An unfortunate demise

As his wildly popular series reaches its end, Daniel Handler -- aka Lemony Snicket -- talks to Salon about returning to himself.


Amy Benfer
October 28, 2006 5:00PM (UTC)

Back in the summer of 2000, when one of my editors at Salon had heard about this guy Lemony Snicket, it was still easy to get a date with Snicket's less famous alter ego Daniel Handler (the fact that Handler and I attended Wesleyan University together in the early '90s probably helped too). I called up the author -- whose "Series of Unfortunate Events," which then numbered five books, had him poised to become the American J.K. Rowling -- and we spent a long afternoon at a San Francisco cafe discussing the Baudelaire orphans -- the bookish Klaus, his inventive sister Violet, the incredibly sharp-toothed baby, Sunny -- and their extreme misfortunes at the hands of their vile caretaker, Count Olaf, a former thespian with a penchant for disguise and malevolent behavior, which he puts to despicable use to snare the Baudelaire fortune.

Each book begins with a plea from Snicket to go no further; naturally this only serves as a lure to small children, smart adults and anyone of any age who appreciates a good gothic tale and sly humor. Snicket may be an unreliable narrator (his true identity is shrouded in mystery throughout the series), but he's also, as Handler describes him, "a naturally didactic person." Thus each novel is loaded with definitions of polysyllabic words and idiomatic phrases; many of the characters take their names from Great Men and Women of Literature and History.

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Six years, 51 million copies, one big-budget movie starring Jim Carrey, and eight books later, when I e-mail Handler suggesting we meet for lunch in New York, I get an auto-reply from his assistant in San Francisco that is forwarded to his publicist in Los Angeles who says Handler can squeeze me in for 20 minutes (to be fair, this whole communication loop is only activated once he's already on the road). On Friday the 13th, Harper Collins released the 13th and final book in the series, appropriately titled "The End," and Snicket embarked on a six-week tour. In New York City, more than a thousand people attended his reading. Those who wanted their book signed had to obtain a special wristband. Musical accompaniment was provided by Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields, who recorded "The Tragic Treasury: Music for a Series of Unfortunate Events," a 13-song book-by-book homage to the novels (currently No. 11 on the Billboard chart for children's records). Handler played the accordion. Not that I could see any of that (I did, however, have a fine view of a 10-year-old boy who kept scrambling up a stack of Edie Sedgwick biographies for a glimpse of Snicket).

"Call me Ish," commands the latest supporting villain in the final book, the leader of an island cult whose followers drink coconut cordial rather than Kool-Aid. Then the lessons begin: Count Olaf's attempt to take over the tribe of "primitive" islanders allows for a grade-school-level primer in the dangers of colonialism. Snicket, once again, provides dozens of definitions of vocabulary words and idiomatic phrases ("equivalent flotilla," pipes Sunny, to which her sister retorts, "She's right. We're in the same boat, Olaf") and offers advice (when dealing with "peer pressure," according to Snicket, "the trick is to succumb to enough pressure that you do not drive your peers away, but not so much that you end up in a situation in which you are dead or uncomfortable"). Sunny, who has developed into a very good cook, suggests recipes, including how to make a salad with white beans and fresh basil and what spices work best with seviche.

Apparently Handler, now 36, shares Sunny's taste for raw fish. When I meet him at his hotel for the interview, he decides he wants sushi. While Snicket has been busy torturing orphans, Handler has had a child, Otto, now 2 (when asked what kind of a father he is, he often replies "apparently one who travels"), and written a third novel for adults, "Adverbs," released last spring (the other two are "The Basic Eight," released in 1999, and "Watch Your Mouth," from 2000). Over a beefsteak tomato salad and bass sashimi at Manhattan's Rue 57, he discusses how his mother became (mistakenly) known as "the first white woman to play Aida," getting kicked out of his own theme party and how he might have killed Edward Gorey.

So are you sad to be rid of Lemony, or does it feel liberating?

I actually feel flabbergasted. It's sort of the umpteenth moment when I can stand for one existential second and say, "I can't believe what just happened!" I mean, I remember saying, "Oh, thirteen books! That would be even funnier!" I can't believe I really did that.

