Sunday, September 9, 2001
The Father to a Popular Bunch of Orphans
Much to his surprise, Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, strikes a chord with his darkly comedic kids' books.
By SUSAN CARPENTER, Times Staff Writer
SAN FRANCISCO--A trio of spider specimens decorates the hallway of his Victorian row house apartment. An Oxford English Dictionary props open the door to his kitchen. And a signed Edward Gorey print hangs above a stuffed-to-the-gills bookshelf.
"Would you like some cookies?" asks Lemony Snicket, setting down a plate of mint Milanos on the dining room table of his flat. Dressed in a navy blue suit, he smooths his pants before sitting down.
On first take, such formality may seem odd for a 31-year-old, but the eccentric surroundings and polite demeanor are entirely in keeping with the world of his morbidly humorous and exceedingly popular children's books, which recount the misfortunes of three orphans who are passed among a string of distant and deranged relatives.
In early volumes, after their parents are killed in a fire, the three Baudelaire children are forced to sleep on crumpled curtains and to eat chewing gum for lunch. In his eighth installment, "The Hostile Hospital," which arrived in stores last week, they disguise themselves as hospital volunteers to thwart the evil Count Olaf, a money-grubbing thespian with a single eyebrow and an ankle tattoo who, in each book, attempts to swindle them out of the family fortune.
"If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book," the author warns in the first sentence of his first book, "The Bad Beginning." Few readers have heeded his warning, however. Since 1999, when Snicket kicked off his planned 13-book Series of Unfortunate Events (HarperCollins), he has sold more than 1 million copies.
Darkly comedic--without being frightening--Snicket's series is nipping at Harry Potter's heels. Last month, "The Bad Beginning" was No. 1 on the L.A. Times children's bestseller list, outranking each tome in the ever-growing J.K. Rowling cottage industry. And, at one point, five of the Snicket books were on the New York Times children's bestseller list at once. Even before the books were selling well, Nickelodeon saw their potential and bought the movie rights.
Not bad for a concept that Daniel Handler, Snicket's alter-ego and the series' writer-creator, predicted would be a "noble failure," nationally reviled by religious groups and parent-teacher associations.
"I never thought I would be a popular writer," said Handler, a fleshy Gen-Xer with an easy laugh and close-cropped brown hair that is just beginning to go gray. "I thought I was on the literary fringe. It's like if [avant-garde songstress] Laurie Anderson found herself bigger than Britney Spears. I just never thought that many people would be interested. I thought children would like it, but not as many children."
Handler has been receiving so much fan mail lately that he was forced to buy a piece of furniture to accommodate it all. It is already too small. The blue bin in his office is overflowing, and even more letters are piled on an end table in his living room.
Until recently, when he realized he couldn't keep up, Handler read all the letters and personally answered each one in the same playful, cheeky and extravagant prose he uses in his books, frequently challenging the letter writers' teachers to a swordfight.
With sprawling estates and horse-drawn carriages, the books are vaguely English in setting, although Handler maintains the books take place in no particular era or location. Dickensian is a word often applied to Handler's writing, which fuses the whimsy of Roald Dahl with the macabre quality of Edward Gorey in a tone that seems to have been penned by a quirky librarian.
Few children's writers would think to use the term "ersatz," let alone place it in a title, as Handler did in his sixth book in the series, "The Ersatz Elevator." Yet the use, and definitions, of highfalutin vocabulary words is one of Handler's distinguishing characteristics, as are detailed recipes for puttanesca sauce and page-long digressions and warnings to "never, ever, ever, ever, ever ... fiddle around in any way with electric devices."
Just as he doesn't shy away from words that would ordinarily be outside a child's grasp, Handler doesn't avoid the more difficult issues, either, like death, which occurred early in the series (on Page 8 of his first book) and recurs often.
"When you're young, you have a basic sort of existential tendency and fear. That is: What would happen if I were all alone in the world? What would happen if no one were taking care of me? If you get lost in a crowd as a kid, what would happen if I were never found? I think that's why there are so many orphans in children's literature."
Handler says there is no overarching moral to his books but describes their basic theme as follows: "You should remain kind and good and self-sufficient because the world is a confusing place." Many critics have drawn parallels between A Series of Unfortunate Events and Harry Potter for their supposed dark content, but Handler doesn't see it.
"If I were South American, they would probably say, 'How are you like or unlike Gabriel Garcia Marquez?"' he deadpans. "I really don't like that it's turned into a contest. ... There's no question that thousands and thousands of people have picked up my books because somebody said to them, 'If you like Harry Potter, you'll like this,' so it's great to be writing children's books at a time when that's going on." Aside from the fact that the two authors are writing for the same age group (8-to 12-year-olds) and are as popular with adults as with children, the two share very little common ground.
"What's so attractive about the [Lemony Snicket] books is that he's sort of picked up on this preteen, teenage skepticism, and that tone informs the books," says Jennifer Brown, children's forecasts editor at Publishers Weekly. "He's got a real mature wit and sarcasm ... whereas Harry Potter is much more hopeful and optimistic."
