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EXCLUSIVE - Lemony talks

by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2004-12-17

Daniel Handler

Lemony Snicket author Daniel Handler

There was a time when children's literature was strictly the domain of the under-tens, but these days everybody seems to be reading it regardless of age. Following on from the likes of Harry Potter and Artemis Fowl, the latest children's series set for global domination are the works of one Lemony Snicket who is now appearing on the big screen.

The Series Of Unfortunate Events novels first hit the shelves in 1999 and have been gaining a huge following ever since - but not just with junior readers. Grown-ups are also becoming hooked on the offbeat series, which tells the continuing adventures of the plucky Baudelaire orphans - Violet, Klaus and baby Sunny - and their repeated attempts to escape the clutches of a distant relative, Count Olaf, who wants to get his hands on their enormous fortune.

Although Snicket goes to a great deal of trouble to try and put people off reading the misfortune that follows the orphans as they're shipped from one relative to another, there's no denying the books are seriously addictive.

But just to further complicate matters the mysterious, oddly named narrator doesn't actually exist. The books are in fact the work of Jewish 34-year-old author Daniel Handler, a San Franciscan native who came up with the name Lemony Snicket while researching extreme right-wing groups for his first 'grown-up' novel The Basic Eight.

Not wanting to give his real name to any dodgy mailing lists, he came up with the pseudonym on the spot - and now it's making him a fortune. The two books he has written under his own name are equally offbeat - The Basic Eight is a darkly funny comedy about a nice Jewish high school student who is seriously unhinged, while Watch Your Mouth features a dysfunctional Jewish family being terrorised by a Golem.

SomethingJewish caught up with Daniel to find out his thoughts on the success of Snicket, the apparently non-existent Potter rivalry, and of course the importance of Jewish food.

How close to your own high-school experiences were those featured in The Basic Eight?Enough that my high school newspaper accused me of besmirching several teachers' reputations. It was the only negative review of The Basic Eight of which I'm aware.

How important is it to you to include Jewish themes/issues in your novels?
I don't know how important it is, but it keeps happening!

You've been quoted as saying that your books 'stem from great Jewish traditions' - which traditions in particular?
Guilt, the importance of morality in one's behavior rather than in one's heart, a belief that many large institutions will treat one poorly and the search for meaning in rhetorical details and food.

What was it about the Golem legend that inspired you to give it a modern spin in your second novel, Watch Your Mouth?
Everything about the golem is interesting - the turbulent and oppressive regimes which lead to its creation, its emotional projection of its creator and its inevitable and chaotic results.

Did you ever think the Lemony Snicket books would become such a phenomenon?
I thought that the Lemony Snicket books would become a very common phenomenon -odd books passing, quickly and unnoticed, out of print, only to be read by chance.

How do you feel about the inevitable Harry Potter comparisons (people referring to the series as 'the next Harry Potter' because of its enormous success?
I suppose the comparisons to Rowling are inevitable, although I'm not quite sure what they amount to. Certainly the enormous popularity of her books helped pave the way for Snicket's success. Some people seem eager to witness a fierce rivalry between the two of us, but as far as I know there isn't one.

Do you still get swamped with emails from fans sharing their plot theories as to how the Unfortunate Events series will end, and what's the strangest theory you've ever come across?
I receive thousands and thousands of emails and letters, and it breaks my heart to think of the sluggish pace at which they are read and, in some cases, answered. Recently someone theorized that the first letter of the last word of the title of each of the Snicket books, when strung together, spelled a message. That message, of course, is BRWMAEVHAC, and you're welcome to it.

How did you get your big break as an author?
This question reminds me of some dialogue in The Sun Also Rises - "How did you go bankrupt?" "Two ways: gradually and then suddenly." It took me six years to sell my first novel, and I spent that time in poverty and desperation that I assured myself would look glamorous and bohemian in hindsight and in fact does. The Basic Eight was largely unnoticed upon publication, although received some good reviews that proved not to be as valuable to my landlord as they were to me; the Snicket books experienced a slow burn in America before anyone had heard of them abroad. It's difficult to pinpoint a particular moment when my career changed from what it was to what it is. Really, the only explanation is sheer dumb luck, an explanation most people find unsatisfying.

What's your own Jewish upbringing/background, and are you more of a cultural or religious Jew?
I was raised largely in the Reform movement with a few sidetrips into the Conservative movement when deemed necessary. I would call myself a cultural Jew for the simple reason that I'm not a religious anything.

Who, living or dead, is the world's most inspirational Jewish person?
This question has not only so many answers, but so many kind of answers: obvious (Moses), literary (Singer, or maybe Roth), pop (Beck, or maybe Bacharach), political (Chomsky), cinematic (the Marx Brothers, obviously, although one can only dream of a world where all nice Jewish girls look like Lauren Bacall), theoretical (whoever invented latkes) and honorary (Nabokov). So I'll just choose a person at random: Madeline Kahn.

The Basic Eight and Watch Your Mouth are published by Allison And Busby. The Series Of Unfortunate Events are published by Egmont.

Lemony Snicket, The Series Of Unfortunate Events is out now in the cinema