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Zam Zam with Lemony Snicket
By Dave Shulman
First published in L.A. Weekly, December 16, 2004.
Daniel Handler and I share a small table in a dark alcove in a small, dark and wondrous old bar called Zam Zam, in San Francisco’s Upper Haight, a short walk from where Handler lives in what I’ve heard is a dark and wondrous old Victorian. The table’s just wide enough to support and the alcove just light enough to reveal, between us, a glass bowl of pretzels, two glasses filled with delicious and dangerous drugs, and a straw porkpie hat equipped with a powerful recording device.
The place is filling up, just slightly, nicely, a low-key, peaceful group leaning or sitting at the dark, crescent-shaped bar. Dinah Washington, Pavarotti, Charlie Parker, Celtic folk, Combustible Edison, big bands on the jukebox. I like this bar.
So does Handler, a kind and wise and reasonable young man of 34. Handler plays accordion. (Not now in the bar, but in general.) So does my friend June. But that’s where the similarity ends. Handler has a 1-year-old son who lives with him nearby, whereas June has an 8-year-old nephew who lives far, far away and attends elementary school. His name is Luke, and his favorite author is Lemony Snicket.
Unfortunately, Luke’s teacher, who’s otherwise quite reasonable, doesn’t approve. “You’re not old enough for Lemony Snicket,” I’m told he was told, scolded, really, for bringing a Snicket book to school. I mention this to Handler because, sometimes, when he’s not playing accordion, he’s Lemony Snicket.
“Luke lives in an extremely small town in Iowa,” I explain, as Handler washes down the evening’s first pretzels with the evening’s first bourbon.
“Is this a public school, or a religious school?”
“I’m not sure if, in Iowa, they differentiate.” (Actually, Iowa has some of the best public schools in the nation.)
“Actually,” says Handler, “I heard that the whole state was bought outright by Wal-Mart a few months ago.”
As Lemony Snicket, Handler’s now eleven-thirteenths of the way through a 13-volume series of gleefully dark and lovely children’s books, A Series of Unfortunate Events. Through each tale, demented and tragic incidents blight the lives of three inordinately bright and wonderful young siblings, the Baudelaire children. Officially orphaned by fire (unfortunate event No. 1) on Page 8 of the first book, The Bad Beginning, for the next 156 pages and 10 books (so far), Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire are passed around among various distant and demented relatives, as the first of these family members, a tall, rail-thin, nefarious old prick named Count Olaf, plots to gain control of the vast Baudelaire fortune, currently overseen by a well-meaning but inept banker named Mr. Poe. In each ensuing episode, Olaf dons ridiculous disguises that are transparent to the children but convincing to Mr. Poe, who tries, in his own massively incompetent way, sort of, almost, to stop him.
As all around them crumbles or falls or burns or disintegrates and so on, and caretakers are poisoned or torn apart by sharp-toothed leeches and so on, the three young Baudelaires invent things and research things and bite things as necessary to survive each tragedy.
It would all be so terribly terrible if not for the stories’ true protagonist, the mournful, sophisticated narrator. Lemony Snicket tells us these stories in a voice one might expect to come from Charles Dickens being channeled by Dorothy Parker during the course of an interview with Eric Idle in a Monty Python talk-show sketch, after Idle posed the question, “What would happen if you put Edward Gorey, Charles Addams, Roald Dahl and Mervyn Peake in a blender?”
(For those unable to read, someone’s made a very expensive motion picture based on the first three books, trademarked and copyrighted by Paramount Pictures Corp. and DreamWorks LLC and opening December 17 at a theater or drive-in near you.)
When talking with an author of books in which prominent characters are named Baudelaire and Poe (and nary a page passes without some further highfalutin cultural or literary reference), one should feel intimidated by the author’s casual brilliance and, despite one’s public school education, try to impress him with the one thing you actually know:
“Baudelaire translated Poe, didn’t he?” I say, as if the thought had just occurred.
