Adverbially Yours: an interview with Daniel Handler

Daniel Handler

Photo by Kelly Everding

by Kelly Everding and Eric Lorberer

In Everybody’s Autobiography, Gertrude Stein writes, “since the earth is all covered over with every one there really is no relation between any one and so if this Everybody’s Autobiography is to be the Autobiography of every one it is not to be of any connection between any one and any one because now there is none.” Somehow this elucidates Daniel Handler’s new novel, Adverbs (Ecco Press, $23.95), a sort of Everybody’s Love Story in which each adverbially titled chapter shows how any one might love any one in a world saturated with threats of impending doom and bad breath. The horrific and the mundane mix to hilarious and frightening effect as we see one man “immediately” fall in love with the first person he sees—the hapless cab driver who is whisking him away from his now ex-girlfriend—or watch  a woman who is “naturally” haunted by the ghost of a dead boyfriend.

These characters and all the rest are slippery ciphers throughout the book, though in Handler’s universe their lack of definition makes a powerful kind of sense; as he puts it in the chapter “Truly,” “it is not the nouns. The miracle is the adverbs, the way things are done. It is the way love gets done despite every catastrophe.” Yet despite their enigmatic status, these characters are like you and me: haplessly falling through life, buffeted this way and that by the vagaries of language and the flightiness of desires. “Isn’t love a sharing?” asks the narrator of “Collectively,” who is trying to explain the postman’s (and everyone else’s) strange longing for Mike. “Love makes the world go round, the hit songs collectively tell us, and the world is full of people you don’t know and might as well be nice to because they won’t leave. Some of the people you won’t like, but every day we wait for the postman and he hardly ever brings something good.”

Daniel Handler is also the author of two previous works of fiction, Watch Your Mouth and The Basic Eight, and as Lemony Snicket, has delighted millions of readers young and not-so-young with A Series of Unfortunate Events, due to wrap up this October. He was kind enough to sit down with us for a lengthy conversation, an excerpt of which appears in our current print issue.

Rain Taxi: How do you do?

Daniel Handler: Fine, thank you! These questions are easy!

RT: No, I meant what adverb best describes how you do?

DH: Oh. It’s hard because I’ve been thinking about adverbs so much. It’s as if they’ve been moved from the normal spot in my head that stores language to a file all about this novel. Maybe “very.” That’s an adverb I like a lot.

RT: You seem to have a love/hate relationship with language, and often show what a slippery customer it is, as phrases become tricky and meanings become obfuscated. Is writing a struggle for you? What is the problem with language?

DH: What is the problem with language? Somehow the way that question was phrased reminded me of a time I was on an airplane and this man in front of me leaned back his seat, and it was broken, so it leaned back farther than it should have, and I said, “Ow!” And he said, “Do you have a problem?” And I thought, “I do! I do have a problem!” But clearly, the answer was “Oh no, sorry.” But the problem is the seatback whacked me in the head. It was such an obvious thing. I think that might be the trouble with language. “Ow!” was actually short hand for “I have a problem. Something just caused me pain.”

Writing is not a struggle for me. It’s difficult to do it well, but it’s not a struggle. I write a lot. My modus operandi is to produce a whole lot of paper that I can then hack away at until it becomes something manageable. I don’t think, “Oh there’s the perfect end to this sentence and I can’t get it!” It’s more like I have seven pages and I think, “Oh there’s the end of the sentence, seventeen sentences later, and the rest of those pages are a complete waste of time.

RT: So you revise a lot, you throw away a lot?

DH: Yeah. Tons and tons. I probably wrote a thousand pages for Adverbs. So thank goodness it is considerably shorter.

RT: When did you decide you would become a writer and why?

DH: When I was very, very young. There’s a childhood story about me that I wanted to be one of those guys who live on top of a mountain dispensing advice when I grow up. So that was clearly an earlier ambition.

RT: Did you write stories when you were very young?

DH: I did. I wrote stories when I was very young, and then poetry in high school and college. It took me some years to get published. I think if I had been able to think of something else I probably would have done it. But I couldn’t think of anything else.

RT: Were you the editor of your school paper?

