The following interview concerns Watch Your Mouth, not A Series of Unfortunate Events, and contains language that is not G-rated.
"I was definitely going for the 'Holy shit, what the fuck was that?' effect."
interviewed by Ron Hogan
Daniel Handler had just moved back to San Francisco after several years in New York City when I spoke with him by phone in July 2000. "I grew up here, and I lived here after college," he explains to me. "We moved to New York, because my then- girlfriend (now my wife) was about to start grad school, and I thought it would be a good place to try to sell a novel. I think we were open to the possibility that we might fall in love with New York and never leave. But that didn't happen, and now we're back in San Francisco and so far, we're having a great time. Although I'm living with my parents until my apartment's ready, and it's a weird time to be interviewed about my incest novel..." That novel, Watch Your Mouth, has been met with a critical reception that ranges from befuddlement to acclaim. (On the latter half of the spectrum, Salon.com claimed that Handler was the best dark humorist since Kurt Vonnegut.)
RH: What on earth possessed you to write a comic novel about incest?
DH: I was very self-conscious about my subject matter when I was starting out. The first novel felt to me like...you know, "The traditional first novel should be a coming of age story." But that didn't quite interest me, so before I knew it, as I was thinking about adolescence and the point at which one comes to the end of certain types of innocence, murder sprang to mind, and imaginary personalities, and all sorts of things that seemed more interesting than a typical coming of age novel.
Then people had suggested, "Oh, write about your family! That's what you should do; everybody writes about their families." So I began to think about what interests me about families. I think most writers who write about a family end up placing an ill-fitting narrative on their own experience. They try to say, "This is the story of a family that did this," whereas that's almost impossible to categorize. For most people, the two primary relationships they have are with their families or romantic ones. And everyone knows those two relationships have a lot to do with one another...
RH: How did you hit upon the two structural elements of the opera and the 12-step program?
DH: I've always been a fan of opera. I've always liked its sense of narrative. It's contained, because it has to take place in one room or one town, yet it's always absurdly melodramatic. And with family, you're trapped in the same house with a few people, and the allegiances are changing every five minutes. So family and opera seemed to go together.
So many novels about families just end, as if family stories could just end. "And then they had a revelation, and everybody realized they could do this." And I've never seen that happen in any family, so I liked the idea of extending a novel past what seemed like the end of the story. And with the first half being about incest, I asked myself what would happen if you'd been through such an experience, and, you know, you'd enter a 12-step program. And those programs seem to be all about placing a very strict narrative on a difficult and muddled experience. So that just seemed to fit very well, too.
RH: One of the things I like about both novels is the self- awareness you give your narrators. They're very upfront about the types of stories they're telling, and you take a lot of opportunities to play with that. How did you discover and cultivate that quality in your writing voice?
DH: That's the place where the novel ought to be today, I think, a somewhat self-conscious place, and the novel should use the advantages it has over other media. So many novels that you read today...you can tell they have an eye on becoming a movie. Even serious literary fictions. They write as if they were a suspense film... One of the great things about the power of the novel is that it can inhabite all these ambiguous states that, if it were any visual or auditory medium, would have to be made clear.
In the novel that I'm working on, I'm toying with a narrator idea that I pretty much stole from Madame Bovary, which begins in the plural first person. There' s this "we," and then you meet Charles, the husband, and the story then leaks out of that. Few people remember that the story actually begins from somebody's point of view. Most novels usually have an omniscient narrator with such a strong, stylized voice that you wonder who it is, or a first person narrator who's absolutely infallible, able to trace every single step of his or her internal processes. You probably have five sudden realizations in your life that actually stick, and for these narrators they're all contained within a 200-page novel that takes place over three weeks...I'm frustrated by the ineptitude of narration.
RH: Despite the absurdist elements of Watch Your Mouth, your scary scenes are also genuinely terrifying. When the golem appears at the end of the first half, there's a sense of, "Holy shit, what the fuck was THAT?"
DH: I was definitely going for the "Holy shit, what the fuck was that?" effect. (laughs) Yeah, I like scary things. I was interested in finding ways to do dark comedy that were actually dark and comic. So many things are talked about as being dark comedy that are really well within the hip bounds of laughing at things. If you just have violence and jokes, people are used to that. They're not nervous about laughing at that. If you watch Pulp Fiction, you might be squeamish at points, but you're not actually afraid to laugh. I tried to make the sexual parts really sexual and the scary parts really scary in order to have some conflict with the humor.