There was much drama from reviewers when the review copies shipped with the last two chapters missing.

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I didn't realize they were doing that. Last year, they kept the title under wraps, but it was leaked by a disgruntled Borders employee. She'd been fired. She dropped in to get her last paycheck, opened a box, took a picture with her camera phone and posted it online somewhere. Which I really love. There's something so American about that: both pretending it's a big deal and then someone wrecking it -- but only for people who cared in the first place. So this time, they decided they would do something different. Apparently, some people didn't realize it wasn't the whole book and started writing reviews that said, "That doesn't make any sense!"

Did you know at the time of "The Bad Beginning" how it would all end?

I knew how it would end. I had lists of words and phrases I wanted to define. It was an ongoing document, where I would say, "Oh, well, it doesn't fit. I'll just save it for next time..." I ended up with a sign over my desk that said: "Now or never." About a week after I finished the book, I was in the car with a friend of mine and I used the phrase "called on the carpet." She didn't know what it meant. I thought, "Oh, I've got to put that in the next" It was the first post-book moment where I realized there is no reason to make note of idiomatic phrases that your friends don't know. It was like buying a lottery ticket the day after they'd awarded the prize, or saving box tops for a contest that had expired in 1921.

Is this really the last time in your life you will be able to define idiomatic phrases? Isn't the didactic impulse also a hallmark of your adult fiction?

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No, probably not. I've gotten used to being in the company of these stories, and it's strange to realize I'm not in the company of them anymore. It's something of a delayed reaction for me. I wrote it; now I'm on tour for it. I haven't quite severed the umbilical cord.

Are you planning to do more books for children?

Oh, absolutely. I like writing for children. There's more that I want to do. But not immediately.

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Did you start off with an outline? How did you file your notes?

Randomly, on scraps of paper. The nice thing about having a narrator with ambiguity and unreliability is that it's not as crucial to be exact. But it's not really that complicated either.

Did you catch moments in the series where you actually did make mistakes?

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Not really mistakes, but things that make something else more complicated. There was a sentence in "The Bad Beginning" that I really regretted for about a year. It made kind of a mess of things. I had to change a huge part of the plan all because of this one sentence -- and not a sentence probably anyone would have noticed, but I would have known.

And what sentence would that be?

I'll say that, for a while, the Baudelaires were going to return to Count Olaf's in the 12th book. They were going to find some stuff there. But there's a sentence in "The Bad Beginning" when they're locked inside a room and it says, "Klaus goes through all of Count Olaf's papers." It was a really stupid thing to say. They couldn't go back and find something that would have been under their noses all the time. It just really annoyed me.

And future scholars rejoice!

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This transcribed interview will be a major addition to the literature.

Dear God, I just remembered all the essays I've written on my favorite children's books. Do you realize you're going to have scholarly treatments on your classic children's works! Grad students will use your work to elucidate the Great Truths of Our Age!

I've already been mailed some. But they're mostly by people studying to be teachers. When the New Yorker did that piece on Wikipedia a few months ago I don't think I'd ever been on Wikipedia. But when I'd been interviewed, people had said wrong things about me that they said had been on Wikipedia, so I went to the Daniel Handler entries. And it was so brief -- like five sentences long. Then it said, "See also: Lemony Snicket," and it had all these entries. In my eternal night and day, I went to my home entry and thought, "Oh, this isn't very much! Why would anybody bother to write this down?" Then it was: "See this enormous thing that people have been working on forever!"

The same thing happened to me when I went to look for you on Wikipedia. Was it correct?

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Most of it in my entry was correct. I didn't read Lemony's. There is this thing I said a long time ago as a joke to a reporter: My parents met at the opera. That part is true. But someone once asked me: "Were your parents involved in the opera in any way?" And I said jokingly, "Yes, my mother was the first white woman to play Aida." At the time, it was clear that it was a joke. But I think the person must have gone home, looked at their notes, and didn't remember it was a joke, so it went in the article. And then it began to appear everywhere. "Son of famed opera singer, Daniel Handler!"

You could give copies of the stories to your mother as a gift. "Look, Mom! I made you an opera singer!"

