Welcome to the second half of this two-part interview with writer Daniel Handler. If you haven’t already read Part One, be sure to check it out to hear about making the switch from poetry to prose and why Handler loves it when things are going badly.
The plot for A Series of Unfortunate Events is incredibly rich. How did you approach plotting the series and how much of the plot was worked out before the first book was published?
Some of it was planned. And then more and more of it was planned the more I wrote. I’m a big outliner and note-taker, so I had a bunch of things [worked out in advance], but I also left myself room to improvise. I didn’t want A Series of Unfortunate Events to feel like a coloring book that I had to fill in for the next few years.
So I would think, “Well, the twelfth book is going to take place in a hotel, and it’s going to have this kind of revelation and this kind of action,” and then I would say, “Okay, that’s enough that you know. That’s five books ahead or four books ahead.” Every so often I would make a note of something specific that I wanted to put there. But I tried to discipline myself to be undisciplined. I wanted to get there and feel like there were all these vistas to explore, and not that it was a specific path that I’d already assigned myself.
Reading the last book in the series, which deals in part with the trade-offs between security and personal freedom, I wondered if what’s been going on in the real world was informing that?
Well, I would think it would have to…. But then also, while I was writing the books I went from my late twenties to my mid-thirties, and I got married and had a kid. And I think all that also makes you think of the world in different terms, and it’s impossible to separate that from what’s happening in the world…. You have a baby, and then you have this delicate creature and you spend at least the first year of their life sort of brainstorming about things in your home and things around town that can harm this child, even if you’re not a particularly paranoid parent, which I don’t think I am. And that’s most certainly going to color any work you do, no matter what work is….
It wasn’t as if I was shrieking about it, but I would just often think, “OK there’s a vase there, and we’re in the house of an uptight person, and that vase definitely can’t break, so what is the strategy there?” And certainly, I didn’t think that when I was twenty-two and I walked into the room. I basically thought, “Where’s the gin?”
I sort of love it when things are going badly because I know that means that soon things will go well. I just stay at my desk, and I say, ‘There’s no shame in writing crap,’ knowing that it’s good for the brain because meanwhile, in some corner, something is getting nudged.
I’ve been really enjoying your latest book, Adverbs. Although the chapters each deal with discrete stories and, by and large, with discrete character sets, the cover makes it clear that it’s a novel as opposed to a collection of short stories. What drove that distinction?
I guess because it feels like a novel to me. It’s not as if I’m mystified by an argument that would say it’s a collection of short stories. But to me it feels like one whole piece of work that has disparate elements in it.
One of the reviews of Adverbs called it a concept album, and I thought that was a nice way of putting it. [With] concept albums, they’re not just the twelve or thirteen songs the band has most recently written — there’s something holding them together. And yet you could simply listen to “With a Little Help from My Friends” without its accompanying context…. And then, frankly, with the publisher, novels always sell better than short stories, so there wasn’t really anyone ever in the room saying “You know, this is really more a collection of short stories.” I didn’t believe it, for sort of philosophical and aesthetic reasons, and the publisher was more than willing to go with that.
Daniel Handler is the author of the bestsellingA Series of Unfortunate Events (under the pen name Lemony Snicket), a collection of books for children. He’s also written three books for adults: The Basic Eight, Watch Your Mouth, and, most recently, Adverbs. In addition to his writing, Handler’s an accomplished musician and has played accordion on a number of recordings including the acclaimed 69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields.
[laughter] But, it wasn’t like they pressured me. Maybe if I had said, you know, “This to me is more of an epic poem, so let’s put ‘an epic poem’ on it,” I think, there might have been more discussion. But they said, “Oh great — it’s a novel?” Sort of, “Thank goodness.”
If you’d said, “I’m going for a Spenser sort of vibe,” that probably would’ve gotten some resistance.
Let’s put that in big letters on the cover: “If you liked The Faerie Queene, you’ll love….”
That’s it. [laughter ] I had one more question about Adverbs — I just noticed today that quote in the front of the book from screenwriter Morrie Ryskind:
“What do you mean, where does the music come from? Where does the music ever come from? The guy says to the girl Something is on my mind and the girl says Really, what is it? and somebody in the orchestra hits a note and they sing. That’s where the music comes from.”
It’s a great line and it ties back to the whole question of inspiration and creativity. What do you think the answer is in your case — where does the music come from?
That’s interesting because what I love about the quote is that it dismisses any notion [of that]. And that’s basically how I feel. I’ve found that quote inspirational for a long time, and it really guided me toward the writing of Adverbs.
Often what I read from people that inspires me creatively is this very sort of offhand utilitarian take on art that so many of my favorite artists in all kinds of genres have. Other people are inspired by a more sort of ethereal kind of approach. And, you know, whatever gets you through the night. I’m definitely more inspired by exactly that kind of semi-hack methodology that’s expounded upon in that quote, and in a million other things that I’ve read. And so I don’t really worry about where it comes from. I’m more worried about what I can do with it.
I find with the ethereal stuff, I don’t really understand how it works. I guess it’s so unappealing to me that I don’t understand it. And whenever I see that in some kind of guide for writing I basically think, if you don’t have an idea, why are you worried about becoming a writer?
I think if you have an idea for a novel but you can’t find the time or you’ve written a draft that’s terrible or every time you sit down, you don’t know how to begin, those are all problems that can be addressed. But the problem of how to unlock your creativity so you have an idea for your novel, I just think if you don’t have an idea for a novel, there’s no shame in that. You’re one of the zillions of people who are not novelists.
You mentioned that occasionally you teach. Is there anything from those classes that stands out as a particularly helpful lesson?
Well, in writing, people don’t rewrite enough — I’m a huge rewriter. And I try to cut things down. The first draft of Adverbs was more than a thousand pages long. And I knew that that would not do on a number of levels. [laughter]
But I use a quote a lot that Miles Davis supposedly said to John Coltrane when John Coltrane was in his mode where he would get up and he would solo for five hours. And he was playing with Miles Davis, and Miles Davis said, “Um, you really, you have to keep those solos shorter because we’re trying to have an evening.” And John Coltrane said, “I don’t know what to do. I just put it in my mouth and I keep playing and I don’t know how to stop.” And Miles Davis said, “Take the horn out of your mouth.”
And I always think that when I’m too in love with my own work that I feel that I can’t change it. You know, when I think, “This passage is too long, but every sentence seems glorious. What in the world can I do?” And I think, “Just take the horn out of your mouth.” There is in fact a way to change something. And the fact that you feel sad about it is not necessarily an excuse.