Season 4, Episode 3
Something Dangerous is Happening: A Conversation with Lemony Snicket
January 27, 2022
Best-selling author Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, joins the podcast to talk about danger, bewilderment, and his newest book, Poison for Breakfast. Book recommendations for young adult and middle grade readers.
Titles Mentioned in This Episode
h Find title on Hoopla
Poison for Breakfast
A Series of Unfortunate Events
All the Wrong Questions
Charity 0:01 Welcome to the Planet Book podcast. I'm your host Charity.
Jen 0:06 I'm Jennifer.
Charity 0:07 And we're with the Springfield-Greene County Library District. On each episode you'll hear us talking about our favorite tween and teen books. Thanks for joining us today.
Charity 0:16 On this episode, Jen and I are both super excited to have a very special guest with us on the Planet Book podcast. He has written one of my favorite children's series ever and really one of my favorite adult novels as well. He's written a ton. Everybody knows who this is. You know him, listeners, probably best as Lemony Snicket. With us today is Daniel Handler.
Daniel Handler 0:42 Hello there. Hello. Hello. Thanks for having me over. I was lonely this afternoon so I'm happy to come on over.
Charity 0:50 Well, we are so excited and I know our listeners are super excited to have you on the podcast and I just have to say real quick when I told my stepson that I was gonna be interviewing you he--his eyes got really big and he was just like, oh my god, he couldn't believe it. You are like a celebrity.
Daniel 1:10 No, you scared him. That's what you're trying to tell me.
Charity 1:11 No, he was like stunned. He's like wow, those are really famous people.
Daniel 1:15 I wasn't gonna make any kind of wicked stepmother comment but now you're telling me that you constantly scare your stepson, what am I supposed to think about this? How--what other conclusion can I draw?
Charity 1:26 He loves you. And so he like, he just wanted to touch me after I told him that because like, I don't know I'll be close to greatness. So Jen and I have both read your newest book, and so that's what we do want to talk about Poison for Breakfast.
Daniel 1:40 That's nice of you to have read it. Thank you.
Charity 1:44 Jen actually has read it twice because she also did the audio on it.
Daniel 1:49 Oh, okay. Yeah. I always wonder if that counts as reading it twice. Like if you listen to it, I don't know. Because sometimes when I listen to things several times, I think does that-is that really the same as reading? I'm not knocking audiobooks.
Charity 2:01 I think audiobooks count. Don't you think audiobooks count?
Daniel 2:04 They definitely count as a fantastic, beautiful experience. There's no question about that. I'm just curious now. I have to think about that. I'll think about it later. I'm getting distracted.
Charity 2:12 I think it counts. So she actually made notes.
Daniel 2:18 Oh, boy. Okay.
Charity 2:19 So she will have some questions for you, too.
Daniel 2:21 That's right. Well, I'm digressing. You guys have notes. You're organized. I'm ready.
Charity 2:24 Yes. So well, first of all, tell us a little bit about this new book, Poison for Breakfast. How would you describe it?
Daniel 2:33 How would I describe it? I would describe it as a book about Lemony Snicket receiving, finding a small note, a scrap of paper that says you had poison for breakfast. And he begins to think about his breakfast and investigate it as kind of a murder mystery. And as all of my favorite murder mysteries it gets lost in the digressive, philosophical notation on our own mortality and our life on this bewildering planet. That's how I would describe it. So if you are interested in thinking about the fact that we are all doomed, but that many marvelous things are happening before our doom overtakes us, then this might be a book that you would find interesting.
Charity 3:19 That is a perfect description, really.
Daniel 3:22 Thank you.
Charity 3:23 I'm curious, Jen and I, actually, were both curious if you had this idea before COVID?
Daniel 3:28 I did.
Charity 3:29 Because it feels very much like your message to us helping us get through these uncertain times.
