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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Are You Asking the Wrong Questions?

by Jenny Ramaley

If one were to grow up with a father who escaped the Nazis in 1939, one might absorb the stories and perhaps grow up with a slightly darker take on the world than, say, someone with a bit less horror in their family background. That someone might grow up to write children’s books filled with sad but resourceful children who survive the alleged loss of their parents and numerous unsavory characters and dangerous situations. That someone might be Daniel Handler. You might know him better by his nom de plume, Lemony Snicket, who has sold more than 60 million books as author of the dreadfully successful “A Series of Unfortunate Events” in addition to other adult, YA and picture books. In case you’ve lost track of Mr. Handler, who plays a mean accordion by the way, he began a new book series last year. In “All the Wrong Questions”, Lemony now fills the roles of main character and author.

Since our Wednesday blogs pertain to ‘writing’, let’s cover what Mr. Handler, who happened to be in Pittsburgh on Friday to speak at the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Kids and Teens Event, says about writing. His love of books is deeply ingrained and by the age of 10 he was quite picky about what he read – choosing to hurl the ‘moralistic treacle that passed for children literature’ across his attic bedroom. He wanted to read about terrible things, about series of unfortunate events or all the wrong questions, but no one was writing those types of stories. Back then, children’s books featured plucky heroes who were unpopular with the (fill in the blank) crowd because of certain differences, but the bullies got their comeuppance at the story’s  rousing end, or plucky heroes dealing with near-death illnesses that they overcome with the help of a dear relative.

Even at a young age, Daniel knew all those stories were nonsense. There will always be cliques that ignore you. Bullies never get their comeuppance. And certain things will kill you whether you’re plucky or not. Horrible things can happen again and again.
With an outlook like that, it’s much easier to see how the Baudelaire youngsters got into such a mess. But what’s even more noteworthy is that even after 13 volumes, their story WAS NEVER NEATLY RESOLVED WITH A ROUSING END. Why? Because Mr. Handler believes questions are more interesting than endings wrapped up with a bow.
That is, as long as you don’t ask the Wrong questions.
When Daniel asked his father, “Don’t you think you were brave to escape the Nazis?”, the father, who always answered a question with another question, asked, “Do you think I was braver than the ones who didn’t make it?” The right question was “Where did Grandma hide the diamonds? The ones that got them across the border and bought food and help.”

The next time you find yourself mired in the middle of a story, frustrated and ready to pull out your hair, stop and think. Are you or your characters asking the Wrong Questions? A slightly twisted perspective may be just what you need.

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