The following articles are not about A Series of Unfortunate Events, and contain language that is not G-rated.
Daniel Handler is the author of two novels,The Basic Eight and the forthcoming Watch Your Mouth and writes the children's books "A Series of Unfortunate Events" under the name Lemony Snicket.
Posted: Monday, April 24, 2000, at 10:00 a.m. PT
Sometimes Sundays feel like a lifestyle commercial, and this is one of them: pajamas, coffee, a smoothie in a wedding-gift glass, my wife at one end of the couch with the crossword, and me giggling at something she said. The couch, maybe, or the coffee, or something invisible like investments or a dot-com: They could sell anything with this. We're both white and happy. We haven't had a lifestyle commercial morning in several weekends due to a heap of deadlines: Lisa is an art director and had some free-lance layouts somebody needed right away, and I had a book overdue. Our past few weekends, we were scurrying around the apartment making each other look at things: Is this done? Laundry piled up; we left takeout cartons open on the counter so we could sneak back for a few bites. Now our first drafts are done and we are relaxed enough to feel as languid as catalog snapshots. I have a pile of CDs I've been waiting to play when it got a little calmer around our apartment.
The overdue book is called The Ersatz Elevator. In it, the Baudelaire children—Violet, Klaus, and Sunny—are adopted by a loathsome nouveau-riche couple who organize an auction. The auctioneer calls himself Gunther, but is really Count Olaf in disguise, and has two of the kidnapped Quagmire Triplets locked in a cage at the bottom of a secret passageway. If you can't follow this, you probably haven't read the five books that precede it in "A Series of Unfortunate Events," a collection of children's books I write under the name Lemony Snicket. In each book, the three Baudelaires encounter a number of unpleasantries that I can't believe a large corporation like HarperCollins believes is suitable for young people. I first pitched the idea to my pal and now editor Susan Rich, over sidecars at a small dark bar. The idea was something of a joke; after writing my first novel, The Basic Eight, under my own name I had an urge to write a mock-gothic novel—you know, a mysterious stranger, an innocent damsel, a bog, somebody locked in the attic, the whole bit. I had just tossed this idea out when Susan called and told me about her new job. She owed me some sidecars after I helped her drown her sorrows when she got sacked from her old job. Sidecars taste like candy: brandy, Cointreau, and lime juice, and the small dark bar liked to add a dusting of sugar around the rim of the glass. All that candy in the dark made the gothic novel turn into something for children: dark, dark books, as dark as the books I wanted to read, but could never find, when I was 11 and finally turned to Agatha Christie and V.C. Andrews rather than the fluff the librarians suggested. The small dark bar is now closed and the mock-gothic novel is now a projected 13-book series, the sixth installment of which was absolutely, I mean absolutely, Daniel, please please please give it to us, or else the illustrator won't possibly have enough time, please please please won't you please finish it by Friday. And I did, Seders and all. Now it's Sunday and Susan is reading it over the weekend. Truman Capote said that finishing a book is like taking a child out to the backyard and shooting it in the head, but I like kids. There's a little postpartum, but mostly I want to hear all about his first day at school. A nagging feeling about something in Chapter 5 makes me think that little Johnny might get his ass kicked, or maybe the queasiness in my stomach is only what comes from having too much matzo.
In the afternoon, the queasiness returns when I'm checking the galley proofs for the British publication of The Basic Eight. They've assured me that all the typos have been weeded out, but on the first page my mother's name in the acknowledgements is spelled "324" instead of "Sandra."
Posted: Tuesday, April 25, 2000, at 11:00 a.m. PT
Mondays I take a groggy, ill-lit train out of New York and teach a writing class at Wesleyan University, my alma mater, a weekly reminder that I am not a college student, by any stretch of the imagination, not by a long shot, no. I just turned 30 and still feel like I'm pretty much straight out of college, that my days slacking glumly around San Francisco and lollygagging around New York, while years in duration, only amount to a couple of new articles of clothing and a small jaded glaze around the eyes, maturity-wise. It ain't so. My students are skinny little things and wear Guatemalan pants. They write things down on their hands. When they drive me to the train station they're listening to music that, um, sounds like noise. My friends told me that I'd develop crushes on them, but something has happened to me, and I cannot have a crush on anyone who might not, 100 percent of the time, wear shoes when walking out of one building and down three tree-lined blocks to another building, no matter what the weather, no matter how difficult it is to find the shoes underneath the futon which my wife and I gave away—we gave it away—and, instead of giving our money to Amnesty International, bought a big bed, on a bed frame and everything, like grown-ups sleep in, and we did this without hesitation. I do not have crushes on these people. They say "good morning" when they arrive for class, because they have just woken up. The class begins at 1 p.m.
