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
RH: What on earth possessed you to write a comic novel
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."