- The Very Fortunate Daniel Handler
- Lisa Hannigan: Stalking the Muse
- Nina Chanel is Selling Out (In a Good Way)
- Art & Design
Coming up on Articulate…
Though his neighbors call him Daniel Handler, you’re more likely to know him as Lemony Snicket, the prolific author of the wildly popular children A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Daniel Handler: When you’re around a child who says what’s wrong when something is happening, you want to say nothing. You want to say everything’s fine. And it isn’t always fine and I think that an explanation works better.
After a decade of non-stop creativity, singer/songwriter, Lisa Hannigan, came face to face and then overcame the horrors of the blank page.
Lisa Hannigan: Everyone just said, “You just have to keep plowing on and read good poetry and try and fill yourself up as much as possible so that you do have some kind of well to draw from.”
One of the world’s most celebrated contemporary sculptors was inspired by one of the most legendary.
Zenos Frudakis: He worked on it from when he was 40 years old in 1880 until he died in 1917. So he was always in process.
And Nina Chanel Abney’s gift was obvious from an early age. Now she’s on her own waiting list for a painting.
Nina Chanel Abney: I’ve been trying to make work for myself so I, maybe, own like three of my own paintings. o now I’m fixing that, I guess.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
Author Daniel Handler, who is best known for his grim children’s book series, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, believes kids deserve to be taken seriously.
Daniel Handler: I actually find it really offensive when people talk about children like they’re some entirely different animal. There’s often a sense of children just being entirely different creatures which, if it were any other category, everyone would agree was monstrous.
Since its debut in 1999, the Series of Unfortunate Events has stood out for denying its young readers happy endings for its three orphan protagonists.
Handler: I share the urge to want to protect vulnerable people from terrible things. I think everybody has that urge. And when you have a child, or when you’re around a child, who says, “What’s wrong?” when something is happening, you want to say nothing. You want to say, “Everything’s fine.” And it isn’t always fine, and I think that an explanation works better.
This no-nonsense approach is rooted in Handler’s upbringing. His father fled Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust was discussed freely at home.
Handler: If you grow up hearing stories about fleeing a country, and some people make it and some people don’t, the moral underneath that is that anything can happen, and that you’re not the master of your own destiny. And there’s dark humor in that, because it’s funny to behave well and then have something terrible happen to you anyway. That’s a punch line, you know? So I think the dark humor is acknowledging that the world is completely out of control and bewildering, and we don’t know why we’re here, and we don’t know what we’re doing. And I just think that it’s something you’re curious about when you’re a child. If you have any imagination, you can know that the possibility of terrible things happening is all around you—and that you want to think about that and for the answer to be, no, that’s not going to happen, or that doesn’t happen, is just not answering what people are asking about. And that, to me, seems part of literature connecting with the world, is to think about questions that everyone’s already asking.
And Handler has certainly found an audience for his questions about the nature of things.
(clip from A Series of Unfortunate Events):
Narrator: If you are interested in stories with happy endings, that story is streaming elsewhere.
A Series of Unfortunate Events has been adapted for screens big and small, sold 65 million copies in print, and been translated into 41 languages. In addition to the core series, Handler has published an additional 26 novels under the pen name Lemony Snicket. He’s also published half a dozen books under his own name. Yet it’s remarkable that someone can be this prolific with such apparent ease.
Handler: I find a blank page really inspiring. So I don’t have a fear of it. I kind of don’t believe in writer’s block. I know writers who always say that they have writer’s block, but it seems to me actually what they are is distracted. And I’ve had friends where I’ve said, “I’m working at a cafe today. You are gonna come and sit across the table from me, and we’re both gonna work for three hours.” And then you’ll have written something. And maybe it’s terrible, but you’re not blocked. You’ll write something.
Handler: I don’t have a cell phone, and so no one can reach me in a cafe. I write long hand, so I’m really kind of cut off from technology and the world, so I like that a lot. But yeah, long hand’s kinda magical. You can draw a line through something, but it’s still there. So you can go back and say, “Wait a minute, maybe that wasn’t so terrible.” If you started a book with a computer and you wrote three sentences, and then you say, “Oh, I better save it.” And then the computer says, “Okay, well what are you gonna call this? What’s it called?” And you have to I don’t know, just, “okay, uh…”, that’s a lot of pressure.
And when he needs to take a load off, Daniel Handler can be found playing the accordion, swimming in the San Francisco Bay with his son, or wandering his home town. Though Handler says he was in many ways a pretentious teenager, thanks to the eclectic culture he grew up in, he wasn’t a lonely one.
Handler: I just wanted to live in a more glamorous world then what was directly available to me in high school. And so that was the pretense was to say, “How can we,” if it seems fun to be a flapper, “How can you do that when you’re 14 and you have four dollars?” Or, “Look, we’re all reading about medieval Japanese court and that seems really interesting to us. We’re not Japanese, it’s not the medieval times, what do we like about it, and how can we live our lives that way?” Can we conduct a romantic relationship entirely through one sentence notes that are passed between friends, or something like that? I mean, in many ways, I think that just got folded into my life. My most high profile work, it takes place in a world that’s governed by literature, where there’s people named Baudelaire escaping from various overblown, melodramatic events that are taken from different genres of literature. I don’t know if you’d call that pretentious, but it’s kind of dreaming up a world that’s more exciting than the realistic one.