“Mm-hm,” Handler replies, duly impressed. “And you’re the first person, ever, to note that. Apart from my editor.”
“Really? Damn — I win!”
“I was sure you were going to say, ‘Baudelaire . . . was a French poet, right?’ Then I could say, ‘Wow, you’re so smart for figuring that out. What was it — was it the word Baudelaire that helped?’”
“But with these character names,” I press on, hard-hittingly journalistic/slightly buzzed, “are you implying specific relationships between the historic literary figures and your characters, or . . . the other thing that I don’t have the ability to articulate right now because of the scotch and pretzels?”
“You mean, is there a difference between giving a shout-out to a book that I love, and implying that there’s a relationship with them?”
“Yeah. Okay. Yeah.”
“I just figure it’s both. But the real reason is that I find it very, very difficult to name characters. I just finished a new novel for adults, and I had the characters forever numbered, because I had no idea what to call them. And I finally assigned them all the blandest first names in the entire world. Either I’m naming them Mr. Poe, or I’m completely lost, so I have to name them Joe.”
It was on an impulse, while doing research for his first novel, The Basic Eight (not intended for children), that Handler came up with the name Lemony Snicket. Just blurted out a name to give to religious and political organizations so he could receive their mailings without suffering the spammy fate that comes to those who use real names on mailing lists. Until he decided to use it as his official nom de plume, it was a recreational name, to use for dinner reservations, grumpy letters-to-the-editors, just to share with friends.
Theory: Reading Edgar Allan Poe at the age of 9 has a lasting effect, or it doesn’t. Over the course of my life’s work, I’ve met what I consider to be an unusually large number of people who, like myself, had read, at the age of 9, the same 1944 Random House hardback edition of Tales of Edgar Allan Poe — the one with a dark-green cloth cover with small black wings on the front, black and gold printing on the spine, and bleak, scary Fritz Eichenberg woodcuts throughout.
“No,” says Handler to my senseless query. “Mine had Poe on the cover, actually stamped into the book.”
“Well, fine,” I say. “Never mind.”
“Never mind, indeed!” Handler growls, then half-shouts: “GOOD DAY, SIR!”
“GOOD DAY TO YOU, SIR!” I growl-shout back. It really is good scotch, but I’m able to regain my composure. “So you had the wrong edition. Forgivable. But how old were you?”
“When I read Poe?” Handler searches his storage facilities. “Nine?”
“Yes,” I reply.
Over a fresh bowl of noisy pretzels, we discuss, in a decidedly nonlinear fashion, the depiction of horrible things, woe and inconvenience. Which brings us to children. As I mentioned, Handler has a son. He and his wife, graphic artist Lisa Brown, have so far succeeded in raising it through an entire year. I wonder if it’s harder to get work done with a 1-year-old around.
“There’s this inevitable question,” says Handler, “which I recognize you didn’t ask, but that a lot of people do — which is, ‘Is your work gonna get suddenly milder, now that you have a baby?’ And what’s so strange about that question is that the first year of having a baby is all about brainstorming danger and death. It’s all about, ‘What in our home is at this level, that he could reach and die?!’ And, early on, it was, ‘We haven’t heard him cry out in two hours; maybe he’s dead!!’ ”
“And don’t forget kidnapping.”
“Exactly. Sort of the Eraserhead school of baby watching. If anything, I was more attuned to that kind of melodrama than I had been in years.”
“Melodrama,” Handler laughs — he’s actually been laughing quite a bit, but I don’t know that it has anything to do with me — and downs the last of his icy bourbon as I drain my perfectly room-temperature Oban scotch, 14 years old, complex, aromatic, wonderfully peaty, with a hint of sea salt.
I don’t need more drink, so I go to the bar to get it. Handler gets another as well. We return to the table to find a mysteriously empty pretzel bowl and a discussion about the unnecessary difference between writing for children and writing for adults.
