BETWEEN THE LINES
Some discomfiting questions
By Robin Dougherty, 8/5/2001
Lemony Snicket, author of a singular series of children's books, is not your average celebrity. Extraordinarily skittish, Snicket is almost always photographed from behind. For public appearances, he usually sends his intimate and much-trusted associate, Bay Area writer Daniel Handler, in his place. Nonetheless, Snicket's books - which recount the dreadful misadventures of the three Baudelaire children - are anything but obscure in the literary marketplace for the 10-and-older set.
So far, Snicket has produced seven volumes, each set in a timeless universe that summons up the world of Edward Gorey as much as it does the world depicted in the Edwardian-style illustrations, by Brett Helquist. Each book is written with an abiding respect for children's sense of their own vulnerability. And each begins with some version of the following warning, which launches the series:
"If you are interested in books with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. ... This is because not very many happy things happened in the lives of the three Baudelaire youngsters. Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire were intelligent children, and they were charming and resourceful, and had pleasant facial features, but they were extremely unlucky and most everything that happened to them was rife with misfortune, misery and despair. I'm sorry to tell you this, but that is how the story goes." Readers game to go on discover that the Baudelaires lose their parents in a fire and are packed off to live with distant relatives, who are either inept or sinister. The children's nemesis is Count Olaf, the first of these relatives, a demented actor who is bent on getting the Baudelaire fortune for himself.
Outwitted by the children in the first book, Count Olaf reappears in subsequent volumes, usually in disguise. Meanwhile Violet, an inventor; Klaus, an avid reader; and baby Sunny, who excels in biting, make their way from one misadventure to another. Among other things, they are forced to work in a sawmill, make staples from scratch, and prepare a roast beef dinner for a theater troupe.
As befits their last name, the Baudelaires often encounter institutions (a boarding school called Prufrock Preparatory) and places (a town named Tedia, a Lake Lachrymose) tinged with literary or morbid associations. Even the narrator, Snicket, lives under a shadow. Each book is dedicated to a mysterious Beatrice ("My love for you shall live forever. You, however, did not").
Elusive though he may be in the flesh, Snicket spoke with me by phone.
Q. How did you come to meet the Baudelaire children?
A. I've never met the Baudelaire children. I first read about them in a newspaper article that seemed to be inaccurate, so I vowed that I would not rest until every detail of their true lives had been written down. That's been taking up all of my time, except for escaping from my enemies.
Q. Who are your enemies?
A. The people who would be interested in that question do not deserve any more publicity than they already have.
Q. What was your childhood like? Were you ever forced to eat gum for lunch or go to a horrible boarding school, like the Baudelaire children?
A. My childhood had an average amount of horrifying things rather than the plethora of horrifying things the Baudelaire children have. I was forced to eat sandwiches made out of things I didn't like.
Q. What is the most frightening thing you have ever seen?
A. Oh, my word! In researching the case of the Baudelaires, I came across any number of frightening things. If I took the time to award first-, second-, and third-place ribbons, I'd become even more horrified. It's best to declare a 30,000-way tie.
Q. What is the worst thing you have ever had to eat?
A. In Iceland, I sampled some of their local delicacy - rotten shark. It's been buried in the snow for several months.
Q. What does it taste like?
A. The worst cheese you can imagine.
Q. Who is Beatrice and what happened to her?
A. That's a question that is fascinating although depressing, but it's not really the question that you want to ask. You want to ask, "What is her last name and who killed her?"
Q. What is her last name and who killed her?
A. That's a fascinating question, but the answer would make no sense. It would bring us back to the basic question of "Who is Beatrice and what happened to her?"
Q. Who is Beatrice and what happened to her?
A. That's not the question you want to ask. You want to ask, "What is her last name and who killed her?"
Q. OK, then. What makes Count Olaf so evil? Was he born that way?
A. Evil is not usually born. It's made. In some cases it comes as an overreaction to something. I have not researched all of Olaf's history, but I would guess it's an overreaction to a minor event.
Q. Like getting the wrong kind of candy?
A. One never knows.
Q. What happened to the Incredibly Deadly Viper that Sunny befriended in the second book, "The Reptile Room"? Is he still alive? Where is he?
A. The whereabouts of the Incredibly Deadly Viper are unknown, but I will say he managed to escape from Bruce, the director of marketing for the Herpetological Society. As for seeing [the Viper] again, I don't wish to predict where my research will lead me next. The one thing I do know is that it is inordinately fond of seawater, so that if the Baudelaire children met him again, it might be near the ocean.
Q. Do you have any advice for children who might want to grow up and write about the Baudelaire children or about other things?
A. Certainly. Take constant notes, and always wear quiet shoes while listening at keyholes so you won't be caught.
Q. Do you think there might ever be a movie about the Baudelaire children?
A. Yes, there is one in development at Nickelodeon, though why anyone would stand in line to see it, I don't know. I have left the screenwriting duties to my associate Daniel Handler.
Q. What are the most important qualities of a good guardian for children?
A. They should be kind and fair, good cooks, and wear bullet-proof clothing.
Robin Dougherty is a freelance writer and critic living in Washington, D.C. Lemony Snicket experts Mark Delyani and Benjamin Stern K irzhner also contributed to this interview.
This story ran on page 4 of the Boston Globe on 8/5/2001.