Dr. Snicket and Mr. Handler: The series of events that lead to a very fortunate literary career

When you hear the name “Daniel Handler,” what comes to mind…? C’mon, you’ve gotta’ know…

How about Lemony Snicket? Because they’re the same person! That’s right: Lemony Snicket is what those in the trade call a nom de plume—or a pen name—which here means, “A name used by a local San Francisco author to explain the name of the narrator in a very popular series of children’s books.”

It all started when Handler was working for a teacher at San Francisco City College. The teacher was dying in the hospital. Handler’s job was to take all of the teacher’s calls and tell the callers that they had dialed the wrong number, or that their teacher was about to die, which here means, “Is about to croak.”

In his spare time—which Handler had a lot of—he would call a large collection of right-wing organizations to get free things.

“I claimed that I was doing research for The Basic Eight,” said Handler, speaking in April at the Herbst Theater, as part of the City Arts and Lectures series. “But I wasn’t really.”

One day, he was calling a church-like group when he realized that giving his real name wouldn’t be a very smart move, so he decided that he would think up of something to replace his name with.

“I’m terrible with names,” Handler said to Laura Miller of Salon.com. “But with the Snicket books, I’ve been allowed to make the names as wild as I want.”

And so, on this particular call, Handler was about to seal the deal, which is a term which here means, “Get the free stuff that he wanted,” and the woman asked him his name. The first thing that came to his mind was “LEMONY SNICKET”!

As soon as he had said this, he realized that it was the absolute worst name that he could have ever thought of in the situation, but it was still pretty good, overall. There was a brief silence on the phone and the woman on the other end asked, “Is that spelled how it sounds?”

“Sure,” said ‘Mr. Snicket,’ “But could you read that back to me?”

And the name stuck.

After that, friends were known to order pizzas under the Snicket name, but until Handler started writing The Unfortunate Events books, it was nothing more than an inside joke.

Handler’s first book for adults was called The Basic Eight, which was about a girl who liked a boy, who didn’t like her back, so she mauled him to death with a croquet bat, which is a phase which here means, “Killed him off with a burst of blood.”

“I wasn’t quite sure if it could fit into the children’s genre very well, but you never know,” Handler said.

When he first got the idea for writing the Snicket books, Handler was about to release The Basic Eight into stores. He went to a kind of book meeting, where he met with a bunch of editors. One editor had read The Basic Eight and said she liked the way that he wrote about children, and she wondered if he had ever thought about writing books for kids.

At the time, he thought that was a miserable idea, because he didn’t know what he could write for children. But sure enough that night he had an idea. And the idea was this: There were these three orphans, and they were being chased by this count, and there would be libraries everywhere, and nothing good would ever happen, and in these libraries they would learn interesting things, but none of things would ever actually help them.

And so he called the editor and he said, “OK, I’ll meet you at a bar, and I’ll tell you this idea and you’ll absolutely hate it and we’ll be on our way.”

At the bar, the editor liked his pitch. Handler assumed that she was just a lightweight and that she would call him up in the morning and tell him, “Well, I’ve thought about it and you were exactly right, it really was a terrible idea.” But that never happened, he said.

He started writing a summary for three books, now titled, The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window, which the movie was based on, and then the editor said, “Let’s write thirteen!” And his literary agent said, “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here!”

And here we are today: There’s a movie starring Jim Carrey and Meryl Streep, twelve novels, with a thirteenth one to come on October 13 of this year (which is a Friday), and several spots on the New York Times bestseller list.

Handler said that he keeps on fantasizing about more terrible events that will happen, and that he will save the day. He says that because the Snicket books were so successful he believes that he can do anything. This is mostly influenced by the difficulty that he went though in selling The Basic Eight, which was rejected thirty-six times before someone liked it. When they did, they bought it for five thousand dollars, which isn’t the most amount of money that you can sell a book for. Handler said he once imagined that he was in an airplane that was going down and he ran into the cockpit and yelled at the captain “GET OUTTA THE COCKPIT! DOES LEMONY SNICKET MEAN ANYTHING TO YOU?” which is a phrase which here means, “Would you please get out of the cockpit? I am a famous writer, and my success makes me very, very skillful at driving airplanes, but please, don’t ask me why.”

Handler has just recently published a new novel, Adverbs, which was written for adults, and is a collection of sixteen intertwining short stories about love and connections. Characters in one story will pop up in another and cause either problems or assistance for the heroes of that particular chapter. Sometimes, the chapter will be written in first person and even the character’s gender won’t be revealed until the final segments of it, and sometimes, it might never be revealed. But that adds to the mystery-factor and almost shocking comedy. Each tale in Adverbs explains someone else falling in love in the many amazing ways that it can happen. It has been getting rave reviews from literary articles and newspaper stories.

This is Handler’s third novel for adults and the third book that he has written under his own name. (The second was a novel called Watch Your Mouth, whose subject matter is a bit inappropriate for a newspaper written by kids.)

Handler says that his next novel “involves pirates.”

The first thing that Handler wrote was a story about an egg that could talk and eat radios. “I believe I called it, ‘The Egg,’” Handler said.

He was six when he wrote it, and it was then that he knew that he was going to be writing for the rest of his life. Another one of his childhood dreams, though it turned out to be impractical, was to be one of those philosophers who spent their lives living in solitary confinement in temples at the tops of mountains in the Himalayas.

“I apparently revealed this to my parents when I was about four,” Handler said.

For young, aspiring writers, Handler suggested carrying a notebook, eavesdropping on the conversations of other people, and realizing that people will get angry about whatever you write, whether it be about ponies or politics, which is a phrase that doesn’t really mean anything at all.

Handler said that The End, Book the Thirteenth will bring up as many questions as it will answer, which means that fans will be wishing for more even as you read the final sentence. Daniel has confirmed that he will continue to write for both children and adults “until the pen is dragged from [his] cold, dead fingers.” (SPOILER WARNING) You may want to know that the last word in the entire series, like in this article, will be Beatrice, who is the woman to whom each of the Snicket novels are dedicated to, which is a phrase which here means, “the words at the very beginning of the novel before the story starts saying “To Beatrice…”

Written by Evan, age 13

This entry was posted in Student Writing Gallery.

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