Interview: Lemony Snicket author Daniel Handler

NO-ONE in Scotland has ever seen Lemony Snicket. If you're a truly obsessive fan (as most of his are), you might have seen a photo of him on the odd website or the very occasional newspaper interview, but they only ever show the back of his head, not his face.

• Daniel Handler surrounded by Lemony Snicket fans. Picture: TSPL

His books might have made him a millionaire many times over, with more sales than almost any living children's author, apart from JK Rowling, but the man himself remains a mystery.

Hide Ad

Until yesterday, he'd never been to Scotland. He was scheduled to appear at just one event, and it wasn't open to the public. But if you were one of the 800 Edinburgh schoolchildren packed into the Queen's Hall on Wednesday, the biggest secret in children's publishing would have been yours. You'd get to find out what the author of A Series of Unfortunate Events actually looked like.

Down in the front row, opinions were divided. "I think he'll be tall, English and in his early thirties," said Sam Whyte, a nine-year-old sprung from maths and language classes at Merchiston Castle School for his first visit to the Queen's Hall.

"He's actually American, is 39 years old and was born on 28 February, 1970," corrected Jamie Miller, also nine, from the Edinburgh Academy, with the precision of a true fan.

But no, he didn't know what Lemony Snicket looked like, because nobody did. Within minutes, though, all would be revealed. This was, after all, an audience with Lemony Snicket. What could possibly go wrong?

Now, if there's one thing that readers of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events – all the hundreds of millions of then – know, it's that when someone writes, "What could possibly go wrong?", something always does.

So that was almost certainly why a tall, portly and – yes, Jamie – 39-year-old American wearing a charcoal pinstripe suit and a floral tie walked, sighing slightly, to the stage at 10:30am precisely.

Hide Ad

He was sorry, he said, to have to tell the audience that Lemony Snicket wouldn't be attending this cathedral. He didn't know why anybody would want to lie to children and tell them Lemony Snicket would be coming. "Lying to children," he observed sonorously, is just wrong. "Although it is fun."

I look up at the faces in the front row. They are smiling, laughing, expectant, every one. There's a twisting reverse psychology in almost every word from the stage that follows, yet the children – addressed as "Sir" or "Madam" throughout – get the joke perfectly. Lemony Snicket, the man tells them, regrets that he can't attend this synagogue because only the other day a particularly unfortunate event happened at a picnic. Can anyone define what a picnic is? A forest of straining hands. "You go out and have food on a rug," says a young girl in the middle of the hall. Exactly.

Hide Ad

And the man on the stage will tell of even more unfortunate events in the course of the next hour, about all the things that go disastrously, appallingly, depressingly wrong, not just at picnics, but in the lives of the Baudelaire orphans and the evil Count Olaf who is out to kill them, all characters about whom he has written his series of 13 (naturally!) 13-chaptered books.

He'll be sardonic, scolding, despairing, grimmer than Grimm. And the kids will love him for it.

Towards the end, he asks them to laugh. An explosion of laughter rocks the hall. "No, no, no," says the man on the stage. "You just sound like a bunch of children being entertained by a genius entertainer. No. You should sound more like a bunch of drunken adults returning from a party. Try again."

They do. "I knew you'd know," says the genius entertainer.

DANIEL Handler, the writer the world knows by his odd nom de plume, has been doing this show for nine years now. He got the idea, he tells me later, from a monologue the famed American wit Robert Benchley used to give about a bumbling assistant treasurer forced to deliver the speech his boss – absent through illness – had planned to give, even though he hardly understands a word of it.

The first time Handler gave it was in a cavernous Michigan bookstore with 200 empty seats, no children, and – right at the back – just two adults. He performed the whole act, and at the end watched the two adults make their way slowly to the booksigning table. They were, they told him, book buyers from a rival book chain. "We hate these books," one of them said. "And we just had to see who was responsible for them."

Even then – long before the 120 million-grossing Hollywood film, long before schoolyard word-of-mouth pushed the books towards bestsellerdom – that was a minority opinion. These days, however, Snicket's critical reputation is secure. "He addresses his readers directly," says children's books expert Lindsey Fraser, "and they love that professorial authorial voice. Linguistically, the books are quite challenging. You might think children would find them hard going, but they don't, because the stories are quite compelling." Or, in the words of nine-year-old Harry Feachen, from the Edinburgh Academy, yesterday sounding suspiciously like Al Pacino in Godfather II, "The thing about Lemony Snicket… he draws you in."

