Teen romance has been the subject of a library’s worth of novels, but Daniel Handler, the novelist best known for his A Series of Unfortunate Events books as Lemony Snicket, has taken a different path with his novel Why We Broke Up (Little, Brown, $19.99). Taking place after the aforementioned breakup, the narrative takes the form of a long letter written by creative high-schooler Min to her recent ex-boyfriend Ed that accompanies a box full of mementos from their relationship, which are rendered as illustrations by Maira Kalman. With Handler and Kalman set to appear at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh Monday for a signing, we called Handler up to discuss his book, heartbreak and other strange things.

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: I’m going to be blunt. A copy of your book arrived just this morning, and I finished it, and it’s a very gray and rainy day in Raleigh and this book did not help things.

DANIEL HANDLER: I’m sorry to hear that. I can only think of your suffering.

Well, I mean it as a compliment—the book captured for me the verisimilitude of a first romance and break-up. I’m curious about the roots of the story, and what inspired you to try to capture such heartache.

Well, it was Maira’s idea, I guess. We had worked together on a picture book (13 Words, written as Lemony Snicket), and she wanted to do another book, and she said yes. And I asked her what she wanted to paint, and she wanted to paint small objects, and I tried to think of a way that small, ordinary objects might seem magical. And it seemed to me that it would take a romantic imagination to transform such objects, and I began to imagine small objects returned to an ex-boyfriend by a sentimental-yet-enraged young woman like so many women I know.

Did Maira think of the objects, or did you?

She told me some objects she wanted to paint, and I suggested some others, and then we would meet at her apartment, and make a pot of coffee, and we would get overly caffeinated and jumpy, and then we wouldn’t really talk about the objects, and then it would come time to get a cocktail, and then we’d realize we hadn’t done a speck of work, we’d just talked and talked, and then we’d get together via email and do it all at the last minute.

Something you’ve done with this book is get other writers to talk about their own worst break-up stories. When you were going back and putting yourself in the mindset of Min, what was the hardest part—or even the easiest part—of capturing the outsize emotions of a teenager?

I didn’t find it particularly hard to capture the voice. I take public transportation every day, and I’m surrounded by young people conversing, and I listen in to as much as I can without being called out as a creep. I guess maybe one of the more strenuous parts is I wrote the entire thing longhand—seeing as the entire book is one long letter, I thought it was only fair that I write a letter of my own. I wrote it all in cafés, basically, on legal pads, and by the end of writing my hand was roughly some sort of subhuman claw. The easiest part was having Maira doing all these paintings and have people talk about the spell the book casts, when so much of it comes from her drawings.

That’s oddly reminiscent of Jack Kerouac writing things out on a continuous scroll of paper, though on the one hand you’re talking about a fictional teenage girl and the other a drugged-out beatnik. But there’s a spontaneous feel to both.

I guess so. I’m kind of a careful writer, so a lot of what looks spontaneous in the book is actually several drafts old. It’s like what Dolly Parton used to say: “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.” So I haven’t experienced much of the Jack Kerouac method, which to my knowledge involves lots of cocaine and beating women. That hasn’t been my preferred strategy in writing fiction.

You can only abuse women if they’re fictional.

I don’t think that’s a line Jack Kerouac drew. Though I spent a weekend at Jack Keuorac’s cabin once, and it was very beautiful. It’s out in the middle of nowhere, and you can understand he might be prone to fits of despair, as it’s very isolated, but also in an unbelievably beautiful location.

The book’s a first-person narrative, but there’s a certain unreliable quality to Min in that she’s not completely aware of herself and how the romance is really playing out. And what I thought was relevant about the story was that Ed’s not an evil character—his great crime is that he’s a teenage boy who doesn’t see the big moments or hurtful moments the same way Min does. Do you find that’s a common flaw in first relationships, or relationships in general?

I think romance itself is constructing a beautiful story from the very ordinary things that you are surrounded by, be they objects or people. So I think Min had a long narrative in her head informed by movies that she liked that didn’t in fact always fit the narrative that was going on. So sure, I think she’s unreliable, in the way that everyone is a little unreliable in their memory.

And it gets into the idea of how you can define yourself by a relationship, even without realizing it, and how that’s fundamentally unhealthy, which is something that got to me as a reader.