RH: I noticed they were very careful in your press kit to mention that nobody in your family has ever committed incest. Which is funny, because if this were autobiographical, your stand-in would be the boyfriend/observer, not any of the incestuous Glasses.
DH: Everybody seems to skip right over that, though. They talk about him starting to sleep with the mother, blah blah blah, and, well, it's not his mother. But I've never slept with my girlfriend's mother, either.
RH: Who are writers that you've found particularly inspirational?
DH: The first author I was really crazy about when I started to study writers for their tricks, rather than just read for pure enjoyment, was Carson McCullers. And then in college, it was pretty much all about Nabakov. I believe he laid the groundwork for the the type of narration that the most interesting writers are doing today.
I think Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles is a contribution to literature on a par with something like Madame Bovary or Moby Dick. It's just an amazing text. He did things nobody has done before, and I was astounded at the reaction from many American reviewers: "He's done it again, that wacky Murakami." He's an unparalled genius, a step above other contemporary writers.
RH: You've written several books as Lemony Snicket. How did you end up as a children's book author?
DH: When The Basic Eight was being passed around, because it was set in a high school, it attracted the attention of people who were selling books for younger people. One of them was Susan Rich, who was then an editor at Simon and Schuster and is now at HarperCollins. She brought up the idea that I should write for children. And my reaction was that I couldn't write for children because children's books are such crap. She pointed out that if a lot of my writing for adults was fueled by rage at what was going on in adult fiction, it might actually work the same way with children's books. And it has.
The pseudonym's been around since I did research for The Basic Eight, when I used it to contact right-wing organizations to get pamphlets and learn their dogma. And it became a running joke with me and my friends; they gave me Lemony Snicket business cards one year, we invented a drink called the Lemony Snicket... And when I started writing the children's books, and the character of the narrator emerged and my editor and I decided I needed a pseudonym, well, I'd had a pseudonym all along. And now I'm on the New York Times bestseller lists for a book by Lemony Snicket.
RH: He's going to be an even huger author than Daniel Handler.
DH: That's pretty much a delight. As a writer, you want to reach the culture and have connections with people, but the truth is, when that boils down literally to people who obsessively reread your books, you don't always want that. There've been some people who read The Basic Eight over and over, and they're actually pretty spooky. But if a nine-year-old is reading your books over and over, and wants to talk about them with you, it's actually charming. At that age, you're loving books like you'll never love them again. The books you loved when you were in fourth grade and read them to tatters, you'll never love another book like that. I love Lolita, but not the same way I loved, say, The Egypt Game. And it's moving to think that my books are doing that for some kids, and that I'm affecting literature without, you know, collecting weirdos.
RH: And children's books are having a real boom right now.
DH: I think that'll bring with it even more aggressive marketing of books for young people. A nice thing about children's books, though I'm probably alone in this opinion among people who write and publish them, is that they did get to be in this unrecognized ghetto for a long time. It was great that there were books that were selling millions of copies that nobody would talk about in the mainstream media. And now they're getting that press. It's a good thing for the industry, it's certainly been a good thing for me, but it certainly raises some iffier possibilities.
RH: Nickelodeon has picked up the rights to the Lemony Snicket series, and The Basic Eight is being adapted for the movies. Has anybody expressed interest in doing a film version of Watch Your Mouth?
DH: They come near, and then they go right away. Ever since I read that somebody bought the film rights to Murakami's The Wild Sheep Chase, I guess all bets are off. But so far they come for the incest and leave for the golem. Which is really strange, since there's so little incest in movies but plenty of monsters. And I was thinking of the classic monster movies when I was trying to write the scary parts of the novel, because there's something that's corny but also terrifying about the mummy, Frankenstein, all those old Universal Pictures thunder-and-lightning flicks.
RH: How involved are you with the other adapations?
DH: I'm doing the Nickelodeon adaptation, so I'm very involved in that. With The Basic Eight, they ask me a lot of questions, but it always reminds me of when you're little, and your mom asks you, "Do you think we should have chicken for dinner?" when she's not really asking you. They send me drafts, they conference me in, ask me what I think about this and this, and I tell them what I think, and they say, "Uh huh."