Daniel 3:34 Oh, well, that's sweet. I think all books can serve as some kind of message surely. But yes, this was a pre-COVID book. It was composed before COVID. It was composed during a sudden free summer that I had. I thought I was going to spend all summer in the city of Vancouver, Canada where Netflix was filming an adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events and I thought I was gonna be there all the time that was originally it. And then Netflix said, "We don't want you to be there all the time. That's making us nervous. Please go away." And so I suddenly had a summer free, like an absolute summer free. I felt like I was 11 years old. It was a magical feeling. And I was mostly in Massachusetts, and every day, I would go to the library where I was. And I would get to work on this book because it was an idea that I had. I wasn't sure that it was a book. And so I got to work on it in secret, as if- because no one knew. No one knew where I was, no one knew that I was working on a book. No one was expecting a book from me. And so I would just sit at this table. There were several tables. I know how it is at the library. There's like a favorite table, there's a first place table and there's a second place table and then there's like a few third place tables that are pretty shaky. So I would show up there early in the morning so I would get my first place table or sometimes my second place table because the first place table during the summer was being used by math tutors and young students. And I didn't have the heart to say get away from my first place table. And so I would sit there every day. And I would work a little bit on the book in the library and I would take a little walk around, and I would think about it. And then, when I was done at the end of the summer with a draft of the book, I put it in this new purchase that has been purchased for me by my wife, because I used to keep my manuscripts in the crisper in the refrigerator-
Charity 5:21 Seriously?
Daniel 5:22 Seriously, when I had a first draft, I would put it in the crisper. Because I thought to myself, if the house burns down, it won't, you know, be destroyed, which I don't know if that's true. That's something that I learned from Lois Lowry because Lois Lowry did that. And so I thought if it's good enough for Lois Lowry, it's good enough for me. Then my wife, who is herself a wonderful writer, and illustrator sat me down and we had a very mature conversation about whether the crisper is for vegetables or whether it is for manuscripts. And at the end of the conversation my wife bought me a fireproof box, an exciting fireproof box that I keep in my little closet and I keep a manuscript there. So I put it there for about almost a year to see if it was really a book or not. And then eventually, and then COVID came, which was a delay, blah, blah,blah, there's like boring logistics. But then finally, it was in the world. And it's true, people seem to be assuming that it was composed during COVID because they find it comforting during COVID. But that is just one of the startling coincidences and epiphanies that happens in literature.
Charity 6:27 That is really amazing, because it really does. Some of the things you say, especially near the end, I love how you talk about like, you say no one knows anything, we're all bewildered and-
Daniel 6:37 Yes.
Charity 6:38 That just feels-that whole last chapter feels like you talking to us and kind of telling us it's gonna be okay. So that is just incredible that this was an idea you had long before COVID.
Daniel 6:51 Thank you. Yeah, well, I've kind of been bewildered my whole life. But this book is about realizing that being in a state of bewilderment, being very confused as you might when you receive a note saying that you've had poison for breakfast, that when you're confused, when you're a bewildered, you're actually the closest to understanding the world because the world is so bewildering and so confusing. If you feel sure of yourself, if you're full of certainty, you know that you're not understanding it. But if you're actually bewildered you actually are.
Jen 7:22 That's what I really liked about it. Because especially the past five years, we've had so many people that are just so certain about everything.
Daniel 7:34 Yeah.
Jen 7:35 And they're the last person you should listen to. So I loved that this book promoted a healthy dose of skepticism. And to not quite believe everything you read, hear or see, which leads us, since we're a Missouri podcast, can you talk about Korla Pandit?
