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Daniel Handler interview

by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2006-06-05

Daniel handler

Daniel Handler

Over the past few years, author Daniel Handler has found fame as the man behind Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events – the best-selling children’s saga which follows the misfortunes of the Baudelaire orphans. Twelve books and one hit film later, the series is finally set to come to an end when the 13th novel is published in the autumn.

In the mean time the 36-year-old San Francisco native has turned his attentions to more grown-up writing, with his latest effort, Adverbs, hitting shelves this week. The book, which features a string of characters drifting in and out of troubled romantic relationships, is Handler’s third novel for adults, the other two being high school thriller The Basic Eight, and the surreal black comedy Watch Your Mouth, which gives the Golem legend a creepy modern makeover.

Handler talks exclusively to SJ’s Caroline Westbrook about both Adverbs and the forthcoming Snicket finale, as well as revealing a little bit more about the Handler family history and offering his views on Jewish cab drivers…

The forthcoming Lemony Snicket book is the last one – will you be sad to see the series end?
I suppose so, it’s both with a sense of satisfaction and sadness that I’ve finished the volume, but I do plan to write other things, so barring any violence at the Hay Festival, it probably won’t be the end of my career.

Can you give us any clues as to what’s going to happen in the final book?
Well, I have been informing people that I believe it’s the first incidence in literary history in which seaweed is used as a wig, so literary wig enthusiasts may take note of that. And I guess in the case of your website it would have to be Jewish wig enthusiasts. That’s increasingly a smaller and smaller subset which is just how I like it.

What is going to be next for you, are you going to do more children’s books or are you planning to focus more on your grown-up material?
No, I plan to do both, until the pen is dragged from my cold dead fingertips.

What question do you find you get asked about Lemony Snicket the most often?
Most frequently from young readers I get questions of concern – everybody seems quite worried about the Baudelaires – and although that’s an understandable reaction it’s liable to lead to deeper mental problems as they get older.

How long did it take you to write Adverbs and what inspired it?
Well, it seems over-dramatic to say four or five years, but that’s how long it took because I wrote it in fits and starts. The first draft was about a thousand pages long and I couldn’t find the rhyme or reason in what I was describing, and it was only after putting it aside for a while and returning to it and hacking away at it that I managed to find the structure it has today.

Did you draw on your own experiences at all when writing the book? For example there’s a character who moves from New York to San Francisco as you did.
I’ve been lucky enough that my love life has been stable for quite some time – I’m married, and before that was with her for quite some time – so I was inspired more by the tribulations of people I knew.

There always seem to be Jewish themes running through your books – is that something which is important to you?
Well being Jewish, it’s one of those things that just tends to just come up naturally, it’s not a crusade I’m on. But then again Jews weren’t allowed on the Crusades!

You’ve done books, film and music – ever thought of doing theatre?
There was a theatre company in San Francisco who dramatised some portions of Adverbs and that worked very well, but not really – I don’t want to embark on any activities that put me in contact with more actors. I’d prefer less contact with them actually. They’re pleasant enough when they’re just sitting around the bar, but I don’t really admire the rehearsal process.

Any plans to make Adverbs into a movie?
There’s talk of a movie of Adverbs, but my first novel The Basic Eight is entering its tenth year of development, so I don’t think it’s quite time to get in line for tickets. The people who are developing The Basic Eight think it would make a good film but contrary to popular mythology Hollywood actually moves very slowly so it’s taking its time. At earlier points in development I was involved with the screenplay with it, but enough is enough.

You’ve achieved a lot so far in your life – do you consider yourself to be lucky and what does luck mean to you?
Yes – the path that has ended up being mine has bee quite astonishing, and certainly I can’t say that I’ve done anything to deserve it, so luck is the only other option. I don’t think it’s due to intelligent design if that’s what you’re asking. It took a number of years before my first novel was published, so I thought things would always go that way, and to my astonishment they haven’t.

Did you always want to be a writer?
Yes, I could never think of anything else that I wanted to be. My parents tell a story that when I was five years old I said I wanted to be a philosopher that lived on top of a hill and would give out advice to anybody who climbed up there. I don’t have a memory of that but if so that was the only other career I ever considered.

What are the origins of the Handler name?
It was a German name, and my father’s mother changed the spelling of it when they arrived in America. I’ve actually heard before that it refers to money-lending. I’ve never really traced my family roots – my mother’s maiden name was Walpole, and her family were distant relations of Hugh Walpole, the British writer, and there’s a coat of arms in that somewhere with some scarcely reliable story attached to it. And my father’s family were pretty much wiped out in World War II. I guess you could do some intensive genealogical research but nobody in my family has done it, and I have a tendency to make things up so I wouldn’t be the ideal researcher.

The cover of Adverbs features yellow taxis. When was the last time you had a Jewish cab driver?
Not that long ago actually.  A couple of weeks before leaving for this tour I was on the way to a Greek restaurant, and the driver said he would never go there because ‘Jews shouldn’t eat in Greek restaurants’. Which I had never heard before. So I questioned him further on his belief and it was the fact that the Greeks were originally a polytheistic society  (i.e worshipped multiple gods) that the objected to it. Much as I hate to bash my fellow Jew I don’t see the logic in that at all.

You have a two-year-old son. Is she showing any of Sunny Baudelaire’s personality traits?
Well, he definitely talks up a storm in ways that only people close to him can understand. He shows no culinary skills although he’s been very interested in cocktails. My wife (Lisa Brown) wrote a book for very young children called Baby, Mix Me A Drink which teaches babies how to make cocktails, and my son is a very skilled learner. I had to bring my wife a martini in the hospital as soon as she’d given birth. It led to a dispute with the nurse.

What are you up to next?
In the summer I’ll debut an orchestra piece with narration by Lemony Snicket, then I’m at work on a new novel for adults about pirates. It’s a lot of fun doing research. The main challenge for me is having to call dieticians and ask them about scurvy, and they grow very suspicious as to why I’m asking.

Are they going to be Jewish pirates?
Well, they are nomadic!

When was the last time you set foot in a synagogue?
Oh, not that long ago. I’ve been on tour for a month so not during that time but shortly before then. I do go off and on, and my son goes to a nursery program through a synagogue. I’m not sure if that really counts though! I mean, he makes challah, so it must do.