Neil Gaiman & Daniel Handler: Of Magic and Racist Jokes

They promised swordfights in their conversation but what we got was almost as good. At Tuesday night’s “En Garde! Gaiman and Handler,” authors, screenwriters, and general bon vivants Neil Gaiman and Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) convened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House for a ninety-minute dialogue covering everything from the existence of magic to writing advice. Most notably, the friends and occasional collaborators also addressed Handler’s racist joke at last fall’s National Book Awards. It was a lively evening.

Perhaps to head off any unpleasant confrontations, the question-and-answer portion of the evening veered from BAM’s usual format: Audience members were encouraged to jot their questions on index cards upon their arrival rather than querying the authors from a microphone stand. Throughout the evening, the writers then answered the submissions of their choosing. Both men are terrific wits, and for a while it seemed Handler would circumvent the controversy entirely. The two discussed their favorite places to write (Gaiman once used a haunted house; Handler rotates through four locations in his hometown of San Francisco); the security (or “insecurity,” as Handler put it) of being an author; the most important tip for aspiring writers (“finish things!”); and the experience of writing poetry (Gaiman: “like throwing rose petals into the Grand Canyon and waiting for the boom.” Handler: “like wetting yourself in dark pants. You get a warm feeling but nobody notices”).

Handler was full of envelope-pushing remarks. He said that mining his son for literary material validated the boy’s existence since “he still couldn’t distinguish between sweet and dry vermouth.” In person, such comments seemed like a combination of unbridled enthusiasm and a desire to garner attention by any means necessary. Gaiman rolled his eyes sweetly until he finally mentioned the “unerring Handler facility for saying exactly the wrong thing … like at the National Book Awards.” The crowd went quiet.

Gaiman went on to ask Handler what could have been going through his head when he’d joked about African American National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson being allergic to watermelon. (Her feelings about the event have been made public.) Handler admitted his comment was “quite a disaster. It was terrible.” But he hastened to add that, in the aftermath, over $200,000 had been raised for We Need Diverse Books. Only a spattering of applause was heard.

The event ended on a warm note. In response to a disappointed seeker, Gaiman said that, for children, everything is magic because they get to experience the world for the first time. “Writers make it magical again by taking the things people normally look at and making us see more.”

This was originally published in Word and Film.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy