(he’s the one on the right) is a very funny author who wrote the basic eight and watch your mouth. his children’s books penned under the moniker lemony snicket make harry potter look like barney. he’s writing a musical film with stephin merrittt. and he has played accordion with the magnetic fields, the 6ths, and the three terrors. oh, and the edith head trio. gail got him liquored up on boilermakers at the 19th hole in new york city just before he relocated to san francisco. new york will suck without him!
chickfactor: why did you call your band the edith head trio?
daniel handler: the same reason you call your band gowns by edith head. I was in san francisco and I was in a band that was on its way to breaking up, I lived with a string player and I lived with someone who played bass and so we formed a band so we could rehearse in the privacy of our own living room and usually perform there. and I don’t know, just cause her name’s so cool and she was in all the old movie titles and if you ever read about her she was supercool and she was out and she was making gorgeous gowns.
cf: was this a swing band?
daniel: I don’t know what it was. it was mock cabaret goth. I played accordion and piano, there was an upright bass player, and there was kate who sang and played viola. it was sort of gloomy, sort of sarcastic. we played songs that were called like “the donner party tango.” we had this fantasy that the edith head trio would hit it big and people would be like, “which one’s edith?”
cf: when did you get your first accordion?
daniel: in college. when I was in college it was so lame to play keyboards — you couldn’t play keyboards. I took piano when I was little so I already knew how to play piano but you couldn’t possibly play keyboards in a band. there was no band that would have you. which is strange to think about now…
cf: keyboards are back!
daniel: keyboards are back and there’s a million different ways to… you can be like cool retro 80s keyboards or you can do weird electronic things or be a saint etienne wannabe band or you could be the analog beck sort of thing. there was none of that when I was in school. so I started playing the accordion. actually I was inspired by the cowboy junkies, which is pretty embarrassing because I’m not such a big fan of theirs. that was the first time I heard the accordion and it didn’t sound dorky. it just sounded pretty and chunky.
cf: describe a typical day with stephin merritt.
daniel: a typical day with stephin when he and I are trying to get some work done together is that we have a noon appointment at the I’m-never-supposed-to-name-the-name-of-the-top-secret diner… so we usually have an appointment at noon there which would be for me lunch and for him breakfast. and so, at 11:30 I call him and say “now I’m leaving” and at noon I get there and I call stephin and say “here I am” and then at 12:30 I call stephin and say “here I am” and then at 1:00 he shows up and has a pot of tea and we scarcely speak and then about 1:30 we start to work and he keeps ordering more tea and I’m sort of drinking the tea as we’re working and I keep on drinking it and all of a sudden I’m waaay overcaffeinated and it’s 5:00 and he of course remains absolutely immobile.
cf: what kind of work are you doing?
daniel: we’re trying to write a new version of umbrellas of cherbourg. that’s not really quite true. we’re trying to write a new movie inspired by umbrellas of cherbourg about a flying saucer that arrived on earth and is about the size, shape, and texture of a 45 single and so is accidentally taken to be a 45 single and played and it makes a song that makes people fall in love, it makes an aphrodisiac song. then the song is of course misused by various scheming couples and eventually of course the song becomes a big hit so soon everybody’s in love.
cf: what’s it like to be a three terror?
daniel: it’s a lot like sitting around a room with three people arguing over what sad songs they’re going to do. the three terrors seems mostly conceptual and I’m not around for the conceptual part. it’s mostly dudley and ld and stephin drinking and thinking of sad songs and coming up with whole theme evenings they can do.
cf: who has the biggest ego of the three?
daniel: I would say they all have different shaped egos, let’s just say that. it’s sort of nice because my day job is all about my ego, I’m sitting around alone in a room being my own tortured genius and then it’s nice to as your hobby be a musician and be completely subservient. it’s nice for me not to be the ego in the room I guess.
cf: give your ego a rest.
daniel: let’s give my ego a much-needed rest!
cf: what’s it like to be an author opening up for a rock band?
daniel: in new york and san francisco it was good, and then I also did it in l.a. it’s, uh, good. it’s getting out my rock-star fantasies without having to put together a band. we did that evening with the three terrors in new york, that was ld’s idea actually, and that was fun and seemed to go well and we sold some books and people weren’t nasty and rude and loud.