DH: I was the editor of the literary magazine in high school, and I was on the staff of the literary magazine in college and ran a reading series in New York. A couple of them, actually. And I did some artsy prankstering in my young and bohemian days. I just never could think of anything else to do. I was living in San Francisco after college and then I moved to New York and tried to get published and had no job. I was just living off some savings and freelancing. I often think if I had stayed in San Francisco when the boom was really happening, when anyone who could put a sentence together could get a salaried position doing nothing, that I likely would have taken it. Actually most writers I know… it’s almost as if persistence is the kinder spin on what it really is, which is just sitting there trying to write over and over again and not really having any other plan, and then slowly other people come up with sensible Plan Bs, and that leaves a smaller pool from which publication or success can be taken.

RT: You mentioned you wrote poetry, and you refer to poets often in Adverbs and A Series of Unfortunate Events. Do poets influence your writing?

DH: I think they must. There are a small number of writers that I have consciously stolen from, though influence seems too tame a word to describe my relationship with their work. I’ll go back and read poetry that I like for aesthetic pleasure, but I don’t go back to read it to figure out how they did it, which is what I do for certain prose writers. But I think it must influence me. I just finished that Elizabeth Bishop sort of outtake box set that was published. That was really inspiring for me to see how she worked; she’s a poet who seems perfect in a lot of ways, so to see the sort of human tangle of making her way through poems was reassuring in a way. It’s astonishing to me that that book was published and that so many people were interested in it. She’s a poet I have always really loved.

RT: The characters of Adverbs move around in a world of imminent disasters, of the natural (volcano in San Francisco) and not-so-natural (terrorists) variety. Is this part of the legacy of 9/11?

DH: It probably is, but a lot of the book takes place in San Francisco, and San Francisco actually has a long-standing relationship with possible disaster. That’s really interesting to me. Also maintaining that balance between knowing that something is more serious than your everyday problems and going back to normal life. It can’t really permanently affect you. I remember when the commercials started coming back on TV after 9/11… how long are we going to admit that this is such a sober moment that it would be tacky to sell anything? I remember a friend of mine who was in New York at the time wrote me an email; she got a ride uptown after it happened from a co-worker of hers and she said, I never liked this co-worker and I reserve the right to dislike her again. But they had this crazy day, and they sort of cried a little bit together and had this friendship that did not exist before it or after. And so whatever irritated each of them about the other was still going to be irritating in the face of it. The disasters in the novel remind the characters that they should be a bit more serious about love and less shallow about it, but that you cannot actually sustain that for very long.

RT: In Adverbs, you write “Love can smack you like a seagull, and pour all over your feet like junk mail.” In light of this, what’s so great about love?

DH: I think that’s the question the book asks really. Just this morning, someone was interviewing me and said you wrote a book about love and yet it contains mostly sad endings. And I thought, Have you been in love? Even if you end up in a happy place in your life story, if you get married and live happily ever after and it’s the sort of relationship that helps you and doesn’t compromise you, you still probably have five or six disasters prior to it. And that’s the best-case scenario. Love’s a bad risk. The profit-loss margin is not positive, and yet people pursue it anyway.

RT: You’re a postmodern writer—

DH: Am I really? Uh-oh. Here comes Dale Peck ready to whip my ass.

RT: What I mean is, the detritus of contemporary culture keeps coming up for your characters in Adverbs. Here’s reality—there may be a disaster, there may be a terrorist attack—but before we get there, there are all these movies and music and books seeming to talk about it.

DH: I guess I see that happening. I read a lot of books. What’s going on in a book is often equally as interesting to me as to what’s going on outside it. I just see people behaving in ways that they’ve clearly learned from genre. In some cases the genre treatment of certain behaviors is so established that it’s difficult to imagine it otherwise. How could you become a cop, for instance, and not have predetermined ideas of what that was? Every time your boss yelled at you, you would think, Maybe I’m one of those guys who don’t play by the rules. It would be impossible not to have that fantasy. And the relationship between pop music and love is endlessly complicated. You hear pop songs about love way before you are in love—how could you not develop ideas based on those? Even if you don’t think you do, if you don’t sit around saying, Oh someday my life will be exactly like this song, it’s going to sink in on some level. I was drawn to pop music in writing about love because it seemed like such an integral part of it. One of the songs that is quoted says, “When I was crazy / I thought you were great.”

RT: Is that The Cars?

