An Interview with Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, Part 2

Writer Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, talks about making the switch from poetry to prose and why he loves it when things are going badly.

Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony SnicketWelcome 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?”

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Category: Writing

An Interview with Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, Part 1

Writer Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, talks about plotting A Series of Unfortunate Events and how real life influences his work.

Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket

Photo credit: Meredith Heuer 2006.

This is Part One of a two-part interview. Be sure to also check out Part Two to hear Handler talk about plotting A Series of Unfortunate Events and how real life influences his work.

Do you remember the first thing that you wrote that you felt, “Well, that’s something”?

By the time I was in college, I was writing a lot of poetry that was being published in tiny journals and was winning little student prizes and things like that. And I think that was probably the first time that I began to think of myself as a writer who was producing work that was of merit, at least for the age that I was.

I actually visited my high school literary magazine yesterday — I grew up in San Francisco. And they had found some of my old poetry on file and given it to me. And it was pretty interesting to read. It was lousy of course. But I felt like it still had some respectability to it.

It was two poems that I had written shortly after I had started having sex, and so they’re both about love and sex. And so of course they’re mortifying. But they have an air of detachment, I guess, and one of them rhymes. And it’s interesting to me that I was already trying to find an acceptable format for perhaps embarrassing ideas.

Do you still write poetry?

I still do sometimes. I don’t do anything with it. When I was in college, my poems started getting longer and longer and more and more narrative. And I have a very clear memory of talking to a poetry professor of mine who finally said to me very gently that there was actually a tradition of long, non-line-based narrative poetry called “prose” [laughter]. And it was like he just took me across the hallway or something [and said] “There is this thing you can do in which you don’t have to worry that your sentences are long and that you seem to be telling a story.”

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Category: Writing

An interview with John August

John August

Photo credit: Jen Pollack Bianco

You’ve written an impressive number of scripts over the last several years. Were you always this creatively productive?

I’ve always written, but it wasn’t until I started approaching writing as a full-time job that I really felt any mastery of it. Sometimes I’m an artist, but mostly I’m a craftsman. I write for very specific purposes, and I can sort of switch it on and off. That came with experience.

I think “productivity” is a pretty limited concept. If you’re writing a lot, but you’re writing crap, that’s not particularly helpful. I think what I hit in my early-to-mid 20s was a sweet spot between Getting Stuff Done and Getting Stuff Perfect. My first drafts are pretty strong. They feel like the final movie. Some writers do what they call a “vomit draft,” which is long and messy, then edit it down. I don’t. I write the script that could be shot.

I labor pretty hard over each scene in its first incarnation. I play the entire scene in my head, in a constant loop, until I really feel I know it. Then I do what I call a “scribble version,” which is a very quick-and-dirty sketch of the scene, handwritten, which would be indecipherable to anyone but me. Then I write up the final scene from that.

In terms of the number of scripts with my name on them, that really comes from picking projects carefully. The frustrating thing about screenwriting is that you can spend a year working on a project that never gets made, and it’s like you never wrote it. I like to say that my favorite genre is, “Movies that get made.”

What drew you to screenwriting, as opposed to other kinds of writing?

I didn’t know what screenwriting was until fairly late in college. That was before the Internet, so the only scripts you could find in Des Moines, Iowa, were the occasional screenplays that were published in book form. I remember reading Sex, Lies and Videotape and being awestruck by how closely it matched the finished movie. It sounds naive now, but I really didn’t understand movies were written.

The screenplay form didn’t come naturally. I’m not sure it should; it’s pretty artificial and unlike conventional writing. The closest equivalent is certainly the stage play, which is pretty much just dialogue. The screenplay has evolved into this strange beast that’s meant to be a blueprint for the entire movie — not just what the characters say and do, but how the film is supposed to look and feel and sound. Most of the time I love it, but it has very frustrating limitations. I get sick of writing in the third-person present tense. I yearn to write about scents and textures and the inner thoughts of characters. One of the reasons I keep up the blog is that it’s a chance to write in my own voice rather than the detached, omniscient “screenplay voice.”

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Category: Stage/Screen, Writing

An Interview with Jon Carroll

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll talks about Clay Felker's pockets full of ideas, dealing with the worst column of the week, and the importance of details.

Jon Carroll

Photo credit: Terry Lorant Photography.

Over the past twenty-five years, you’ve written well over six thousand columns. Were you always this creatively productive?

