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Trials, torments and tribulations

Dahl and Gorey inspire writer of dark children's tales


I'm afraid I have some very unfortunate news. Lemony Snicket, the mysterious author of the Series of Unfortunate Events books, may not be able to attend his eagerly awaited Toronto readings this week.

"Lemony Snicket can never come," explains close associate Daniel Handler. "At the last minute, he is always delayed, so he sends his representative, who is me."

Handler is intimately familiar with Snicket's miserable tales of the Baudelaire orphans, having actually been the one who wrote them. In books like The Wide Window and The Austere Academy (five of the planned 13 volumes in the series have been published), Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire are tormented in ever more horrible ways by Count Olaf, an uncle who seeks to cheat them of their inheritance. With 500,000 copies sold in North America over the last year and a half, the series has been a huge success. Readers of all ages relish the many mysteries surrounding the books, including the identity of Lemony Snicket himself.

"When the first book was finished, I met with people about what I was going to do when I appeared in front of children," says Handler. "I read these lily-livered statements that other authors had written saying, 'The main thing is to debunk the mystery surrounding books -- everyone wants to know where they come from and you have to teach them.' But why do we want to tell them that it's just some guy sitting at a computer all day? That's no fun. So I thought it would be better to increase the mystery of where books come from rather than reveal it."

Handler, a 30-ish writer based in San Francisco with two "grown-up" novels to his credit -- The Basic Eight and Watch Your Mouth -- is clearly having a good time with all this. He's amazed that the books have found such a wide audience, considering his only target reader going in was himself at the age of 10, when he was a voracious reader of Roald Dahl and Edward Gorey, masters of this darkly humorous vein of "children's" lit. And he can't believe that it all grew from an idea he had over a round of whisky sidecars with his friend Susan Rich, an editor at HarperCollins.

"When the series began, I spent a lot of time waiting for the other shoe to drop," he says. "I thought that Susan might say she liked it, but she'd wake up the next morning and say, 'My God, I'm not gonna publish a book in which terrible things happen to children!' That didn't happen. Then I waited for the publishing house to come to its senses and that didn't happen. Then I waited for a large critical outcry and that didn't happen. Then I waited for parents and librarians to hate it and that didn't happen. Then finally we waited for kids to hate it and that didn't happen either."

Instead, Handler and HarperCollins discovered that all kinds of people were eager to read about the Baudelaires' trials, "from the gloomiest people to the most cheerful, from grandmothers to college students to six-year-olds," says Handler.

"It's nice to know there's an international underground railroad of misery and despair. And I've got all these people together to tear their hair out and beat their breasts."

There is, of course, a movie of A Series of Unfortunate Events in the works, which Handler hopes will involve the songs of his friend Stephin Merritt (Handler plays accordion in Merritt's acclaimed pop groups the Magnetic Fields and the 6ths, and Merritt's song for Count Olaf can be found on the hilarious "http://lemonysnicket.com" site will undoubtedly be a struggle for filmmakers to retain the tone of these devilishly clever books, which refute conservative ideas of what good children's lit should contain.

"What always puzzles me," says Handler, "is there's certainly a sense that when you're an adult, there's nothing wrong with reading material in which exciting things happen or seeing movies in which cars blow up or listening to music in which rebellion is espoused. Why somebody thinks that should start at 15 or 18 or 21 or even 12 is a mystery to me. It should be an evolving process.

"Every so often, people say to me, 'These are terrible books and you should write something like E.B. White.' And I think, 'Do you mean the book where they're constantly trying to slaughter the pig? Or do you mean the book where the mouse is all by himself hoping desperately to find his parents? Which love-and-sunshine book were you thinking of?'"