Made in the shade
By Rachel Leibrock -- Bee Staff Writer
Lemony Snicket's world is a gray, damp and chilly place where lonely and destitute orphans are forced to sleep on hard floors, go hungry and battle evil relatives.
It is also home to the Baudelaire children -- Violet, Klaus and Sunny -- and resides deep in the mind of Snicket, a shadowy author known in real life as Daniel Handler.
As Snicket, he is the dark and pessimistic narrator of "A Series of Unfortunate Events" books -- stories aimed at children, but increasingly demanded by adults.
Each installment -- there are eight so far -- details the continuing ordeals of the Baudelaires. The children were orphaned after their parents died in a fire that also destroyed the family home and, as stipulated by their parents' will, cannot receive their inheritance until Violet, the oldest, reaches age 18.
Until then, the orphans must live with the relative who is closest to them geographically. This means the evil Count Olaf ("either a third cousin four times removed, or a fourth cousin three times removed") who subsequently berates, punishes and abuses them in an attempt to secure their considerable fortune.
Well, you can't say you weren't warned.
In the first book, 1999's "The Bad Beginning" (HarperCollins, $9.95), Snicket begins by advising readers that "if you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book ... not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle."
But readers aren't heeding his admonition. The Snicket books have sold millions of copies, according to publisher HarperCollins. Last fall, the latest book, "The Hostile Hospital," even managed to bump "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire"from the No. 1 slot on the New York Times Children's best-seller list.
The books also have generated something of a buzz among discerning trend spotters -- Entertainment Weekly dubbed the series the "It Children's Best Nightmare" and the Wall Street Journal branded the books as a sort of literary "therapy" for a post-Sept. 11 world.
In some New York City bars, you can even order a "Lemony Snicket" -- a concoction comprised of lemon juice, white rum and club soda.
As for himself, Handler, a 32-year-old musician and San Francisco resident who's also written two novels under his real name, calls his foray into children's books a "rebellion of sorts."
"They are a reaction to the sort of books I was given as a child -- books that were relentlessly chipper and morally cheerful," he explains in a recent interview from New York, where he was on a publicity tour.
The idea for the series took root after the publication of Handler's first novel, "The Basic Eight," a satire about a Satanic high school clique accused of murdering a teacher. That book generated a mini-rumble of attention because it was published in April 1999 -- the same month that two students opened fire on their classmates at Columbine High School.
Despite this, Handler's publisher thought the author might be the perfect candidate to write a children's book.
"Because of its high school setting, my publisher asked if I would be interested in writing for young people," Handler says.
He initially turned down the offer.
"I thought that the sort of stories I was interested in writing would not be welcome in publishing houses," he says. "But my publisher persisted so I said 'OK, this is what will happen -- there will be three orphans and a Count ... '"
Luckily -- or unluckily as Snicket might say -- HarperCollins didn't give up and so Handler embarked on a new literary path -- borrowing a bit of inspiration from his previous works.
His new nom de plume was created while researching right-wing hate groups for "The Basic Eight." Handler didn't want to use his real name when requesting information or trolling the Internet so in a fit of inspiration he came up with the nonsensical-sounding Lemony Snicket.
Now, the enigma surrounding Snicket's literary persona -- photos are typically in black and white and feature the author with his back to the camera -- is almost as celebrated as his books.
When promoting the series, Handler plays it up to the hilt; during book readings, for example, he tells fans that he -- Handler -- is merely appearing on behalf of Snicket. And the Lemony Snicket Web site (www.lemonysnicket.com) furthers the mystery with a cryptic bio and author interview (Question: "What will happen to the Baudelaire children next?" Answer: "I cannot bear to tell you.")
"When I started to write the books it occurred to me that it might be fun to publish them under the name of the narrator instead of the author so that the (book's fictional) world remained intact," Handler says. "Having a dual identity has been fun."
Although it's tempting to simply peg Handler as yet another fashionably clever and ironic Generation X scribe -- the Dave Eggers of the preteen set if you will -- the appeal of his stories goes beyond the hip quotient.
Their charm lies in Handler's writing style (smartly literate) and narrative voice (empathic, never condescending).
Handler also unflinchingly employs an extensive vocabulary -- easing young readers into definitions with conspiratorial humor.
"The children exchanged glances. They had hoped their visit would be taken in confidence, a phrase which here means 'kept a secret between Mr. Poe and themselves and not blabbed to Count Olaf.'"
Similarly, he uses real-world references to add depth and subtext to his stories. For example, the Baudelaire children -- practical Violet, the idealistic Klaus, and Sunny, the sharp-toothed baby who makes smart and helpful comments -- are named after the French poet and the infamous von Bulow couple.
The books themselves are elegantly compact and handsome hardbacks illustrated with Edward Gorey-worthy stylishness by New York artist Brett Helquist.
Audrey Spencer of Sacramento says she was immediately drawn to the Snicket style.
"I picked up the book and its back cover told me to put it down right away -- I thought this is right up my alley," she says.
She wasn't disappointed.
"They're hilarious," says Spencer, 24, who works at Tower Books on Broadway and regularly suggests the books to both friends and customers.
"I stopped reading kids' books when I was in the fourth grade," she says. "I thought they were stupid and talked down to kids.
"Lemony Snicket doesn't talk down to kids. He's not afraid to be more sophisticated."
Handler says this concept is the key philosophy behind his craft.
"I don't approach writing for children any differently than I do writing for adults," he says. "I try to tell a story that is interesting."
Diane Roback, children's book editor for Publishers Weekly, a trade journal of the book industry, says the books are also appealing because they challenge standard children's book conventions. The fact that the Snicket books are so unrelentingly cheerless only adds to their appeal.
"Kids enjoy the fact that there is no happy ending -- they're the antithesis of what most people think a children's book should be," Roback says.
Lemony Snicket, however, is not without his detractors.
One Georgia elementary school banned the series last year, objecting to an incident where Count Olaf tries to marry his adopted daughter Violet in an attempt to secure rights to her fortune.
Handler shrugs off the criticism.
"I think it's very proper to complain about the behavior of the villain -- Count Olaf is a nasty person," he says. "(But) I'm at a loss to how a story could have a villain who doesn't do villainous things.
"It's too bad that (good) children's literature is supposed to be pharmaceutical," he continues. "That kids are supposed to be reading a story because it's good for them -- they should be reading regardless."
Handler has planned a total of 13 "Unfortunate Events" books -- a new one is due out in the fall. In May, "The Unauthorized Biography of Lemony Snicket" will hit book stores. Next year there will be a short story collection under his real name. Currently, Handler is negotiating a film deal with Nickelodeon.
Audio editions of Handler's books feature Lemony Snicket-inspired songs performed by the Magnetic Fields, a cult indie band for which Handler -- who plays the accordion -- is a part-time member.
Handler admits that his rising visibility on the pop culture radar feels a bit weird. One recent day at the movies, he says, he had the oddly disjointed experience of overhearing a woman discussing his books in great detail.
"It's a strange thrill," he says "When you write you hope you have some sort of influence on the reading culture (but) I never in a gazillion years imagined it would be on this level."
About the Writer
The Bee's Rachel Leibrock can be reached at (916) 321-1176 or firstname.lastname@example.org.