There are a lot of writers in a collateral branch of my family — John Gregory Dunne is a cousin of mine, and his brother Dominick Dunne. And my father was Irish, and of course there’s a tradition there. And I put out a neighborhood newspaper when I was nine. In high school I worked for the literary magazine and the annual and the newspaper, writing for all of them. And I was sort of the all-purpose go-to guy for captions and intros and all of that stuff that needs doing and nobody else wanted to do. And I loved doing it. I still love doing it.

Here’s a story: When I got to the Chronicle, I was nineteen and I was working on a section that no longer exists called “This World,” which was sort of a news round-up section…. The first day I was there, I was given assignments, and the idea was, you’d turn it in and they’d give you another. And I did six stories. And an old hand came over and told me to slow down, that I was making the rest of them look bad, and that I should know that my quota was around three. So I took it to heart. I didn’t want to piss anybody off. So I did the three.

When you moved into column writing, was that a relatively easy transition?

Well, there was a whole period in between where I was a magazine editor. I wrote only occasionally, and once again [it was] captions, headlines, an editor’s note, things like that. And I was always looking for a chance to write. It’s just that in 1970 there was money in magazine editing and not a lot of money in freelance writing, and I couldn’t get a staff job on a magazine; there weren’t many staff jobs on magazines.

Then when I got back to the Chronicle and was asked if I could provide samples for a column, it seemed to me like I had a million ideas and there was just stuff all over happening, none of which I’d been able to write about. So that was pretty easy. There’s an A. J. Liebling quote that “I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better.” And that’s sort of the way I feel about myself.

And it’s entirely a gift; it’s nothing that I trained for or worked for or planned for. I’ve tried to nurture it and husband it when it became obvious that that might be a good idea. But it’s just something that I know how to do, and it’s the only thing I know how to do at the level that I’m doing it. So it’s a good thing that I got a job doing it.

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Category: Writing

An Interview with Van Dyke Parks

Musician and author Van Dyke Parks talks about smoking, collaboration, and commitment, plus: Brian Wilson, William Saroyan, and why "the arts are much more expensive than people think."

Van Dyke Parks

Photo credit: Rocky Schenk.

Is there anything you’ve found that helps get you into a more creative mode?

Yes — smoking is good. Smoking is very helpful. But it’s deadly, so today is my second day without smoking. I stopped smoking on Sunday, having smoked for years.

I think that smoking is a very good thing to do — it’s got the association with the Indians; it’s a peaceable thing. But like much else that the Indians gave us, we abused the privilege. And so, in my case I must simply stop. I’m too old to smoke. But I do believe that nicotine provides a great creative thrust….

In all the work I do, throughout my life, I’ve emphasized how fortunate I am to have people around me, and I kind of confirm what my father once said to the school at Andover when they asked if I showed any signs of creativity. My father wrote a letter to them as they were considering me for admission to that school; he said, no, my son has no creativity, but he has reactive abilities that are phenomenal and very useful. I resented that, perhaps — that my father said that. But I have found basically that it could be true, that I have a reactive ability.

I’ve always characterized myself in press and so forth as the “beta participant.” But in fact, now that we’re alone, I can say without fear or bravado, that I feel humbled and validated that you would ask me about the creative process. It’s almost as if I am a creative person. And I think all of that is just due to the fact that I have a great work ethic. I hammer at it. I sweat bullets. I pursue it. Wanting real talent, I compensate for it with something far more precious — sheer will.

I remember when I was a child in New York, I went to see a play by William Saroyan. I happen to know his wife through a live television show I acted on as an obedient boy. At any rate, I met Saroyan. And I asked him about the creative process. I wanted to know because I was so stunned by his work — he presented a vision of California that helped lure me to California in my later adolescence. And he talked to me about “getting the cat up the tree” — getting something to happen and resolving it, and so forth. And I asked him about how inspired he must be, and he said no, no, it’s all due diligence. Everything is just absolutely irrational tenacity.

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Category: Music/Dance

An Interview with DyAnne DiSalvo

I had no doubt that I wanted to do what I wanted to, and this was the way I was going to do it. Which meant going to publishers, and calling back agents, and getting in editor's faces, and not ever thinking that I wasn't going to get what I wanted. Because of course I was. Just, somebody give me the contract!

DyAnne DiSalvo

Photo credit: Brian Butler.

Your creative output is pretty striking, with dozens of children’s books to your name. Is there anything that you attribute your productivity to?