It was exactly this obsession with the world in his head that brought Daniel Handler to Wesleyan, a traditional liberal arts college in Connecticut.
Handler: I think I just had a fantasy in my head of what a college education was, which was a New England old college with beautiful buildings and big lawns. I think that was just the image that I had of Wesleyan. All the schools that I applied to looked like that. When I visited Wesleyan, they let me sit in on this class that was studying poetry all around a table. The professor, Tony Connor, was a poet. He was British. He was, like, an old white guy with patches on his jacket and a pipe—which was very much what I pictured studying literature would be like, and so I ate that right up. And then I actually took that class when I was at Wesleyan, and every day, two or three people visited. It was clearly the class that they sent people to who liked literature. So that was really hypnotic to me.
After graduating, Handler returned briefly to the West Coast before he and then-girlfriend, now-wife of 20 years, the illustrator Lisa Brown, moved to New York City. For Handler, still an aspiring writer, the timing was close to perfect.
Handler: I didn’t know anything about publishing. I thought I knew some things about writing—and maybe I knew maybe one thing about writing—but I was trying to write a novel, and then I didn’t really know what happened after that. I assumed you wrote a novel, and then hopefully someone published it. I hadn’t really worked that part out. And New York’s a pretty good place to go and work that out.
Part of working it out was facing rejection, criticism, and advice he didn’t want to hear. One such tidbit came from an editor who believed he was well suited to writing for children.
Handler: I was kind of insulted at the time because I thought, well, doesn’t she understand, I’m like the next William Faulkner? He’s not for children. But I went and looked at children’s books, I looked at children’s literature that I had liked as a child, and I liked them. And I began to think of the idea of A Series of Unfortunate Events, and then as it was published. I found a community of writers and other sorts who were engaged with this idea of serious literature, but also being for young people. That’s really a kind of mission that is often not happening in adult publishing, and it was a really beautiful thing to find in children’s literature. It was a deep companionship and steadiness.
And just as he has found a place in the world of children’s literature, so, too, do Daniel Handler’s readers feel a sense of home in his worlds.
Singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan has been a touring solo artist since 2009. But she first came to public attention as a supporting singer to indie darling Damien Rice, whom she met in 2001 in Trinity College Dublin. She recorded, toured, and performed in his band for seven years. But her career as a singer began much earlier, in Ireland’s rural County Meath.
Lisa Hannigan: My very earliest memory is singing Joni Mitchell backing vocals in the back of the car, in the car seat with my brother, while my mother would be Joni Mitchell in the front. And we’d be in the back doing the “Ooh, bop, bop, bop” thing.
By 2011, Hannigan had barely stopped working for 10 years. Once she finally took a break after the tour for her second album, Passenger, writing was much more difficult than before. This happens to many artists. After a rush of output, a reckoning.
Hannigan: I sat down, and I made my tea, and I just found I didn’t know what to write about. And I felt sort of empty and kind of wrung out of emotion, I suppose. But I always thought, “I’m just going to get into the flow at some point, and lash out sort of six songs in a weekend,” and I never really got to that stage. But I asked everyone that I knew—all of the artistic, creative people that I knew—what to do in this situation, and everyone had been through it at some point.
AJC: The blank page?
Hannigan: Yeah. And everyone just said, “You just have to keep plowing on, and try and read great things, and read good poetry, and try and fill yourself up as much as possible, so that you do have some kind of well to draw from.”
The late Seamus Heaney, Ireland’s Nobel Prize-winning poet, gave Hannigan the creative jolt she’d been waiting for.
Hannigan: I have the beautiful set of all his Faber & Faber poetry books and I thought, “I’ll start at the beginning and work my way through again.” And when I got to “Anahorish,” which ended up on the record, it sort of looks like a song on the page. So I thought, I don’t know, I just started singing it instead of reading it, and I started off thinking, “This’ll be a good exercise to get me going into writing songs.” And actually, I loved it so much as it was that I just sort of put it on the record. And I asked Mary Heaney whether she would mind. That was okay, and his family were lovely and—
AJC: This was shortly after he died, right?
Hannigan: It was, yeah. It probably was in the year that he died that I started the re-reading of the books. And actually, the first time I ever performed it was at a tribute concert for him where Paul Simon was also there. His dressing room was sort of down the corridor and I would sort of creep by it excitedly during the day. And then we were in this tiny little box room, myself and the two people that I was singing with. So we were practicing over and over again—I’d never sung it in front of anyone before—and there’s this knock at the door. And I open the door, and it’s Paul Simon saying, “Hey, that sounds really nice. Mind if I sit in?” I said, “Sure, Paul Simon, come in. No, it’s fine.”
And so we sang it for Paul Simon in a space no bigger than between me and you. And so, every time I sing it since, I think of that. It helps me not be nervous. I think, “Do you remember when you had to sing in front of Paul Simon? He was right there. This is way easier than that.”