cf: like they are in l.a.?
daniel: well, like they turned out to be in l.a. it turned out to be in this really huge place with all these tables where people were having drinks and food and a whole balcony where they couldn’t really see me. it was a situation where I don’t think I would have been quiet either. the people who were quiet were appreciative and the people who weren’t quiet didn’t hear me.
cf: did you meet vaginal creme davis?
daniel: no, I didn’t meet vag. the only real celebrity story about that trip to l.a. is that I played accordion on a couple of songs but obviously not for the majority of the show so I sat off to the side of the stage which was near a special roped-off table, and at that roped-off table arrived courtney love and chris rock and this producer guy. and they were chattering away and this was during the magnetic fields portion of the evening for which just about everybody else was quiet. every so often they would make some noise and I would turn my head the way you turn your head when someone makes a noise like completely involuntarily and then I’d think “oh right, don’t stare at famous people,” and I’d pretend I was just looking around.
cf: what kind of musicals do you like?
daniel: I like some really old movie musicals. the coconuts. that’s the first marx brothers movie and that’s sort of a musical. I like all the marx brothers movies which are all musicals. not really that many else. I’m not really a fan of the classic musical comedy. I more like the idea of everything being sung. I never go to musicals onstage. the last one I saw was the titanic musical; some friends were in town and wanted to go to the titanic musical and it was really the most embarrassing thing you can imagine.
cf: do you think now that the dogma 95 people and björk are doing musicals, that will start a trend of lots of musicals?
daniel: I don’t know. I’m beginning to talk to people who are interested in making the musical that stephin and I are doing and it seems that every few years someone tries to make a musical and then it’s usually a huge bomb. so maybe if these musicals do really well. school daze was a musical, and that was sort of a disaster. and they made newsboys and that was a disaster. this movie I’ll do anything was supposed to be a musical and they cut all the songs out at the last minute. they had a couple tv musicals that all bombed. but those all sort of try to hearken back to the days of oklahoma, which is not a worthy goal and impossible.
cf: so yours will be more xanadu?
daniel: yeah maybe. I hope it’s like umbrellas of cherbourg. I hope it’s like blow up and other gorgeous eye-candy 60s things that are about music without being too “ta-daa!”
cf: who’s doing to direct and star in it?
daniel: oh gosh, in our dreams? I’d like baz luhrmann to do it cause he’s so cool and all his movies are so glorious and musical. and stephin and I have harbored this fantasy that sarah cracknell will be in it because she’s like the catherine deneuve of ’90s pop music. she would be perfect to do something like that. it would be fun to have a bunch of indie rock stars or pop people dressed to the nines being in some hopelessly giddy, romantic thing. that would be fun particularly being as most pop people are so cynical.
cf: tell us about meeting david lachappelle.
daniel: this is the last time I get drunk with you and do a pre-interview. when they were selling the movie rights to the basic eight, he was interested in making a movie — I guess he directed some music videos and tv commercials and things — and I was supposed to go over and give him the basic eight, and he was going to read it and we were going to talk. it was right before halloween and I went over there and he was like “tomorrow night I’ll have read this and we’ll have coffee and we’ll talk about it” and the next night was halloween! and I was like, surely, david lachapelle, hottest fashion photographer of the moment, has something better to do on halloween than get together with me at a bar. sure enough he didn’t call me and we never met but his studio is this wild and crazy place filled with props and he was a whirlwind of activity and he had an entourage of brightly dressed young men. it was a scene out of blow up to go over there and I never saw him again.
cf: who’s going to play flan?
daniel: it’s so depressing over who’s going to play flan. when they started talking about it, it was drew barrymore. so now it can’t be drew barrymore anymore and it can’t be sara gilbert anymore and it can’t be claire danes anymore.
cf: sara gilbert!
daniel: I would love it to be sara gilbert but I don’t think she even looks like someone who could be playing a high-school student anymore. but maybe she does. I don’t know. she looked pretty young in high fidelity. she’s definitely the sort of person I had in mind but I’m sure they’ll find a more glamourous person.
cf: if you met annie lennox, what would you say to her?