Well, I try not to judge myself. I try to be “my own best friend.” [laughter] Which is a lie. But I try not to get too wrapped up in the difficulty of the moment because I’ll just wallow in that for as long as I like, feeling bad for myself. So what I do is, I read. I play music. I have conversations with my friends about poetry or writing or whatever they’re working on. I walk my friend’s dog. I travel a lot. Whatever fills up that time. And I’m always thinking about my story, whatever I’m doing, as I’m doing it. And I think that’s incredibly helpful. I just allow myself to never lose sight of my art-piece and to live life.

Do you ever worry about burning out?

I think yesterday at one point it went through my head that “you’re not going to write this story, so why don’t you just quit it now?” [laughter] And I thought “But oh no! I have all these other things I have to do!” Because I have so many different story ideas that I can’t wait to pick up again and write. So I’m not at a loss for ideas. I’m just sometimes at a loss for how to put it together.

Right now I’m teaching myself how to write a novel. I’ve never written a novel before. The Sloppy Copy Slipup was humorous. And it’s pretty easy for me to be humorous and write short, clippy, fun things. But this is for fifth grade as opposed to third grade and they want a little bit more.

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An Interview with Jonathan Coulton

Musician Jonathan Coulton talks about his year recording a song a week, why it's good news when his characters start saying ridiculous things, and the value of solitude and boredom.

Jonathan Coulton

Photo credit: Emily Rawlings.

In the course of the year you spent working on Thing a Week, did you develop any techniques that seemed to help you tap your creative side?

I wish I could say that I developed a sure-fire strategy for writing a song. That’s one of the things I was hoping would come out of Thing a Week — that I could somehow discover a process that worked every time. But it was always different.

I spent a lot of time walking and riding my bike, mumbling under my breath, making up lines about things I saw or thought of. Ideally, one of those lines would be interesting enough to stick with me and grow into something. Sometimes I would get inspired early in the week and the song would sort of write itself. Other times I would think and think all week, and Friday would find me with no good ideas.

The one thing I did learn was that even the good songs have a point when they feel awful — for me there’s always this deep valley of self-doubt when it seems like I should stop writing and abandon the idea. But sometimes even the songs that started with bad ideas would have a very strong finish, and I would find that I’d pulled something really great out of nowhere. Not always — there were certainly some songs that never really got good. And I think that’s an important part of the process too — you’re going to write some clunkers for sure, but you’ll never really know unless you write them. Starting a song is easy; finishing it is a lot harder.

How did you stay focused and productive, particularly on those days when you were feeling a little less inspired?

JC: Solitude and boredom. If I ever found myself stuck, that was usually a good time to take a long walk or a bike ride. There was something about separating myself from all the instruments and gear in the studio that made things move forward — I think it’s easy to get bogged down in a particular detail when what you really need to do is brush lightly over the surface of the whole thing. And I have so many patterns that I rely on when I’m actually playing the guitar that it can sometimes be a hindrance to write with it in my hands — my brain makes different choices when it’s by itself.

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Category: Music/Dance

An Interview with Natalie Marrone

Choreographer and teacher Natalie Marrone talks about dancing with her audience, finding inspiration at the coffee shop, and traveling to Puglia, Italy to research the tarantella.

Natalie Marrone

Photo credit: Stephanie Mathews

Where do you find the inspiration for your choreography?

Eighty percent of the time, the music is what feeds me information. It may not be the music I wind up using, but for me, any kind of inspiration starts with a visceral response to sound and wanting to move to that sound. And the sound isn’t always a beat, although I love rhythm and using polyrhythm. When a soundscape comes on that’s speaking to me, it’s almost like I have a socket and it plugs in and I know that I need to go from there….

One of the things that always inspires me is a person’s story as it’s written on their body — especially as it’s written on their face. I might not have a job soon if this Botox thing continues. [laughter] I look at people. I look at their physical shape and I look at the way they move. And just for an instant I can almost be inside their being. It’s always something about the story in the lines, the wrinkles — the story of their life is written there. I need to sit at the local coffee shop and just look at people and watch them walk. And feel their walk…. The other thing I really need is in-nature time. I get a lot of sensibility about movement just from the wind sometimes or from sensing the path of wet leaves underneath my feet.

Are there any other day-to-day activities that you’ve found helpful?

Cooking. I remember one time I was on a calzone kick. [laughter] I was in Ohio, missing home. So there I am just trying to do this, and as I’m kneading the dough, I’m simultaneously evaluating what it takes physically to be working a calzone and understanding the sort of physiological structure that I’ve been born with as it’s meant to do certain work, and certain dance, and certain play.