Daniel 7:56 Sure. I would happily talk of Korla Pandit. So Korla Pandit was a musician and when I was a young child, I saw him on television. The story of Korla Pandit like all the stories in Poison for Breakfast is a totally true story. And Korla Pandit would not speak, a narrator would say, here's Korla Pandit, he is from India, and he's gonna play music for us in the universal language of music. And Korla Pandit would-he had a turban and a jewel, and he would begin to play the organ, sometimes someone would dance behind him. And I found this very mysterious. No one was talking, and no one was explaining it to me. And I found it very mysterious and alluring. And then, as the years went on, I became an adult. So one day, I thought of Korla Pandit again, and I thought to myself, I don't think that guy was from India. Suddenly, I thought to myself, actually, that portrait of kind of a mysterious person from India feels wrong to me. It feels wrongheaded and not well thought out, and not very respectful and false. That's what it felt like to me. And so I started to do a little bit of research on Korla Pandit, and there was not much information to be found. But then I eventually found this story that like most times when you do research and you find a story makes the original story even more complicated, and maybe even more sad. And so Korla Pandit turns out to have not have been named Korla Pandit when he was born. And he was an African American man, and they think probably the first African American man to have a TV show of his own, which is pretty remarkable. And it was certainly at a time when having a TV show of your own if you're a Black American was not something that television was interested in. And at a time when the culture was, I would say, even more boneheaded and wrong and vicious, about racial difference. And however, though, how he managed to have a TV show on television was to put on a turban then say that he was from India, which is not exactly defiant of the juggernaut of imperialist culture that we're talking about. So It's a really complicated story. He was also married to a woman who was not of his race, which was very alarming to certain conservative aspects of the culture at the time. But if they thought he was from India for some reason that made it more palatable. And so I found that it was a really melancholy story because he was really a musician. He really did believe in the universal power of music to bring love and understanding to people. But he did it in this way that doesn't look super now, but also because he was being so ill treated at the time. And I don't know, it's a complicated story. I think as we live, I don't think you have to be from Missouri to find this ringing true. I think particularly if you're an American, and you try to stand and think about our own complicated and vicious history and try to figure out what's fair and what you feel good about, you can become more and more uncertain and troubled. And so I thought the story of Korla Pandit was an interesting one to bring up.
Jen 10:53 Well, I mentioned it because if you had not included that chapter, the work cited chapter essentially, I wouldn't have gone down that rabbit rabbit hole with you because I wasn't even sure if it was true or not.
Daniel 11:06 Yeah, it's so fantastic and strange that you have trouble thinking it's true. And it kind of reminded me of the fact that I was just such a young child when I saw him. And it's not as if I took his story seriously, but I certainly didn't question it.
Jen 11:19 Right.
Daniel 11:20 I just thought, well, it's on TV. He has a turban on that makes some sort of sense to my brain. And only as I got older, I began to think what is that? And I went down, as you say, the rabbit hole of saying, what is-what do I think about this? And what do I know about it? And what options are available for us and what options were available then? So it's-I could talk about Korla Pandit for hours and hours. It's so fascinating.
Jen 11:44 Well, just the questioning of history in general, or knowledge. It's a big part of the book so-
Charity 11:50 Well, and that's one of the things I've always loved about your books, because I too had to look up that story. I was like, is this a real thing? And that was before I had finished the book, because that's kind of what I do as I'm reading I like look things up and I was like, oh. And you've always done that kind of in your books. You use vocabulary, maybe that your readers aren't going to know and you reference people and things. I've always loved that. Where does that come from?
Daniel 12:18 That comes from having wonderful libraries when I was a child, frankly. I would usually walk after dinner with my father, to the library, sometimes with my mom too. As I grew older, I got to go to the library by myself. Iit was the perfect walking distance for someone who was new at exploring the world by themselves. And I had some really wonderful librarians, who were all kind of anonymous, because they were doing the job that they did well, which was to help individuals figure out what they wanted, and what path they were on at the library. And so I don't, I don't even I don't know their names. They were just wonderful people. And they watched me read and saw what I was interested in. And kind of led me, helped me understand that a book is often a path to another book, to another kind of thought. And that you know that literature is and culture is like a river that you are swimming in that you can dip in and out of that you can go with the flow, you can go against the flow, and that you can make all these connections in your head, and that the library can be the really real center of that. And I grew up in San Francisco, where I'm still coming at you now. And San Francisco is the first library system to have social workers as full time employees because of a growing understanding of the library's place in the community that it wasn't, it isn't just for accessing literature. That it's actually for accessing all sorts of things, and for helping people who come to the library, helping the public who come and get access to what they need. And in the case of a boy who was lucky enough to grow up into comfortable circumstances and to be surrounded by books at home, I had one journey, other people had other journeys. And to watch that happening at the library, not only to be on my own exciting journey, but to see a real diversity of journeys going on and seeing people what people did I think was a real understanding of how literature works in the world.
