1970 • San Francisco, California
Many writers publish their work under a pseudonym, or alternate name. But Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, may be the only writer to have three identities. As Catherine Mallette of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram explained, Handler is "an author who is simultaneously a fictional character named Snicket, a representative of a fictional character named Snicket, and a best-selling writer." Under his given name, Daniel Handler, he has published two novels for adults, The Basic Eight and Watch Your Mouth . In addition, he has published eleven of the planned thirteen books in a series for children called A Series of Unfortunate Events under the name Lemony Snicket. Snicket, however, continually misses his public appearances, due to some unforeseen disaster, and Handler must step in and inform the masses of children who have come to see Snicket that they will have to settle for Snicket's representative—Handler.
Daniel Handler was born in 1970 in San Francisco, California, the son of an accountant and a college dean. An avid reader, he hated books that were overly happy. "If a book had a syrupy ending, he'd toss it aside," Handler's father, Louis, recalled to James Sullivan of Book . "It drove him crazy." Instead, Handler preferred darker works by such writers as Roald Dahl (1916–1990) or Edward Gorey (1925–2000). He attended Lowell High School, a prestigious San Francisco school, graduating in 1988. For college, he selected Wesleyan University. He began writing poetry and won the 1990 Poets Prize from the Academy of American Poets. But he soon turned toward the longer form of fiction. After graduating from Wesleyan he won an Olin Fellowship, the funding from which allowed him to write his first novel. Handler spent the mid-1990s working on his novel, and also wrote comedy sketches for a national radio show. He then moved to New York City, where he worked as a freelance book and movie critic.
The Basic Eight was published in 1999. The book takes the form of a diary, written by the character Flannery Culp while she is in prison for the murder of a teacher and fellow high school student. In her journal, she recalls the events of her senior year at Roewer High School that led to the murders. Reviews for Handler's debut novel were mixed. Publishers Weekly noted that the author's "confident satire is not only cheeky but packed with downright lovable characters whose youthful misadventures keep the novel neatly balanced between absurdity and poignancy." The New Yorker, however, noted that "the book is weakened by his [Handler's] attempt to turn a clever idea into social satire."
"What I think has rankled some people about the books is that they show that if you're good, you're not necessarily rewarded."
Handler's next novel, Watch Your Mouth, (2000) was the tale of Joseph, a college junior who lets his studies slide after falling in love. After finishing one class with a grade of incomplete (given when a student does not complete all the requirements of a class), his girlfriend, Cynthia, whom he calls Cyn, invites him to spend the summer with her family in Pittsburgh. Joseph is delighted at the chance to spend this summer with Cyn. But after he meets her family, a dark suspicion builds in his mind—that Cyn's family is involved in incest. Handler's second effort again received mixed reviews. Some critics praised the quirky quality of the book, while others found the story too twisted for their taste.
According to the Lemony Snicket Web site, "Lemony Snicket was born before you were, and is likely to die before you as well." Snicket's birth date may be unclear, but he was first conceived as Handler's first novel was being published. Since the novel was set in a high school, it was sometimes mistakenly sent to editors of children's books. Editor Susan Rich saw real potential for Handler as a children's author and approached him about trying to write for a younger audience. At first Handler was resistant, but he then pitched an idea for the kind of story that he would have enjoyed as a kid: a dark tale about three orphans who have lost their parents in a fire and are sent to live with a distant cousin, Count Olaf, who wants nothing more than to steal the children's inheritance. Handler never expected his idea to receive the publisher's support, but Rich loved it and soon Handler was at work on the first of A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Below are the first eleven books of the planned thirteen in the series.
The Bad Beginning, 1999.
The Reptile Room, 1999.
The Wide Window, 2000.
The Miserable Mill, 2000.
The Austere Academy, 2000.
The Ersatz Elevator, 2001.
The Vile Village, 2001.
The Hostile Hospital, 2001.
The Carniverous Carnival, 2002.
The Slippery Slope, 2003.
The Grim Grotto, 2004.
The story of the three Baudelaire children—Violet, Klaus, and Sunny—is told by Lemony Snicket, a name Handler first invented in order to keep himself off of unwanted mailing lists. The biography of Snicket on the Lemony Snicket Web site notes that he was born in a country that is now underwater and has been researching the lives of the Baudelaire orphans for "several eras." Snicket is described on the Web site as "eternally pursued and insatiably inquisitive, a hermit and a nomad." Readers who wish to learn more about the life of Lemony Snicket can turn to Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography. Published in 2002, the autobiography features thirteen chapters of notes, songs, letters, photos, newspaper clippings, and other documents. The book additionally includes more information about the characters in A Series of Unfortunate Events. The book also suggests that there is a connection between the Snicket family and the Baudelaires. Handler, as Snicket's representative, wrote the preface to the book.
