A Major Writer For The Minor Set
Xtra talks to children's writer Daniel Handler, alias Lemony Snicket
American writer Daniel Handler never thought he'd make a lot of money, he never thought he'd be popular and he certainly never thought he'd write for children. But then one day, out of his head, popped a name now synonymous with smart, funny children's books - Lemony Snicket.
Actually Snicket and Handler go way back, to when the writer was researching his first novel and wanted material from right wing political organisations. He didn't want to give them his name so he invented a new one and thus Snicket was born.
"Then it just became huge joke between me and my friends, we would reserve tables in restaurants under the name Lemony Snicket and they gave me business cards that said Lemony Snicket. And so years and years later when I was writing for children I had this pseudonym lying around gathering dust. It's quite startling to think that what started as a cheap joke has really become a wherewithal," he says.
It's become a bit more than that - the Lemony Snicket series, which currently runs to number 6, The Ersatz Elevator (HarperCollins, $21.95), has taken off like a rocket through the world of children's writing. The latest New York Times Children's Bestseller list features five Lemony Snicket titles, sharing space with Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl and the ubiquitous Harry Potter books.
Yes the great Potter's name did come up during our interview and this was Handlers evenhanded response to the monolith in children's writing.
"JK Rowling and the attention that her books have gotten has revolutionised the way that children's literature has been thought of now. It's been considered much more carefully, its getting much more media attention and its just utterly transformed the times for children's books".
"I always think there is a whiff of competition around author comparisons and that always makes me a bit sad. I certainly don't wake up every morning and try to be Rowling or any other author. I think we're all just trying to tell the best stories we can. And I think when we're talking about children's reading I would like to see everything more in the spirit of good fun rather than in the spirit of whose going to win," he says.
And good fun, in a dark, foreboding kind of way, is what Handler does best. He has taken that most unlikely of genres - the gothic novel - and transformed it into a clever adventure story for children. The Snicket series is about the three Baudelaire orphans whose parents are killed in a house fire and who are pursued by their evil, fortune-hunting Uncle, Count Olaf. So far the children have suffered through six books at the mercy of either stupid or menacing adults.
It was just this dark take on life that Handler thought would make the gatekeepers of the children's literature (librarians, teachers and parents) turn off, but on the contrary, they are the ones leading the cheers. The Snicket books began selling in America mainly by word of mouth, long before the marketing machine took over.
Just why they are so popular with children is no surprise to the author. "I think children are like adults in that they like to read a story in which something happens and I'm hard pressed to think of a book for children or adults that doesn't have something, or at least the threat of something, horrible that happens in them," he says.
As for the gatekeepers, they probably like the way Handler casually introduces new and difficult words into his narrative. Or they might like spotting the references to adult literature that litter the novels in a kind of veiled name-dropping. For example the Baudelaire's banker is called Mr Poe, the school they attend is the Prufrock Preparatory and their adopted parents are Esm and Jerome Squalor.
"I don't think it's making children go out and look up enormously difficult works of fiction or modernist poetry. I do think that when they come across them it rings a bell and that the world of books continues to welcome them in that way," he says.
Handler has had three children appear at book signings with the collected works of Edgar Allen Poe asking if he is a relative.
Not that Handler is there representing himself you understand, for the children he always has to come in place of Snicket, who can't make it because he was bitten under the arm by a spider. Handler's bookstore appearances are pure theatre, complete with a dead insect, an accordion and loud audience participation.
Handler may be Snicket for kids but he poses as himself when writing for adults. His debut novel, published before the Snicket series, has been optioned for a film and his second novel, post Snicket, a black comedy about incest, is on the bestseller list.
The success of all of it - the books for kids and the books for grown ups - has left the author a little bemused - "I always thought I that I would be a very, very minor but perhaps well thought of writer," he says.