Lemony Snicket returns, this time narrating his own story, rather than that sad saga about the Baudelaire orphans. The four-book series, titled All the Wrong Questions, begins with Who Could That Be at This Hour?, in which readers meet Lemony at age 12, as he embarks on his first mission for whoever it is he works for. Bookshelf spoke to Snicket’s representative, Daniel Handler, who lives in San Francisco – where both the streets and the author’s answers to our questions could be called serpentine....
I feel I must ask, am I conducting this interview with Daniel or Lemony?
Far be it from me to decide who Publishers Weekly is speaking with.
Okay, let me phrase the question another way. You are about to go out on tour in support of your new series, All the Wrong Questions. Who is going to appear at each bookstore?
It’s supposed to be Lemony but my guess is he won’t show up. Nice work if you can get it.
And yet, purportedly, this new series reveals authorized details about his childhood, and I did learn more about him than I did in the previous unauthorized biography. He describes himself as an excellent reader, a good cook, a mediocre musician, and a lousy quarreler. This sounds a bit like you.
You are really laying on the flattery pretty thick.
Well, you are probably not a mediocre musician, but I do suspect you are a lousy quarreler. Is that even a word?
What do you mean by lousy? Bad?
No, by lousy I meant averse to quarreling.
Well, it depends. I’m going to have to think about this some more.
Is there any possibility that in this new series we’ll finally learn what the VFD is?
But am I correct in thinking that this series has been percolating for quite some time, perhaps well before you finished your work on A Series of Unfortunate Events?
It has, but where it really began was with an interest in noir literature. As with the gothic novel, here was a tradition that was relatively unexplored in children’s literature. So I started thinking about that years ago and amassed a stack of noir-ish books. When you say “percolate,” that’s exactly what was going on.
Do you have a favorite title from that stack you amassed?
The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler. I hadn’t read it before and though I had an inkling I would like it, after reading it, my esteem for Mr. Chandler went up considerably. It is an astonishing novel.
So a series with noir qualities but one that has a much higher quotient of absurdity than your average noir book, I’m guessing. The Museum of Bad Breakfast? A failing ink factory, run by octopi?
I suppose a fading industrial town is a fairly common setting for a noir story, and I think I wish there were more small absurdities in life than there are. There are not nearly as many absurd museums as there should be.
Not even in San Francisco?
There was a Barbie museum but it’s gone underground. I think absurd museums are more common in smaller towns.
How many years of Lemony’s life will these adventures cover?
Hard to say.
They will not, however, bring us right up to the bad beginning of the Baudelaires’ story, though, right?
All interesting stories have missing information, so I’m not worried about a gap.
When you are starting a series like this, do you plot the whole thing out before you begin?
If you are asking about how I write, I can say definitely, it is with my right hand.
But are you an egg polisher or an egg layer?
I have never heard those terms before.
Okay, a polisher is someone who constructs, say, a chapter-by-chapter outline that lays out precisely where the story is going. An egg layer produces a first draft and lets the story itself determine where it’s going. Do either of these methods describe the way you work?
When it comes to eggs, I like mine softboiled on walnut wheat toast. I neither polish them nor lay them. That said, part of the fun of writing the Baudelaires’ story was the improvisation. I would drop one shoe and then wait and perhaps drop another much later on. But because I’m now writing mysteries, I have to be much more conscientious about having all my ducks in a row. So it’s much more about organizing ducks than laying eggs.
I write about three drafts. In the first draft, I build the house. In the second draft, I fix all the mistakes I made in the first draft, like having built the house and realizing I forgot to put in a front door. The third draft, well, I suppose I am doing a bit of polishing there.
Is it fair to say that readers of Who Could That Be at This Hour? will have the satisfaction of finally learning where Lemony developed his tic of defining the expansive vocabulary he uses – from his first mentor, S. Theodora Markson?
Maybe not. They will learn a number of things about his organization but every organization that trains its people tends to have its own jargon, so I would be surprised to find that this was a trait unique to S. Theodora Markson.
Is the illustrator of this book, Seth, wanted by police, or is there another reason he does not have a last name?
Not only does he have no last name but Seth is not really his first name.
That’s an interesting illustration he has created at the very beginning of a blonde in a beret, left waiting in a train station, presumably for Lemony – could that be... Beatrice?
That is an associate of Mr. Snicket’s but beyond that, I wouldn’t wish to upset readers of Publishers Weekly by telling you things that are yet to be revealed. There are more wrong questions to leave unanswered, the totality of which will be familiar to people who celebrate Passover.
You’re killing me. How long do I have to wait for volume two?
I believe the books will be released yearly, assuming that I don’t die.
“Who Could That Be at This Hour?” by Lemony Snicket, illus. by Seth. Little, Brown, $15.99 Oct. ISBN 978-0-316-12308-2