And the thing is this: I attended Wesleyan. I graduated during the decade that I still think of as happening now, although it isn't. I watch one of my students walk in wearing a T-shirt so ripped that I wouldn't use it to put furniture polish, which I own, on my table, which I did not take from a pile on a street corner, or even buy at a yard sale and throw in the back of a truck I borrowed from a guy in my ethnomusicology class, but simply purchased, at a store. I ask him what's written on his T-shirt. He doesn't know, and I remember, suddenly, a party I attended in college that got too hot. I was wearing, probably, a black turtleneck, and, if memory serves—and memory always serves when mortifying moments are on the menu—a pair of wire-rim glasses with clear glass in the frames. The party was held by a dance major, as all the best parties were. We were all dancing to music that would have sounded like noise to hopelessly square people in their 30s, had any been in attendance. It got too hot. I asked the dance major for something to wear instead of my turtleneck and he gave me a hopelessly ripped T-shirt with a poem painted on it. I wore the T-shirt home and kept it, because it was comfortable, ventilated, and cool. I remember how it looked, the hole in the armpit so gaping that I sometimes put my head through it when I overslept and had to run to my 1 p.m. class, throwing on my most comfortable T-shirt and a pair of shoes if I could find them; but get this, I never read the poem that was printed on the shirt I used to wear all the time, my cool shirt from the dance major's party. It is astonishing to me, that I dared to do these things and scarcely thought of them as things at all, let alone dares. My students give me this nostalgia freely; they don't need it. His shirt reads "PIKEY," I think; the felt-tip ink has smudged a little.
It's a nonfiction class, which is a blessing, because I have to read the stuff and sometimes it's bad. Bad undergraduate fiction is derivative and pretentious; bad nonfiction is a gossip, and who doesn't want to read that on the train back to New York? They write about everything, everything, with such wide-eyed joy that it's an insult to call them unflinching—they don't think to flinch, they don't know that flinching will be desired of them, along with shoes. They come out. They hate their parents. They throw open each other's dorm rooms and break up, down six beers, stay up all night talking about vegetarianism and masturbating, never thinking of the vivid mental images they might conjure up when they turn this all in. They've worked in sugar plantations and strip clubs. They've read Jack Kerouac nine times and never heard of Virginia Woolf. They're in a glam-rock band and never heard of Roxy Music. They're wealthy, but they've been thrown out of the house. Their friends are in prison, in the hospital, in magazines, 10 feet under, they don't have any friends. They show up at my office and bring me paragraphs they wrote in the middle of the night. They bring me five versions of a 10-page paper and ask me which is the best one. They want to know how William Maxwell did that thing, how Joan Didion did that other thing, how they can write like David Foster Wallace but about love instead of a Caribbean cruise, like Elizabeth Gilbert but about a divorce instead of working in a bar. Over and over they say, "I want it to be good."
Posted: Wednesday, April 26, 2000, at 10:00 a.m. PT
A few years ago I met a woman at a party who worked at the complaint line of a local TV station. "That must be interesting work," I said.
"Have you ever called your local TV station to complain about something?" she asked.
"Do you know anyone who has ever called their local TV station to complain about something?" she asked.
She drained her drink. "Are you beginning to see what kind of people I deal with?"
I was. I do. Somebody called me once and asked if I was the author of The Basic Eight. I said yes. He asked if he could have my autograph. I told him of an upcoming reading. He explained that he was calling from a phone booth around the corner and maybe he could just come over. I felt like my fantasies of being recognized on street corners had been made real by a hard-of-hearing genie. As a writer, I have the fierce and arrogant desire to engage with the culture, and yet I don't actually want the culture to contact me, because they'd be the segment of the culture that might be contacting writers from a pay phone around the corner.
