He was five years old when he knew he wanted to be a writer, maybe even earlier than that. But he didn’t want to write the kind of books about soccer games and summer camps with happy endings — he wanted to write A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Daniel Handler, who spoke at Hall Auditorium as part of Miami’s Lecture Series, has always been fascinated by stories that made him ask questions, the kind that you continue thinking about even after turning the last page.
Handler’s story isn’t one of instant success, though. His first novel, “The Basic Eight,” was rejected by nearly 40 publishers.
“I liken trying to get published to trying to get a date,” Handler said. “You want a date, but you want to have a good time together. The goal isn’t ‘Oh, my god! I got someone to go out with me! I’ll take anyone!’ And it’s hard because when you have a piece of writing that you’re trying to sell, that’s how you feel. But, what you really want is a good relationship.”
While Handler has published several novels under his real name, he is best known for “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” written under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket.
Snicket is the mysterious narrator of the 13-part series, as well as several hybrid spin-off novels.
Handler was inspired to create Snicket, in terms of the narrator being a part of the novel, from E.L. Konigsburg’s book “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.” He also credits Roald Dahl and Edward Gorey as inspirations for his writing style and his unconventional way of storytelling.
Before becoming a full-time writer, Handler answered phones for the computer science department of City College in San Francisco. While there, he was able to read various newspapers from around the city “cover to cover.”
“I would find the most harmless articles, and then I would compose (on the typewriter in the computer science department of City College in San Francisco, because that’s what we had in the computer science department of City College in San Francisco: typewriters) outraged letters to the editor regarding these articles. If an official announced that street cleaning schedules had changed, I would point out that the shift from Tuesdays to Fridays was probably rooted in anti-Semitism. It was a hobby.”
The letters all had two things in common. They had the same opening sentences: “How dare you!” And they closed not with his own name, but with a name that he had devised on the phone with a right-wing political group.
“I was on the phone with a ridiculous conservative organization and a ridiculous conservative woman on the phone, asking for my name. I thought to myself, ‘don’t say your real name’ and uttered the first thing that came into my head: ‘Lemony Snicket.’”
There was a pause on the other end of the line.
“During the pause, I thought to myself, ‘That was an idiotic thing to say.’ I thought no one would buy that that was a real name.”
But Handler was wrong.
“After the pause, the ridiculous conservative woman said, ‘Is that spelled how it sounds?’ And I said, ‘yes.’ And then I asked her to read it back to me because I had no idea how it’s spelled.”
So, he wrote it down, and the name stuck.
Handler is currently working on another novel under the Snicket pseudonym called “Poison for Breakfast” that takes place in the same “bewildering” world as “A Series of Unfortunate Events” — a world where three orphans lose their home and their parents and find themselves lost in a hurricane, stuck in a lumber mill and facing a penultimate peril.