Charity 14:06 Well, that kind of leads me to another question I have for you, Daniel. So as librarians, and I'm sure Jen sees this too,we--I see kids who come in and they love to write. Sometimes they show me their stories. And I've read them and it's wonderful. And we try to like-we get really excited. But I'm curious when did you know that you wanted to write and when did you realize I can make a living doing this?
Daniel 14:33 Those are two really different questions. I-so my parents tell a story that when I was about six years old, someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and that I said I wanted to be an old man who lived on the top of a mountain giving advice. Now, I don't know if that's a true story. It seems a little unreliable along those-as many parents are, as I am as a parent. But if that's true, that's the only other thing I wanted to be. I don't remember a time when I didn't want to be a writer, when I didn't want to be involved in literature. I think, again, because of what we're talking about with the kind of journey that librarians helped me on, I got that literature with something that you can be a part of, if you want to be. And that was something that I wanted to do. I was certainly told from a very early age, and even as I was an adult and studying writing, that there was no way to make a living from it. That art and capitalism are often in a complicated dance, and that the dance does not usually end with an artist making a living. And so I was fully prepared to join the vast majority of writers throughout history, who were doing something else to live their lives and make their lives possible financially, but are also very dedicated to literature. And it was very shocking to me that the Series of Unfortunate Events in particular took off in such a way that made it totally affordable for me. And it's something that was bewildering when it began, and it kind of continues to bewilder me. I know many, many writers and artists in different modes, and hardly any of them make a solid living. Some of them are librarians, many of them are doing whatever they can to attach themselves to literature, also, while they're also writing, and yeah, so it was--it continues to astonish me that I can make a living and I always want to emphasize that I'm an irresponsible advertisement for going into literature. This is not what happens to you when you go into literature. Usually what happens is that you're overjoyed to be near literature, but you're broke.
Jen 16:36 Well, that brings me to another question, because I think it was either from reading the book, or maybe an interview you had done that. You said, instead of reading a writing manual, you just like to read books you really, really like, or even really, really bad ones so you can learn from the books. And as a reader, I couldn't take that approach, because I would be reading a book and then not know where to stop reading for inspiration and start writing. I think that's the difference between readers and writers.
Daniel 17:10 Yeah, I mean, to a certain extent, if you become a writer, you spoil yourself as a reader a little bit, because you start to read as a writer, and you start to notice the way books are put together and the way stories are put together, the way sentences are put together, the way characters are put together. And you're going to notice that in a way that you can't really turn off. And it's like anything else. I married into a family of locksmiths, and they can't open a door without looking at the doorknob. It's really funny. When they walk into a room they notice this thing that no one else notices, you know, and they'll say to me, like, hey, did you have this repaired and I'll think to myself, I have not looked at that doorknob. I live here. And I haven't looked at that doorknob forever. And I think that that's what happens if you're a writer is that you begin to look at books in a different way. But you know, there are way more readers than writers, which is a blessing. And the way in which literature acts in your brain tends to be really individual. And one of the things that I like to talk about when I'm teaching writing, or when I'm working with people who are studying literature, and it's something that again, I think librarians taught me, is that you start with your favorite books, and you build this kind of canon of literature that's in your head, right? That when we talk about literature, there's all kinds of arguments about the canon. I know I mean, recently, in the fall, often it's kind of literary prize season. So there have been some lists of books that have been recently released that are up for prizes, or winning prizes, or shortlist prizes, and congratulations to everybody. But I always think the most important canon is the canon in your head. The most important canon is the books that are important to you, and how you build those, the books that are inspiring to you. When you're a writer, you want to start with the literature that you admire most, the literature that made you want to be a writer, that's where you have to start. And I think that is something that if even if you're not a writer, you can carry in your head so you can have this canon of literature that is yours. That's the books that are most important to you. And to me, that's part of just the sheer beauty of the literary experiment.
