The Very Fortunate Daniel Handler
Daniel Handler is better known as Lemony Snicket, author of the popular children’s book series, A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Author Daniel Handler, who is best known for his grim children’s book series, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, believes kids deserve to be taken seriously.
Daniel Handler: I actually find it really offensive when people talk about children like they’re some entirely different animal. There’s often a sense of children just being entirely different creatures which, if it were any other category, everyone would agree was monstrous.
Since its debut in 1999, the Series of Unfortunate Events has stood out for denying its young readers happy endings for its three orphan protagonists.
Handler: I share the urge to want to protect vulnerable people from terrible things. I think everybody has that urge. And when you have a child, or when you’re around a child, who says, “What’s wrong?” when something is happening, you want to say nothing. You want to say, “Everything’s fine.” And it isn’t always fine, and I think that an explanation works better.
This no-nonsense approach is rooted in Handler’s upbringing. His father fled Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust was discussed freely at home.
Handler: If you grow up hearing stories about fleeing a country, and some people make it and some people don’t, the moral underneath that is that anything can happen, and that you’re not the master of your own destiny. And there’s dark humor in that, because it’s funny to behave well and then have something terrible happen to you anyway. That’s a punch line, you know? So I think the dark humor is acknowledging that the world is completely out of control and bewildering, and we don’t know why we’re here, and we don’t know what we’re doing. And I just think that it’s something you’re curious about when you’re a child. If you have any imagination, you can know that the possibility of terrible things happening is all around you—and that you want to think about that and for the answer to be, no, that’s not going to happen, or that doesn’t happen, is just not answering what people are asking about. And that, to me, seems part of literature connecting with the world, is to think about questions that everyone’s already asking.
And Handler has certainly found an audience for his questions about the nature of things.
(clip from A Series of Unfortunate Events):
Narrator: If you are interested in stories with happy endings, that story is streaming elsewhere.
A Series of Unfortunate Events has been adapted for screens big and small, sold 65 million copies in print, and been translated into 41 languages. In addition to the core series, Handler has published an additional 26 novels under the pen name Lemony Snicket. He’s also published half a dozen books under his own name. Yet it’s remarkable that someone can be this prolific with such apparent ease.
Handler: I find a blank page really inspiring. So I don’t have a fear of it. I kind of don’t believe in writer’s block. I know writers who always say that they have writer’s block, but it seems to me actually what they are is distracted. And I’ve had friends where I’ve said, “I’m working at a cafe today. You are gonna come and sit across the table from me, and we’re both gonna work for three hours.” And then you’ll have written something. And maybe it’s terrible, but you’re not blocked. You’ll write something.
Handler: I don’t have a cell phone, and so no one can reach me in a cafe. I write long hand, so I’m really kind of cut off from technology and the world, so I like that a lot. But yeah, long hand’s kinda magical. You can draw a line through something, but it’s still there. So you can go back and say, “Wait a minute, maybe that wasn’t so terrible.” If you started a book with a computer and you wrote three sentences, and then you say, “Oh, I better save it.” And then the computer says, “Okay, well what are you gonna call this? What’s it called?” And you have to I don’t know, just, “okay, uh…”, that’s a lot of pressure.
And when he needs to take a load off, Daniel Handler can be found playing the accordion, swimming in the San Francisco Bay with his son, or wandering his home town. Though Handler says he was in many ways a pretentious teenager, thanks to the eclectic culture he grew up in, he wasn’t a lonely one.
Handler: I just wanted to live in a more glamorous world then what was directly available to me in high school. And so that was the pretense was to say, “How can we,” if it seems fun to be a flapper, “How can you do that when you’re 14 and you have four dollars?” Or, “Look, we’re all reading about medieval Japanese court and that seems really interesting to us. We’re not Japanese, it’s not the medieval times, what do we like about it, and how can we live our lives that way?” Can we conduct a romantic relationship entirely through one sentence notes that are passed between friends, or something like that? I mean, in many ways, I think that just got folded into my life. My most high profile work, it takes place in a world that’s governed by literature, where there’s people named Baudelaire escaping from various overblown, melodramatic events that are taken from different genres of literature. I don’t know if you’d call that pretentious, but it’s kind of dreaming up a world that’s more exciting than the realistic one.
It was exactly this obsession with the world in his head that brought Daniel Handler to Wesleyan, a traditional liberal arts college in Connecticut.
Handler: I think I just had a fantasy in my head of what a college education was, which was a New England old college with beautiful buildings and big lawns. I think that was just the image that I had of Wesleyan. All the schools that I applied to looked like that. When I visited Wesleyan, they let me sit in on this class that was studying poetry all around a table. The professor, Tony Connor, was a poet. He was British. He was, like, an old white guy with patches on his jacket and a pipe—which was very much what I pictured studying literature would be like, and so I ate that right up. And then I actually took that class when I was at Wesleyan, and every day, two or three people visited. It was clearly the class that they sent people to who liked literature. So that was really hypnotic to me.
After graduating, Handler returned briefly to the West Coast before he and then-girlfriend, now-wife of 20 years, the illustrator Lisa Brown, moved to New York City. For Handler, still an aspiring writer, the timing was close to perfect.
Handler: I didn’t know anything about publishing. I thought I knew some things about writing—and maybe I knew maybe one thing about writing—but I was trying to write a novel, and then I didn’t really know what happened after that. I assumed you wrote a novel, and then hopefully someone published it. I hadn’t really worked that part out. And New York’s a pretty good place to go and work that out.
Part of working it out was facing rejection, criticism, and advice he didn’t want to hear. One such tidbit came from an editor who believed he was well suited to writing for children.
Handler: I was kind of insulted at the time because I thought, well, doesn’t she understand, I’m like the next William Faulkner? He’s not for children. But I went and looked at children’s books, I looked at children’s literature that I had liked as a child, and I liked them. And I began to think of the idea of A Series of Unfortunate Events, and then as it was published. I found a community of writers and other sorts who were engaged with this idea of serious literature, but also being for young people. That’s really a kind of mission that is often not happening in adult publishing, and it was a really beautiful thing to find in children’s literature. It was a deep companionship and steadiness.
And just as he has found a place in the world of children’s literature, so, too, do Daniel Handler’s readers feel a sense of home in his worlds.