San Francisco–based writer Daniel Handler has had an eventful 2017: His children’s novels A Series of Unfortunate Events (written under the pen name Lemony Snicket) were made into a Netflix series; he released his sixth novel, All the Dirty Parts; and his first play, Imaginary Comforts, or the Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit, is on stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through November 19. Distinguished in the literary world for his trademark wit and humor, Handler pushes the conventions of expression and subject matter in his works for children, young adults and, more recently, theatergoers.
In advance of his keynote speech at the Las Vegas Book Festival on October 21 at Historic Fifth Street School, Handler talked with Vegas Seven about childhood innocence, teen sexuality and the importance of stories.
What you have written for children and young adults seems to do the opposite of romanticizing childhood as innocent—whether through characterization or plot.
When I started writing [All The Dirty Parts], what I saw in terms of depictions of young male sexuality is usually a kind of bumbling, neurotic, comic person or a predatory monster. And, certainly, you see both those things in life and the world of literature. I thought there was a large swathe of sexuality that wasn’t being portrayed, because it’s not easy to have a judgment on; it’s quite slippery in terms of orientation, sometimes, and in terms of behavior. That [partly guided] me as I was telling Cole’s story. So I guess that turns that myth of innocence on its side. I don’t know if I would put it in terms of innocence, but rather in terms of something I haven’t seen much of in literature.
You often write about social outcasts. Do you identify with these types?
In adolescence and childhood, that’s a near-universal feeling. Even if you are the pet of the football team in high school or something, you’re often feeling very isolated and alienated. And I think if you’re a thoughtful person in this world, you’re going to find it very bewildering and off-putting. It’s interesting to me to have heroes who are like that. When you’re talking about adolescence, it’s important to remember that everyone is feeling that way—like they’re on the outside.
Young people have a language with themselves and among each other for how they experience sex. All the Dirty Parts approaches teen sexuality in an unconventional way and brings this language to life on the page. Being a part of this dialogue, do you have any comment on how sexuality is taught in schools?
There’s such a wide variety [of methods] of how sexuality is taught, so it’s difficult to generalize. In terms of talking about the emotional consequences of it, it’s hard to devise an education program that would do that. For people who are thinking honestly and hard about teen sexuality, I’d never want to denigrate their efforts.
I do think the chances, if you’re entering into romantic and sexual relationships in high school, the chances of not breaking each other’s hearts or not treating each other badly are pretty slim. You’re figuring it out. And I think try to, at least, couch it so that the ways in which you’re hurting each other are not physically dangerous and emotionally traumatic but just within the bounds of everyday high school adolescence.
You recently said in the San Francisco Chronicle of your new play, Imaginary Comforts: “It’s about stories, and about the stories we tell ourselves that help us get through the day. And the way we hear stories and the way other people hear our stories, and about the misinterpretations and misunderstandings that happen when anyone is carrying around their own narrative.” How do we carry around stories? Can you explain that?
There are all kinds of ways. There are individual ways: When you’re becoming friends with someone, you’re going to tell them stories about your life that you’ve probably told before. You’ve probably told stories about things that have happened to you enough that they’re kind of polished and shaped, and you decided those to be important stories in terms of telling people about yourself and where you’re from and things like that.
We, as a society and as a nation, have a lot of narrative that we carry around at varying degrees of misunderstanding and pain. We’re just planning Thanksgiving at my household, and my son is super-interested in early American history—it doesn’t make you look kindly on Thanksgiving. [But] it’s important to have that story told as truthfully as possible. … To find a story in which we feel comfortable—[not] where we’re not stuffing ourselves with lies, but where we’re able to gather with family and feel a sense of gratitude—is common and important. Those boundaries and how we feel about that are important to people.
Daniel Handler in Conversation at Historic Fifth Street School, Oct. 21, 3–3:45 p.m., and LVBF After Dark Daniel Handler: All the Dirty Parts at Inspire Theater, 7:15–8 p.m., vegasvalleybookfestival.org