Lemony Snicket is running late. Or is he? Even in a city as eccentric as San Francisco, it’s easy to spot the author of “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” Who else but the creator of this best-selling children’s series known for its dark humor would wear a heavy black suit and oversized faux-velvet sunglasses when it’s 80 degrees outside?
But as often happens in his books about a trio of exceptionally unlucky and plucky orphans, nothing is quite what it seems with Snicket. The man offering profuse apologies for his tardiness, as well as observations on the fickleness of Hollywood and the nature of good and evil, is not the storyteller with the mouth-puckering moniker, but his impresario, novelist Daniel Handler.
“Both of us pride ourselves on being on time,” says Handler, 34, a wry smile rippling across his full, clean-shaven face.
It turns out that the pseudonymous writer with $25 million in worldwide sales answers e-mails and does occasional radio interviews, but never shows up in public. So while the 11th installment in Snicket’s saga, “The Grim Grotto,” has topped national best seller lists since it hit bookstores two weeks ago, and an all-star movie based on the first three volumes is high on Hollywood’s holiday lineup, Lemony Snicket won’t be part of any publicity tour.
“Mr. Snicket would have a lot more good excuses for being late due to the workings of his enemies, whereas I have nothing to blame but my own stupidity,” Handler explains, employing a schtick he’s perfected at author events where kids want to know why some guy they’ve never heard of is autographing their book.
The same deft balancing act between fact and fantasy, tradition and high camp, tragedy and comedy helps explain the huge success of the series, says Brian Monahan, a children’s book buyer for Barnes & Noble. The stories have both an appealing forbidden quality — each starts with a disclaimer warning readers why their time would be better spent on something else — and toss off vocabulary lessons with a wink and nudge. Readers of “The Grim Grotto,” for example, are told that “passive” means “accepting what is happening without doing anything about it” followed by a Snicket soliloquy on the torture of shopping for new shoes.
Doesn't talk down to children
“One of the great things about these books is they don’t talk down to children,” Monahan says. “He has faith in his audience to go with the stories and enjoy them even though they don’t have a happy ending.”
Handler disapproves of children’s authors who get overly preachy, but says that maintaining good manners in the face of adversity is something of an obsession for both him and his nom de plume. The orphaned siblings at the center of each tale, Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire, remain unfailingly polite despite the obstacles set before them by feckless or evil adults.
“An overall theme of the Snicket books, I guess, is that your behavior has no bearing on what will happen to you,” he says. “So behaving well is its own reward rather than a far too common lesson in children’s literature, which is if you behave well, you’ll be rewarded. That’s not something I see happening a lot.”
In an interview, Handler comes off as a lot more funny than morose, despite his relentlessly disastrous plots. Yes, he’s deep into book No. 12 (13 are planned in all). Yes, he was replaced as screenwriter of the upcoming movie after slogging through eight drafts. The movie stars Jude Law as narrator Lemony Snicket and Jim Carrey as recurring villain Count Olaf.
The author insists that he’s not bitter about his exit from the Hollywood crew turning his brainchild into a possible holiday hit. The way he tells it, a “changing of the guard” replaced the producer, director and ultimately him as well. He says he was offered a screenwriting credit, but declined.
“For me, making a good film is a more mysterious process than writing a good novel. I’m not convinced that if authors always had absolute control over films made from their books that movies would be better necessarily,” he says.
He hasn’t seen the finished product, but says he was tickled by the sets and the cast.
“Some of it differs vastly from the book and some of it is very faithful,” he says. “It’s very strange to walk into a former airplane factory and see they have built a lake inside just because you sat down a few years ago and wrote a story about a lake.”
A personal literary revolutionHandler has come a long way from his days as a freelance writer when, at the urging of a friend who worked as a children’s book editor, he spun a proposal for three “Unfortunate Events” books from the pages of a gothic adult novel he’d never finished. The success that followed publication of the first volume about the Baudelaires in 1999 “revolutionized” his literary life.
These days, when he’s not channeling Lemony Snicket or writing adult fiction, he works on whatever alt-hip project interests him, whether it’s collaborating on a movie soundtrack with instrumentalist Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields or conducting interviews for The Believer, a monthly “cultural review” published by pal Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s collective.
“I never thought I would be on any best seller list, let alone have a handful of books on it at the same time,” Handler says between sips of cappuccino at a cafe he’s frequented since he was a teenager. “I find myself turning down opportunities I can’t believe I turn down simply because I’m too busy.”
Behind the blue lenses of his eye-catching sunglasses, Handler wears a look of perpetual amusement, as if he knows a delicious secret the rest of the world isn’t quite hip enough to get. Even with the odd Addams Family attire, he has a face that might be called “boyish,” if he didn’t disapprove of such age-driven stereotypes.
“The reason I don’t see much difference between writing for children and writing for adults is I don’t see much difference in general between children and adults,” he says.
Handler is just as likely to eschew conventional thinking — in this case the accepted protocol that interview subjects answer the questions posed to them — when he is asked to demystify some perplexing aspects of his books. For example, how has it fallen to Lemony Snicket to chronicle the lives of the Baudelaire orphans?
“There is an ideological link between Lemony Snicket and the Baudelaires. They seem to be noble people surrounded by a web of intrigue and deceit,” Handler says. “Mr. Snicket has more or less become their official bibliographer by bringing their stories to light, their Boswell as it were.”
A stereotypical childhoodHandler is slightly less enigmatic on the subject of his own resume. His childhood in San Francisco as the son of an accountant father and a mother in academia wasn’t “newsworthy unfortunate at all,” he says, adding that “when you are a child, whatever misery happens in your own life is miserable.”
His life now is more of a half-full proposition — Handler notes for the record that he is happily married and the father of a 1-year-old son.
“I don’t find it a hardship to write these books. I don’t wish I were writing the first one now, but I don’t wish I were writing the 13th,” he says. “I don’t wish to imply I have an anxiety-free life. It’s a challenge to try to tell an interesting story each time.”
Handler’s editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books, Susan Rich, says she and the author aren’t eager to damage “the integrity” of the series by keeping it going beyond its scheduled life expectancy. As it is, “Unfortunate Events” has far exceeded either of their expectations.
“Part of what makes this series so exquisite is it is 13 books long and therefore has a narrative arc that has taken 13 books to traverse,” Rich said. “Certainly 13 books by the same author is a lot of books for a 10-year-old to have read.”
So will Lemony Snicket bow to popular pressure and give the poor Baudelaires a happy ending at the conclusion of No. 13?
“Happy is a comparative term,” Handler says, flashing another opaque grin. “So the ending that is on the horizon will be happier than some, but less happy than others.”