When I’m cooking a lot, I have these moments where I can feel an entire history of people just in the musculature of my body, and an identification with an entire community of people that really has been lost in many ways. So I’m not talking open the jar. I’m talking grow the tomatoes.

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Category: Music/Dance

An Interview with Ze Frank

The Show's Ze Frank talks about unsolvable problems, "brain surfing," pain management, and how creative pursuits change perception.

Ze Frank

Photo credit: Scott Beale /

Are there any techniques that you use in your creative process that help you generate new ideas?

Self-awareness is one of the big keys. If you read a lot of the psychology literature on creativity, one of the only real, solid correlations with being able to shift your creative output is the belief that you can change it. So for me — I think I picked this up in a Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi book — I’ve spent a long time just trying to figure out the kind of cycles that I go through, trying to pay attention to the different kinds of states that I find myself in.

There are times when I feel like I’m craving what I call unsolvable problems, and I have the kind of energy you need to move forward into uncharted territory and brave that side of things. And then there are other times when that seems like the most difficult chore in the world. So I’ve also gotten pretty comfortable knowing when I need to pick up solvable problems. Programming definitely fills that void for me. Also illustrating, doing little illustrations, things like that. This is a long-winded way of saying that I think I’ve got a range of techniques that feed into how I’m feeling at that particular moment.

Do you have any day-to-day habits you rely on?

I make something every day — I think that’s really the only habit that I’ve fallen into over the last few years. No matter what, I make something. This last year with The Show has been kind of convenient because it’s given me structure to play against. Before that, with the project, there was less structure and it was a lot more difficult. The Show narrowed the focus and made it a little bit easier because I know exactly what I have to work on each day. That aside, there’s this thing I try to do that I call “brain surfing.” Do you know the technique “morphological synthesis”?

I don’t.

There’s a really beautiful book by James L. Adams called Conceptual Blockbusting. It’s a book that was written in the ’70s on creativity. The idea is, you just start with a concept that’s immediate to you. I mean “immediate” in that you have some kind of direct emotional connection to it in that moment. And it can be as simple as a word. Maybe somebody pissed you off in line, or you’re worried that your toe is broken. And you just start with that and begin to associate things with it. It’s not really free association, so it’s not just anything that comes to mind. But you tell little stories to yourself that move you away from that initial concept.

So if it’s your toe being broken, you start thinking to yourself, well, what would happen if something else was broken and you tried to drive a car? Then you move away from that and you think about the worst car race ever. Now you’ve moved into a demolition derby. And you just sort of work in circles. At different points you stop and relate wherever you are back to the original concept. And just play. Sometimes I write these things down on paper, and sometimes I just sit there and do them in my head. But for me, it’s a nice little play zone where you can find very weird and silly things.

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An Interview with Bob Holman

Poet, teacher, and impresario Bob Holman talks about riding along on the tip of an eyelash, the importance of orality, and how performing is editing.

Bob HolmanAre there any habits or tactics that you use to help feed your creativity?

I’m a poet, I guess, because the tempo of a poem fits into my life. If I had a different kind of discipline, I’m sure I would write infinitely long novels. Poems ride along on the tip of your eyelash and can come and go in a blink. It’s important that you be there when they want to happen. And the way to be there is to give yourself time to percolate; you can read, you can walk, you can sit there and dream.

The other part is to be ready when they are. Which is to say, a notebook and a writing implement are your passport. I love writing in darkened theaters and at art museums. But it’s also important to have [these tools] beside your bed so no dream gets lost.

What do you do when you’re feeling creatively dry?

I read. There are a few marvelous exercises I love. I studied with Kenneth Koch at Columbia, so I’m in love with imitations — writing imitations of the greats who came before you. Finding out your own tastes as a poet, creating your own lineage is part of the job.

The thing to remember about a poem is that it is not made of emotions. It’s not made of wisdom. It’s not made of your most secret interior life being vomited out on a page. It’s made out of words. So start with words — what word is working for you right now? And put that down.

If you need a word, I also suggest going to the bookshelf and saying, well whose word do I need? I find myself often needing a John Ashbery word, so I just go to Ashbery, and I open him up, and I find a word in there that’s going to work. All poets’ vocabularies are distinct, so what kind of word do you need? If you need a Wanda Coleman word, you’re going to go to Wanda. Translating experience into words, all you need to do is open your eyes to the silence like John Cage did, and the poem’s right in front of you.

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Category: Writing