DH: It is The Cars! It’s not even a song that I like—it’s not a song that I secretly always thought was profound and wanted to put in a novel—but I just think that couplet sums up a million heart-breaking situations as concisely as possible. That is, in fact, how you get through all of your previous love disasters, by saying I was wrong then. I must have been crazy to hang out with that person for so long.

RT: We’re all just following the paradigms of the genre.

DH: Yes. It seemed essential that culture would blur in that way in thinking about a character who’s a paralyzed teenage boy who has a crush on a teenage girl who works at the Cinemaplex. All of his ideas on how to behave would be based on the movies that he has to see a million times. It’s really inescapable. So I guess it’s postmodern, but discussions of postmodernity always bug me. Madame Bovary is obsessed with romance novels, you know, and I don’t think that’s a postmodern novel.

RT: You, Daniel Handler, make an appearance in the novel, as you briefly interview another author, Paula Sharp, who wrote a scene in which a diamond is found in a yard in Wisconsin—the very same diamond, you recount your mother losing in Arizona in Adverbs. I can’t resist asking: did this exchange actually happen?

DH: Yes! It did. That’s all true. That was a weird moment for me.

RT: Did you just happen to read her book?

DH: Yeah, though the way it’s constructed in the novel, in which my family utters the same dialogue that Paula Sharp’s characters utter, obviously is not true. I think it’s funny the flaps about memoirists who are lying. Who remembers? You would remember whether or not you were in a plane crash, but not who said what. Who was keeping track? Even if you got home that night and wrote about it, you wouldn’t remember.

RT: What made you want to include that exchange?

DH: It seemed appropriate to me that there would be that kind of blurring of a line. “Truly” is really the thematic statement of the novel, and it makes the point that in that story, the story of me having an incident in my childhood and then reading the ending of that incident in a novel, that the only remarkable thing about it is the way that I’m putting it together in my head. It’s not otherwise remarkable. So that seemed exactly what I was going for. If you follow the cocktails throughout the novel, if you try to follow one person and see their journey, you can’t do it, and you’re missing the point of the book. The tale of my mother’s diamond, even if you accept the premise that it could somehow end up in another novel, that’s not the point. The point is to make up the adverb through which you’re looking at the world. Whenever anyone tells the story of how they met the person they love, it always seems like a remarkable coincidence. If you hadn’t gone to that party or if you hadn’t hung out in high school with somebody and twenty years later they hadn’t introduced you or however it works, but that’s not actually remarkable. That’s actually how everyone has met. There is no normal path. That’s the miracle. It doesn’t matter what is done. What’s interesting about it is how it’s done.

RT: I understand that Adverbs began as a collection of short stories and morphed into a novel. Can you talk a little bit about the process of writing this book?

DH: I didn’t really know what it was. It’s not how I work in general. I normally get an idea and research it and poke away at it and move from a bunch of bookmarks in books and notes into some sort of outline, then outline more and more and more. I thought I was doing that in between Snicket books. I had an idea for a novel, but I just kept blowing it off in favor of writing about young people in love. Honestly, what it felt like for a while was a nonfiction book with fictional examples. The way a corny self-help guide or a money guide might say, pretend Nathan has graduated from college and has $50,000 in loans and Mary is making a nice salary and they get married and so how should they set it up so they can pay off the loans? It’s not a true story, clearly. And even when it purports to be a true story—you know, Let me show you an example of how a patient of mine overcame her low self-esteem; she was found in a dumpster when she was nine so she has abandonment issues, but she eventually became a Majorette thanks to the seven principles outlined in the previous chapter. That story is clearly false in order to support some philosophical point. So that’s sort of what I thought I was doing. Then I thought maybe it was all different drafts of the same short story, and it was terrifying because it was hundreds and hundreds of pages. If all I was going to get out of it was eight pages that would appear in a journal and never more, that would be depressing. So I freaked out and abandoned it for a little while, then came back to it and thought, Oh, I see a way.

RT: The structure you landed on in Adverbs is very interesting in that you repeat certain themes and characters, using the same names although they may not be the same characters, so that the reader follows the clues and pieces them together in their mind.

