The mysterious Mr. Snicket

He's been compared to Edward Gorey and Roald Dahl, but to know the true identity of the author behind the bestselling children's series, you must read this story.

Published August 17, 2000 7:21PM (EDT)

Lemony Snicket is only photographed in shadow, usually in a suit, sometimes in a trench coat, often striding away from the camera or turned away from the viewer, maybe gazing out a window. Readers who know of his doomed love affair with a woman identified only as Beatrice must imagine that it is she he seeks in his partially obscured window gazing, distant meanderings and walks in the snow.

Today, however, Lemony Snicket sits in a San Francisco cafe signing autographs. He is not wearing a suit or a trench coat, but a red satin bowling shirt dotted with black velvet devils. The autographs are not for patrons of the cafe, but for children in Canada.

Lemony Snicket is a big star in Canada. At his last reading in a Canadian children's bookstore he was held captive, made to sign books for nearly five hours. Apparently he didn't sign enough books to go around because the bookstore has sent along a stack of 600 Lemony Snicket bookplates, each wreathed in sinister-looking vines with thorns. Snicket is to autograph each one for eventual distribution to all the children in Canada who simply must have an autographed copy of "A Series of Unfortunate Events," Snicket's mock-Gothic serial novels for children, which now number five, but will number a very unlucky 13 when the series has been completed.

Lemony Snicket is a big star in the United States as well. (And in Italy and Germany and soon to be in Denmark, Norway, England, Israel and Japan.) His name is often mentioned in those roundups by newspaper writers speculating about the identity of the next wizard to dominate the bestseller list. When the New York Times Book Review introduced its new bestseller list for children's books, Snicket debuted at 15; now all five of his books have made the top 25.

Nickelodeon has optioned the movie rights for the series (which, if all goes according to Snicket's plan, will result in "a live-action, mock Gothic, dismal musical.") His readings -- at bookstores, schools and libraries -- are frequently mobbed by children, their parents and the stray teen Gothette (he has already been interviewed for a Goth zine, and received a very long fan letter from a Goth teenage girl written on orange construction paper), all craning for a look at the new hero of the unhappy ending.

No reader of Lemony Snicket expects a happy ending, because each and every book in the series takes great pains to explain that Snicket will not provide one. The disclaimer debuts on the first page of the first chapter of the first book in a passage which just may become every bit as classic as Tolstoy's take on unhappy families:

If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle. This is because not very many happy things happened in the lives of the three Baudelaire youngsters. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire were intelligent children, and they were charming and resourceful, and had pleasant facial features, but they were extremely unlucky, and most everything that happened to them was rife with misfortune, misery and despair. I'm sorry to tell you this, but that's how the story goes.

The children who like stories with unhappy beginnings, middles and ends devour Snicket's books, despite the disclaimer, and when they show up to his readings, they find that Lemony Snicket isn't there. Instead they meet some guy named Daniel Handler who gives them a long, convoluted story about the many misfortunes that befell Lemony Snicket, preventing his arrival.

In the absence of Lemony, this guy Daniel reads from the Snicket books, plays the accordion and sings a song that just happens to have been written for him by Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields, a band that Daniel happens to moonlight for when he isn't busy filling in for that misfortunate flake, Lemony Snicket.

Snicket first appeared when Daniel Handler had an attack of paranoia while researching far-right-wing organizations for a book. He didn't want his name on the groups' mailing lists, but he wanted to receive their materials. So when asked to whom his packages should be addressed, Handler answered: "Lemony Snicket."

Much frivolity ensued. Handler and his friends had pizzas delivered in care of Lemony Snicket. They made up business cards for Lemony Snicket (sure to fetch a fetching price on eBay, Handler assures me) which they distributed in bars. And, years later, when Mr. Handler wrote a children's serial novel and the narrator started to take on a life of his own, Handler's editor suggested he write under a pseudonym. Lemony was there to take over.

Actually, Daniel Handler didn't expect to be a writer of children's books in the first place. When his first novel, "The Basic Eight," was released in April 1999, some editors and critics considered it to be a young adult novel because its protagonists were eight high school students. Nevermind that these were high school students coming to terms with the murder-by-croquet-mallet of one teenager by another. Nevermind that the book was viciously panned by an actual student in the school newspaper at San Francisco's Lowell High School, which is Handler's alma mater and closely resembles the fancy San Francisco public high school in the book. ("It was the sort of review," says Handler, "that you hope never to receive for anything.")

