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A Few Dreadful Minutes with Lemony Snicket
By Olivia Boler
If you believe in the existence of Lemony Snicket, then you should not read this interview. I hate to break it to you, but he's about as real as Santa Claus.
The man behind the nom de plume who writes A Series of Unfortunate Events, the children's books that chronicle with Gothic goosebumps the trials and tribulations of the Baudelaire orphans, is none other than San Francisco's native son, Daniel Handler.
Handler, 32, and I happened to attend the same high school in the late 1980s, and he was hard to miss back then. In his senior year, he was voted not only Class Clown, but also Best Actor, Chatterbox, and Teacher's Pet. In our school's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, he played Oberon to my Courtesan No. 2.
Handler's first novel, The Basic Eight, was published in 1999 by St. Martin's Press and is -- ahem! -- loosely based on Lowell High School (loosely, because I don't recall Handler being a teenage girl, nor murdering any of his friends). His second novel, Watch Your Mouth, was published in 2000.
However, it is the Lemony Snicket series, starting with The Bad Beginning in 1999, that has brought Handler the most fame. In fact, in a May 26 story in the San Francisco Chronicle, writer Vicki Haddock demanded, "[Who is] this overwrought writer whose tragicomic chronicles...have sold more than 4 million copies, developed an adult cult following, and knocked Harry Potter off the top of the bestseller list?" His latest book, The Unauthorized Autobiography of Lemony Snicket (HarperCollins), came out last month, and Daniel Handler will be at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books on June 22 at 2 p.m., to greet Lemony Snicket's devoted fans, many of whom live in Noe Valley.
I spoke to Daniel in mid-May, soon after he and his wife, Lisa Brown, moved from their Richmond District apartment into a gorgeous 1907 Victorian in Ashbury Heights. I admit that I forced a few high school reminiscences on the poor guy, but we touched on some Lemony topics as well.
* * *
Olivia Boler: You came up with the pen name of Lemony Snicket when you were researching right-wing groups for your first adult novel, The Basic Eight, right?
Daniel Handler: "Researching right-wing groups" is a pretty grand way of putting it. I was calling them and getting free stuff from them, which I thought was hilarious, and I could then quote or paraphrase [one of their statements] and put it into the novel for the purpose of making such commentators look stupid.
I was looking at some religious groups and right-wings groups for their take on what was wrong with the youth of America, but I did not want to be permanently on the mailing list of some of these nefarious organizations -- particularly the religious groups who tend to stop by your home.
So they asked, "What is your name?" and I just said, "Lemony Snicket," and then I decided to keep on using that. This was all before I was published or had written a children's book, let alone thought I would write children's books.... But when I was writing the first children's book, it seemed like it would be a good idea to publish it under the name of the narrator rather than the author. And then I had this pseudonym gathering dust from my previous "prankhood."
Olivia: I, of course, read The Basic Eight as soon as I heard about it.
Daniel: The Lowell alumni gossip chain seems to have sold a few copies.
Olivia: Was there any backlash from alumni or teachers?
Daniel: Well, it got reviewed in the Lowell [the school newspaper] and they hated it. There was this review of it, and then there was an article about what the teachers thought of it, and then there was this sort of cheerful, naive interview with me. Actually, the Lowell just contacted me and said they wanted to do an interview again, and I thought, But last time you ambushed me!
Olivia: They wanted a Lemony Snicket related interview, I take it?
Daniel: I guess so. We're going to do it in the fall when school is in session. For a while, there was a rumor that I was thrown out of the Lowell Alumni Association (laughs), but I still get their newsletters.
Olivia: How has your life changed with success?
Daniel: Well, we bought this house. That's been the big change. And unlisted our phone number. One thing that's been strange is that after The Basic Eight came out, I started hearing from everybody I ever went to high school with, and then as the Snicket books gained some visibility, I started hearing from everybody I ever did anything with. So that's been startling. It adds up to a lot of hours on the phone. So now they generally e-mail me.
Olivia: What are you working on now for grownups?
Daniel: I'm finishing a short-story collection and I'm working on a novel. The novel is coming slowly, but I think I'll finish the collection by the end of the year.
Olivia: There are going to be 13 books in total of the Lemony Snicket books. And whose idea was the Unauthorized Autobiography?
Daniel: Well, it was sort of mine. My editor and I started collecting all these photographs that we wanted to use, and it got really huge. We thought it would be fun to do something that wasn't another volume. It was sort of a joke, and was going to be a pamphlet, like a promotional item in fact. But we had so much fun doing it, and it sort of blossomed and became a bona fide book. It was very fun to write. The actual stories about the Baudelaires will be 13 volumes, though.
Olivia: There's a movie about the Baudelaire orphans coming out from Nickelodeon. Is it a cartoon?
Daniel: Nickelodeon and Paramount Pictures. No, it'll be live action. They're hoping it'll be out by Christmas 2003.
Olivia: What's your involvement?
Daniel: I'm working on a new draft of the script now. Hollywood has a long tradition of not letting authors adapt their own material [for the screen], so probably someone else will work on it too. But I'm having a lot of fun with it now. I hope the movie will be good. Everyone seems enthusiastic and excited about it.
Olivia: Will it basically be the first book in the series?
Daniel: Mostly the first book, with a couple of things from the others. I'm not really a fanatic about it being a faithful adaptation. That isn't very interesting to me.
Olivia: What's your Noe Valley connection? I mean, besides the fact that I'm interviewing you today?