DH: It offers a sense of déjà vu, I hope, so that even if they are not the same people, it’s all going the same way, the way it always goes. To delve into a mystery such as love you can’t really follow the people. That won’t help it make any sense. You just have to watch the way it goes about, which is a different way of looking at a story than most novels. Most novels are about the specific people. But I’m not sure characters matter, or even exist, as much as they are said to in fiction. Most characters that we think of as being unforgettable characters in literature are just really defined by their behaviors. It’s hard to place them in a different situation other than the situation that they’re in. And most of the exceptions to that are genre characters. You can imagine Jeeves here in this restaurant and what he would do, but that’s just because he’s in a Jeeves book. It’s interesting to me that when people talk about the Lemony Snicket books they often say, Oh the Baudelaires are such great characters. But the Baudelaires are actually almost completely blank. If they weren’t illustrated books, you would have no idea what they look like. They are scarcely described. They have abilities, but that’s more for the machinations of the plot than it is to get to know them as people. They talk amongst themselves, but they don’t clash a lot. There’s not actually anything going on there. And that was on purpose, so everyone who read it could imagine themselves in the situation, but that is not strong characterization.

RT: There’s something soothing about it, though, the repetition of Violet tying up her hair when she thinks of an invention…

DH: Well, sure. I don’t think it’s a flaw necessarily. I just don’t think that it’s actually character. I feel that in bad writing, I can tell when someone has been encouraged—often in an MFA program say—to develop the characters, so the characters have hobbies and back stories and all this luggage that has nothing to do with the stories. You end up with a story in which nothing much happens and is not really much fun to read, but you do have a complete portrait of Sheila.  But it’s no good. I never would have thought that before I started Adverbs. I thought, Oh, in the case of the Snicket books, I didn’t have strong characters, but certainly characters are one thing you can do well.

RT: So did the Snicket books influence the writing of Adverbs?

DH: I’m sure they did, but I think in writing Adverbs I was paranoid about how the characters would be received because I was making them as slippery as I was. Then I began to read and reread novels that I enjoyed and I felt that each character was actually just their behaviors. It wasn’t really them as motivated persons. Even when you think, Oh, the Great Gatsby—that’s a great character. Not really. Shady past, incredibly wealthy, obsessed with a woman. That’s all just to put the story in motion. He’s not someone you feel like you could pick out of a line-up. I think it’s because if you really draw a character well, or if the character feels like a person that you know well, it never really all adds up. Take someone like a spouse. I know my wife pretty well and I think I know what she’s thinking a lot of times, but actually her character wouldn’t make much sense on paper. I would have to cut out things that were contradictory or that were too the same. I would have to simplify her character and therefore make her less of a character. Look at Darth Vader—he was so much more fun before we knew anything about him. He was scary, and he had some kooky mask, and he was breathing hard. It was a tremendous revelation that he was Luke’s father, but we had never thought about Luke’s father before, so it’s not as if we knew him. It’s sort of as if the waitress turns out to be your sister—well, that is a surprise, yet it really doesn’t mean anything. Then George Lucas went back to describe every eddy of Darth Vader’s soul so we could get a better grasp of him, and it was super boring.

RT: Can you discuss the sexuality portrayed in Adverbs? It’s very inclusive.

DH: Is it? It was occurring to me just earlier that all the gay male relationships in Adverbs are utterly disastrous and terrible. So arguably it’s a homophobic book, because everyone ends up with a broken heart, but it seems the gay men don’t even have a chance. There’s a point in which the narrator says that there are two or three people you could find in the world, which means six if you are bi-sexual, which everyone is—which is the same way I believe that everyone loves ice cream. Just about everyone likes it. I think a San Francisco childhood and certainly an adolescence will make you feel flexible on such issues. Or not see the big deal associated with homosexuality or bisexuality.

RT: I enjoyed how some of the characters’ sexuality would just change in a heartbeat. Or how a man would identify himself as heterosexual, and would see another guy and suddenly fall for him, even though he may never talk to him or tell him.

DH: That seems just a natural part of erotic and romantic imagination. I think you would have a strange-shaped brain if you say you’ve never imagined being in a relationship with the gender you don’t normally sleep with. Just by virtue of saying that sentence, don’t you automatically picture it, even if for a moment?

RT: You just made all our readers gay—thanks!

DH: In high school you definitely didn’t want to come across as being gay, so you would have to pretend you couldn’t tell whether the members of Duran Duran were better looking than Danny DeVito. Well, yes you can! Just because you’re not going to sleep with any of them, doesn’t mean you can’t somehow know what people are talking about. It’s continually astonishing to me that politically in this country it continues to be such a head-scratcher to people. Why should we allow two men to get married? It doesn’t, to me, take a lot of imagination to answer that question.

