Good Reading : July 2001
wordof mouth children Good Reading talks with the man behind A Series of Unfortunate Events A mysterious phenomenon has taken the world of children’s literature by storm in the shape of Lemony Snicket, the elusive, transient, pursued author-in- exile who is responsible for bringing to public notice the wretched, tragic lives of the Baudelaire children in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Compelled it seems by an overwhelming sense of social responsibility and a belief in social justice, Mr Snicket’s life work is researching and reporting the Baudelaire family tragedy. Good Reading Magazine recently attempted to catch up with Mr Snicket by phone. Interestingly, New York-based author Daniel Handler (surely a pseudonym?) answered the call. Mr Snicket, being the recluse that he is, was reluctant to come to the phone. As has happened with consistent regularity in the past, Mr Handler, who is Mr Snicket’s official spokesperson, was forced to step in at the last moment. I was disappointed but Mr Handler was so charming, I almost felt like I was talking to Lemony himself! I asked Mr Handler if he could give me any tantalising morsels of information about Mr Snicket. ‘Lemony has led a life of misfortune and tragedy. As far as anyone knows he is the only surviving child in his family. He was born before you are and his family has roots in a part of the country that is now under water.’ Is Mr Snicket related to the Baudelaire children? ‘Aesthetically he is related to the Baudelaire children but they are not blood relatives.’ 46 I was intrigued to know how Mr Snicket and Mr Handler had come into each other’s lives. ‘While researching an earlier book I had telephoned various radical right wing political organisations and several religious groups and whenever they asked my name I said Lemony Snicket. So after that my friends and I started using that name when booking tables at restaurants, or buying tickets, etc. It’s kind of funny for us all now to see his name in print.’ It does seem incredible that this name turned out to be the same name as that of the man who wrote A Series of Unfortunate Events. Are they collaborators? ‘Well, I had published a young adult novel called The Basic Eight which is set in a high school environment. The publishers asked me if I had ever considered writing for children. I said no because of my creepy imagination. I then began work on a mock gothic novel for adults, but abandoned it. Meanwhile, the editor at HarperCollins was extremely persistent in encouraging me to write for children. In the end, the gothic story was recast into one about three orphans who are chased by a Count and have terrible things happen to them. The editor thought it was fabulous and so did the publishers.’ But just who recast the story Mr Handler didn’t reveal. The Unfortunate Events stories can be described as Victorian melodrama mixed with the black, humorous, and macabre qualities associated with the writings of Roald Dahl and Edward Gorey, who incidentally are two of Mr Handler’s favourite childhood authors. The Series details the unfortunate plight of the Baudelaire orphans: Violet, fourteen-year-old inventor, Klaus, twelve-year-old bibliophile, and baby, Sunny, owner of four very sharp teeth. The reader comes face to face with the children’s desperate and miserable situations of abuse – itchy clothing, cold porridge for breakfast and the greedy evil uncle who invades their lives. I asked Mr Handler whether Mr Snicket was surprised by the overwhelming success of the books worldwide. ‘Yes, I suppose he saw the Series as something that didn’t fail rather than a success. I really thought they’d be noble failures. Because the stories are so gruesome and horrible I was worried that parents might block the books getting to children. I wasn’t necessarily worried that children wouldn’t like them once they’d had the opportunity to read them.’ I suggested that the flip side of a parent’s dismay with the book’s subject matter may be their delight at seeing their child reading. Mr Handler replied, ‘I know Mr Snicket would want me to say: “It is gratifying to know that I am an instrument in promoting reading and the pleasure of reading”.’ The pleasure in this experience is certainly a ‘marriage’ of the books’ content and presentation. Decorated end papers, ex libris nameplate, rough cut pages and the aesthetically dark Victorian tone of illustrator Brett Helquist’s expressive pencil drawings, contribute to the appeal of the small hard bound volumes, all of which are dedicated to ‘Beatrice’. I had heard that Mr Snicket was a bit sensitive on the subject of Beatrice but so great is my curiosity about her that it over-rode any sense of restraint I’d maintained throughout this interview with Mr Snicket’s representative. So I asked Mr Handler if he could tell me who Beatrice is or was. ‘Beatrice is the woman Mr Snicket was in love with. You really would have to check directly with Mr Snicket for more information.’ Mr Snicket’s reluctance to speak and make any public appearances obviously makes it difficult to dig deeper about his beloved Beatrice. I went on to suggest that if we applied the adage that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, what should I include on Mr Snicket’s menu to perhaps entice heart-felt Beatrice ‘snippets’. ‘I don’t think that there is enough Beluga caviar in the world to encourage Mr Snicket to speak publicly about Beatrice,’ replied Mr Handler. I felt this was the moment to concentrate on less intrusive questioning. Does Mr Snicket still play the harpsichord? ‘Yes, Lemony does still play the harpsichord and the accordion as part of his recreational activities. He will also play the occasional game of bridge or attend the odd Opera. But he is pretty much a full time investigator,’ Mr Handler replied. He also let slip that Lemony is presently writing volume nine of the thirteen part series and that volume eight will be published in December. Although Mr Snicket was unable to take my call, I found Mr Handler’s unassuming and engaging manner more than compensated for his absence. It will be intriguing to see how many times Mr Handler has to step in for Mr Snicket when they both tour Australia in July – see Bookings on page 19 for further details on where you can meet Mr Snicket or is that Mr Handler?