Those editors who liked the voice of "The Basic Eight" (and presumably did not mind a bit of bloodshed in stories about children) contacted Handler and asked him if he would be interested in writing children's books.

"I said that I really hate children's books, that I thought all books for children were crap," says Handler. To which his current editor, Susan Rich at HarperCollins, replied, "Isn't that a good reason for writing the book you wish you had when you were 10?"

So Handler thought about the books he didn't like when he was 10. In the pre-Harry Potter years, books for 10-year-old boys, according to Handler, fell into one of two categories: a) hardcore fantasy, and b) books about sports.

Handler, who was not one of those teenagers who spend their days playing Dungeons and Dragons, didn't think much of hardcore fantasy. ("I started the first chapter of "The Hobbitt" about 19 times and never finished it.") And as for books about sports, Handler says, "The idea that a bookworm boy would want to read about sports always cracked me up. That is exactly what the bookworm boys read books to get away from. They're hiding from the teacher at recess because they don't want to play kickball, and then the teacher is like, 'Here, read this book about a hockey team!'"

But Handler was in possession of the first 90 pages of a mock-Gothic novel for adults that he had started years before it was suggested that he write a children's book. (He had dropped the novel when it seemed he couldn't take the idea any further.) He thought about the writers he did like -- Roald Dahl, Edward Gorey. And, eventually, he wrote "A Series of Unfortunate Events," a series for children ages 10 and older, that was, appropriately enough for a Gothic novel, "cannibalized from the ruins" of his unrealized adult novel.

In his pre-Snicket days, Handler, now 30, already was doing well for a young literary novelist. "The Basic Eight" was favorably reviewed in the New Yorker, Publisher's Weekly and the New York Post, among others, and optioned by New Regency Pictures. His uncanny prescience for the Zeitgeist didn't hurt: Handler's first novel dealt with teenage murder, and hit stores a month before Columbine, and his second novel, "Watch Your Mouth," is an mock-operatic incest comedy which includes in its press materials the disclaimer "Daniel Handler has never slept with a family member." (A Canadian newspaper called Handler for a quote right after Angelina Jolie slobbered all over her brother at the Oscars.)

Handler swears that he and Snicket don't allow competitive feelings to get in the way of a good working relationship. They don't, he assures me, compare rankings on (Handler's wife, Lisa Brown, is the only family member who regularly trawls Amazon.) But if they did compete, Snicket would kick Handler's ass in the retail realm.

"There's no competition, really," says Handler. "The children's books are selling like hotcakes. And the adult novels are selling like strange literary novels for adults. The market for incest comedies would suddenly have to burst wide open for the adult novels to catch up with Snicket."

The Snicket series follows the misfortunes of the Baudelaire siblings -- Violet, Klaus and Sunny -- whose loving and wealthy parents perish in a fire on Page 8 of "The Bad Beginning," leaving them with a large fortune that, unfortunately, cannot be claimed until Violet, the eldest at 14, reaches adulthood. In the meantime the Baudelaire siblings are required to live with a blood relative, which is unfortunate since every blood relative they encounter is incompetent, cruel or dead by the end of each novel.

Another perennial subplot in the series involves the necessity of the siblings to escape the clutches of dastardly Count Olaf, a foul and dissolute personage who keeps a messy house and has a penchant for wine (unlike the Baudelaires' parents, who lived in a comfortable house full of books, loved their children dearly and appear to have been quite temperate.)

Count Olaf claims to be the orphans' long-lost uncle, which may or may not be true. What is certain is that the count is only after the Baudelaire fortune and will stop at nothing -- deceit, abuse, even murder -- to have it. And because the count is an actor by trade, he is a master of disguise with his own troupe of thespian henchmen. The bumbling adults meant to protect and defend the children consistently refuse to see that -- take your pick: Stephano the new lab assistant or Coach Gengis the athletic director or Shirley the receptionist or Captain Sham the boat rental guy -- is really Count Olaf in disguise.

"One question that adults always ask is 'Why doesn't he just steal the fortune?'" says Handler. "Clearly, the answer is that he likes dressing up in outfits and scaring children. That makes him scarier." And to those who believe that a grown man who slaps one child, tries to marry another and causes the death of a kindly uncle is a bit too scary, Handler says, "I have no apologies for how the villain behaves. If he were nicer, he wouldn't be a villain."

