An Interview with Daniel Handler
Words By Dani Hedlund
Let me start with the single most cliché question: What was the inspiration for this book?
There were a bunch of inspirations. One of them came from a dinner party I had with some friends. A friend of mine—who was a man married to another man—was talking about a visit he was taking to his hometown. I asked, “What do you do there?” and he said, “Oh, I like to go see all of my ex-boyfriends and their wives.” There was all this fluttery giggling around the table, and everyone was making fun of closeted small-town men, but he said, “No, they’re not closeted, and they’re not even bisexual. They like to repair their trucks and watch sports on TV, and I think if they were in high school and they could have found a girl who wanted to do that with them and then also have sex, they probably would have gone that way. But they didn’t.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard of such a thing or anything like that, but it was really a reminder of how fluid and loose sexuality is, and how easily it eludes the very crude categories we put on it. Particularly in regard to male sexuality; there’s this way you can be so ready for action when you’re a teenage boy that the nature of the action doesn’t really matter that much. Obviously we’re speaking in broad generalizations; not all boys are like this, and there are plenty of young women who have been like this. But I think there was a particular window that I began to think about in terms of young male desire.
Meanwhile, I was also noticing how absent it was from literature that’s supposedly for young people. As a male author who writes for young people, I often get asked how we can encourage boys to read. It’s pretty well-documented that there’s a real gender gap in reading, but I’ve always been confused in terms of what I can bring to that question. I was a voracious reader when I was a teen boy, so I didn’t get any notion on how to encourage that because I never needed any encouragement.
Before I was giving one of these speeches, my mother was cleaning out my childhood bedroom and found these books of mine, some of my favorite novels from about age 17 to age 20. I was a very serious reader and a pretentious high school student—that will surprise no one to learn. So I reread all these novels in a row, and though they were not my pornography—they were my serious reading—they were all very filthy. They all had a ton of sex in them. It was a reminder that even in an aspect of my life that I considered not very sexual, what I was reading—what I was interested in—was a lot of sex.
And that was interesting to me. That’s the topic that is most watched over in terms of literature for young people. If you read a book about teenagers killing one another, no one blinks. But if somebody sleeps with more than one person in a teen romance book, the world is on fire. I’ve never had an idea for a book based on what’s missing from the industry or from the body of work, but just to hear my friend’s story of sexual fluidity and then also to think about some of the aspects of my own life and some of the aspects of literature that was out there, that’s all where this book came from.
In the work that you’ve published under your own name, you toy with form in such a fascinating way. I’ve loved to watch each new novel come out and figure out what crazy thing you’re going to do. All the Dirty Parts was structured in incredibly small sections and had very little descriptions—so much of it is told through dialogue, and the reader has to infer what’s happening. Where did that come from?
I carried this vague novel idea that I was talking about in my head for a long time. I just thought boys and sex and fluidity, and that’s not really an idea all by itself. Usually my ideas are something like three orphans are thrown down an elevator shaft, which is a pretty specific idea for a book. So I kept this idea around for a while, and it was not until I read a few books in a fragmentary form that I began to see that this was a way for the story to be told. Mary Robinson’s novel Why Did I Ever is in really tiny sections, and that’s one of my favorite books in the world. I read that years and years ago, but I reread it pretty regularly.
To me, it feels like a pebble you drop in the stream: there are each of these tiny little things, and they slowly build something. It just seemed like a fun thing to try and do. It was really fun to write. I had a few notes, and I would bring some index cards, and I would sit someplace and write a bunch of things really quickly. Then I’d go home and throw almost all of them out and start over. I did that over and over again. The idea of moving index cards around on a table or arranging piles and different things as a way of putting a novel together was really fun for me. I never do that in straight prose. You might move an incident from one place to another in the story, but you’re not going to take all the paragraphs in your novel and put them in a new order.
The index cards are pretty fun, but in general I think the reason why I like different structures is there’s a parlor game aspect to it. If I decide a chapter is going to end with a certain incident and I have to get there, it feels like a game in my head. On a morning where I wake up and I’m less inspired, or I’m less jazzed about the work that I’m doing, it helps me to say, “You know what the next thing to do is,” rather than, “Oh Mighty Muse, come and visit me.”
