Daniel Handler is the author of the literary novels The Basic Eight, Watch Your Mouth, and, most recently, Adverbs. Under the name Lemony Snicket he has also written a sequence of books for children, known collectively as A Series of Unfortunate Events, which have sold more than fifty-three million copies and were the basis of a film starring Jim Carrey. His intricate and witty writing style has won him numerous fans for his critically acclaimed literary work and his wildly successful children’s books.
Handler has worked intermittently in film and music, most recently in collaboration with composer Nathaniel Stookey on a piece commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, titled The Composer Is Dead (the book with CD will be released in 2008). An adjunct accordionist for the music group The Magnetic Fields, he is also now a member of the post-punk combo Danny & the Kid. He is the screenwriter of the film Rick, a revamp of the Verdi opera Rigoletto, and the film adaptation of Joel Rose’s novel Kill the Poor. He is the author of Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Biography, The Beatrice Letters, and Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid. Handler has also written for The New York Times, Newsday, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, Chickfactor, and various anthologies, including The Best American Mystery Stories 2005.
Q (Meg Pokrass): Have you had mentors?
My flesh-and-blood mentor is Kit Reed, with whom I studied as an undergraduate. She saved my life and taught me to write and continues to do me large, undeserved favors which I try gamely to repay. But I think the best kind of mentoring is the study of the work – and, sometimes, life – of artists one admires. I’ve learned as much from William Maxwell and Sun Ra as I have from Kit or any other writing teacher.
A mental ex-lax thing, to you have tricks to move things through when not feeling as inspired?
A brisk walk in fresh air; in extreme cases, listening to the Flying Lizards. But for the most part I’m in favor of staying at one’s desk and writing anyway. Writing four pages of dreck is an excellent way to write one good sentence.
How does your work as a musician affect (or balance) your writing if it does?
For the most part my participation in music is subservient; I play whatever people ask me to play and pass largely unnoticed. It is the exact opposite of writing and it is good for the ego to be in a situation in which I am not the artiste. It’s also a good place from which to spy on the artistic processes of artists I admire, which is very helpful. If Picasso would hire me to wash his brushes I’d do that in a heartbeat.
Tell us about your what you are working on now.
I am putting the very last touches on the second of my collaborations with the illustrator Maira Kalman. The first is a picture book, !3 Words. This is a novel, in the form of a long letter from a girl to a boy, returning the souvenirs (painted by Ms. Kalman) of their relationship. The novel is called Why We Broke Up.
What inspired you to write Why We Broke Up?
I asked Ms. Kalman what she wanted to paint. She wanted to paint a variety of small objects that felt like the detritus of a romance.
What makes characters likable? I know this is an absurdly complex question.
This question usually makes me rant. I’ll try to keep it brief.
For one thing, I’m always mystified by discussions of likable characters. Characters are in books; you’re not going to have lunch with them. Moreover, the best books are full of trouble, so the characters are either in trouble or causing it. Most people aren’t likable in such situations.
Even if by “likable” we just mean “characters we enjoy reading about,” rather than “characters who seem like people we’d like,” then we’re not really talking about characters at all. Otherwise, the characters would be fully portable, and readers would find Lady Macbeth equally compelling in a Harlequin novel and in Macbeth. (I suppose there are people who consider Han Solo to be an equally compelling character in Star Wars novels #12 and #43, by separate authors, but, um, give me a break.) It’s like saying that the great thing about Kind Of Blue isn’t Miles Davis, but the trumpet itself. Such a compelling instrument!
Thus, character is bunk. There is plot, and there is voice, and they conspire to create an illusion we call “literature.” It is a glorious illusion and a compelling one. When a writer tells me they’re worried about a character they usually mean there’s a flaw in the plot, or the prose just isn’t pulling things together.
The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday — and over the holidays, every Saturday — Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. She blogs at http://megpokrass.com.