Well, I wasn't going to write an impassioned letter to the editor to the five publications that used it. But it's one of those things that will never entirely vanish. In 20 years, are they going to say, "His mother claimed to be an opera singer, but we have no evidence that she did that?"

It could be a literary scandal! It shouldn't be too long before you get your first biography.

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Actually, there already is one. It's a very basic biography in a series for children. What's really funny is the list of other prominent Americans who have been profiled: George Washington? Great! Ben & Jerry? Uhh ... So I hoping I'm somewhere in between on that extreme pantheon of people whom kids might like to report on. It's really expensive. I ordered it online and it was $25. I thought it was going to be a great biography and then it was only 35 pages long.

You had to buy your own biography?

I didn't know it existed until I signed a copy of it at an event.

That's hilarious. What makes it worth $25? Are the pictures at least gorgeous?

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No. It has an indestructible library binding. It wasn't incorrect or anything. It just wasn't particularly interesting. I would get the George Washington bio. It had more meat.

Do you think your books have lured readers to the dark side of literature -- by which I mean, in this case, Roald Dahl and Edward Gorey -- or have you replaced them?

Um, I certainly hope it's led more people to read them. Edward Gorey and Roald Dahl are in two vastly different categories. Roald Dahl remains incredibly widely read. They just made another movie of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Whereas Edward Gorey, despite having a much higher profile than he ever did when I was young, remains a cult figure. I meet a lot of adults who have come to his work, but I don't meet a lot of children who have read him. I read him young. But they look like picture books. You have to have the confidence as a child to read them.

That's true. Obviously, graphic novels are cool to adults, but if you're a kid, you're coming off picture books, so they must seem like baby books. I also read somewhere that you killed Edward Gorey when you sent him a copy of your book.

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I felt sort of embarrassed. I really hoped for a thank-you note from him. Not just because I would be star-struck and that would be exciting. But I didn't want him to think he'd been stabbed in the back. There are so many things that are outright stolen that I didn't want him to cry foul.

I actually wrote a "Brilliant Careers" piece on Gorey. At the time, the deal was that the subject had to be alive. He died a month or two later.

So maybe you killed him! My wife [Lisa Brown] and I did this book about the pope for McSweeney's. She had to change the illustrations at the last minute. We were just done, and then all of a sudden, it was announced the pope was near death. It was this joke of a book called "How to Dress for Every Occasion," by "the pope." He recommends a big tall hat and long robes for every occasion, so it just seemed unduly mean. If it were an honest critique of the pope, then we would have forged on ahead. But basically, we were just saying: This guy wears a whacky outfit!

So you didn't take on the new guy?

Oh no, we changed it so it looks like the new guy. Which works out better, because he is sort of fashion conscious. If you're Jewish, you find the pope inherently funny. I often forget that there are a great number of people who take him seriously, rather than just thinking of him as some whacky clown. I actually ended up changing some of the text in the book, not because of the sensibility, but because it was interesting watching there be a new pope. I remember watching when his car went on e-Bay -- the new pope's old car. It was just funny to think how fundamentally his life was going to change. He'd never get to decide what to wear ever again. He can't just say, "Today, I'm going to be in jeans!"

Speaking of you, I was surprised you didn't show up wearing your Lemony suit. According to all the journalists, it's what you wear to interviews.

I still usually do. But I knew it was you, so I went a little casual. And we're staying in the hotel and the phone isn't working and blah-blah-blah and so we're switching rooms.

I'm glad we're not sitting in a hotel lounge.

I did the junket for the Snicket movie. It reminded me of an article I'd read on these new private prisons. The inmates have no contact with each other. One by one they go to the bathroom, one by one they go down the hallway. They know there are prisoners in these other rooms, but they are inaudible. That's what it felt like. I didn't see anyone I knew from working on the movie. And when you're the novelist on whose books the film was based, everyone knows you're not going to make it into any of the articles anyway. That was really strange. I met a very nice British journalist. She was completely flummoxed and surprised as I was. So the two of us decided we'd meet for a drink later in the hotel bar. The bar was decorated for Lemony Snicket. There were all these Lemony Snicket-themed drinks. And there was no room for us. They were all booked up. We had to go elsewhere. That was very strange -- to look at your name on a menu and have it have nothing to do with you and no one cares.