RT:  Did you go into this book intentionally wanting to—

DH: —represent all the proclivities? No. That’s actually why the gay male relationships ended up being so strange. When I was writing the chapter “Symbolically,” I was trying to find a relationship that was unhealthy from the start, and to have that kind of upfront sexuality being used really aggressively. My mind automatically went to men, the same way it seemed comic to fall in love with somebody who’s the wrong gender from the gender you’re interested in, in “Immediately.” It’s just funnier that way. I don’t think it’s actually a very PC spectrum of sexuality, but certainly narratively it seemed interesting to me. Also because I think at different times in my life if you asked me what my sexuality was, I would have given different answers. Now, basically my sexuality is “married.” I’m only having sex with one person. That person’s a woman, but it doesn’t seem fair to say straight, because straight would indicate a lot of women! And bi-sexual would also imply some situation which doesn’t exist. I think perhaps it’s likely the future of sexual identity is that people will either be in a committed relationship or they won’t be.

RT: Clichéd expressions like “the cat’s pajamas” and “healthy as a horse” run rampant in your novel, though you always turn them on their ends and mess with them a bit. Where does your interest in these stock expressions come from? Do you consider yourself a word geek?

DH: I’m something of a word geek, but I don’t think I’m the average word geek. I’m not a good crossword guy. I’ll play Scrabble, but I won’t win probably. My weakness is that I’ll make the word that is more interesting, rather than the word that makes 120 points. I just think clichés are interesting. They’re the first description, still, even as a writer, that I might reach for if I want to describe something. It was flat as—what’s flat?—oh, a pancake! And you think, that’s not really that flat, first of all—it's not the flattest thing we can think of off-hand. Also it’s weird, in that it brings pancakes into the realm of what you’re talking about. Dead as a doornail—that’s one that always cracks me up. You’re talking about death and all of sudden you’re bringing in this odd bit of hardware. They’re all strange. It’s hard not to joke about them without sounding like Jerry Seinfeld. But it’s odd that these things become clichés. They’re dismissed as something you should never put into a work of literature because they’ve been used thousands  of times before, like “healthy as a horse,” and yet it doesn’t really make any sense. So if it’s really strange and ambiguous and imaginative, then it shouldn’t be a cliché actually. “I love you” is a bigger cliché. Everyone has said that before. It’s super unoriginal. It shows up in dialogue all the time, and yet it’s okay to put that in, but you shouldn’t put in “the cat’s pajamas,” even though that doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. I just read this autobiographical graphic novel about cancer and this woman narrator said she was really tired of people trying to make the point that, none of us know when we’re going to die, so in a way a cancer diagnosis can’t be any scarier, because any of us could get hit by a bus any minute. She said, Why is it always a bus? No one’s hit by a bus!

RT: Must have been really bad bus drivers when that became a phrase. Although I think Gaudí was hit by a bus, wasn’t he?

DH: Clearly people have been hit by buses before, but I don’t think they’re saying, Oh Gaudí, that’s who I mean! For some reason that snuck into the language.

RT: You also have fun with clichés in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Can you talk a bit about any differences you see between novels written for adults and novels written for a younger audience?  Besides the swearing and sex in your adult novels, you seem to write in a similar style and tone for both age groups, and I mean that as a compliment.

DH: Thank you, I take it as a compliment. It’s been actually a bit bewildering when people say that Adverbs has a completely different style, because I don’t think it does at all. I think I just approach children’s literature as a sort of genre in which there is a lot allowed and a lot appreciated that would ghettoize a lot of adult fiction. And so it’s funny that there’s this assumption that children’s literature is much more restrictive just because you can’t have a blow job scene. There is so much more you can do, like putting a talking animal in the novel—in children’s literature you can put that front and center. I wish that more serious authors explored children’s literature. I think James Tate would write a wonderful children’s book—his poems have these strange stories that go all over the place. I hope more people fall into it.

RT: Did you fall into it?

