How I Write

01.02.13

How We Write (Husband and Wife Edition): Lemony Snicket and Lisa Brown

Children’s-book authors Lemony Snicket and Lisa Brown, the team behind The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story, tell us about the zine they started and how they inspire each other.

Lisa Brown has written and illustrated books for readers of all ages, from toddler on up—her latest is Picture the Dead with Adele Griffin. Her husband, Daniel Handler, is better known as Lemony Snicket, whose series of unfortunate events was made into a film.

Where did you grow up?

Lisa Brown: In a suburb of Hartford, Conn. My family were refugees from Long Island, N.Y.

Daniel Handler: San Francisco.

What did you study?

LB: I studied history, literature, and philosophy at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. I studied graphic design at Pratt Institute in New York. I am a self-taught illustrator, and I think it shows.

DH: Wesleyan University. I double-majored in English and American Studies—the new big moneymakers.

Where do you live?

DH: San Francisco, for reasons obvious to anyone who has been there.

LB: San Francisco and Cape Cod. I need the ocean within spitting distance. And if there’s an earthquake on the West Coast, I can go east. If there’s a hurricane on the East Coast, I can go west. I’m hoping there won’t be both.

What do you look for in a great first line/first page/first chapter of a young-adult novel?

DH: A consistent rate of surprise.

Describe your morning routine.

DH: Wake, shower, shave, dress, put music on, double espresso, fresh-fruit smoothie, oatmeal, read the comics in The San Francisco Chronicle to the child, read The New York Times to oneself, agree to show the child one YouTube video in exchange for the vigorous brushing of teeth (current favorite: Of Monsters And Men, “Little Talks”), vigorous brushing of teeth, kiss just-waking wife, walk child to school, small talk with other parents in schoolyard, put on headphones (current favorite: Fire!, You Liked Me Five Minutes Ago), take bus, walk to Jewish Community Center, swim 50 laps, take bus, arrive home to begin working day.

LB: My husband nudges me at what I feel is the crack of dawn—after he has already gotten up, showered, prepared breakfast for himself and our kid, and made me coffee. Then I say “five more minutes,” and he comes back in five minutes and I say “five more minutes,” and he comes back in five minutes and I say “five more minutes,” and he says no, and I say “pleasepleasepleaseplease” and he says “you are pathetic,” and I go upstairs and drink my coffee and kiss the kid, and my husband takes the kid to school, while I slurk around the house, pretending that I will go to the gym. I eventually get to my studio, post some stuff on Tumblr, tweet a bit, and then it’s really not anything close to morning anymore.

What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?

DH: Cocktails—researching old recipes, inventing new ones, mixing them, serving them, drinking them, the whole fetishy bit.

Remind me to invite myself to your home sometime. What is your favorite item of clothing?

DH: My new three-piece suit.

LB: I have this amazingly ugly sweater that I bought at a thrift store in the early 1990s, that I like to wear when I work and when I want to irritate the people with whom I live. It’s disgusting.

Tell us about the American Chickens Institute. Few realize that American Chickens are, in fact, foldable.

LB: American Chickens was a zine that my husband and I started in the early 1990s, because we were bored at our just-outta-college jobs. It was made from a single piece of paper, Xeroxed, one-sided, and in black-and-white because that was cheapest, and folded in such a way that there were four “pages” and a “centerfold.” It was themed. For example: “Super-Toother” (dentistry), “Very Small Things,” “Lunch,” “Sorry-Party” (the game of Sorry!), “Julian Sands-tastic.” There was usually a poem. There was usually a contest. Our distribution techniques involved cafés, car windshields, and street corners. You can see all 11 of 12 issues (we forgot to make issue #9) here. The American Chickens Institute is our sister company where we produce brochures.

latke-who-couldnt-stop-screaming-cover
‘The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming’ by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Lisa Brown. 48 pp. McSweeney's. $11. ()

Do you have a writer friend who helps and inspires you?

LB: I have a writer husband who helps and inspires me. He’s also my friend.

DH: My wife is my first and best reader, and my pal Andrew Sean Greer is a fine novelist and an excellent person with whom to talk shop.

Lisa, you have a distinctive look to your cartoons. How long did it take you to “find” that look that we come to associate with your work? I always wonder when the signature style of an artist clicks into place.

LB: I have a distinctive look? I always feel that my style jumps all over the place. Shows how much I know.

Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins.

DH: I have an idea and then I start poking around. I read whatever books seem appropriate, which leads me to books that really are appropriate, and I write down a lot of things on index cards and legal pads that I move around while muttering to myself. Then suddenly I say, this is enough, get going, and it’s enough, and I get going.

Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.

DH: I write longhand on legal pads, about half at home and half in cafés. I drink a lot of water and eat a lot of raw carrots.

Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your workspace (besides the raw carrots)?

DH: The only unusual desk item I can think of is a Buddha Machine, which produces loops of ambient sound, for times when music is too much and silence is not enough. The view in front of me is a blank wall, but I can stand and look out a window at my lovely street and watch bicyclists give up on the hill and walk it.

Lisa, what is the view from your favorite workspace?

LB: Right now I’m in my studio, watching the fog swoop menacingly over the hills.

Describe your evening routine.

DH: Cocktail hour with the child, cooking while the child is sent to bed, dinner with Lisa Brown, viewing of a movie or (when times are tough) Law & Order, reading in bed, none of your business, sleep.

You are both bestselling children’s book authors and illustrators. I imagine your breakfast conversations are dynamic and colorful, as is the interior design of your home. Or am I projecting?

DH: You’re right about the interior design, but my wife sleeps late so there is no breakfast conversation. We do, however, spend long periods of time holding our sides with laughter over things nobody else finds even faintly amusing.

What is guaranteed to make you laugh?

DH: When I tell someone that they have food in their teeth, and they close their mouths and swirl their tongue around, and then smile at me to see if they’ve done the job right, and they still have food in their teeth.

LB: My husband.

What is guaranteed to make you cry?

LB: The ending scene of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

DH: The scene towards the end of The Life Aquatic, when Bill Murray’s character says of the shark, “I wonder if it remembers me.”

Do you have any superstitions?

LB: I have all of them. My favorite: it’s bad luck to put your hat on your bed.

DH: I keep manuscripts I’m working on in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator, in case the house burns down.

What is something you always carry with you?

DH: Hmm. My spleen?

I think I already know the answer to this, Daniel, but what is your favorite snack?

DH: Raw carrots.

Thought so. What phrase do you over-use?

DH: “Let’s not go overboard.”

Lisa?

LB: “Large coffee, please, with room for milk.”

What is the story behind the publication of your first book?

DH: After it received 37 rejections, it was purchased for the lowest amount of money my literary agent had ever negotiated for a work of fiction.

What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?

DH: If I don’t feel punchy and only half-brained, I haven’t gotten much done.

Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.

DH: I’ve learned a surefire way to see if a bookstore is well-prepared: What’s their plan if a child vomits?

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

DH: Stop looking for advice online and get back to work.

What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

LB: “Please keep off the grass.”

DH: “Please clean up after picnics.”