Daniel Handler Works His Melancholy Magic
The mad man behind Lemony Snicket helps kids face their fears and recognize parents are people too — flawed and fallible.
Ten years ago, Daniel Handler, on the heels of launching the first of the All the Wrong Questions series, took to the stage to talk about his book and then, with the backing of a full band, tore down the house singing and playing and absolutely nailing ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man” on accordion. Of course Daniel Handler plays the accordion. While there’s plenty of uplifting accordion music, when played solo the instrument can exhibit a dark, otherworldly sound. Audible bellows and key configuration lend themselves to atonal creations as moody and unsettling as they are engaging. That could easily be a description for Daniel Handler’s, aka Lemony Snicket’s, literature. So it’s no surprise that when we sit down with Handler to photograph him for this feature, he brings along his instrument — a beautiful antique accordion, with a deep black wood finish. The prop is not necessary to lend an air of mystery to the man, but it is definitely fitting.
Handler, both as himself and as his alter ego, Lemony Snicket, brings an elusive brilliance to his art. In the opening chapter of the 2012 novel Who Could That Be at This Hour?, Lemony Snicket references a letter about himself that claims he’s “an excellent reader, a good cook, a mediocre musician, and an awful quarreler.” The only real difference between Handler and his Snicket cipher is the mediocre musician thing is wrong. (He’s laid down accordion tracks with Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields fame, after all.) But the rest sounds right: Handler can’t make it far without referencing the greats from Baudelaire to Raymond Chandler, he loves to cook, and he’s more likely to go out of his way to promote fellow authors than to debate them. The biographies of Snicket and Handler differ in countless ways (Handler’s probably not part of a secret organization with access to a series of underground tunnels), but their personalities seem so closely aligned that on some level, thinking of Handler and Snicket as separate might be a distinction without a difference.
When it comes to thinking about Handler’s influence, separating the author from his moniker isn’t nearly as important as digging into the lessons the two publicly offer for kids and parents alike. To find these, you need to first dig into the Snicket-verse.
Since 1999, with the publication of The Bad Beginning, the 52-year-old Handler has been writing children’s books under the name “Lemony Snicket.” More than a pen name, Snicket is also a character in his sprawling Series of Unfortunate Events, as well as its prequel book series, All The Wrong Questions.
Published from 1999 to 2006, the 13-book saga of A Series of Unfortunate Events, which has collectively sold 60 million copies worldwide, follows the exploits of the Baudelaire orphans, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny. In the very first book, The Bad Beginning, the trio lose their parents in a fire. Their guardian, a distant relative named Count Olaf, attempts to steal their fortune and make their lives horrible. In each subsequent book, the Baudelaires are shuffled around to different incompetent guardians, all while unraveling a greater mystery that their parents were once part of a super-secret group of do-gooders called the VFD, and that Olaf’s pursuit of them is slightly more complicated and personal than they previously believed.
The person who tells us this story, Lemony Snicket, also knew the parents of the Baudelaire orphans and narrates their daring exploits from a distance, as though he is always one step behind them. From 2012 to 2015, with the four books that comprise the All the Wrong Questions series, Handler went back in time to when Snicket was a tween and told his earliest adventures as a member of VFD. The Snicket-verse is full of fallible heroes and sometimes redemptive villains, and two things stand out about them all: First, the adult characters are not squeaky-clean heroes, not by a long shot. Second, everyone else, mostly the kids, spends a lot of time dealing with the mistakes of those grown-ups.
People aren’t all good or all bad in the Snicket-verse. In the next-to-last book of Unfortunate Events, The Penultimate Peril, the virtuous Baudelaire orphans burn down a hotel in order to escape. On the flip side, even the seemingly evil Count Olaf was once one of the good guys, and in the book The End, as he dies, Olaf tenderly quotes the Philip Larkin poem “This Be the Verse,” all about how parents, well, “f*ck up.” Handler doesn’t have Olaf quote the entire poem, meaning the F-word is left out of both the book and Netflix versions. But Olaf does say, “Man hands on misery to man,” which is in the middle of the Larkin poem that begins with “They f*ck you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to, but they do.” It’s an Easter egg for a very adult poem about the failures and fears of parents.
This brief moment is also a kind of Rosetta stone for unraveling the deeper meaning of Snicket and, perhaps, Handler’s message. Count Olaf is an over-the-top villain, but he also has deep regrets. Parents don’t mean to screw up, but they do. These mistakes can be funny, but Handler knows that in life and in fiction, we can’t hide all our mistakes from our children.
