Daniel Handler is a San Francisco native who graduated from Lowell High School and Wesleyan University. Today, he still lives in ‘The City by the Bay’ with his wife, illustrator Lisa Brown and their child in a charming Victorian. Handler is the author of several titles including The Basic Eight, Adverbs and Watch Your Mouth. However, he is most known for his work A Series of Unfortunate Events written under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket. His most current work to date is Why We Broke Up – a novel written in the form of a letter chronicling the romantic relationship of two teenagers, Min Green and Ed Slaterton, as they fall in and out of love.
How was writing for teens different than writing middle grade, picture book or adult content?
I don’t think it is. I don’t understand what young adult literature is. I never understood it. When Maira and I had the idea for this book, it became clear YA was how it was going to be published which is fine with me. And I think that there are great writers, including the writers I with today, that publish that [YA]. But I don’t understand what it is. I understand what children books are and what picture books are, but I don’t understand what young adult literature is. Sometimes it seems like it’s literature about young adults.
So do you think YA is categorize mainly because the protagonist is a teenage?
I guess so. My first novel is The Basic Eight and that’s about high school. It’s about a girl in high school who kills a boy in high school. When it was being sent out to publishers some of the publishers were YA and the YA publishers said if you cut out the murders, drugs and alcohol maybe we can think about publishing it. Now it’s going to be republished for young adult unchanged and that made me even more puzzled.
Do you think then YA gotten edgier?
I guess so. In 1992, people were nervous about that kind of content even though there is lots of YA with that content. Sometimes, it seems like young adult literature is anything that young adults are reading which is different from it being about young adults. For example, nobody reads Shakespeare more so than high schoolers, but Shakespeare is not thought of as young adult literature. When I start thinking about the definition of young adult literature, I fall into this well of indecision whereas with children books I feel like I have a grip on what that is. But the difference in terms of actually sitting down and writing, there isn’t one for me.
The city is unnamed and films that do not exist create the world of this story. Why did you choose to use unspecific/fictional cultural cues for this story?
The short answer is that it is more fun. The longer answer that specific cultural references do not resonate the same with people. I read a lot of YA fiction and when they have real cultural references, it seems like they can’t possibly register the same way.
Do you think it dates the book?
I think the older it is the easier it gets. When you read really old books that have pop culture references and you don’t know what they are, you understand ‘oh it’s a famous poet even though I haven’t heard of that guy’, or ‘that’s a rich person’. But when you read a novel now and says ‘I was dating a guy who was really into Coldplay’ that entirely depends on where you are in America, what high school you’re at or what crowd you were in when you were in high school because that guy could be a really cool guy or a really lame guy. It could mean a bunch of stuff and I don’t like it when it is short hand for that. The writer isn’t conveying what they want to convey. If I begin to describe a movie, for example “Breakfast’s at Tiffany” some people might say it is a really romantic movie and some people will say it is really irritating movie with a racist character portrayed by Mickey Rooney. But if I say it’s “Greta in the Wild”, a movie about a showgirl who is whisk off to the north, you can live that movie and understand that Min loves it and that it sounds romantic.
Did you have fun creating those references?
Yeah it was fun, but it also was really hard. It was hard particularly to come up names of movie stars, that did not sound like the names of real movie stars like ‘Clint Beastwood’
How collaborative was your partnership with Maira Kalman on this project? Did you work concurrently, or did you send her work that was finished? Also, why the choice to focus on particular objects, not scenes or characters, for the illustrations?
Well, the book started with her. We did this picture book together and we really like working together so I asked her if she wanted to do another book together. With the picture book, I had written it and then given it to her. This time, I asked her what she wanted to paint and she wanted to paint little objects. Ordinary objects. From that point, I started to think what will make an ordinary object look gorgeous and special and beside being painted by Maira Kalman objects are special when there is an infusion of romantic memory on them.
Maira collect objects in a slightly hoardish way and she showed me objects she wanted to paint when we were in a studio. Then we whittle it down to a list of them and I started writing. Every so often, I would email her and say “how about a menu” and she would say “yes” or “no, how about this…”
We had an argument about the condom wrapper – she did not want to paint the wrapper and I said it would be so beautiful. It turns out she was happy to paint the condom wrapper, but she did not want to go to a store and purchase the condoms. So I had to finally say ‘Boys have done it a million times. I have done it a million times. Now it’s your turn.’
Did what she painted restrict the storyline?
Yeah, I had to think of a scene what would make a napkin special. It definitely affected it.
What bearing do you think high school relationships have on adult romances? Do you think they are formative?
I think all your relationships form the other ones. I think high school is a good time to go out with a lot of people because it’s like the first nine times you make bread. It is not going to be any good. The first relationships are going to be disastrous one way or another so you might as well get them out of the way.
Speaking of relationships, What’s the most interesting story you have heard so far on the whywebrokeup project?
Well, the project is still ongoing so the stories are still coming in.
What’s your favorite one?
Maira and I were on the radio and this guy called in. He still has half a grapefruit left from his last breakfast with Marlana that he kept for eleven years. That was pretty intense.
If you could give any advice to a high schooler with a broken heart and a thrift store trench coat, what’d it be?
That really sounds like me. I had a broken heart and a thrift store trench coat in high school.
So then, what advice would you give to your teenage self?
Have good friends. Don’t be mean to your friends. Don’t take it out on your friends.
I was fortunate enough to interview Daniel Handler because he was part of the Not Your Mother’s Fit for a Printz panel at Books Inc., my place of employment. To find out more about Why We Broke Up check out Why We Broke Up Project. Also, check out this video where Daniel Handler interviewed random strangers in Grand Central Station about their breakup stories.
Fit for a Printz authors posing with a teen fan.