There is no doubt that Daniel Handler has changed the world of reading for children. His book series, A Series of Unfortunate Events, which was written under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket, has provided a uniquely dark literature experience for youth since 1999. However, part of Handler’s intrigue is his ability to simultaneously exhilarate both children and adults through his vivid storytelling and thought-provoking plotlines. This was especially notable when his books were turned into a Netflix series earlier this year. Viewers widely ranged in age and the show proved to be an exciting adventure for all.
Earlier this month, Blast Magazine had the opportunity to speak with Daniel Handler about the necessity for diversity in casting, the challenges of formatting a story for new mediums, and the potential for more Handler/Snicket television shows in the future.
Blast Magazine: In A Series of Unfortunate Events, the Baudelaire children are constantly treated as though they are unable to comprehend the events of the world around them, even though they are often the only ones truly aware of the actual events taking place. As a child, did you often feel that your thoughts and observations were ignored simply because of your age?
Daniel Handler: Yes. I would say almost constantly. I don’t know if it was being ignored so much as what seemed important to me was not deemed as important by those in charge of me. Many of the conversations between the adults and children in the books are outside versions of my own childhood and what I see in interactions between children and adults. In The Reptile Room, Mr. Poe and Stefano have a long conversation about what car to put the children in and how to get them to their destination. While the Baudelaires are concerned about murder and kidnapping, there is an extended discussion about carpooling. I have many memories from my childhood of people having conversations about carpooling while far more important things were going on in my mind.
Blast: The Netflix series has been incredibly well-received and does a wonderful job of translating the books into a visual adventure for audiences. I especially enjoyed how each book was divided into two episodes as this allowed for the show to go into far more detail than the film. Is this format of two episodes per book going to continue into the upcoming seasons or are you considering extending the episode count for season 3, since the final books are significantly longer than the earlier ones?
Handler: My understanding is that the very last book will be one extended episode rather than two disparate episodes. It’s funny to me to have a conversation about one or two episodes since how long you watch TV is now up to you and not the TV. What is fun about Netflix is that they are not as strict about the length of the episodes. In the first season, all of the episodes are somewhere in the 40 to 50-minute range. It doesn’t have to be exact like with an NBC program.
Blast: As with any project that is reformatted for a new medium, certain changes must be made to tell the story in the most efficient and logical manner. One thing that fans have commended is how true the Netflix series has stayed to the books. During the creative process, was there any one scene that you felt strongly about ensuring was included in the final cut?
Handler: There were a bunch of scenes that I felt strongly about. Part of Netflix keeping me in the room was to allow me to say what was an essential part of the story and what needed to be included. If you’re in development, you’re used to everything being up for grabs. The job of people who are developing something for corporate entertainment is to ask questions about everything. They asked questions about everything, from the necessity of the children being orphans to the possibility of the show taking place in another country. My job was to say what was important and must remain and what could be changed for the show. Anything that people enjoy from the books that made it into the show was questioned and pushed for by me.
Blast: Many readers of Blast are beginning their college or professional journeys. They are in that phase of life where it’s not entirely evident that they are on the right path. Have you ever gone through any periods of self-doubt and how have you gotten through those times?
Handler: I feel that constantly. I don’t remember when it started but I haven’t stopped feeling it. The doubt, and perhaps panic, that many feel in their 20’s never goes away and certainly not for me and any artist that I know. I have a near constant sense that everything is for nothing and all the choices I have made have been disastrous. There’s no big secret since you don’t get over it. However, you can learn to suffer through it and I take comfort in literature, music, and supportive friends. If I had to give some advice, it would be to be nice to your friends and not drink too much. The wondering about your life never goes away though.
Blast: The diversity in the Netflix series is something that immediately struck me as integral to telling the story in the most relatable way. It was especially notable given the lack of diversity in the film’s casting. Was that a topic that you were adamant about during the casting process?
Handler: It’s been a long battle for me. This is something that is really important to me and I am grateful when people appreciate it. In the books, nobody is described by race. The books take place in a world that is difficult to pinpoint geographically and have been published and illustrated all over the world. This is a huge and important battle for me and it was important for me for the film too, but there ended up being very few people of color and they weren’t really visible. I don’t think the Netflix cast is as diverse as I would like it to be. I think it is one notch above embarrassingly white. It’s a battle I lost almost all the time with Paramount and have lost a little less with Netflix. We are still casting for the remaining seasons and I will continue to speak up about my desire for increased diversity. It’s an uphill battle for various reasons, but it’s worth the fight to have a diverse cast.
Blast: You recently release a children’s book with your wife, Lisa Brown, entitled Goldfish Ghost. As a writer who has works published for both children and adults, do you ever write something for the younger readers that’s too dark and must be rewritten with less anguish or have you gotten comfortable at knowing the appropriate levels of despair for children?
Handler: I don’t think the difference between books for adults and books for children is the level of despair. It’s hard to think of books with more despair than certain volumes of my children’s books. I think it has to do more with the shape of the story and what genre it’s in. My publishers have never had any complaints about the amount of despair. Their concerns are more related to the type of content I include.
Blast: Since the Netflix series has been so well-received, would you be interested in transitioning more of your works into television shows or films in the future?
Handler: Literature is my first love. While many aspects of working with Netflix have been wonderful, it’s also been very exhausting. When season 3 is over and I have time to breathe, I would maybe consider it. People keep asking and we’re just so swamped in the middle of doing this right now. It’s a little like if you’re lost in the middle of the woods and someone asks if you want to go camping.
Blast: How do you think you’ve changed or grown as a writer since you published your first book, The Basic Eight, in 1998?
Handler: Well, I’ve gotten much older. I hope that I’ve steadily improved as a writer and as a human being. I’ve always wanted to be in the company of literature and it’s a blessing that I get to spend a lot of time reading and writing. It’s always what I’ve wanted to do and I didn’t always know that it would happen. I was in despair a lot in my 20’s that it wouldn’t happen. The Basic Eight was published in the late 90’s, but I had no indication that it would start my literary career and I am very thankful that it has. I’ve always felt very welcome in literature and I am lucky to be able to spend my life in its company.
Blast: Did you ever consider a career unrelated to literature?
Handler: My parents like to say that when I was 5 years old, people asked what I wanted to be and I said that I hoped to be an old man who lived on the top of a mountain and gave advice. I’m not sure if that’s true, but if it is, that would be the only other career choice I’ve considered.
Blast: One of the most appealing aspects of attending an event that you are speaking at is having the opportunity to watch your interactions with young readers. When I went to one of your talks earlier this year, it was wonderful to see you embrace all the theories and ideas that the children had. Did you have any connection with authors when you were a child and did that influence your decision to engage and support your readers at your own events?
Handler: Yes, I met several children’s authors. I had a great local library that brought in writers and one in particular that I met was Marilyn Sachs. I had a very influential conversation with her when I was young. I was 10 years old and I told her that I wanted to be a writer and she took me very seriously. She shared her stories with me and asked me what I found difficult about writing. When I started writing for kids, I remembered that interaction. It’s a delight to meet people reading my books. You never love a book the way you loved a book when you were 10. I get to be part of a sacred space in someone’s head and that’s an honor.
Blast: Is there any information you can give us regarding season 2 of the Netflix series?
Handler: I can say that for the adaptation of The Austere Academy, viewers will find out that Prufrock Prep’s mascot is a dead horse because you can’t beat a dead horse.