A Series of Unfortunate Events starts with The Bad Beginning, published in 1999. On the first page, Snicket lets his readers know what kind of story they are in for: "If you are interested in stories with happy endings," he writes, "you would be better off with another book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning, and very few happy things in the middle." Regardless of the lack of "happy" material, The Bad Beginning and each subsequent installment of the series was embraced by readers of all ages. Handler was dumb-founded by the huge success of the Snicket books. "I thought [Susan Rich and I] were two crazy people," he told Mallette. "Then I thought the publishing house was a bunch of crazy people. Now, it seems everyone's crazy. The books just failed to fail." Indeed, by 2003 the books had sold more than thirteen million copies, had been translated into thirty-seven languages, and had been sold in over forty countries.
Part of the success of the books is due to the fact that Snicket does not talk down to his young readers. He uses big words, and humorously inserts vocabulary lessons. Some readers, however, have objected to Snicket's books. These critics consider them too dark for children and disapprove of the fact that every adult the children meet is, according to Mallette, "completely clueless and incompetent." The books have even been banned in Decatur, Georgia. But Handler argues that the message of the Snicket books is true to life: good behavior is not automatically rewarded, but you should always try to do the right thing anyway. The Baudelaire children must rely on their wits to escape each disaster, rather than expecting that good things will come their way simply because they are good.
A movie based on the first three books in the series was set for release in December of 2004. The film stars Jim Carrey (1962–) as the evil Count Olaf and features Meryl Streep (1949–) as Aunt Josephine. Jude Law (1972–) narrates the film in the role of Snicket. Fans of the books eagerly awaited the film, but the Lemony Snicket Web site warned, "Unless you have a taste for dark rooms, sticky floors, stale popcorn, and unhappy endings, steer clear of the movie."
The first book that Daniel Handler bought with his own money was The Blue Aspic by Edward Gorey. Born in Chicago in 1925, Gorey was a writer and illustrator who published more than one hundred books. Like Handler's books, Gorey's work appeals to a wide age group. His children's books create a dark world where children are not safe from unhappy events. Alison Lurie, writing in New York Times Review of Books, noted that children in Gorey's books "fall victim to natural disasters, are carried off by giant birds, or are eaten by comic monsters.... Yet somehow the overall effect is not tragic but comic."
After graduating from high school, Gorey served in the U.S. Army from 1944 to 1946. He attended Harvard University, earning a degree in French. Gorey then went to work for the publishing company Doubleday in 1953, serving as illustrator for several books. His first book, The Unstrung Harp, was also published that year. He later left Doubleday, forming his own independent press. His first children's book was The Doubtful Guest (1957), in which a family finds themselves housing a most unusual guest—a creature that looks like a cross between a penguin and an anteater and wears high-top sneakers and a flowing scarf. One of his most notorious children's books, The Gashlycrumb Tinies, was published in 1962. This alphabet book chronicles the deaths of twenty-six children, all in rhyming order: "A is for AMY who fell down the stairs / B is for BASIL assaulted by bears."
Although many of his books were intended for children as well as adults, they were not all published as children's books. To this day, critics argue if Gorey's work can be considered children's literature, given the dark subject matter and "unfortunate events" that happen to children in these stories. It is this very belief that children need to be protected from unhappy events that the Lemony Snicket books reject. In addition to writing and illustrating, Gorey also designed sets for theatrical productions, beginning with a 1977 version of Dracula for which he received a Tony Award. Gorey, who never married, died of a heart attack in April of 2000.
Daniel Handler is married to Lisa Brown, a graphic artist. The couple has one child. Lemony Snicket dedicates each book to a woman named Beatrice. The details of Beatrice's relationship to Snicket remain a mystery. When asked about Beatrice's identity he responded on the Lemony Snicket Web site, "This answer is so terrible that I cannot even begin to say it without weeping. O Beatrice! My Beatrice!"
"Edward Gorey." Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 40. Gale Group, 2001.
"Lemony Snicket." Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2004.
Fierman, Daniel. "Lemony Snicket." Entertainment Weekly (April 23, 2004): p. 58.
Lurie, Alison. "On Edward Gorey (1925–2000)." New York Times Review of Books (May 25, 2000): p. 20.
Mallette, Catherine. "Tracking Lemony Snicket. The True Story (Well, Mostly) of the Mysterious, Fugitive, Best-Selling Author of A Series of Unfortunate Events." Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, Texas) (September 24, 2003).
"Review of The Basic Eight. " Publishers Weekly (March 1, 1999): p. 59.
"Review of The Basic Eight. " New Yorker (June 21, 1999).
Scott, Laura. "Review of Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiograhy. " School Library Journal (July 2002): p. 124.
Sullivan, James. "He's Having a Baby: This Halloween, After Four Years of Torturing Children, Superstar Author Lemony Snicket is Getting Exactly What He Deserves." Book (November–December 2003).
LemonySnicket.com. http://www.lemonysnicket.com (accessed on August 25, 2004).