How Lemony Snicket channels his bewilderment into words

GWEN IFILL: Now to another of our Brief But Spectacular interviews.

Tonight, we hear from Daniel Handler, a name you may only recognize if we identify him by his alias, Lemony Snicket.

DANIEL HANDLER, Author: When I was researching my first novel, "The Basic Eight," I was calling up right-wing religious organization and political groups in order to make fun of them.

And I thought to myself, I better not tell her my real name. I will be on their mailing list forever. So, she said, "What is your name?"

So, I said, "Lemony Snicket."

And then there was a pause. And I thought, out of all the things you could have said, that was the worst one. No one was going to believe that. And then the woman from the right-wing organization said, "Is that spelled how it sounds?"

When I was 5 years old, someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I said that I wanted to be an old man who lived on the top of a mountain giving advice. I don't remember it. All I remember is wanting to be a writer.

I would read on the bus. I would miss the bus because I was reading. The first book that I bought with my own money was "The Blue Aspic" by Edward Gorey. In fact, when the first two volumes of "A Series of Unfortunate Events" were ready to be published, I sent them to Edward Gorey with a note saying how much I admired his work and how much I hoped that he would forgive what I had stolen from him.

Shortly after I sent it, he died. So, I like to think that I killed him.

So much of children's literature is about enforced fun or enforced morality. Surely, you will be rewarded if you behave this way, or aren't you having a wonderful time reading about this? And you never are. And it never goes that way.

So, part of "A Series of Unfortunate Events" was an acknowledgment of the bewildering state of affair that is childhood.

QUESTION: Do you have a notebook on you right now?

DANIEL HANDLER: I do. I do have a notebook on me right now.

This is my notebook. I think of things or I read them, and then I write them down in the notebook. I type it onto a document on my computer, tape them or paste on to index cards. And I move all the index cards around.

I write it on a legal pad longhand. I type up the legal pad onto another document. It makes me look largely like a serial killer. When I work in public, people clutch their children tighter because they're walking by a man sipping an espresso moving pasted index cards around and writing on a legal pad. That man's not to be trusted.

QUESTION: You say, it's OK, I'm writing a children's book.

DANIEL HANDLER: Yes. I say, don't worry. I'm in narrative prose.

A writer's relationship with rejection is like that of a fish to water. It's all that's there. I think you should feel it and feel utter despair and then move on.

I was going to say something about technology's influence on reading, but then I got a text, and I just have to answer it. Can I just — I will be right back.

It's a triumph of finding specific things and an utter failure of finding something that you didn't know you were looking for.

I exist in a state of bewilderment almost all of the time. Am I grasping at the hem of some large idea that is worth investigating? And I mull this over all day long, whether this thing that I'm pulling is a thread that will lead me through the labyrinth or just a thread that will dismantle the sweater.

My name is Daniel Handler, AKA Lemony Snicket. And this is my Brief But Spectacular take on a bewildering world.

GWEN IFILL: A state of bewilderment.

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: You can watch additional installments of Brief But Spectacular on our Web site, pbs.org/newshour/brief/.

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