Daniel: I had a lot of friends from Lowell who lived in Noe Valley. It seems as if a lot of the coolest people at Lowell had gone to Everett [Middle School], so I spent a lot of time on 24th Street. We almost bought a house in Noe Valley. There are actually so few neighborhoods in the city where we wouldn't live, and it was hard to narrow it down, but we wound up falling in love with this house. I don't really hang out in the Haight, so I think of our house as being above the Castro [District]. I like a little grit in my neighborhood, but the unrelenting earnestness of Haight Street gets to me. I like the unrelenting sarcasm of the Castro. I like that Republican's real estate office on 24th Street [Twin Peaks Properties]. He's probably paying $125 a month, you know, the lone holdout. One day he'll be gone, and that will be the end of that.
Olivia: People have strong feelings about that storefront. So where did you grow up?
Daniel: Balboa Terrace. It was a good place to grow up -- lots of wide-open spaces, sort of square. And I just walked to Lowell. My parents still live there. I recently said to them, "You have to remodel my room, because it looks like I died when I was 17 and you're keeping it the same."
Olivia: Would you do another children's literature series?
Daniel: When I was first approached to write for children, I was sort of insulted, but when I think about the most influential writers, the most widely read in America, there's no contest. There was this article that named John Updike as the most influential writer in American literature, but I haven't read much of his work--it doesn't interest me. I was just thinking about this, because HarperCollins publishes Beverly Cleary, and they just sent me her complete works, and I looked at all these Ramona books, which kids are reading now and I read as a kid and kids read before me. And if you're going to talk about an enduring figure in American literature, then to me it's Beverly Cleary, who has written dozens of books that are all read.
Writing for kids has been terrific. You have a more committed, fully immersed readership. When I think of the number of times I reread my favorite books as a kid and compare it to the number of times I've reread books now -- I mean, how many times am I going to reread [Haruki Murakami's] The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle? I've read it twice, I'll maybe read it five times in my lifetime, but 20 times? (laughs) I don't think so. Kids are a fun readership to reach in a way, because of their commitment.
The Lemony Snicket (and Daniel Handler) books are available in Noe Valley at Cover to Cover and Phoenix Books.
An Excerpt from Lemony Snicket's "The Bad Beginning"
A Series of Unfortunate Events
THE BAD BEGINNING
By Lemony Snicket
f 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 is how the story goes.
Their misfortune began one day at Briny Beach. The three Baudelaire children lived with their parents in an enormous mansion at the heart of a dirty and busy city, and occasionally their parents gave them permission to take a rickety trolley -- the word "rickety," you probably know, here means "unsteady" or "likely to collapse" -- alone to the seashore, where they would spend the day as a sort of vacation, as long as they were home for dinner. This particular morning it was gray and cloudy, which didn't bother the Baudelaire youngsters one bit. When it was hot and sunny, Briny Beach was crowded with tourists and it was impossible to find a good place to lay one's blanket. On gray and cloudy days, the Baudelaires had the beach to themselves to do what they liked.
Violet Baudelaire, the eldest, liked to skip rocks. Like most 14-year-olds, she was right-handed, so the rocks skipped farther across the murky water when Violet used her right hand than when she used her left. As she skipped rocks, she was looking out at the horizon and thinking about an invention she wanted to build. Anyone who knew Violet well could tell she was thinking hard, because her long hair was tied up in a ribbon to keep it out of her eyes. Violet had a real knack for inventing and building strange devices, so her brain was often filled with images of pulleys, levers, and gears, and she never wanted to be distracted by something as trivial as her hair. This morning she was thinking about how to construct a device that could retrieve a rock after you had skipped it into the ocean.
Klaus Baudelaire, the middle child, and the only boy, liked to examine creatures in tidepools. Klaus was a little older than 12 and wore glasses, which made him look intelligent. He was intelligent. The Baudelaire parents had an enormous library in their mansion, a room filled with thousands of books on nearly every subject. Being only 12, Klaus of course had not read all of the books in the Baudelaire library, but he had read a great many of them and had retained a lot of the information from his readings. He knew how to tell an alligator from a crocodile. He knew who killed Julius Caesar. And he knew much about the tiny, slimy animals found at Briny Beach, which he was examining now.
Sunny Baudelaire, the youngest, liked to bite things. She was an infant, and very small for her age, scarcely larger than a boot. What she lacked in size, however, she made up for with the size and sharpness of her four teeth. Sunny was at an age where one mostly speaks in a series of unintelligible shrieks. Except when she used the few actual words in her vocabulary, like "bottle," "mommy," and "bite," most people had trouble understanding what it was that Sunny was saying. For instance, this morning she was saying "Gack!" over and over, which probably meant, "Look at that mysterious figure emerging from the fog!..."
...As the figure reached them, the children saw with relief that it was not anybody frightening at all, but somebody they knew: Mr. Poe. Mr. Poe was a friend of Mr. and Mrs. Baudelaire's whom the children had met many times at dinner parties....
..."It's a nice day," Violet said finally, making conversation. Sunny made a noise that sounded like an angry bird, and Klaus picked her up and held her.
"Yes, it is a nice day," Mr. Poe said absently, staring out at the empty beach. "I'm afraid I have some very bad news for you children."
The three Baudelaire siblings looked at him. Violet, with some embarrassment, felt the stone in her left hand and was glad she had not thrown it at Mr. Poe.
"Your parents," Mr. Poe said, "have perished in a terrible fire."
Reprinted with author's permission from The Bad Beginning, the first book in Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events, for children 9 to 12, published in 1999 by HarperCollins Juvenile Books. For more excerpts, go to Lemony Snicket's web site: www.lemonysnicket.com.