daniel: oh man. probably something embarrassing. the first rock star I met was fred schneider and I was totally excited to meet him and of course I immediately began babbling his lyrics in his face and being a total asshole fan. I’m sure if I met annie lennox I’d be like “oh my god! savage was like my favorite record when I was 15 and you mean everything to me!” I hope I can say something cool. I’m so deeply ashamed of my torrid love affair with the eurythmics reunion record.
daniel: probably cause I know it’s terrible. hanging out with stephin, we end up talking about music a lot, he’s so much more pickier than I am about that, so he’s helped me develop a sense of shame whenever I’m listening to something I know is not that great. it’s like me and books. I find most books totally unacceptable.
cf: what’s your poison?
daniel: gin in the hot days and bourbon on cold days. that’s my motto. I’m sort of a cocktail pig. I’m cleaning out my apartment now and I have all these bottles of obscure liquor I’m trying to give people: “take my pernod! take my chartreuse!” we used to play bridge with friends every week and we’d make a new obscure cocktail every time and now I have all this crap that I can’t possibly pack up. so I guess my poison is like anything alcoholic.
cf: what’s the best bar in new york?
daniel: all the best bars are closed. orson’s used to be my favorite bar. that’s gone. I like the gold bar. been there?
cf: I hate that place. the furniture is so uncomfortable!
daniel: yeah, the furniture is terrible but the first time I went there they were playing shostakovich string quartets which totally charmed me. I think classical music should be played in bars. there was that large german woman who ran it who reminded me of the woman in baghdad café. so I loved that place and that closed. so now I go to clementine because they have free fondue. but you have to go there early, otherwise it fills up with yuppies. as more and more of my friends get real jobs, it gets harder and harder to find people who want to have a cocktail at 5:30.
cf: does it bother you that everyone assumes you’re gay?
daniel: [laughter] they do? even when I explain my deep love for annie lennox and the fact that I’m writing a musical with stephin? even then? no, I mean, they’ve always thought I was gay. they thought I was gay when I thought I was gay so um, no, it’s never been much of a problem. it’s gotten me a lot of free drinks in my hometown. when I got married, the ring really ended it. right after I got married I went to candy bar, which is another great bar that’s now closed, which is in the heart of chelsea and is a big gay bar, and I was waiting for some friends and ordered a drink. it was early, the bar was just opening, and all the sassy young attractive waiters were being superflirtatious and we were all birds of a feather having a grand old time and then all of a sudden they just got superprofessional. they were like “here’s your drink sir.” it was because of the ring. suddenly they knew. we used to go to this bar called twin peaks, which was nicknamed the last coffin because it was nothing but old, old gay men and I’d never paid for a drink there in my life. they would call me the prettiest boy in the class and buy me a drink. I went there when I was 17. those days are over.
cf: if you could take three things from new york when you move, what would you take?
daniel: shopsins general foods. what I’ll miss most about new york is the hours. I’ll really miss the fact that in san francisco when you go to a movie at 7pm and you want to have dinner afterward, it’s going to be a problem and that’s really a bummer. I would take three places that were open late and serve delicious food and tangy cocktails. all my favorite things in new york are gone. all my favorite bars are gone. I had a great vintage clothing store that I loved. that’s gone. I would take the film forum.
cf: what’s the biggest crime you’ve ever committed?
daniel: gosh, I don’t know. I went through a period where I stole signs out of airports and hotels. one thing I felt bad about that I felt bad about for a long time — sort of a moral crime — is that, one time it was raining really, really hard and I was miserable and I definitely wanted to get a cab. we saw a cab stop at the corner and we ran and ran and ran and leapt right into it and there was a young couple who was about to get in and they had a baby and they were like “please, please, we’ve been waiting for so long” and we just took it. we shut the door. I felt awful about it for months. I had some nightmare about it and I woke up and lisa was like “forget it.” but I can’t think of a bigger crime.
cf: what are you addicted to?
daniel: definitely coffee but that’s easy. when I was 8 I started semicompulsively flipping unsharpened pencils when I was being imaginative. my parents said I used to stare into space and throw pencils, and that’s something I still do when I’m writing. I guess I’m addicted to that. all my drug experiences are like nancy reagan’s wet dream. I tried cocaine once and it made me projectile vomit for five hours. I have all these experiences where I’m like, “I’ll never do that again.” I don’t have an addictive personality.
