that often. When I’m beginning a book, I think about terrible things that might happen to people, as that seems like a good start. And then I think of these things passing unnoticed and/or unrepaired, because that seems realistic. The book goes from there. Why do I keep writing books in this way? Because I admire books that appear to have been constructed this way, I think. I admire literature and try to join in.
While it’s obviously great for bookstores and marketing purposes to have really clear distinctions between children’s, young adult, and adult fiction, do you think these categories matter to readers very much?
Children’s literature is a genre, like mystery or science fiction: there are traceable traditions and hallmarks, which can be tweaked or ignored or offered tribute. Children’s literature doesn’t really have to do with the audience, although certainly plenty of children read children’s books. It has more to do with these traditions. Young adult fiction, as far as I can tell, is nothing but a marketing term, and although there’s nothing really wrong with a marketing term, it makes me think of what the saxophonist Charlie Parker said when people tried to precisely categorise the glorious racket he was making: ‘Let’s just call it music.’
Your writing is intertextual, and plays with satire, genre and archetypal characters. How does the formal playfulness of your writing relate to your interest in childhood and its representations?
I think the journey of childhood is the journey of being presented with multiple sets of narratives, all faulty, and finding one’s own path. What is a villain? What is a mother? Why is it funny when someone else falls down the stairs but terrifying if it happens to me? When is it good to behave the way one is told to behave, and when is it awful? These are questions that I found interesting when I was the age of many of my readers, and questions I still find interesting.
Which authors’ depictions of childhood do you most admire?
Recently I reread Louise Fitzhugh’s novel The Long Secret for the umpteenth time – she’s best known as the author of Harriet the Spy – and it struck me as perhaps the most searing and terrific depiction of childhood in American literature. I’m also a big admirer of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and James Schuyler’s Alfred and Guinevere and William Maxwell’s The Folded Leaf and So Long, See You Tomorrow, as well as Elizabeth Bishop’s poems about childhood, and Darcy O’Brien’s A Way of Life, Like Any Other. Now I’m going to stop or I’ll go on forever.
Lemony Snicket is forever thwarted from appearing at public events to speak about ‘his’ books, so you appear on his behalf. How does this conceit affect the relationship between you and your audience, especially children?
When the first Snicket books were being published, my publisher asked the very sensible question of what I was going to do when I went to talk about my books, and suggested that I go to see another children’s author speak at a school. This author gave a very boring presentation, and afterwards told me that she saw her job as demystifying literature. I can’t for the life of me see why anyone would demystify something that turns out to be somebody sitting at a desk making things up. I decided I would try to remystify literature. What this means is that people who come to see me know instantly I’m lying. Some are enchanted and others less so. But I like it.
I was listening to you playing a hilarious version of Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry’ on your accordion on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross in 2012. So many authors are extremely reluctant interviewees, but you seem to view the role of ‘author’ as a kind of performance. Why is that?
At all public events I try to think what people might enjoy. It seems like my job. I’ve been to far, far too many events at which the author appears to be thinking about what he – and I do not use the gendered pronoun accidentally – might enjoy, rather than everyone else. On the radio I thought people might like a Prince song, if only because I don’t have much respect for people who don’t like Prince.
Anything else you’d like to add?
It seems we should say something about what a thrill it is, as a child, to write something of one’s own into one’s own little notebook. This to me seems like the history of literature.
Daniel Handler is giving a talk On Childhood at Melbourne’s The School of Life on Sunday 30 August, as part of their Secular Sermons series. We have two free tickets to give away – email [email protected] by 5pm Wednesday 26 August to win.
Daniel is also appearing at the Melbourne Writers Festival on Saturday, speaking about his new novel We Are Pirates.