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The Sunday Conversation: With Daniel Handler

June 20, 2010

Daniel Handler is perhaps better known for his pen name, Lemony Snicket, and his bestselling volumes of children's books, "A Series of Unfortunate Events." But another Lemony Snicket creation, illustrated by Handler's wife, Lisa Brown, has been selected for display as part of a museum exhibition; "The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story" is part of the Skirball Cultural Center show "Monsters and Miracles: A Journey Through Jewish Picture Books," on view through Aug. 1.

How did "The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story" come about?

Quite some years ago, I was commissioned by the Washington Post to write a Christmas story, which they found inappropriate and did not publish. I began to think that perhaps it was inappropriate that I was writing a Christmas story, not because of the subject matter but because I was Jewish and I should carry the flag for my own faith and tradition. The title at once came to me, which was "The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming."

Perhaps two years after that, during the holiday season my wife, who becomes more greatly irritated over the Christmas juggernaut than I do, was expressing her irritation. And I thought, "Oh, well, a latke would also be irritated during the Christmas season. It would feel marginalized and condescended to." So I wrote "The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming," and I asked my wife if she would illustrate it.

What was inappropriate about your Christmas story for the Washington Post?

It was called "The Baby in the Manger." What could be more innocent? It did have a couple of sentences that ran something like, "Religion is like aspirin. It's okay to take a little to make yourself feel better, but you shouldn't take too much, and you shouldn't force people to take it who don't want any."

I think it's interesting that you have rabbis and characters with names from the Old Testament, and you deal with issues of mythology and sin.

Judaism is little else but perseverance in intellectual and spiritual ideas despite random calamity, and I think that would encapsulate all of my work. I don't know how specifically Jewish that is. I wouldn't want to imply that Confucians don't do that.

So now Lemony Snicket is writing a new four-book series for Little, Brown, yes? How's that going? That's coming out in 2012?

Yes, that's my belief. Among the many mysteries of the publishing industry would be its schedule. It's going well. It's in its first trimester, so you don't want to poke at it too much. It's early, so I don't want to go around bragging about it. That's actually a Jewish tradition, not to set up the baby's room while you're pregnant or even say the baby's name out loud. It's bad luck.

Do you have anything coming up for us grown-ups?

I have a new novel coming out that Bloomsbury will publish; that's in 2012 as well. It's about attempts by people in the present day to become pirates in the classical mode, which turns out to be more difficult than you would think. Not in the modern Somali pirate mode but to be swashbuckling and looking for pieces of eight.

Is it true that you support the escalation of formality in everyday life?

Absolutely.

So is the trend toward casualness an unfortunate event?

Yes, I would say. It makes me unhappy. To some extent, it's on purpose, so I don't know if I would call it unfortunate in the sense of unlucky. There's a casual agenda, and I think it's winning. The pros of formality are forethought put into word and action, spiffier clothing and fetishization of everyday occurrences.

How does writing for children compare to writing for adults?

They feel like the same thing to me. I think of children's literature as being a sort of genre, so writing a children's book is like writing a mystery novel – some things you have to put into it, otherwise it doesn't qualify. And there are things that don't belong in it or else it doesn't qualify, but other than that, it feels like the same thing.

I understand you play a hell of an accordion. How did you get into that and why was your former band, the Edith Head Trio, named after a costume designer?

I took up the accordion in college because I wanted to be in a band, and I'd taken piano lessons forever, but it was during a moment in American pop music in which playing keyboard instruments was not cool. And so the accordion was cooler, believe it or not. So I like to say I'm the first person in history who took up the accordion in order to meet women.

And then some years later I was in a band, and there were three of us, and we thought because we were playing deadpan gothic jazz, it would be funny to bill ourselves as a trio but not name it after any of the members of the band. You can't be a fan of old movies without coming across Edith Head's name, and I think the name Edith Head sounds as elegant and old-fashioned as her costumes.

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