Charity 19:14 You've written a lot.
Daniel 19:16 I know I don't have another job as I said. If I had been a librarian I would have written fewer books, but instead I just got this gig so.
Charity 19:27 When I was getting ready for this interview, I didn't realize how many adult novels you have written. Like you've written several adult fiction titles.
Daniel 19:35 Yeah.
Charity 19:36 And I'm curious if you-and plus, so you have the Series of Unfortunate Events, you've written picture books, you've written a little bit of everything. Do you have a favorite book of the ones that you've written? Is there one that you're like, this is the one?
Daniel 19:54 Oh, no I don't know. I mean, no, you can't do that. I think you know, I write a book and it's always too terrible at the beginning and then I try to make it as good as I can. And then I might work with an editor at a publishing house to hopefully make it better or to find an illustrator or another collaborator who can kind of maybe distract people from the terrible parts of my book and instead do a really good job over there. And then over time, it changed. You know, it's like anything else. It changes and you look at it so and then I just-it doesn't, it never feels healthy to go around full of pride for something you've done. I like being proud of other people. I like reading books and thinking, oh my god, they did a wonderful job that feels good to me. So no, I'm, you know, I get lightly ashamed of various books of mine from time to time. I would say that's how I feel about my own list of books.
Charity 20:44 Well, who do you read because you've referenced some of the things that you like to read and reading great books. So what is Daniel Handler reading? Who are your favorites?
Daniel 20:56 Oh, my goodness. Well, obviously, that also changes all the time. I-when I was in high school, I discovered this writer named Rachel Ingalls, who was really, really important to me, and she died a few years ago, but her work is kind of being brought back into print. She wrote a beautiful book called Mrs. Caliban that was recently brought into print. That's like a love story between a woman and a monster which is really fun. I read a lot of poetry. Right now a book that's important to me, I'm holding it up to the camera, even though I'm now remembering we're on audio. So those listening at home, just lean into your speaker, and you might be able to catch a glimpse of it. I'm pretty sure that's how the technology works. But this book I'm holding right now is by Dorothea Lasky. It's called Animal. Dorothea Lasky or Dot as I have heard that people who know her call her which is fun to think about, Dot. She is a poet herself, and so she's written an essay about kind of how she thinks literature goes, and I know this is visual again. But the reason why I first got excited about this book, I looked at it, and it's called Animal. I thought, I wonder what it's about and then I opened it, and there's a picture of Animal the muppet, the drummer from the Muppets, and I thought already, I'm surprised. In Poison for Breakfast, I talked about some of the important things that I think about literature and writing and one of them is the element of surprise. And so opening a book called Animal and seeing a portrait of a muppet was already a surprise. So that book has been very important to me really deeply.
Charity 22:20 That's great.
Daniel 22:21 What are you guys reading?
Charity 22:22 Well, I'm in the mood for scary so I've been reading horror lately.
Daniel 22:25 Oh yeah?
Charity 22:26 Some teen horror.
Daniel 22:27 That's fun.
Charity 22:28 Stephanie Perkins. The one they're getting ready-There's Someone Inside Your House, they're getting ready to turn it into or they have turned it into a Netflix movie that comes out next month. It's pretty good.
Daniel 22:37 Yeah, scary is hard to write I find.
