February 17, 2005
Shadows of Shoah in ‘Snicket’ World
Daniel Handler looks like a character in one of his own "Lemony Snicket" novels. At a breakfast interview with The Journal at a New York café, he wears a pinstriped suit with a handkerchief in the pocket -- reminiscent of something the bumbling Mr. Poe might wear when he deposits the unfortunate Baudelaire orphans at the home of a relative who wants to kill them and collect their fortune. In repose and in photographs, Handler's face turns dole, as if, like Snicket, he is turned melancholy by the events he narrates.
Nevertheless the disparity between Handler as Handler and Handler as Snicket is huge. In conversation, Handler, who has now authored 11 books in the wildly popular "Lemony Snicket's: A Series of Unfortunate Events," is so lively and funny that it is difficult to recognize him as the person who wrote about three children whose lives are so bad that the high point for them was their parents dying in a fire. Handler's dour fiction seems to be coming from a place that is far removed from his personality.
"I thought it was a terrible idea that I write for children," said Handler, while tucking into his bagel and lox. "I am the sort of person who thinks of stories that are on the macabre side of the spectrum. I just try to think of things that would be interesting, and what was interesting to me was something dreadful happening or something dreadful about to happen, and I couldn't imagine any children's publishing house taking an interest in that."
But take an interest they did. When he was 28, Handler, who at the time was a struggling writer, found himself possessor of a four-book deal with Harper Collins, which was intrigued by his proposal for a series of books about, as he puts it "orphans who will get into a lot of terrible trouble and nothing good will ever happen to them."
The series became a runaway hit and turned the warm and fuzzy world of children's literature on its head. Thus far, the books (there will be an unlucky 13 books in all), with their wretched-sounding alliterative titles -- the latest one is "The Grim Grotto" -- have sold 25 million copies. This past winter, Jim Carrey starred as Count Olaf, the series' most nefarious villain, in Paramount Pictures "Lemony Snicket's: A Series of Unfortunate Events." The film, based on the first three books, made more than $100 million at the box office (no date has been set on a DVD release).
Handler's genesis as the chronicler of the macabre came about from a childhood in which the Holocaust was a lurking constant.
"My father left Germany in late 1938," Handler said. "He left for what in retrospect seems like obvious reasons, but at the time everyone was figuring out when to leave. And those who chose to stay generally were not having a good time."
The Handlers eventually settled in San Francisco, and their household was a traditional Jewish one -- they observed Shabbat, went to temple and sent their children to Hebrew school. But, as Handler puts it, when the extended family would get together, "the stories around the dinner table would be about getting out of Germany."
"I don't think I had a specific fear of the Nazis. The narrative that was in my head was would I know when it was time to leave -- that any moment the borders could be closed and what could you do?" Handler said. "When I was a child I took relief from the fact that San Francisco was on the shore, so I thought I could leave that way, which was kind of silly because what was a 10-year-old boy going to do -- be pushed out in a rowboat on the Pacific Ocean?"
But like Count Olaf, who attaches himself to the Baudelaires like a murderous leech that they can't escape, Handler "was aware that there was menace at an early age."
"I don't think the Jewish philosophy on menace is that it doesn't really exist or that good will overcome it. And certainly there is not any sense of if you are a good person, you will avoid that menace, which is certainly a sense in other religions," Handler said. "Judaism doesn't promise that at all. If you look up the history of the Jewish people, you would think that they had been chosen for something else. So I think there was that sense [when I wrote the books]."
Now Handler lives in San Francisco and is working on books 12 and 13 of the series, as well as an adult novel. He is also a new father of 1-year-old Otto, who, like Sunny, the youngest Baudelaire orphan, likes to bite things and speak in unintelligible syllables that only his family can understand.
"The baby only has one word now. He says 'aorbb,' which means up," Handler said. "I am nervous about [Otto reading my books] because you have no worse critic than your own offspring. I fear he will find the books boring, and that will be very painful for me."
I do have the option of not telling him that I wrote them," he added. "I wonder how long I can keep that up."
For more information on "Lemony Snicket" visit www.lemonysnicket.com (which tells readers "Attention: Please Run For Your Life. You have undoubtedly reached this Web site by mistake").