“When I was 8 or 9,” I explain, “most adults, including teachers, talked to me like I was an idiot. But the ones I liked talked to me the same way they talked to one another. And that’s one of the things that come through in your Unfortunate series — this great respect for children as being no less works in progress than adults are.”
Handler sighs. “There’s no way to talk about this without sounding like part of the P.C. Police, but it really is as if children are one of the last minorities that it’s somehow okay to talk to in huge, general terms, to talk to differently, to think of differently.”
“But since The Children Are Our Future®, don’t we have to lie to them, and tell them that everything’s always bright and happy, with pink balloons bouncing over an eternal meadow?”
“I was just having an argument over this. Somebody was saying, ‘But you have to admit that children are stupider than adults, so you have to talk to them differently.’ And I said, ‘Are we supposed to talk differently to stupid people? Oh — okay. I’m sorry: [does dopey voice, reminiscent of Mortimer Snerd] Hi! . . . there!’ If I talked differently to stupid people than I did to my friends, I would forget how to talk.
“Children’s literature,” he continues, “is getting a lot of attention right now, and there’s also a lot of experimentation happening. Another children’s author told me that she thought it was like rock & roll in the ’60s — that all of the sudden everyone’s looking at it, and there’s money being made from it, and because there’s money being made from it, that the people who are sort of minding the gates are allowing a lot more experimentation.
“I’m not enough of a historian of children’s literature to know if that entirely rings true, but certainly it’s a time when . . . I mean, if you read 12 novels published for teenagers that are out by major publishers right now, the amount of experimentation — in terms of subject matter, style and language — is just way to the left of the same 12 novels that are gonna be published during the same period by the same publishers but for adults. There’re novels from the point of view of fetuses. Feti? Fetuses. And characters who go blind without reason midway through the novel. And all sorts of things that, if you were writing that for adults, you would only be published by some crazy, leftist, independent press, at best. And instead, if you write that for children, you’re being published by Simon & Schuster.”
In college, Handler had a narcoleptic seizure disorder, which led to an interest in sleep and dream theory, which led to the bottom of our current glasses of delicious, dangerous drugs: “There’s quite a sizable school of thought,” Handler says, “that believes that your dream comes from a narrative urge entirely due to the outside stimulus that wakes you up. And sometimes, you know, that makes sense: You have a dream with a bell going off, and you wake up and it’s your alarm clock. But sometimes you have these long narrative dreams that you can’t believe would be invented by your brain in just the split second before you wake up. But that is the school of thought.”
“Isn’t your assistant or publicist named Darla?” I ask.
“I’ve never met her or spoken with her, but my editor gave me her phone number, and I wrote it down, and last night I dreamed I was having an affair with a woman named Darla. I mean, we weren’t, you know, doing anything . . .”
“She’s available . . .”
“And I’m sure we’ll be married within the hour. Dreams are even better than books. All I did was write down the name Darla in my notebook, and in return I got all that free entertainment, and caught up on sleep at the same time.”
“I recently had this dream that I was onstage with this sort of indie-rock woman named Lois — she’s out of K-Records, up in the Pacific Northwest — and I’ve met her a couple of times. Not friends. I mean, we get along very well, but not close at all. But I had one of those incredibly vivid dreams that she and I were onstage at the Great American Music Hall, which is a real medium-size club here in San Francisco, in front of a really hostile audience, performing covers. Cover after cover after cover, and nothing pleases them.”
“What were you playing?”
“We were playing everything. We’d say, ‘Okay, let’s do Robyn Hitchcock. Okay, that didn’t work. Let’s do U2. Okay, that didn’t work. Let’s do John Coltrane.’ And that didn’t work. But we keep trying.”
“And you’re playing accordion?”
“I’m playing accordion and singing, and she’s playing guitar and singing.”
“Can you do Coltrane riffs on the accordion?”
“No. That was probably part of the problem. We weren’t any good.”
“Only a dream. So what’s Darla like?”