Handler, an intelligent, thoughtful man, has a passion to tell a story with outlandish characters and stories that will engage the reader and have the story stay with them, long after it is over. He was interviewed by Mount Hope’s Alexis den Boggende.
Daniel Handler is best known for writing his thoughtful, quirky, and creative children’s books, A Series of Unfortunate Events. A writer and a journalist, Handler has tackled multiple subject matters with interesting plots that capture both the mind and the heart. Handler has an extensive collection of work, ranging from his first book, The Basic Eight, which concerns the darker sides of the teenage lifestyle, to that of We Are Pirates, his newest novel about pirates taking over San Francisco Bay.
Mount Hope: Your work, and you as a writer, remind me of Kurt Vonnegut. On a literary level, your works complement each other. You don’t underestimate the reader, and you don’t beat around the bush. Vonnegut has his own style of peculiar plots and characters. How did you grow as a writer, developing your worlds and your characters?
Daniel Handler: I grow as a writer by growing as a reader. Since I was young I have liked to read things that challenge me in one way or another—“inappropriate” was how they were labeled when I was a child, “difficult” is how they’re more often described now. Reading from cultures, from times, from points of view different from our own recalibrate the brain and the heart. I see my own reading as a form of echolocation—I can find my own place and my own point of view by learning where I am in the context of what I read.
MH: Your novels, and your excerpts in The Believer, range in such a variety of subjects––murder, arson, break-ups, poetry, coming of age, love, Greek mythology, incest, and now, pirates. Where do you get these ideas, and how do you get them to work so well? What attracts you to waggish subjects when you’re writing?
DH: I usually stumble across some tiny idea, and contemplate it for a while; soon it becomes clear that I am grasping the hem of some larger theme. Then I know I have something worth writing.
MH: The Basic Eight was rejected 37 times before it was published. While being rejected is awful, it’s something that all writers must go through at one point or another. What advice would you give to aspiring young writers about facing rejection? How did you overcome it?
DH: Rejection is inevitable, at any age or level of experience. I recommend cultivating a group of kind and entertaining companions who can cheer you up when you are down. One cultivates kind and entertaining people by being kind and entertaining.
MH: How do you find the voices of your characters while writing your books? How does one become a teenage girl who hates her senior year, a man named Phil who wants to become a pirate, and a toddler who can bite through anything? How do you continue to develop these characters and their voices as the novel progresses?
DH: I eavesdrop, and I imagine. Everyone wanders the world demonstrating their lives. One can take notes.
MH: Your latest novel, We Are Pirates, is a modern-day story about a group of pirates who are wreaking havoc on San Francisco Bay. It’s witty, whimsical, and smart. How did you come about this story?
DH: When I was in high school, I impulsively wrote “pirate” on a form that was asking what my future occupation might be. For years I would crack myself up thinking about attempting to become, in the present day, a pirate in the classical mode. Then I began to do some research on piracy and soon realized that the history of piracy is the history of displacement and desperation, and the story went from there.
MH: What is your process in deciding what to write next? How do you know what will be the next novel you are going to write?
DH: I always have a handful of ideas floating around my brain and desk. I peek in at them from time to time to see how they are doing, and sometimes one is ready to occupy the front burner.
MH: I grew up reading A Series of Unfortunate Events. They were a huge part of childhood; I feel as though I grew simultaneously with your literary style. What was it like to transition from writing children’s literature to writing more adult-themed works, such as The Basic Eight and We Are Pirates?
DH: The Basic Eight is actually my first novel, published prior to The Bad Beginning, and I have always switched from writing one kind of book to another, rather than transitioning, which sounds more permanent. I hope that my literary style, if I have one, continues to develop in all of my books, just as I’m sure you are planning on continuing to develop, and not just stopping, now that childhood is over.
MH: Do you have any rituals when you write? Do you write in a specific place?
DH: I write at home or in a handful of cafés, mostly longhand on legal pads. I drink a lot of water and listen to appropriate music, in headphones if necessary.
MH: You have a unique writing style that stands apart from other writers. How long did it take you to become comfortable with your writing style? Was there ever a time that you questioned it? For example, in A Series of Unfortunate Events, you explain the vocabulary that you use for your young audience. Is this a stylistic choice?
DH: When I was first writing The Bad Beginning, I wrote the word “rickety” and then realized some readers might not know what that means. So I explained it, and the stentorian and yet inaccurate tone of my definition seemed to fit perfectly in the world I was devising. So yes, I guess one would call that a “stylistic choice.” I try not to get comfortable in my writing style because I think bewilderment is an environment that produces the most interesting work.
MH: Netflix is developing A Series of Unfortunate Events as a series, and Neil Patrick Harris has been cast as Count Olaf. People who have grown up with the books are thrilled and excited about the upcoming adaptation. What are your thoughts on the upcoming series, as well as the casting choice for Count Olaf?
DH: My first choice, Grace Jones, was never taken seriously.
MH: Are you working on a new project currently?
DH: I am working on several things, currently and always. I have written a YA novel that has a great deal of sex in it, and my publisher is feeling panicky. §