cf: what writer do you steal from the most?
daniel: oh gosh, either lorrie moore or vladimir nabokov. I reread both of them pretty compulsively definitely with an eye for what I can steal.
cf: what’s the point of writing under a pseudonym? don’t you want credit? lemony snicket is a good pseudonym.
daniel: yeah, I’m proud of the pseudonym. I actually had the pseudonym before I had the books. when I was researching the basic eight, I was contacting various religious organizations and rightwing political groups and I didn’t want to be on their mailing lists and so one time they asked me what my name was and I said “lemony snicket.” for a long time that was a joke, my friends for my birthday once gave me business cards with lemony snicket on it. it used to be the name we’d write wacky letters to the editor of the paper to see if we’d get in and stuff. when I started writing these children’s books, the narrator’s a character in them, the narrator’s present in there and it’s not me. I came up with the idea of doing them under a pseudonym and I sort of had this pseudonym waiting all along. it’s pretty strange that the pseudonym’s getting a lot more press than me. but I think it’s fun.
cf: do you keep up with children’s book and film entertainment?
daniel: no, not really. it took me forever to read even the first harry potter book and I haven’t read the rest of them. when I started going out on children’s book tours and stuff, they would say “have you read this person? have you read that person?” and I wouldn’t have read any kids’ books since I was a kid. I guess it’s pretty embarrassing but I kind of feel like my ignorance is working to my advantage.
cf: what were your favorites as a kid?
daniel: I really loved edward gorey, roald dahl, and harriet the spy of course.
cf: have you seen chicken run?
daniel: no, I haven’t seen chicken run. lisa and I actually have a zine that we’re thinking of restarting called american chickens and for a while due to that we had so many… people would always give us chicken tchotchkes for presents and things and we began to become those people who collect some animal. it’s really really awful.
cf: how many friendships have ended when your friends recognize themselves in your characters?
daniel: none although it was a near go with one of them. my friends had plenty of time to get used to the basic eight because I wrote it and it took about two years to sell, so they all read it. some of them were pretty mad at me. they mostly worked through it without talking to me. one of the things that helped is that it hadn’t been published so it was just this thing lying around and by the time it was actually going to be in a bookstore people were really excited. if the movie ever comes out there’ll be another wave of “oh my god, you think I look like that?”
cf: are there any writers who give really good readings?
daniel: um, I go to a lot of readings. who have I loved? I have a long attention span so I’m excited to see anybody as long as I like their work, even people who don’t read so well, it’s fun to be in the same room and hear their stuff and meet the little geek who’s producing the works of genius you admire.
cf: are you a dog man or a cat man?
daniel: dog. I want to get a dog in s.f. if we have a yard but a real-size dog not a stupid stephin merritt talking cigarette box dog.
cf: are you allergic to anything?
daniel: cat. and abalone. I went to a chinese restaurant once and had abalone soup and then I went to the movies and I couldn’t breathe. so I went to the emergency room and the emergency room woman said “what did you eat that you’ve never eaten before?” and I said abalone and she said “never eat that again.” it’s great when people have you over for dinner and they’re like “do you eat everything?” and I have to be like “actually, don’t make abalone.”
cf: in case you’re planning an abalone paté. what’s in your refrigerator?
daniel: lots of food. there’s always lots of food in my refrigerator: fresh basil, half a dozen eggs, some kinder eggs, all kinds of fancy mustard, bread, leftover pizza, lots of raw carrots, I eat a bag of raw carrots a day.
cf: if you could make one big change to the new century, what’s it going to be?
daniel: I want a full-blown return to etiquette. judith martin, a.k.a. miss manners, is the finest person writing non-fiction. I met her, that was a big thrill for me. if there were a way to put her thoroughly in charge of the world tomorrow, I’d do it in a heartbeat. that would cover a lot of problems too. that would end hunger, misogyny, and tele-marketing and all the things we hate.
cf: no more groping fests in central park.
daniel: no, except consensual gropingfests.
cf: do you think it’s generally a good idea to meet your heroes?
daniel: well, in my case, just about all my heroes are writers so it’s great to meet them because I’m a writer and it’s a direct inspiration to meet them and find that they’re not really godly at all. CF