DH: Pretty much. When my literary agent was trying to sell The Basic Eight, my first novel, which was set in a high school, in desperation she sent it to some children’s publishing houses because no one was taking it. An editor at a publishing house said, I like the way you write but we couldn’t publish this book—it’s too long and it has all these things in it, but would you be interested in writing something for children? My knee-jerk reaction was that I would have to write tripe and it would be an embarrassing day job. Then I began to have this idea. I had been trying to write a mock-gothic novel, and I kept running out of steam at about 110 pages—it seemed to be shorter and I was trying to work with some heroes who had a certain naïveté about them that was difficult to get. But as soon as I figured out that they could be children (laughs), then all of a sudden it seemed perfect. So yeah, I did fall into it.

RT: The Snicket books are coming to The End—do you have any plans for any other children’s books?

DH: Absolutely. I’m not going to talk about them, but yes.

The Bear's Famous Invasion of Sicily

RT: As Lemony Snicket, you wrote a hilarious reader’s companion to a reprint of Dino Buzzati’s The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily.

DH: So you’re the one who read that!

RT: I loved it! Was this a childhood favorite of yours?

DH: It was a childhood favorite, and it was a huge influence on me. The tone of it is very Snickety. I pretty much abused my powers as a children’s author to force it back into print.

RT: The illustrations are gorgeous.

DH: Yes, they are beautiful. And that was one of the reasons why it took so long. The illustrations are by the author and they are referred to by the author in the text, so they have to be there, but they were troublesome to track down. So we sort of had given up. But then my editor and I were at the Bologna Book Fair, which is this great children’s book festival in Italy where mostly what you do is go out to these elaborate pasta-stuffed meals, and as we were stumbling back to the hotel after one of them, we walked by this Italian bookstore, and there was a new edition of the The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily in the window which meant we could get the illustrations and put it into English and go from there. I was excited to do that.

RT: Did Buzzati write other’s children’s books? I only know his adult books.

DH: The whole thing is strange to me. It’s actually an example of what I was talking about, of wishing that authors would try these forays into it because it’s a fascinating book, and I loved it as a child. I was always going to the library to see what else Dino Buzzati wrote, and it wasn’t until I was much older that I discovered that he hadn’t written anything else for children, let alone that he was a well-known Italian political surrealist, almost Calvino-esque.

RT: He was referred to as the Italian Kafka.

DH: Yeah. And that was his only foray into children’s writing. It is this very strange and violent story that in some ways feels like an allegory, but you can’t figure out what it would be an allegory for. If anything, it’s sort of an isolationist allegory that you should stay where you are and not experience other cultures; even if your son is kidnapped into them, you shouldn’t go there.

RT: What other children’s books did you love as a child and influenced you?

DH: Well, Edward Gorey for sure was a huge influence. Roald Dahl. And Zilpha Keatley Snyder, who is not as well known. She wrote The Egypt Game.

RT: And The Witches of Wurm.

DH: Yes, The Witches of Wurm, which is a terrifying book. She’s wonderful. She’s still writing. I’ve had occasion to meet her a few of times and I really like her. So they were big re-reads for me. Edward Eager, I liked him a lot. The John Bellairs books are great too. They have that chaos lurking in them at all times; terrible things start happening with really no rhyme nor reason. Also the curiosity of the hero never lets up, even though it’s all going to be terrible. If they discover a blue skull that under no circumstances should they take outside, it goes without saying that they decide to do it. A bad book would work under the premise of some pretext, but in the John Bellairs books, it’s like, Oh we heard that house is haunted. Let’s go in. What’s the worst that could happen? Then they find out. I wait for Hollywood to take an interest in those. It’s strange to me that they haven’t.

How to Dress for Every Occasion by the Pope

RT: You wrote a book entitled How to Dress for Every Occasion, by the Pope. What’s that about?