You’ve done something incredibly difficult in this book, in which you have a protagonist that wears the gray hat. Dealing with the subject matter, you have a lot of readers that will immediately hate Cole, and then the other half will immediately identify with him. How did you manage to keep him both likable enough to be invested in, but unlikable enough to make him so interesting?
I like that the assumption of the question is that I succeeded, so that’s a relief. I’m sure many readers will find that it’s not a success. I kept him in conversation with a few people that are more empathetic or more thoughtful, at least about what comes out of their mouths. It was a real balance for me. But again, one of the advantages of the structure was to say, “Okay, I have these 30 index cards where he’s really quite a cad, so let’s not put them all here.”
That kind of balancing act was a good way to go about it, but it’s hard. The book has only been out for a few days. I had a handful of people who were reading drafts of it and galleys, and I’ve had a wide variety of responses, even from people who are probably going to be predisposed to at least pretend that they like it. It’s gone from, “How in the world did you make up this predatory monster?” to “I don’t see what the big deal is, like I guess he could be nicer, but couldn’t we all in high school?” Part of what’s interesting to me is to see what discussion that brings. It’s not so much a commitment to having a character that everybody likes as it is to be open for discussion. I don’t read a lot of responses that are happening with my books—particularly online—but when I’ve heard people have reacted negatively, I hope that’s just a nice conversation for them, rather than, “Dear God, a monster! How can he be stopped?!”
When your first book came out under your name, I wondered how much pressure that must be. Do you feel like there’s added pressure because you built your original career on writing for children? Do you feel like your writing will be under even more scrutiny if you’re going to write things that are very adult in content?
I don’t know. My first novel came out before the Snicket books did, so I’ve always written work for adults alongside my children’s stuff. I don’t harbor any illusions. I know what I’m best known for, sure, but the short answer is that it’s never been much of a concern of mine. I see my position as being so blessed that when I’m writing a novel, I don’t worry whether a publisher will take it, or that they’ll take it for a tiny amount of money—something really suspenseful in the lives of 99.9% of writers. I’m so lucky to get to do that, to write that way. I’m sure there are people scrutinizing for various aesthetic or political or personal judgments. But I just don’t think of myself as going out in the world to make friends with everyone. I’m close with people and I have many wonderful people in my life, and when I hurt their feelings I’m really upset. But when I hurt the feelings of or otherwise upset some person some place, I just think, “Well, okay”.
Have you always felt that way as a writer? Did you always have this exceptional writerly zen, or did it come from a very successful career?
In my case, I think part of it came from the fact that the internet grew up as my career grew up, so I’m not really on social media in any bona fide way. I managed to escape that constant conversation that can be very nerve-wracking for many writers. That just wasn’t happening when I first came out. You had to go look for people who hated you—you had to go to Amazon and find the one-star reviews and find this person who hated you. Now, of course, you just have to open your screen to find hatred.
I think that’s probably it, but certainly I was at an advantage when starting A Series of Unfortunate Events, for instance, because I hadn’t taken any classes or gotten any guidelines on how to write for young people. It never occurred to me that you couldn’t put murder in a book, so I just did. I’ve always thought that was an advantage. If I had taken some class, they would have said, “Here are the nine things you can’t put in a children’s book,” and I would have probably taken that pretty seriously because I wanted to make a living as a writer.
I’m curious how your process changes between books. Each of your books is written in a radically different way, but the strength of the voice is always maintained. You talk about the index cards with this one, but moving between each book, do you have the same sort of routine? Or have you changed that up as you progressed?
Certain things are preset in terms of how I do them, but each book is a new adventure. Having written more books doesn’t really give me more confidence in terms of the writing process. A metaphor I’ve used a lot—and I think it’s because I cook a lot, too—is that it reminds me of a strange ingredient you get for a specific recipe. That’s learning how to write a specific book. You read a recipe and it says you need walnut oil, so you buy walnut oil, and there walnut oil sits in the cupboard forever. You’ve learned how to make that one thing, but it hasn’t taught you the world of cooking. With this book, I wrote a fragmentary thing, and it worked for me, and now I know how to do that, but I’ve already done that, so it’s not going to help me do it again.
Of course, you’re not just a writer; you have a myriad of artistic interests. Talk to me about how your literature and your music bleed together. We see a little of it with The Gothic Archies and A Series of Unfortunate Events, but did those lenses constantly stay present?