That’s the idea. I think that the entire point of a romance is to get as memorable as possible for as long as possible, and you have to allow someone to get a certain kind of significance in your head. And when it’s over, you’re angry at yourself for allowing them to get to you.

Love is strange, as Mickey & Sylvia said.

And tainted, as Soft Cell said.

I thought that was a remake of an older one.

It is, but I don’t remember the original, and I think that two-note synthesizer riff feels like the pierce of heartbreak.

What, in your mind, are the great romances, be they film, literature or real life?

Well, I guess it depends on the kind of romance you like. My favorite novel is Lolita, which is a great romance, though if it were happening in real life it would be less of a romance and more of a monstrosity.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the book is that Min has these fictional touchstones she refers to throughout the book—films and music that don’t exist in the real world. I read elsewhere that you did this in part to not tie the book to any specific time period. How’d you come up with these—do you think of titles in your spare time or things like that?

I think the problem with these things when they’re referred to in a novel is that they don’t mean the same things to the same people. So if you say something like, “Going out with this person makes me feel like I’m starring in When Harry Met Sally,” some people are going to say, “Oh, he means the most romantic movie of all time!” and others are going to say, “Oh, he means two hours of nails on a chalkboard, having an unbelievably grating time.” And if you have negative views about some movie, and the reader doesn’t like it, it’s a strange and alienating thing. So when Min describes movies that didn’t happen, it’s easier to imagine them as something beautiful in your head than if she’d described an actual film.

Did you wind up making up any movies that weren’t in the book?

It wasn’t a matter of making up movies that didn’t show up in the book so much that there were different drafts of the book, and over those drafts some pretend movies got cut. The hardest thing was making up names that sounded like the names of movie stars, but not real-world movie stars. You know, “Why didn’t he just call him ‘Vint Westwood’?” Well, everyone knows that’s Clint Eastwood. So you have to make up a name that sounds real without using something that sounds like the name of an icon.

It’s a weird effect, things like that. About a month ago I had a very lucid dream about a teen movie from the 1980s that never existed, and when I described the plot to my friends, they went, “Oh, I remember seeing that!” But it wasn’t a real film.

I think things like that happen all the time with memories. People were just trying to convince me I was at a party at Yosemite, and I most definitely wasn’t there. But by the time they were done telling me about what I’d done at this party I hadn’t been to, I felt like I’d been there—they kept saying, “Oh, you told this joke, and said this, and so on.” And I said, “Well, I wasn’t there, but that sounds like me.”

You came through Raleigh last time for a performance of your work The Composer is Dead. Any plans to work with them again in the future?

Perhaps. I’ve performed that piece with people all over the place since then. I have a new Snicket project that starts that fall, and I’ll be doing many other things I’ll be doing for the next year or so. But I would like to get back to working with symphony orchestras, because it’s a fun thing to do.


A lot of your books, including the most recent, obviously, have illustrations, which is not something you see for full-length novels these days. What do you feel the art ads to these projects?

I think we hope that the illustrations of the individual objects makes the work seem more concrete, and yet Maira’s artwork is kind of dreamy. So you get both, the grounding of the actual objects, and the flight of fancy that comes with them. The book was born out of the conversations with Maira, so I think it’s appropriate that such a key role is played by the illustrations.

You’ve worked in a variety of media in the last few years—is there any medium in which you haven’t worked that you’d like to?

I don’t really know. Truthfully, the story comes to me first, not the medium—or the collaborator comes to me first. I’m working on a project right now with a band—we’ll see where it goes, and it might be a new medium for me. But I have the idea or meet the collaborator first, and the medium kind of falls into place as to what it should be.

What all do you have coming up next?

Well, I have this new Snicket project that starts in the fall, and I have this collaboration with this Canadian band, Stars, who let me sit in with them a couple of times, and we’re kicking around ideas for a music-based project. But the collaborative process I have with them is even flakier than the collaborative process I have with Maira, so who knows how long it will take?

Anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t discussed yet?

I can’t think of anything. Though I am tempted now to go back to my computer and find the original “Tainted Love.”

Handler and Maira Kalman appear at Quail Ridge Books to promote Why We Broke Up Monday at 7 p.m. This is a signing line ticket event, with tickets provided with purchase of Why We Broke Up.