So you didn't invoke your privileged status?

The sentence, "Do you know who I am?" just doesn't trip off my tongue. I think I'll only get to use that if I'm suffering from amnesia. Then it will be an honest question. "Do you know who I am?"

Yesterday on the street, I walked by a bookstore that had a Lemony Snicket poster in the window and a boy and his father were standing there looking at it. The father was asking the son all these questions about Lemony Snicket. It was so strange to think that these were people who were very interested in my work and had no idea that I was walking by them at that very moment. It's the umpteenth moment you don't think you're ever going to have when you decide to write fiction for children.

And next you're writing a book about pirates?

Well, the pirate book has been a long time coming, too. I started notes for that right after I finished "Watch Your Mouth." I kept thinking, "I really need a pocket of time to work on this." But then I started working on "Adverbs"

So it's your 1999 book?

Yes, actually it was. It sort of bugs me when writers refer to the time they've been working on a novel, when they count every day from the moment they first had the idea until the book gets published. Sometimes it might be true. I'm sure Milton took a long time. I've been thinking about the pirate stories for a long time. It's almost like I wrote a very bad first draft and figured out what I was doing wrong. I'm sure I'll feel different when I have a very bad first draft of the pirate novel now. I'll think, "Hey, I didn't save any time after all."

I saw a reference to the Lemony Snicket Republicans online. Do you have any idea what that means?

No. Is it a cute term like "soccer moms" or are there actually Lemony Snicket Republicans? I don't "do" very much exploratory self-Googling at all. Just a couple of days ago, I learned that my book was challenged in Texas. I still don't know a thing about it. Which is a relief. I can say, "I don't know a thing about it!"

Isn't it thrilling to be banned in Texas?

Well, there's always the bad child angle. But I'm sensitive about that. I feel there's always this great enthusiasm for writers who have been objected to by anyone -- you know, "Let's link arms with Salman Rushdie!" Deciding certain books aren't going to be in your school library is really just a matter of fact. You can't have every book in the school library. There's so little bona fide censorship in this country, and it's so egregious when it happens that I feel it's very important not to say, "Someone said that movie is gross! That's an outrage!" If parents don't want my books to be read to their children, that's OK with me. I don't agree with it, but what else am I going to do? It is slightly flattering. I'm often asked about it. I expect they expect me to make this impassioned speech: "Well, under the current administration, people are afraid to speak out." Some of that might be true. But my books being challenged in Texas is not a good example.

And yet you seem to have quite the political presence. At least you pop up often on Google in reference to San Francisco literary and political activities.

Yeah. Mostly if Stephen Elliott says, "Do you want to come to the Make-Out Room and read from your novel, and the money goes to progressive candidates?" -- well, that seems pretty easy to say yes to.

Have you managed to inculcate small children with the proper values? Will there be a "Lemony Snicket Generation," and if so, what will its values be?

Apparently not, if there are Lemony Snicket Republicans. Clearly, I've already failed. These books have been taken to task for being too left-wing and too right-wing. They've been called anti-Christian and also Christian allegories. There's something that seems slippery about these books from over-zealous interpretations. I wrote back to a columnist in New Zealand -- I think that may have been the first time I've ever written back -- who said my books were preaching peace through superior firepower. I was an example of an arrogant American. It even made reference to the pre-Iraq American foreign policy, you know, "He's busy criticizing fictional evil while real evil goes on..." It was strange.

In our last interview, you said you hoped the books would be made into a "live action, mock Gothic, dismal musical." That doesn't seem to describe the Jim Carrey version.

One of my least favorite moments in making that movie, actually, was toward the end. It was all done. But there was an opportunity to put Stephin Merritt's songs in the closing credits. I thought that would be cool. I sent the producers these new copies of these songs. They would say, "Oh that's a great idea!" Then I would never hear back. The next time they would not remember any of the conversation they'd had previously. But then they were in the room with me; I had my iPod and I set it up to play the songs. They were so impressed by my speakers -- it was the dawn of iPod speakers -- that the conversation ended up being about them. It was at that moment that I realized the songs would not be used.


Amy Benfer

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

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