I had a very strong musical education when I was growing up. Music was instilled in me at a very young age, and I listen to music a lot. The first thing I do when I wake up is put on something, and one of the last things I do before going to bed is turn off the music that’s playing. It’s installed in my consciousness in that way. Most of the music that I play is for someone else’s project that I’m the hired gun for, which I like a lot. All day long I’m the master of my imaginary domain, so it’s nice to go some place where somebody says, “Here’s the little thing that you are supposed to be doing. Do this.”
Talk to me about how long the process was for All the Dirty Parts. You mentioned having this idea for a while, but how long are we talking about from first paragraph to galley proofs?
Well, the writing of it didn’t take that long—I would say it was three or four months by the time I thought, “Well this is fragmentary, and I’m going to do it like this.” But there was a very long conversation about publication: who it would be appropriate for and how they could publish it. That was a long time. In fact, that’s one of my few little regrets with this book. It was originally timed to come out when my son was younger, when he was not an adolescent. Now my son is thirteen—almost fourteen—and that’s peak embarrassment stage in terms of having your father write a sex-based explicit book. I kind of wish it happened when he was eleven, so he would have been like, “What’s it about? Not for me.” Instead, he’s in a permanent state of mortification for a few months.
There was a little longer than a year of conversations about whether or not this book could be published for teenagers, and whether there was something we could do to make that happen, or if it was just impossible. It was basically decided that it was impossible.
I have a writerly friend who always tells me that he judges the success of his novels not by how many languages they’re translated into or how high they get on the bestseller list, but whether or not he set out to say one thing to his readers and he thought his book did that thing. What do you think is the one thing you set out to say with All the Dirty Parts?
Oh gosh. I think of my books as asking questions because I’m more interested in a book that leaves me wondering rather than a book that tells me something. I’m trying to think if I can formulate a complicated many-phrased question all in a row, but I think my book is asking questions about male sexuality and the line between being upfront about your desires and being manipulative or even predatory.
I believe in sexual freedom and access to information, but I’m not convinced that omnipresent pornography is a great cultural success, and I’m curious about that. So that’s the question I think the book is asking. I’m so interested in unpacking your friend’s methodology in assessing his own literary success. I don’t think I use anything like what your friend uses to gauge how I feel about my own work, but I’m totally interested in it.
As a publisher, I’m constantly looking at short works and novellas, and I always want some kind of closure or narrative arc in which the character has changed in some way. Of course you have that, but it’s interesting to see the other side—to feel unfulfilled by closure instead of fulfilled by it.
What I think is sexiest about a short story is missing information. There are so many wonderful short stories that suddenly skip ahead and you don’t know what happened, or you never get to find out why she’s so furious. It ends before the story ends. That’s one thing I think about a lot when I’m writing fiction—the missing information.
I found that so interesting in All the Dirty Parts. The missing information, for me, was the visuals. I could perfectly imagine every single pornographic scene, but my mind just filled in everything about the main characters and what they were doing. It was so interesting that the only visuals for me to cling to were these flashes on a screen. It totally worked, but it was such a weird reading experience.
One of the things I never thought I’d do in a book was write without quotation marks, and the dialogue here is not in quotation marks. Part of that is to keep the dialogue existing in this space where some of it is virtual. It’s texting, or it’s talking on the phone, or it’s talking in person, or it’s the million current platforms you can talk on. It does seem to me that young people in particular are fluid in that conversation.
For people my age, there were a bunch of teenage ritualistic experiences, like getting someone’s home phone number and calling; you didn’t know if they were going to answer! And then there was the advent of email—and the ways in which you talk to people on email—and then the ways you text people, and the ways in which social media is both a private conversation and a public conversation. And so part of the ambiguity in the dialogue is that you don’t always know if these are two people in two rooms having a conversation, or if they are lying in bed together, or where exactly they are.
What are you working on now?
I’m about to go on a little tour for this book. When I get back, a play I’ve written is going up in Berkeley Repertory Theatre in October, so there’s the last bit of that. We’ve workshopped it a couple of times, but these are the live rehearsals for the play, so that’s pretty fun. Those are the two things on my immediate brain. I have two books that I’ve just finished edits on, which is great: an adult book and a children’s book.