The children's books cut through this Catch-22, unless it's a Catch-21—one of them is the Heller novel and one of them is my local fish market, and I'm always standing on Park Avenue between 21st and 22nd trying to remember what the damn book is called so I can go buy my tuna, so let's just say contradiction—they cut through this contradiction. This morning, HarperCollins forwarded me a bunch of e-mails that had been waiting for my reply while I was finishing the book. There were 66 of them.
Your books are really good. My name is Laura, I am 8 years old. Keep writing The Series Of Unfortunate Events books. Is Lemony Snicket your real name? My favorite characters are Sunny and Violet. When I grow up I want to be a writer. I like Sunny because she bites everything and she uncovered Count Olaf's disguise in the second book. I also like Violet because she invents things.
Hello Mr. Lemony Snicket! I am Sue, a 13-year-old who is a book enthusiast. I can't live without books, and that is not a lie! Your books are fantastic! My favorite character is Klaus, because we are both voracious readers and have glasses (I don't know why I'm saying we both have glasses). My nose is always in a book. My best friend says your books are great, too. I got her into reading your books. She's a bookworm, too, but I think I read more than her. Even other people say I read more than her. Well, I must go, PLEASE write back to me. Thank you! So long!
My name is Garth. I love your books very much. I was in a bookstore one day looking for a good book to buy. I couldn't find any and then I saw The Bad Beginning sitting on the shelf. Just by looking at the cover I knew it would be awesome. I very quickly grabbed the book off the shelf and bought it. I had never heard of it, yet for some reason I just knew it was the book for me. I started reading it the second I got home and didn't want to put it down. Once I stayed up until one in the morning reading it (Just like Klaus). I loved that book!!!! I read it in three days.
Every writer dreams of having someone love his books enough to put four exclamation marks at the end of a sentence but can't quite imagine it happening: Dear Vladimir, PALE FIRE was so awesome!!!! Dear Mrs. Woolf, I love your book about the lighthouse!!!!! I answer them all morning and by lunch time my ego is so inflated I feel like I could outwrite Nabokov and Virginia with one hand tied behind my back. I feel so good I agree to review a book I'm not interested in reading and tell a producer that a screenplay is just about rewritten when in fact the last act is still a mess. I poke at the script for a few hours, getting matzo crumbs in the keyboard of my Powerbook and listening to the Magnolia soundtrack until the Supertramp songs come on and spoil everything. I throw on a coat and go out to do some errands that I have to make up every day, just to get out of the house. This afternoon, for instance, it is very important that I return a library book, make copies of some student papers and shop for used CDs at a place that feels like the David Mamet rewrite of High Fidelity. Men and only men shuffle around the store, having arguments about release dates of Stravinsky vinyl and shouting at one another, "You don't know what the hell you're talking about!" I'm too cowed to buy a Yaz album I loved in high school so I buy Schönberg's first string quartet instead, consider getting an ice-cream cone but remember it's still Passover so I couldn't eat the cone. So I head back to the script, which gets more dour as Schönberg weeps away in the background. I keep looking at the clock, though; tonight Lisa and I will eat our traditional Passover lobster, one of the few foods that can fill us up without the addition of bread, rice, pasta, or any of those other things we can't eat this week. Jews aren't supposed to eat lobster at all, of course, so our meal is either a Catch-22, purchased at Catch-21, or vice versa.
Posted: Thursday, April 27, 2000, at 10:00 a.m. PT
Last night, stuffed with lobster, I watched Day of the Triffids before bed, a not entirely lousy late-'60s British horror flick in which a meteor shower blinds the populace, who then stumble around unconvincingly, avoiding the compounded problem of mobile, voracious plants on whom the meteor's effect has been not blindness but mobility and voraciousness. It's a near-go for the human race, but the alcoholic, lighthouse-bound biologist figures out how to stop them just in time, and, as the narration says at the close, "Mankind survived, and once again had a reason to give thanks." My dreams were appropriately garish and fierce, so in the morning I decided to go to the gym.