Handler explains: "I don't like books where kind and good people are rewarded and bad people are punished time and again because I think that can teach the lesson that that's how it's going to be. Children ... have seen the bully get away with it. They've seen their own good deeds go unrewarded. I wanted the books to reflect that kind of reality."
While this portrayal of injustice might indicate some deeper expression of mistreatment in his youth, Handler says he wasn't bullied as a child. Quite the opposite. He was the class clown. "The reason I didn't get beaten up by the boys who played sports ... is because I made them laugh," says Handler, an avid reader who has the bookshelves to prove it.
Handler, genuinely smart and down-to-earth, was born and raised in "sort of a wealthy neighborhood" in San Francisco. His father is an accountant; his mother is a college dean. He began his writing career as a poet while attending Wesleyan University in Connecticut. In 1993, he received an Olin fellowship and moved to New York, where he worked at "terrible jobs that allowed time to write" his first novel.
He played piano at cocktail bars and for dance classes while he worked on "The Basic Eight," a book about a high-school clique that was published to critical acclaim in April 1999 and written under his real name. He plans to continue to write for adults even as he enjoys the success of writing for kids.
While conducting research for his first novel, Handler came up with the name Lemony Snicket, though at that time he had not yet conceptualized the series. At the time, he was in contact with various religious and political groups and wanted to receive their mailings without being added to their mailing list. "They asked me what my name was, and out popped Lemony Snicket," Handler explains.
The name became an in-joke with friends before Handler officially adopted it as his pseudonym for the children's book series. For a birthday, he once received Lemony Snicket business cards. He and members of his group of friends also used the name to write cranky letters to the editor of various newspapers and to make dinner reservations. But, Handler says, the reservation ruse no longer works. Lemony Snicket is too well-known.
The double-identity shtick poses a dilemma for public appearances, however. As is the problem with all fibs, they beget even more untruths.
At readings, Handler shows up as himself, claiming Lemony Snicket was bitten in the armpit by a spider, or held up by a meteor shower. His excuse is accompanied by a prop for proof--usually one of the bugs he has hanging in his hallway, although he sometimes brings in a small plastic shark or other object he has lying around the house. "I have assorted critters," he says.
Handler usually busts out his accordion at some point in the readings. He learned the instrument in college when he was part of a band that "wanted to sound like the Cowboy Junkies" but now mostly uses it to perform "Scream and Run Away," a song penned by his friend Stephen Merritt of the art rock band Magnetic Fields. Merritt is writing one song for each of the audio versions of the Lemony Snicket books, which will eventually be released as an album.
Handler's readings border on performance art, but the avant-garde edginess has only solidified his rep as a lovable kook. "I've never seen anybody who could appeal as much to adults and kids at the same time," says Linda Urban, promotions director for Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, where staff members wear buttons that read "Don't Ask Me About Lemony Snicket!"
Urban saw Handler perform at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in April and says, "His jokes are really very sophisticated and often rely on what I would think is an adult sensibility, yet the kids seemed to either get it or just love him for being so naughty. [The audience was] just eating him up." His book signings haven't always been greeted so warmly. His first, in Lansing, Mich., was attended by only three stony-faced book buyers who were more appalled than supportive, Handler says.
In Decatur, Ga., a school canceled his reading and banned his books because they objected to the incestuous marriage of the elderly Count Olaf and his 14-year-old relative in "The Bad Beginning" and to the use of the word "damn" in "The Reptile Room," even though the "the exact message is don't swear," Handler says with a laugh.
Instead of signing the books at his readings, he hand stamps them with an embossed seal that reads "From the library of Lemony Snicket." The stamp is a perfect complement to the antediluvian styling of the books, which are illustrated by Brett Helquist and have nameplates, simple line drawings and patterned end papers. They are printed on rough-cut paper, giving them the feel of a dusty old book pulled from a seldom-used library.
Handler's appreciation for aesthetics is apparent in his own apartment--an immaculate, well-decorated Victorian in San Francisco's Richmond District, a "square" neighborhood with an abundance of fog and Chinese restaurants. He has lived there since moving from New York last year, but the apartment has a cozy, well-lived-in feel that suggests he's been there much longer.
Handler lives there with his wife, Lisa, an illustrator and designer. The two met at Wesleyan when Handler, who suffered from a seizure disorder, passed out into her lap during a Chaucer class. They married three years ago and are currently childless, though Handler says they "plan on raising some future orphans" at some point.
Handler returned to San Francisco because "it's better here. Like this," he says, waving his hand toward a large, wood-framed window with sun streaming through. "Sitting in a dining room. Having your windows open and not hearing people throw up."
His office looks like the stockroom of a bookstore. There are volumes upon volumes everywhere--on bookshelves and in boxes. A framed photo of his aviator grandfather hangs above his desk, which is strewn with vintage, black-and-white photographs he will be using to illustrate his next book.
The next won't be from the Unfortunate Events story line. But, its author says, it will be in keeping with the mysterious nature of the series and "encourage more questions than it will answer."
The book, due out in March: "The Unauthorized Autobiography of Lemony Snicket."