“I think an important lesson for young people is to see that adults are just making up and they don’t know and they are almost constantly making a mistake and they don’t really know what they’re doing,” he tells us over Zoom from his home in northern California. That fact can be dark and sad, but also funny and strange — like an accordion virtuoso who makes you look twice at the too-often discounted instrument.
Young adult literature that digs into the fallibility of parents and the dark side in us all isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. In other words, some people really don’t like the Snicket books. Or rather, some people aren’t sure what kinds of darkness in kids books are appropriate for children, and at what age. For example, one parent reviewing The Bad Beginning on Common Sense Media says they will not be suggesting the book to their kids because "I was almost too depressed to finish."
Handler has a theory about such critics: “With Lemony Snicket, I always say it’s good for the age that irony has cracked your skull. And for some people that moment never arrives,” Handler says with a tiny smile. He pulls back: “It sounds like a punchline, but I mean, lots of people find these books disturbing. And not just children. But, I’ve never seen anyone with a discernible sense of irony complain about these books.”
Still, Handler, who tends to speak quickly and in complete thoughts, with ample digressions and conversational tributaries, gets why parents reflexively want to protect their children from scary things in the world.
“When people worry about what kids are reading or seeing in movies, they remember the stories of when they were exposed to something scary in fiction. The moment they became adults,” he says. “What they usually forget is that the story ends with them turning out fine. But I think I understand the concern. I don’t think it’s just the kind of business nervousness of a publishing industry. I think it comes from a place where people are nervous about children. And I understand that as a parent. When my son was little, I would hear a noise, and he would say, ‘What was that?’ My urge was to say, ‘That was nothing. You don’t have to worry about that.’ So, I understand that urge to say, ‘I would like you to live in a happy world for as long as I can make it happy.’ I get it. I think the question of proprietary is super interesting.”
At the end of the day, the Snicket books are hilarious and enthralling page-turners first and foremost. All great fiction trades on conflict; it just depends on if that conflict is presented artfully. “I think the real answer is that people like to read stuff in which terrible things happen.”
Despite the fact that terrible things do happen at pace, the Snicket books are also a celebration of the beauty of life. Despite Snicket’s constant warnings to the reader to stop reading certain volumes of his books, the irony is that (spoiler alert!) most Snicket storylines do, eventually, have happy(-ish) endings. For kids and adults, the messaging of these books is pretty similar: You can get through the worst things in life because the world is not actually out to get you. It can just feel that way sometimes. As Snicket writes in The Carnivorous Carnival, the ninth novel in the series, “the sad truth is that the truth is sad and that what you want does not matter. A series of unfortunate events can happen to anyone, no matter what they want.”
At first blush, this might scan as pessimistic, but in the Snicket view of a kid’s stories, problems can be solved. Sometimes a solution is arrived at by Violet inventing some contraption in Unfortunate Events or by teenage journalist Moxie Mallahan doing some awesome reporting in All the Wrong Questions. Problems are even solved by tiny Sunny Baudelaire cooking up a delicious meal. And, perhaps most tellingly, much of the heroism that occurs in these books occurs in secret. The good deeds done by the VFD, the Baudelaires, or the young Snicket’s Association of Associates almost exclusively happen without the outside world knowing. There is no moment where the crowd claps for these folks, no crown bestowed on these heroes. Instead, whatever mistakes the adults and children make in these books, those mistakes are treated as part of life, not part of a story.
Handler has made his fair share of mistakes as a public figure. On Nov. 19, 2014, at the National Book Awards, he cracked a racist joke about the Newbery Honor-winning author and friend Jacqueline Woodson as he was introducing her with otherwise reverence, saying, “I told Jackie she was going to win.” But, then he digressed into a joke about how shocking to him it was that Woodson is allergic to watermelon. The outcry was swift.
The next day, on Nov. 20, 2014, Handler said on Twitter: “My job at last night's National Book Awards was to shine a light on tremendous writers, including Jacqueline Woodson......and not to overshadow their achievements with my own ill-conceived attempts at humor. I clearly failed, and I’m sorry.” He added the comments were “monstrously inappropriate and yes, racist.”
