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Adverbs (P.S.)by Daniel Handler
Author Q & A
A Conversation With Daniel Handler
At what point in the composition of this novel did you arrive at the idea to use Adverbs as an organizing principle?
When I began writing the novel I didn't know what it was that I was doing, really: I just found myself, between Snicket novels, writing about the romantic and platonic adventures of a group of people. Normally, I map a novel out before starting it, but in this case I found myself with a bunch of pages. As I typed them into my computer, I titled each section with an adverb, just to remind myself which ones they were so I could move them around in the hopes of making a novel. In the process of rewriting them, connecting and severing different sections and finally laying them out in sequence, I was reminded of a parlor game called Adverbs, in which actions are improvised according to an adverb someone is supposed to guess. I suddenly realized that this strategy would be an intriguing one to try for a novel, and that the titles I'd been using as placeholders could make for a sort of roadmap through the novel.
Though you warn your reader against the foolhardiness of "trac[ing] birds through a book," can you talk a bit about the omnipresence of magpies in Adverbs?
I first heard the term "Magpie's eye" from the novelist Paula Sharp, my conversation with whom is recalled in the novel. I'd never heard the expression before, and the more I thought about it the more it seemed a nice parallel to love. Magpies are attracted to shiny objects, and can spend hours poring through debris in order to grasp the tiny shiny thing they desire. But there's no real purpose in this action: sure, they bring the shiny objects back to their nests, but magpies could make nests out of anything. Love is like this — specific and inexplicable. We pick through all the people we meet in pursuit of someone who attracts us, but to outsiders it hardly seems worth the trouble.
You've described yourself as "frustrated by the ineptitude of narration," in the context of many contemporary novels. To what extent is Adverbs: A Novel your deliberate subversion of more traditional fictional forms and conventional notions of plot?
Gack, I hope to no extent whatsoever. Even in high school I was wary of deliberate subversives. I was simply looking for a way to write about love that might be more interesting than, say, boy-meets-girl. Love is a slippery thing, so it makes sense to me that a book about love should be similarly slippery, with the stories as entangled as the characters, and the reader occasionally plunged into the kind of confusion afflicting lovers. If Adverbs thumbs its nose at more conservative novels that's an interesting side effect, but I was more concerned with capturing the untrammelled mess of romance than kicking sand in anyone's face.
Daniel Handler makes an appearance in Adverbs. What compelled you to write yourself into this novel?
I was inspired by Milan Kundera's The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting, which also has an unusual, somewhat episodic structure. At one point Kundera steps into the novel himself and talks a little bit about what he's doing, as I do in "Truly." Whether readers will find me as interesting a figure as Kundera is debatable, but at least I treat my female characters better.
Can you describe the pleasures you find in writing novels for children and adults, and how, composition-wise, these endeavors differ for you?
I don't find any difference — whatever I'm writing, I engage in the usual sporadic research, the wiggy, baggy first draft and then heaps of rewriting. But it seems worth noting that Adverbs focusses on love — the emotional terrain that's more or less absent from the Snicket books.
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