Hide Ad

Most commentators single out the maverick marketing campaign – those booksellers with badges saying "DON'T ask me about Lemony Snicket", those warning notes about their direly depressing contents on the books themselves – as the main reason for the success of the series.

"I know, I know," says Handler. "It all looks manipulative and clever now. But at the time…" And he tells me a story every bit as engrossing as the one that captivated Edinburgh's pre-teens yesterday.

Hide Ad

Back in the late 1990s, Handler was an archetypal impecunious author in New York. At a publisher's party he met Susan Rich, a Canadian editor who urged him to think about writing for children. "I was kind of offended because I was at that arrogant unpublished stage when I thought, 'They would never have asked F Scott Fitzgerald to do that'."

But she insisted and he kept procrastinating, still reluctant to consider children's fiction. The only idea he had, was just too dark. Nobody would ever publish it. He agreed to meet her at a bar to discuss it.

"She liked it right away, which embarrassed me because I thought she must be a lightweight. Either that or she couldn't hold her liquor. Then I thought she'd call me in the morning and say, 'Now I've thought it over, I think it's a really terrible idea.' But she's Canadian, and they drink like fish, and she called me in the morning and said, 'I'm stone cold sober now and I still like the idea, so can you write it?' And I did.

"All the same, I knew it would still be a complete disaster even if it was published, because the books are so dark and dreadful. And that's where all these warnings against reading them came from. Because when Susan said we've got to put something on the back of the book that's going to make someone want to pick it up, I hadn't got a clue.

"So I took a walk round the neighbourhood, and I passed a pharmacy and saw all these bottles in the window with warning labels on them. And I thought, 'Uh-huh'. Yes, it was a turning point."

All the time, the way Handler tells it, he was backing into the limelight with an absolute reluctance. He liked the idea of the books being written by a fictional character, but he'd never thought what that would mean when it came to publicising them.

Hide Ad

Hence the enigma-stoking photos showing only the back of his head. It wasn't the result of a sophisticated marketing push with all his publisher's resources behind it, merely a low-level project – involving a debut writer and an editor on the bottom rung of the career ladder – that was given its head and ended up working spectacularly.

"I kept on being astonished the way it all worked out. I still am. I mean, if you told me ten years ago that I'd be in Edinburgh being interviewed, I would have probably guessed that maybe I'd be a backpacker who'd witnessed some…"

Hide Ad

…Unfortunate event? I finish for him. Talking of which, is another reason for the books' success the fact they show childhood as being less safe and secure than children themselves may wish?

"Yes. In America now there is this phenomenon called helicopter parenting, where you're hovering over your child for the whole time. Parents there view their job as being to make sure their kid never has a moment of unhappiness. Of course, as a parent myself (he and his illustrator wife Lisa have two children aged three and five), I can understand the urge, but I don't know whether it would be healthy – or possible."

The last word on this should perhaps go to his audience. When I asked Jamie Miller what he'd tell his mother about Lemony Snicket, he spoke for everyone I met. "I'd say that he was very, very, very enjoyable, and so exciting," he beams.

Even though the man himself, like Godot, never turned up.

• New paperback editions of the first three volumes of A Series of Unfortunate Events have just been published by Egmont, priced 5.99 each. A film of yesterday's Queen's Hall event will soon be put on the website of Scottish Book Trust, its organisers. See


• Lemony Snicket is the nom de plume of San Francisco author Daniel Handler. The 13 books in A Series of Unfortunate Events have sold well over 50 million copies and have been translated into 41 different languages.

• In all of the books, the three young Baudelaire orphans – the bookish Klaus, the inventive Violet and Sunny, a toddler who does little apart from bite – are pursued by their evil uncle, Count Olaf, who wants to kill them and appropriate their inheritance. In the 2004 Hollywood film based on the first three books, which grossed 122 million worldwide, Count Olaf was played by Jim Carrey.

Hide Ad

• Handler is also the author of three books for adults. When researching extremist right-wing organisations for the first of these, The Basic Eight, he came up with the name Lemony Snicket when he was asked to whom they should send their material.

• Snicket constantly attempts to persuade his readers to stop reading his books. "It is my sad duty to write down these unpleasant tales," he warns at the start of The Bad Beginning, the first book in the series, "but there is nothing stopping you from putting this book down at once and reading something happy.

Hide Ad

"In this short book alone, the three youngsters encounter a greedy and repulsive villain, itchy clothing, a disastrous fire, a plot to steal their fortune, and cold porridge for breakfast."