At my gym is a love story, and another chapter was unfolding this morning. The love story is one of sublimated desire. The lovers are a white, middle-aged professional-looking man wearing a wedding ring and a comfortable, familiar layer of flab that is not likely to go away no matter how many mornings he works on it—let's call him Herb—and his young, enormous, skeptical black trainer who let's say is the Marquis. The courtship began with small free weights that Herb used in arm curls while the Marquis hovered and spotted him, although the weights looked like five-pounders, so it was a little bit like spotting somebody who was carrying a dictionary across the room. From overconsideration the couple moved speedily onto oral sex: Herb raised and lowered a large barbell between his legs, while the Marquis kneeled in front of him and occasionally steadied the tip. After a few days of this, Herb took to lying face up on a mat, with one of those huge beach-ball things between his legs, and the Marquis—I swear I am not making this up—lay face down on top of the beach ball and rocked him back and forth. Today, they did this for a few minutes and then the Marquis dismounted, took the beach ball out, and spent a few minutes massaging up and down Herb's sweat-panted leg.
It's mortifying. Herb is a grunter, letting out those Uh!s that I suppose are involuntary, like being allergic to practically every food, but like being allergic to practically every food, how come it only happens to one type of person? Herb Uh!s and Uh!s, and all I can think is: Just go for it, guys. I'm sure Mrs. Herb would be less ashamed of an extramarital quickie than all the fuss you're making on the mats. I'm half-tempted to toss them my keys: "I live five blocks away, fellas. I want you out of there, with the sheets changed, by the time I get back." For a while I thought I was the only person who was watching this love story unfold, but lately other people have been catching my eye. I'll be on the abs machine, and someone across the way, lunging, will look at me during an Uh! and we'll both blink. We don't dare smirk—Herb and the Marquis have spoiled any behavior approaching even a remote suburb of flirtation—but we know, the lunger and I: We're watching the same story.
It's comforting to find this mutually acknowledged narrative, because whenever I'm at the gym I have trouble figuring out what I'm doing there. I can't use anything that puts me near a mirror, not out of any sort of Naomi Wolf nervousness about my body, but because every time I catch my own eye in the mirror I have an existential moment: Where am I? Why am I? No reason I can figure. Like Herb, my body isn't really going to change shape, given my rate of exercise. Staying fit is supposed to prolong your lifespan, but whenever I feel fit I let myself indulge in an extra cocktail or dessert, so it probably evens out, or more likely tilts the wrong way: Let's have fondue; I exercised three days ago. It feels good, I guess, sure, but not that good, not like fondue, or spending an extra half-hour in bed. So I go to the gym with halfhearted faith, let my mix tape rattle in my headphones, work up a vague sweat, all the while feeling like I'm stumbling around some garishly Technicolored outdoor locations, blinded by overdubbed special effects. It's unconvincing. The treadmillers feel the same way, I can tell by their deer-in-the-headlights look as they stare up at muted MTV: If I want to watch R.E.M. videos, why don't I do it at home, with an extra cup of coffee and the sound turned up, instead of running nowhere, like a pet hamster? To feel the sand tumbling out of the hourglass by nightfall is one thing, but the ache of feeling your life Habitrailing away in the morning makes one want to throw in the complimentary towel. The love story saves us. Herb and the Marquis give me purposeful weight, like a big beach ball between my legs: I'm at the gym to watch these two men fall in love. I watch the deep, meteoric story in front of me, this sublimated courtship of sweat and barbells, this Erotica Dell'Arte, and once again I have a reason—Uh!—to give thanks.
Posted: Friday, April 28, 2000, at 10:30 a.m. PT
All week, I've had the absolute freedom to write as I please, and, thanks to the superhighwayesque technology of the Internet, every single person in the entire world has read what I've written. An audience of several billion is enormous power for a writer, and like Kissinger and Wonder Woman before me I've tried to use this power for public good rather than for selfish gain. That's why my previous entries have been about topics of general interest—my book deadlines, the class I teach, my workout—rather than my own personal tribulations.
Well, that kind of objectivity is out the window today. This last "Diary" entry is a soapbox, dammit—my soapbox—and I'm using it to assassinate someone's character. Specifically, the character of the ladies who work at the front door of the Aquarium at Coney Island. I hate you ladies! You are lousy! You are mean! You are mean and lousy ladies! You don't let people use the bathroom even when they really, really need to!