The orphans manage to get by on their wits and a few very specialized talents. Sunny, the baby, speaks in nonsense syllables that the other children seem to understand ("'Deluny!' shouted Sunny, which meant something along the lines of 'You're not just a bad foreman -- you're an evil person!"), and also is equipped with very sharp teeth that come in handy as weapons, or as tools when the orphans need someone to say, break up a length of rope. Klaus, the middle Baudelaire, is bookish and can be relied upon to dig up some obscure fact on say, marriage or labor law or advanced ocular science. Violet has a keen scientific mind and is very, very good at thinking up inventions -- a grappling hook for scaling walls, a stapling device, a lock pick made from an electrical plug and a thumbtack -- and implementing them just in the nick of time.

Violet's definitely a girl of action, but her competence isn't described in terms of boyishness -- unlike more conventionally unconventional girls, like Carolyn Keene's George Faye. "I wanted to have a tomboyish eldest girl, but I didn't want a big deal to be made about her being a tomboy," says Handler. "There's not a lot of phrases like, 'Unlike most girls, she could do this or that.'" So there was much discussion when Susan Rich called up Handler during the editing of the first book to say that Violet, to fit in with her siblings, needed more visual description.

"I didn't want to choose some physical detail, because I figured that girls start to get nervous about their own physical details soon enough," Handler explains. "So Susan and I kept joking further and further and kept calling each other and saying things like, 'I know! Big boobs! Or she's shorter than everyone else! Or she's taller than everyone else! Or she cuts her hair short!' We considered giving her a distinctive hair color. But I didn't want to say, 'she's a fiery redhead' or something like that."

Finally, they decided that every time Violet set down to invent something, she would tie her hair back.

The Snicket novels are morality tales, albeit twisted ones. Among other things, Snicket tells children that one should never stay up late on a school night, except to finish a very good book; and he insists that there is nothing worse than someone who can't play the violin but insists upon doing so anyway. Practically every page provides an ingenious and idiosyncratic vocabulary lesson, providing definitions for words like "hackneyed" and "adversity," as well as expressions like "dramatic irony" and "meanwhile back at the ranch." (This is Handler shtick: "The Basic Eight" came with study-guide questions for reading comprehension at the end of every chapter.)

"I was mostly just knocking the heavy-handedness that I remembered from kid's books that I didn't like as a child. That sort of mockery seems to really appeal to kids" says Handler. "I don't make some sort of serious attempt to 'get down to their level.' I'm just sort of a naturally didactic person."

In this same didactic spirit, Handler has packed each Snicket book with characters who take their names from literary luminaries. In addition to the Baudelaires, there's Principal Nero, Mr. Poe, Coach Gengis, Prufrock Prep and a long enough list of others -- enough to fill a Norton anthology by the time the series hits book No. 13.

"There's plenty of literary names and the like," says Handler, "but there's not so many outright jokes. And the literary names are there mostly because I look forward to kids growing up and finding Baudelaire in the poetry anthology and having that be something else to be excited about."

Of course, there will always be the flat-footed parent who believes that books are only useful as pedagogical exercise. One disgruntled parent sent an e-mail after a Snicket reading which read: "I was hoping that my kids would learn something about the writing process and all I got was ego and performance from you."

."And I thought," says Handler, "That is the writing process. You've got ego and performance and that's pretty much all there is. It's you thinking that you have a story to tell, and it's performance, which is going out and doing it. The rest of it is just ink and paper."

Issues of style and pedagogy notwithstanding, certain parents -- probably the same ones who object to "To Kill a Mockingbird" and the witchcraft in "Harry Potter" -- may object to a series in which orphans are subjected to a relentless stream of bad luck, abuse, malnutrition and malaise, not to mention the dangers inherent in a lack of supervision by decent adult guardians.

And then there's that incest thing. Handler's adult novel, "Watch Your Mouth," hit stores in early August. It is probably too early to tell if some parents will link the author of "A Series of Unfortunate Events" with the author of the incest comedy and cause a ruckus.

As far as Handler knows, his books have only been banned at one elementary school -- in Decatur, Ga. -- and it was because of an incest issue. The parents in favor of a ban had objected to the fact that Count Olaf, in a scheme to get the Baudelaire fortune, attempted to marry Violet.

"I'll always have that," says Handler. "They can't take that away from me."

Handler may think that parents who object to his work are misguided, but he doesn't think they're crazy. "I think that they have to decide what's best for their kids. The books are not for everybody; they're for people who find that stuff entertaining."

And in the meantime, as Violet Baudelaire and Daniel Handler know, there are always interesting inventions to be made.

Or as Handler puts it: "And in the meantime, we till the soil. That's from 'Candide,' right?"

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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