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Star Telegram

Posted on Tue, Sep. 23, 2003

Tracking Lemony Snicket

The true story (well, mostly) of the mysterious, fugitive, bestselling author of 'A Series of Unfortunate Events'

By Catherine Mallette
Star-Telegram Staff Writer

Lemony Snicket does not have time to talk to me. The poor man has been on the run, on the lam and on The New York Times children's bestseller list for an inordinately long time, a phrase which here means "somewhere in the neighborhood of three years or more." Plus, Snicket has that nasty history with the Daily Punctilio, a newspaper whose reporters tend to leap to wrong conclusions and tantalize their readers with misleading headlines. Who can blame him for not wanting to talk to the press?

The elusive Snicket has been spotted by photographers, however, in at least one cemetery and at the charred remains of the Caligari Carnival, the site of the unfortunate death of Madame Lulu, the back-stabbing fortuneteller who lied to the three sweet Baudelaire orphans. Because of Lulu, the Baudelaires recently ended up back in the clutches of evil Count Olaf, a distant relative who has been after their fortune since the children's parents were killed in a fire.

For a reason not yet completely understood by anyone in the Free World, Snicket has made it his life's work to track the tale of the orphans, following their trail from snooty penthouses on Dark Avenue to the icy Mortmain Mountains.

Snicket delivers these manuscripts to his representative, one Daniel Handler, as quickly as he can, and they are published by HarperCollins as "A Series of Unfortunate Events." The 10th book, or "Book the Tenth" in Snicket-ese, called The Slippery Slope, arrives in stores today.

They are distressing, nerve-racking stories, and though the back of the books clearly warns them against it, children are happily eating them up. More than 13 million copies of the "Unfortunate Events" books have been sold. They've been translated into 37 languages and are sold, at last count, in 40 some-odd countries.

Daniel Handler, 33, does have time to talk to me, which is a most fortunate event for a reporter who admittedly is quite addicted to the series of novels. Handler calls me from his Victorian row house and begins laughing when I tell him that I am a bit flummoxed about how to conduct this interview, a word which here means "I've never interviewed an author who is simultaneously a fictional character named Snicket, the representative of a fictional character named Snicket and a best-selling writer who lives in a cool house in San Francisco."

"I don't know how cool my house is," Handler says and laughs.

Handler is, of course, the real author of the series, though he won't admit it on the cover of his books or even at bookstore signings, where he tells amused children that Mr. Snicket has met with some sort of an unfortunate event (such as a shark attack), so they're stuck with Handler.

Handler seems like a fun and funny person with whom to be stuck. He plays the accordion (sometimes with New York band Magnetic Fields), his "Unfortunate Events" books reveal a dry and smart sense of humor, and this particular conversation reveals him to be delightfully devoid of ego. Take for example his explanation of how the series came to be.

Handler says he had just had his first novel published, and although Basic Eight was aimed at adults, it was set in a high school. The manuscript had found its way to editors of children's books, and several asked if Handler was interested in writing a book for that market.

"I thought it was a terrible idea," Handler says. "But this one editor, Susan Rich, persisted, and to get her off my back as much as anything else, I said, 'I do have this idea, but I think you'll hate it. We'll meet in a bar, so once you hate it, we'll just have a drink and you won't have wasted any time talking to me.' "

They met, and he pitched his idea for mock Victorian novels for children. Very bad things would happen to three orphan children. The series would take the idea of a traditional cautionary tale and sort of turn it on its side.

Rich liked the idea, so Handler wrote summaries of the books he planned for the series along with a couple of sample chapters, and the publishers ordered four books.

"I thought [Susan and I] were two crazy people," Handler says. "Then I thought the publishing house was a bunch of crazy people. Now, it seems that everyone's crazy. The books just failed to fail."

Failed to fail, astute readers will recognize, is an understatement. The first and second books -- The Bad Beginning and The Reptile Room -- were published in 1999. By the time The New York Times began running its bestseller list for children's chapter books in 2000, all five "Unfortunate Events" books published at the time were on the top-10 list. This despite the many, many vocabulary lessons Handler inserts humorously into the text, combined with the fact that he doesn't talk down to children -- he even throws tough words into his books like "ersatz" and "spurious."