DH: It’s a book by the Pope on how to dress for every occasion, and he pretty much recommends a big hat and a long robe and special shoes. It came out last Christmas. It was just a goof, I guess. As a Jew there are many aspects of Christianity that I find inherently funny. And I just got to thinking one day mostly about just how strange it would be to be the Pope. I think I was thinking about fame a little bit and that some of the most glamorous aspects of what has happened to me with the Lemony Snicket books have been just really strange. On the Snicket tours there’s no time to do something like this. It’s all programmed, and often I have no idea where I am exactly. I’ll know what city I’m in, but I’ll just get up and they’ll say, Here’s this person, and we’ll talk, and I’ll get whisked away, and I’ll get handed lunch because that’s all the time there is. When there was all this hype for the movie there was a press junket in a hotel in LA. They rented the whole hotel, a fancy hotel, and they had press from all over the world in different rooms. Each hotel room would have four or five reporters with little recorders, and the bed would be cleared out of the hotel room, but the headboard is usually attached to the wall, so it would look like an anxiety dream you would have about a hotel room. So you go into a room and you talk, then they lead you out of the room, and maybe you’ll see someone from the movie coming out of the room right before you go in. It reminded me of a maximum security prison that I had read about in which none of the inmates had any contact with each other ever, because it was all managed this way. Those are really strange experiences, and it made me think about people for whom that’s absolutely what they do every day, and how weird that is. I don’t really know anyone who’s that famous, but I do know people who have known people who are that famous. One minute you’re friends with them, and they’re hitting it big and you’re still able to have a friendship with them, and the next minute you’re talking to the assistant of the assistant as to when you can have a few hours with this person. So I got to thinking about the Pope. A super famous guy. What he wears is just strange. That was something that never brushed up against me. I could always wear whatever I wanted, but he’s always in outrageous ceremonial garb. He’s never hanging out, so he would begin to get divorced from reality in terms of what people ought to wear, because what does he wear? This was funny to me. So I had the idea, and my wife did the illustrations, also under a different name. No one was supposed to know it was us, and it accidentally got out on the web. Then we had to be up front about it.

RT: What was your pseudonym?

DH: The Pope! And it wasn’t really a specific pope. It was just “the Pope.” The book was all ready to go and then the Pope died and we had a new Pope, so we had to go in and change all of these illustrations. It helped to be friends with the people at McSweeney’s because who else would publish such a book?

RT: What books are you reading now?

DH: The Snopes trilogy by Faulkner—it’s not his masterpiece, but even second rate Faulkner is better than first rate anyone else. What else did I bring on tour? A Tom Drury novel—I really like him. He wrote The End of VandalismThe Black Brook—which is one of my favorite novels of all time—and Hunts in Dreams. I’m re-reading The End of Vandalism. I’m saving it for my flight to London, cause I know I’ll like it. You don’t want to start a book on a fourteen-hour flight that you’re not sure you’re going to like. Oh and I brought this beautiful Ian Fleming omnibus that I bought in an old shop. It’s called Gold-Plated Bonds. It’s such a desperate pun on James Bond! (laughs) If they called it the James Bond Omnibus, everyone would buy it, but they called it Gilt-Edged Bonds, which is like a financial pun for a banker. It has these skeleton hands on it, which also makes it look like a horror novel, which it isn’t. It’s four spy novels. So that’s what I’m reading now.

RT: Many wacky cocktails find their way into Adverbs. I know that you collect old cocktail recipes and that “Lemony Snicket” was originally a cocktail you made up.

DH: Lemony Snicket was originally a pseudonym I gave on the phone to right-wing religious groups and political organizations for them to mail me materials. Shortly after that I was at a friend’s house and her lemon tree had gone crazy and was producing too many lemons, so we invented this cocktail that used tons and tons of lemons. “Invented a cocktail” is just a clean way of saying we wanted to get drunk and had very little besides a lot of lemons. So I made it up. But yes, I’m interested in cocktails. Again, “collection” would be a grand word for it; if I were in a dusty old bookstore and there was a cool book from the ’50s with great illustrations, I would get it. My favorite is this book called Bottoms Up, which is illustrated with paintings of naked women in a cocktail glass, or as the olive in a martini—strange, sexualized fantasies that have to do with drinking. Even the title, Bottoms Up, is this pun that is really sort of hideous when you think about it. It’s not sexy.

RT: If you were a cocktail, what would you be?

DH: If I were a cocktail?

RT: The Daniel Handler—what would be in it?

DH: (laughs) That’s so hard! It’s a little bit like deli sandwiches that are named after people—are they named after people because somehow the combination of ingredients resembles the person? Or is it what a person likes? Because there are cocktails I really like, like the Delmonico, or the Old Pal, which I just taught to this bartender in Vancouver because after the reading there I was with the host and he wanted to have one. But I don’t know if they resemble me. I have to decide what I taste like and how complicated I am and things like that. The best cocktails tend to be pretty simple. I don’t think of myself as a basic down-to-earth, simple guy.

Click here to purchase Adverbs at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006