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MISFORTUNE, HANDLED ARTFULLY
Lemony Snicket is an elusive author. As the narrator of A Series of Unfortunate Events, he is always on the run, desperate to evade the grasp of his villainous pursuers. Readers of the children's novels know this well. What some readers may not be familiar with is that "Lemony Snicket" is a pen name for Daniel Handler, also the author of adult fiction novels The Basic Eight, Watch Your Mouth, and most recently Adverbs. I had the chance to catch up with the reticent writer and ask him a few questions via email about his work.
Mr. Handler is probably best known for A Series of Unfortunate Events, the tale of three orphaned children trying to keep away from their evil guardian Count Olaf, who repeatedly attempts to steal the fortune the kids have inherited. The widely popular series has sold more than 50 million copies worldwide, and the Baudelaire orphans seem to be America's answer to Harry Potter. Children and adults alike are drawn to the dark humor and grim adventures, the titles of which inform the reader of what to come while employing the use of alliteration, such as "The Bad Beginning," "The Hostile Hospital," and "The Penultimate Peril." Such a wide audience rarely feels so delighted at reading about the misery of others.
After this successful run, the series was expected to come to an end with the publication of the 13th book last October, appropriately titled The End. When asked how he felt about bringing it to a close, Mr. Handler responds, "It is a sad kind of relief, like a sort of graduation: I'm happy to be done, but I'm sad to leave."
Readers may be in mourning at the prospect of no longer being able to discover arcane and sometimes enigmatic literary allusions within the texts. In fact, having his narrator Mr. Snicket explains what everyday idioms mean and their often-confused understandings is one thing readers enjoy most. Acknowledging this, Mr. Handler says, "One of the saddest parts of finishing the Series was realizing I no longer had an enormous display shelf for my favorite literary references and idiomatic expressions, which I showed off for the same reasons anyone shows off something: because they like it, and because they hope other people like it, too."
However, when asked if readers can expect more from Lemony Snicket, he adds, "I expect Mr. Snicket will surface before too long." And indeed, within the last week I have heard news that he will be coming out with at least one more Unfortunate Events book.
In the meantime, readers can pick up his novels for adults, starting with The Basic Eight, the story of a high school girl struggling with her relationships, who inevitably turns to murder and occultism. Mr. Handler wasn't always popular, in fact, The Basic Eight was rejected by publishers a reported 37 times before it got picked up. Undoubtedly, this must have been difficult to deal with, and Mr. Handler says, "I handled this with bitterness and strong drink. I would advise other writers to let me know if there's a better strategy."
Apparently, his spirits lifted long enough to write Watch Your Mouth, an operatic telling of a golem, a figure in Jewish folklore, come to life and wreaking havoc on a family already dealing with issues of incest. Due to the risqué nature of his writings, Mr. Handler had drawn some criticism. Not only do they contain somewhat salacious sex scenes, but there is fear that his younger readers may stumble upon the works.
In response, he says, "I try not to worry about my readers very much, as presumably they are worrying sufficiently about themselves, and I've never understood what the fuss is about young readers reading the occasional 'racy' paragraph. Surely not many sexual criminals credit their teenage discovery of Anais Nin's diaries for their behavior."
Mr. Handler also has a penchant for featuring strong female characters in his books. This ranges from the inventive and intelligent Violet Baudelaire in A Series of Unfortunate Events to the cunning and headstrong Flannery Culp of The Basic Eight. This decidedly goes against the grain of typical portrayals of women in mainstream media. "I put strong women in my books because I like them, and because strong women I know personally would punish me severely if I didn't. I hope everyone adopts this attitude but I don't flatter myself that such changes will occur because of me."
His latest novel, Adverbs, is a modern take on love stories. The titles of each chapter relate ways in which people fall in love, with such descriptive words as "Immediately," "Naturally," "Briefly," "Frigidly," and "Collectively," to name a few. Each chapter reads like a separate short story, yet they intertwine with recurring characters popping up unexpectedly. Even Daniel Handler himself shows up at one point.
The chapters are written in a non-linear fashion with multiple narrators. Some characters share names or don pseudonyms throughout the book. Most of it is set in Mr. Handler's native San Francisco. The reader is taken on a ride in a taxi, through threats of terrorist attacks, an impending volcano eruption, and into bars that offer drinks with strange names, all while making references to obscure rock bands.
The stories raise questions about the basis of love, and how it encompasses chivalry, money and magpies. Ghosts and Snow Queens are in no short supply. If any of this sounds confusing, it should. Mr. Handler rationalizes, "Love is a mess, so it made sense to me that a book about love ought to be messy."
Recently, Mr. Handler started work on the film version of Adverbs. He can add this to the list of screenplays he has already turned into movies, "Rick" and "Kill the Poor." He was set to write the screenplay for "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events," which came out in 2004 starring Jim Carrey, but after revising the script 7 or 8 times, he gave it over to other writers. On the difference between writing such projects, he says, "Fiction is my first love because it's a solitary pursuit. But it's nice to take a break from solitude and work on something with other people.
Mr. Handler finds ways to exercise his love of music in his work, as well. He is a big fan of opera, which influenced the structure of Watch Your Mouth. He plays the accordion, and records with his friend Stephin Merritt, of The Magnetic Fields, on various projects.
Mr. Handler is currently working on "The Composer Is Dead," a recent play narrated by Lemony Snicket and set to an orchestra. Written in collaboration with composer Nathaniel Stookey, it is a piece not unlike "Peter And The Wolf," which is also set for an orchestra and narrator. "The Composer is Dead" made its debut with the San Francisco Symphony last spring and will be performed over the next year or so with symphony orchestras in various locations.
All this should keep Mr. Handler busy, happily, for a long time.
Daniel Handler will be guest speaking at Fresno State University, at the Satellite Student Union, beginning at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 27. Admission is $2 for students, $6 faculty, and $10 general.