“It Was Terrible”: Daniel Handler Talks About the National Book Awards Fiasco with Neil Gaiman at BAM

photo by Meredith Heuer c/o BAM
photo by Meredith Heuer c/o BAM

Last night, before going to En Garde!, an event with authors Neil Gaiman and Daniel Handler at BAM, I explained to my son, who was accompanying me, that there would be a part of the evening where audience members would be allowed to ask questions, and that if he had any, he would just need to be one of the first people up to the microphones that BAM sets up in the aisles at the end of the program. “And then I can ask anything I want?” he said. “Yes, absolutely. You can ask anything.”

For my son, this meant asking Gaiman from where his interest in Norse mythology stemmed, and asking Handler if he believed in the Illuminati. You know, hard-hitting stuff. But, of course, it stood to reason  that there could—and probably would—be plenty of other, more heated questions directed at Handler, who, at the National Book Awards last November, made a racist joke while introducing his friend—and National Book Award-winner—author Jacqueline Woodson. Handler apologized for what he’d said, and matched donations of up to $100,000 to the organization We Need Diverse Books, which advocates for more diversity in children’s literature. And yet, despite the fact that the National Book Awards fiasco was several months in the past, whenever I told anyone that I was going to see Daniel Handler, they always asked the same thing: Will he talk about that joke?

So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised when, upon entering the theater, my son and I were given index cards and told that if we had any questions for Handler or Gaiman, we could write them there, and the authors would select a few to read from the stage. In all my times at BAM for events like this, and no matter how controversial the speakers (hello, Lena Dunham), I had never experienced this. I had to wonder if it was a measure taken by BAM or Handler to retain control over the audience’s queries. I was further confirmed in feeling this way when I heard the man seated behind me joke to his companion what he was going to write on his index card: “Daniel Handler, why do you hate black people?” (NB: The man behind me was also a fount of knowledge about BAM, in general. Like, did you know that when Princess Diana visited BAM in 1989 they had to build a special bathroom just for her? Because she couldn’t use a common bathroom? And then the toilet seat she used was stolen by someone and never found? It’s true!)

Anyway, it seemed to me pretty clear that Handler had found a way to nimbly sidestep any uncomfortable issues, and so I prepared to settle in solely for a discussion of writing. Which, for the most part, was what the audience got, and what would have been enough for all the avid Gaiman and Handler fans in attendance. The two writers were clearly at ease with one another and traded bon mots with the fluency of true friends. They spoke about everything from whether or not writers have job security (ha HA… no); how “all great books are strange;” and how publishing poetry is either like “throwing rose petals into the Grand Canyon and waiting for the boom” or “like wetting yourself in dark pants—you get a warm feeling, but nobody notices;” the joys of writing longhand (mostly having to do with not choosing a title to name the file of your work in progress); how “real life doesn’t have to be convincing but fiction does;” and how “writers make the world a little more magical… by taking the things people normally look at and making them see more.”

But about midway through the 90-minute-long conversation, Gaiman made what at first seemed like an offhand quip (and then felt like something that was clearly planned, which is fine) about the “unerring Handler facility for saying exactly the wrong thing”… like at the National Book Awards. The crowd went quiet. Gaiman asked Handler what could possibly be going through his head when he made a joke about Woodson being allergic to watermelon, and Handler seemed sincerely contrite as he explained that he was just trying to honor Woodson, who had been his “friend for a long time.” But, of course, it wound up being “quite a disaster… it was terrible.” Handler said the one positive thing was that in the aftermath of the National Book Awards, over $200,000 had been raised for We Need Diverse Books, which is unquestionably a good thing.

But the audience’s response to this part of the evening was interesting, to say the least, because there were no overly enthusiastic applause when Handler spoke about how much money had been raised—no shouts of “We love you, Daniel!” It was quite clear that everyone wanted to move on, to forget what had happened and just enjoy the spectacle of two witty, charismatic men talking about writing. And so we did. But as I left with my son, he asked me about what had happened at the National Book Awards. Jacqueline Woodson had visited his elementary school class some time ago to read from and talk about her award-winning book, Brown Girl Dreaming. The visit had made a huge impression on him; he’d loved the book and had been incredibly excited when Woodson had won the National Book Award. I explained to him what Handler had said, and found I didn’t need to elaborate on why it was so wrong. My son immediately understood. And whereas he had previously been upset that he wouldn’t have the chance to race to the microphone and ask the authors his questions, he now said to me, “I guess they had other things to talk about besides the Illuminati.”

Which, maybe. The hard-hitting audience questions they chose to answer included: What is the best place to travel outside the US or UK? The answer for both of them: Reykjavik. Only, Gaiman warned, don’t eat the pony sushi.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen


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