The day after that, on Nov. 21, Handler apologized again and donated $100,000 to We Need Diverse Books. In response to the episode, Woodson told The Guardian that “I’m trying to figure out what to think about it.” Soon after, she published those thoughts in an op-ed in The New York Times. “By making light of that deep and troubled history,” she wrote, “[Handler] showed that he believed we were at a point where we could laugh about it all. His historical context, unlike my own, came from a place of ignorance.”
Three years later, in 2018, Hander found himself in hot water again, for jokes about sex. According to three different authors and a librarian, Handler made jokes about testicles, about one woman being a “virgin,” and suggestively about another woman making out with a stranger.
Again, Handler responded without the characteristic defensiveness that plagues bad acts being called out. (See J.K. Rowling’s doubling down on her anti-trans comments, as one high-profile example.) Shortly after the statements were made public, he issued a lengthy reply: “As a survivor of sexual violence, I also know very well how words or behaviors that are harmless or even liberating to some people can be upsetting to others. Since the past few months, I’ve been listening a lot to my wife, to my agent, to my editors, and to dozens of writers, illustrators, and librarians I know, around the dinner table or during lengthy phone exchanges, as all of us grapple with what we’re hearing and learning, reminding ourselves and each other that just because you don’t see harm doesn’t mean it’s not happening. I have my own stories to tell, and have not been interested in centering myself in a conversation that clearly and rightly belongs to others…I apologize for any gaps in conversation, as sincerely as I apologize for any lapses in taste.”
As you might guess, Handler uses a pseudonym in part because he is a private person. As such, his social media presence is mostly limited to his Instagram account, where he tends to post photos of lines of poetry he likes. (“I kinda feel like a failed poet, [but] poets feel like my people. That’s my jam. Those are the people I gravitate towards.”) For better or worse, Handler keeps the social commentary within his literature — a larger world, given his voluminous output.
“I only have my aesthetic, which I’m very guarded about,” Handler says. “I’m not interested in showing off my private life or my family. That feels performative to me. I would never want my child to think that the reason why we went to lunch was so that I could make sure everyone knew that I was the type of father who brought their kid to lunch.”
As a child, Daniel Handler didn’t trust wizards. “Why wasn’t the wizard helping more?” Handler asks, freshly incredulous. “I mean, it always felt like the wizards in books could have just fixed everything, but they didn’t, like just to be mean.” If you read all 26 books Handler has authored under the pseudonym “Lemony Snicket,” you will be hard-pressed to find any magic wands, spells, wizards, or anything else that would remind you of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. This isn’t to say his books are realistic.
The exploits of the Baudelaire orphans are not probable, but then again, grappling hooks, submarines, and poison are all real things. In any of Handler’s books, including those he’s written for adults, you won’t find a single problem that is solved by magic, or because any of the characters are “the chosen one.” In his view, it’s a mistake to be powerful and uninvolved — one the wizards are too busy offering vague missives to own up to. You’d never find that in one of his characters. Instead, they make mistakes, own up to them, and deal with their consequences.
In the fourth and final book of All the Wrong Questions — Why Is This Night Different From All Other Nights? — the young Lemony Snicket, trying to unravel his first mystery, ends in a kind of defeat. A seemingly real monster called “the Bombinating Beast” derails a train, scattering clues and characters in every direction. The reader was led to believe the beast was a statue and a myth, but in that myth, there turned out to be something flesh and blood. Not magic, exactly, but hidden truth. In this book, Snicket dwells on mistakes he made and all the wrong questions he asked as a young person. After the train crash and the brush with the creature, Snicket writes, “There are times when you’re so wrong that you can’t even be right about how wrong you really are. All my wrong questions came crashing down together like a derailed train.”
It’s not an epiphany, really. Lemony Snicket the narrator, and Daniel Handler the person, continue to make mistakes and occasionally ask the wrong questions. Misery changes hands, and we learn. The hope, and what the writing of Daniel Handler suggests, is that the sooner we accept that, the healthier and happier we’ll become. The Unfortunate Events are only titled “Unfortunate” ironically. The more accurate title might be A Series of Honest Events.
Tellingly, the one piece of advice Handler saves for parents seems ripped straight from the pages of one of his books. Handler knows parents will f*ck up. His heroes are children who grapple with the ways in which parents disappoint them, both in life and death. These things might be slightly more extreme in fiction than they are in life, but the lesson is still there. You will let your kids down, but it doesn’t have to be an unfortunate event if you don’t want it to be.
“There’s no need to worry about embarrassing your children,” Handler says calmly, comfortingly. “Because you definitely will.”
Photographer: Neon Stian