In addition to her repurposing of Heaney, Hannigan’s At Swim meditates on displacement, loss, mortality, and self-doubt. These darker songs reflect an artist a bit older, and a little wiser, but no less vulnerable for it.
Hannigan: The whole bloody business is an exercise in embarrassment. Yeah, it’s really embarrassing. The whole thing is “people looking up your skirt,” to use a Dublin phrase. But yeah, I do find it all very exposing and unnerving. And when you first play a song for somebody, there is that sense of scarlet, sheer internal sunburn. But, it sort of fades the more you play it, I find.
Just beside the busy expressway that bisects Philadelphia, stands a celebrated sculpture so remarkable that it has routinely been identified as one of the finest pieces of public art in the world. Its creator, Zenos Frudakis, peppered the work with personal details to a very eclectic final result.
Zenos Frudakis: This is a cat I had for 20 years. This is a cast of my fingers. Here’s a nose down here. Here’s an antique seashell. Here’s a small foot. This is a sculpture I did of Don Mclean. Here’s a little female figure with a grave. You can do some things in art that you can’t do in real life. This is my mother kind of unfinished, this is my father over here and he was kind of a person who was bipolar and I kind of wanted to show him with fractures. I took a wax of his head and I broke it. This is actual cast of my hand holding a sculpture tool. This became for me, a kind of fertile garden where I could just try pieces here and try ’em there and see what felt right.
For Frudakis drew inspiration from another nearby landmark, Auguste Rodin’s masterpiece, The Gates of Hell.
Frudakis: He put in seeds of ideas and then they grew over time cause he worked on it form when he was 40 years old in 1880 until he died in 1917. So he was always in process and when I think of my freedom sculpture, none of the figures are finished and some of these you see them in various stages of development.
Frudakis: You saw the fragment could represent the whole. And with this, I started with the idea of freedom. I wanted to show freedom which I started kind of with this. And then I thought, well, how do I show freedom if I don’t show the opposite? You have to go from a trapped figure, show the struggle to get free, to get this idea of freedom. But also, it shows that through development, through your own struggle to develop yourself, you get free.
Nina Chanel Abney: I don’t even know if I honestly enjoy the actual act of painting. I just enjoy that I’m able to create what I want to—whatever’s in my head, or whatever world I can make for myself on this canvas. But the actual act of painting can be tedious.
But, for as long as she can remember, Nina Chanel Abney’s gift for painting has been obvious. Still, love did not a career make. And after graduating from Augustana College with a degree in studio art in 2004, Abney didn’t quite know how to move forward. So she accepted a job on an automobile assembly line. But the frustrations of this job quickly drove her back to school.
Abney: When I first got to grad school, that first day of class, I was crying, because I didn’t know any art theory. I didn’t know all the things you’re supposed to know in an MFA program or in grad school as an artist. Quite honestly, I feel like, by the end of grad school, I returned to what I was doing in the beginning—just, I guess, in a more informed way.
AJC: And a more confident way?
Abney: And a more confident way. It’s so intuitive, and I’m just throwing all these things together. Sometimes, I don’t necessarily see the bigger picture until long after it’s finished. And maybe I’m writing something about the work, and I’m almost researching myself, and going back to try to say, “Oh, I wonder why this was in here.” And then I see the correlation.
One piece for which Abney’s inspiration was obvious: a portrait of her class at the Parsons School of Design. In addition to flipping the skin colors of herself and her classmates, she put them behind bars, with her as their jailer.
Abney: We could talk about racism, but I want to find a way where you could experience something without us having to have a conversation. So what would it mean for someone who’s uncomfortable about black people if they’re turned to a black person unknowingly? I asked everyone if I could paint them, but I didn’t tell them what the painting would look like. ‘Cause, at the time, I wasn’t even quite sure. So I was curious about the response once I flipped the painting over, and everyone started to recognize themselves, and what their response would be. Would some people be angry about it? Or, if they were uncomfortable, what does that mean? So that’s how that painting came about.
AJC: And how was the response?
Abney: It was mixed. Some people thought it was fun, some people seemed uncomfortable, some people questioned if I was angry for making that work.
If she were to make that work today, it would probably sell before the paint was dry. These days, Abney’s paintings are so in demand that she herself is even on her own waiting list.
AJC: Does that feel like all of your children went off to college a little early?
Abney: I mean, now I’ve been thinking about that, and trying to make work for myself. So I maybe own, like, three of my own paintings. So now I’m fixing that, I guess.
Nina Chanel Abney is one of those artists who seems perpetually dissatisfied, always striving for the unobtainable—but not without hope.
Abney: I’ve always had this ideal painting in my head, like this ultimate painting that would have different elements of what I’ve done over the past years. That painting would have how I worked in 2007, mixed with all the things I’ve done. So I feel like my ambition is to work towards that painting. Every body of work, everything I try, is to lead up to, I don’t know, this—
AJC: A masterpiece.
Abney: Yeah, a masterpiece.