A few years ago I met a woman at a party who worked at the complaint line of a local TV station. “That must be interesting work,” I said.
“Have you ever called your local TV station to complain about something?” she asked.
“Do you know anyone who has ever called their local TV station to complain about something?” she asked.
She drained her drink. “Are you beginning to see what kind of people I deal with?”
I was. I do. Somebody called me once and asked if I was the author of The Basic Eight. I said yes. He asked if he could have my autograph. I told him of an upcoming reading. He explained that he was calling from a phone booth around the corner and maybe he could just come over. I felt like my fantasies of being recognized on street corners had been made real by a hard-of-hearing genie. As a writer, I have the fierce and arrogant desire to engage with the culture, and yet I don’t actually want the culture to contact me, because they’d be the segment of the culture that might be contacting writers from a pay phone around the corner.
The children’s books cut through this Catch-22, unless it’s a Catch-21—one of them is the Heller novel and one of them is my local fish market, and I’m always standing on Park Avenue between 21st and 22nd trying to remember what the damn book is called so I can go buy my tuna, so let’s just say contradiction—they cut through this contradiction. This morning, HarperCollins forwarded me a bunch of e-mails that had been waiting for my reply while I was finishing the book. There were 66 of them.
Your books are really good. My name is Laura, I am 8 years old. Keep writing The Series Of Unfortunate Events books. Is Lemony Snicket your real name? My favorite characters are Sunny and Violet. When I grow up I want to be a writer. I like Sunny because she bites everything and she uncovered Count Olaf’s disguise in the second book. I also like Violet because she invents things.Hello Mr. Lemony Snicket! I am Sue, a 13-year-old who is a book enthusiast. I can’t live without books, and that is not a lie! Your books are fantastic! My favorite character is Klaus, because we are both voracious readers and have glasses (I don’t know why I’m saying we both have glasses). My nose is always in a book. My best friend says your books are great, too. I got her into reading your books. She’s a bookworm, too, but I think I read more than her. Even other people say I read more than her. Well, I must go, PLEASE write back to me. Thank you! So long!My name is Garth. I love your books very much. I was in a bookstore one day looking for a good book to buy. I couldn’t find any and then I saw The Bad Beginning sitting on the shelf. Just by looking at the cover I knew it would be awesome. I very quickly grabbed the book off the shelf and bought it. I had never heard of it, yet for some reason I just knew it was the book for me. I started reading it the second I got home and didn’t want to put it down. Once I stayed up until one in the morning reading it (Just like Klaus). I loved that book!!!! I read it in three days.
Every writer dreams of having someone love his books enough to put four exclamation marks at the end of a sentence but can’t quite imagine it happening: Dear Vladimir, PALE FIRE was so awesome!!!! Dear Mrs. Woolf, I love your book about the lighthouse!!!!! I answer them all morning and by lunch time my ego is so inflated I feel like I could outwrite Nabokov and Virginia with one hand tied behind my back. I feel so good I agree to review a book I’m not interested in reading and tell a producer that a screenplay is just about rewritten when in fact the last act is still a mess. I poke at the script for a few hours, getting matzo crumbs in the keyboard of my Powerbook and listening to the Magnolia soundtrack until the Supertramp songs come on and spoil everything. I throw on a coat and go out to do some errands that I have to make up every day, just to get out of the house. This afternoon, for instance, it is very important that I return a library book, make copies of some student papers and shop for used CDs at a place that feels like the David Mamet rewrite of High Fidelity. Men and only men shuffle around the store, having arguments about release dates of Stravinsky vinyl and shouting at one another, “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about!” I’m too cowed to buy a Yaz album I loved in high school so I buy Schönberg’s first string quartet instead, consider getting an ice-cream cone but remember it’s still Passover so I couldn’t eat the cone. So I head back to the script, which gets more dour as Schönberg weeps away in the background. I keep looking at the clock, though; tonight Lisa and I will eat our traditional Passover lobster, one of the few foods that can fill us up without the addition of bread, rice, pasta, or any of those other things we can’t eat this week. Jews aren’t supposed to eat lobster at all, of course, so our meal is either a Catch-22, purchased at Catch-21, or vice versa.