Let's back up this train a little bit, because that's how it started. My children's books appear under the name Lemony Snicket—not due to any shame of authorship but because the author is something of a character in the books. The elusive Mr. Snicket narrates the stories, cloaked in a shroud of mystery that extends to his carefully obscured author photos. So the charming, talented, why-not-give-her-a-plug photographer Meredith Heuer and I headed out to Coney Island, whose faded glory seemed an ideal backdrop for some obscured Snicket photos. The subway ride to Coney Island is a long one, and this time it was made longer by the NYPD, who stopped the train in the middle of what was by all appearances nowhere. "Please be patient," the train guy said in his crackled loudspeaker voice, "We have an investigation." The train sat. Cops took good looks. Meredith and I talked more and more cattily about people we both knew, but even the best gossip in the world couldn't keep us comfortable. We needed to go. As the train sat and sat, we didn't care about the N or the Y or the D that we saw emblazoned on the searching windbreakers. We thought only about the P.
Now, bathroom humor is a cheap shot, but what is Coney Island if not a cheap shot? A roller coaster covered in ivy, faded paintings of clowns stacked up behind barbed wire, some of the worst food in the world served underneath banners proclaiming it the best food in the world: It's all second-grade irony here. But the charming and talented Meredith Heuer and I were not looking for bathroom humor. We were looking for a bathroom. "Toilets," the signs read, but the arrow would lead to a locked door. "Bathrooms inside" was painted on the walls of restaurants shuttered closed for the off-season. Padlocked portapotties lay everywhere, mingling with the scent of people who had ignored them. We took a few photographs to take our minds off things, but we were too tense to be photogenic. We needed the kindness and mercy of the ladies who worked at the New York Aquarium.
Had my journey to Coney Island been virtual, instead of actual, I would have known ahead of time that mercy was not to be found at West 8th Street, Brooklyn, New York, 11224. "New York City is surrounded by water," their home page points out, an unhelpful image for those seeking a urinal, "and the New York Aquarium is the perfect place to find out about aquatic life in New York and throughout the world! Come visit our award-winning Sea Cliffs exhibit, which offers fantastic underwater views of penguins, walruses, and sea otters. Or visit our Aquatheatre and get wet and wild with …" blah blah blah blah blah, but there in the bottom, the fine print: "No refunds, open rain or shine, parking not included in ticket price." No refunds? Parking not included? If you're driving to a carny in the greater New York area, you're not going to expect refunds, or parking—they just tell you that because they're mean, lousy ladies.
"But you're the only ones open rain or shine," we said, as one of them waved a field trip through. "The rest of the bathrooms are closed."
"Not without admission," the mean, lousy lady said.
Meredith Heuer tried her charm and talent. "We swear to you," she swore, "that we're not just saying that we have to use the bathroom as an excuse not to pay $8.75, or $4.50 if we were children or senior citizens to see your award-winning Sea Cliffs exhibit, which looks pretty lame on your home page."
The woman thought about it for a second, and looked as if she might relent, when another mean and lousy lady appeared and wanted to know why two fully grown adults were bickering and crossing their legs in front of the New York Aquarium. "No," she said firmly, and gave us terse directions to several padlocked bathrooms in the immediate vicinity.
As a children's author, I feel a strong sense of responsibility to my young charges. I do not want them to stumble down the path to criminal depravity, and I tailor my own actions accordingly. But the mean and lousy aquarium ladies gave me no choice. Meredith and I walked into a distant but open Chinese restaurant and I faked a vague, foreign accent, to explain why I was ignoring the two "BATHROOMS FOR CUSTOMERS ONLY" signs plastered on the front door. The aquarium ladies' sister-in-arms explained that we had to eat. We asked for a table for two. Meredith got up and used the facilities while the waitress brought a pot of tea that would have caused internal damage had I even sipped it. Meredith returned. I got up. I returned. Meredith held her cell phone to her ear and, speaking into it in perfect, unaccented English, faked an emergency and we rushed out of the restaurant.
The rest of the photo-shoot was a relaxed affair, but with every passing siren—and there are quite a few at Coney Island—we feared that the police were coming to arrest a noted children's author and a charming and talented photographer, sending a dangerous message to the world's youth, even though there wasn't a single customer in the restaurant, so the waitress could have let two people use the goddamn bathroom. The cops were apparently too busy backing up trains to track down moral criminals, but the point is this: It takes a village to raise a child, and one villager isn't doing her job. Her name is Fran Hackett, and according to the New York Aquarium home page she works in public relations. To close my Diary I'd like to return to matters for the public good, and I invite you—all several billion of you—to follow suit. Simply cut and paste the following message into an e-mail, and stand with me on this soapbox to help the world's children.
Thank you very much.