Charity 22:40 But you write, you write things, I mean, maybe not scary, but definitely, you write things that are kind of dark for children's lit which I've always appreciated. One of my pet peeves is that in children's books, like often there's a happy ending and I get that like it's kids reading it. But I always appreciated that you were not afraid, certainly in like A Series of Unfortunate Events to put those kids in dangerous circumstances and show kind of the dark side. I always always loved that.
Daniel 23:14 Thank you.
Jen 23:15 I'm reading My Heart Is a Chainsaw and it's listed as adult but I mean the main character's a young girl, she's a Native American, she's obsessed with horror. And other than language there's really nothing, well and violence, but that can fly in the teen horror genre. Americans are okay with the violence.
Daniel 23:36 Yes, of course, yes.
Jen 23:37 That's by Stephen Graham Jones. And it's really, it's been fun. Final girl.
Daniel 23:46 Yeah, I'm glad. I like all of that. I like, I do like a book where something dangerous is happening. I think that's always interesting. And that's what I liked to think about when I was young. I liked to think about what if this happened, I come from a family to whom there was a lot of danger that was responsible for their arrival in this country. And so I had, you know, I had kind of danger on the brain a lot. And I liked thinking about what would happen if something terrible happened, how would that go? And I think I did kind of prefer it when there wasn't a happy ending. Because I think that it was, for me, that was a more elegant way of getting out of the story of thinking, oh, that was really terrible and then thinking, but I'm okay. They're not okay, but I'm okay. And that was the comfort that came from the end of the book. And I often think that comes from-I've heard many, of course, heard from many families who have read the Snicket books, who've read All the Wrong Questions or read The Dark or certainly read a Series of Unfortunate Events and there is that feeling of, oh, that was really like hard for the people in the book, but it was, for us as a family reading it or for us, you know, grandmother and a child or whatever the relationship is, that we had this little intimate time together surviving it together. I think that's really magical.
Charity 25:04 Yeah, that's a beautiful way of expressing that. Daniel Handler, what's up next? What's your next project?
Daniel 25:09 Right now I'm working on a couple of things, but the next Lemony Snicket thing I think will be on the stage. It will be a stage show. Yes, that's going to be a musical. It's a new story, and I'm working with the songwriter Colin Meloy, who people will know as the leader of the band, The Decemberists. And he is writing songs and we're working on it very hard together. We're having a wonderful time. We met because his wife is Carson Ellis, who's a wonderful Illustrator.
Charity 25:39 Yes, yes.
Daniel 25:40 Yeah, she's done some-I think she's done some of the most magical picture books in recent years. And my wife is an illustrator too. And so we met at some thing. And then our wives Carson Ellis and Lisa Brown were like stuck together immediately. I remember they stayed up until like four in the morning the first night they ever spent time together. And I don't know if you guys as librarians have seen like what happens when illustrators nerd out together, but it is deep and powerful. They talk about the pens, they talk about the paper, they show how the different pens on the different paper work together, they talk about a pen that they've heard about, they go online and they look at it, they look at movies of other people using the pen on some other continent. And then the spouses, meanwhile, are like on the sofa making another round of highballs saying our spouses are crazy. And so that's how I met Colin Meloy, basically it was that we watched our wives become fascinated over tiny little visual art devices.
Charity 26:37 We can relate as librarians because we nerd out over many things.
Daniel 26:41 That's what the library is for right? It's to help every person nerding out find their thing.
Charity 26:46 Find their thing and there's a thing for everyone. Absolutely. Well, Jen, did you have any other questions for Daniel Handler?
Jen 26:52 I think that about covers it.
Daniel 26:54 Alright. It's been a pleasant time.
Charity 26:56 This has been a wonderful time. Thank you so much for being with us.
Daniel 27:00 It has been. Thank you for your thoughtful questions. Thanks for having me on your podcast. It's very charming.
Charity 27:06 Thanks for joining us for another episode of the Planet Book podcast. Check out the library's website at thelibrary.org for these and other great book recommendations. And follow us on Facebook for the latest news and events. This has been a production of the Springfield-Greene County Library District. Thanks for listening.