Handler churned out three more books in the "Unfortunate Events" series in 2001, all of which also leaped to bestseller status.

In 2002, only one book from the series was published -- The Carnivorous Carnival, (Book the Ninth, for those of you counting at home) -- but Handler was also busy working on a screenplay that will combine the stories of the first three books. The movie is currently scheduled for release in December 2004, with Jim Carrey in the role of the villain, Meryl Streep in the role of the hapless Aunt Josephine and Brad Silberling in the director's chair.

Last year, Handler also put out a little paperback called Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography, which gives further clues and miscues about a secret society called V.F.D. The mysterious society first surfaces in the fifth book in the series. From that book onward, the story of the Baudelaire orphans becomes increasing complicated and exciting as readers learn that the children's plight is just one part of a much larger story -- a battle between good and evil that involves their (perhaps deceased) parents, Count Olaf, all sorts of various henchmen and volunteers, and even Lemony Snicket and his ill-fated brother Jacques.

Because the Snicket books are, at first glance, a little on the dark side (and perhaps because every grown-up the Baudelaires meet is completely clueless and incompetent), some people have objected to the series and called them amoral. Some, including a school full of people in Decatur, Ga., have even banned the books, thinking they will lead children astray.

Handler says he's puzzled by this and points out that his villain, Count Olaf, is clearly shown as an example of bad behavior and what not to do. "Olaf regards opening people's mail and killing someone as the same sort of thing," Handler says.

"What I think has rankled some people about the books," Handler continues, "is that they show that if you're good, you're not necessarily rewarded."

The Baudelaire children are unnervingly good. They do not mope about and feel sorry for themselves. They are smart problem-solvers and narrowly escape true disaster in each book by relying on their wits, and not good luck. Still, bad things keep happening to these good children. No good deed, as they say, goes unpunished.

Handler says this is a natural part of growing up. He wants kids to know that even if they aren't necessarily rewarded for their good behavior, they should try to do the right thing anyway.

I'm sure this would ring true to my children, who are frequently rewarded for their good work at school with increased doses of homework and my tirades about how that homework should be done faster. It rings true to me, too, and leads me off into a conversational cul-de-sac with Handler about religious writers like C.S. Lewis and puzzling things like the will of God. Handler is thoughtful and reflective and intriguing -- and soon, I realize, he is out of time.

He needs to get back to his cool house and the pirate novel he is writing, and the books stacked on his bedside table, which include a novel about paranoia and double-crossing by Jim Thompson and a coming-of-age novel called Blankets, by Craig Thompson. I am tempted to ask how he happens to choose his reading materials, and if it is in alphabetical order by author, but this seems a bit off track again.

And really, I want Handler to stop talking to reporters like me and to get to work on Book the 11th, which I eagerly await in fall 2004. What, for goodness sake, will happen with Violet, Klaus and little Sunny Baudelaire? Will they ever see their friends, the two Quagmire triplets, again? Could one of their parents be alive still? Will Snicket survive? And what exactly happened to Snicket's sweet Beatrice?

I know Handler can't answer these questions now and that I must wait for the full 13 books in the series to be published. Meanwhile, though, I have three quick questions for the author:

Q: Is it confusing to have three identities?
A: I've been in awkward and confusing situations my entire life.
Q: Where is Lemony Snicket right now?
A: Well, it's a beautiful day here, so I know for certain he's nowhere near here. He may be underwater.
Q: Is anyone helping the poor man?
A: Don't worry. There are lots of people helping Mr. Snicket. He wouldn't be able to do his work without the brave volunteers and man-servants who help him.

So Snicket is getting help, I think with relief. Perhaps that means the Baudelaire children, whose fate seems linked with his, are getting help, too.

I can just see the headline, I think to myself: "Snicket Soggy but Momentarily Safe!!"

Wait until the readers of the Daily Punctilio -- I mean the Star-Telegram -- read this!