Lemony Snicket does not exist. Children who show up to his book tours hoping to hear from the alleged author of works like A Series of Unfortunate Events or “Who Could That Be At This Hour?” will instead meet his representative — and actual author of the novels — Daniel Handler.
Handler is a slightly graying man in his early 40s. He plays the accordion and he adores San Francisco, where he currently lives with his wife, an illustrator, and his elementary school-aged son.
The theatrics are an effort, however transparent, to keep the mystery of books alive. Handler told John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley of Lightspeed Magazine that he came up with the act after watching another children’s author present at a book event.
“I thought she was terrible. And she told me later that what she liked to do was to dispel the mystery behind writing,” Handler said in the interview. He decided this was an awful idea.
“The actual writing is someone sitting at a desk writing, which is very boring,” he said. “I thought, ‘What can I do to increase the mystery of writing rather than decrease it?’”
Handler’s love of mystery permeates his novels. The 13 books in A Series of Unfortunate Events draw from the gothic genre, telling the story of three orphans who find themselves involved in a secret organization and frequently confront misfortune.
“Who Could That Be At This Hour,” the first book in a new four-part series called All The Wrong Questions, plays on the noir genre, following a young Snicket as he solves the mystery of a missing object. Handler alludes to the Maltese Falcon and Duke Ellington with plot devices and character names.
Beneath all of this mystery lies Handler’s unique way of dealing with the world of childhood. Today’s kids face news like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, but fiction books often gloss over the grittier parts of life.
Handler likes to confront them head on, leaving situations unsettled and morally ambiguous. It’s a fine line to walk — Count Olaf’s threats to the Baudelaire children, including capturing their friends and locking them in the basement of an apartment building, are sometimes terrifying. But these same situations can make rough patches in children’s lives seem manageable.
In an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, Handler said his Jewish upbringing affects his writing. His father escaped from Hitler’s Germany as a young child, and dinnertime stories often involved tales of “daring escapes and lucky rescues.” But his family also told stories about who wasn’t able to get out.
“I think that also had a huge effect on Series of Unfortunate Events, just that notion that terrible things can happen for any reason and they’re not punishment for bad behavior,” Handler said. “[The series] reminds you that a terrible thing can happen at any moment and that it is up to you to persevere through it.”
This is what Handler thinks kids need. In a piece he wrote for the New York Times the month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Handler said he fielded a lot of questions from reporters about whether his stories were appropriate for children in that environment.
“My young readers are not only finding a diversion in the melodrama of the Baudelaires’ lives, but they are also finding ways of contemplating our current troubles through stories,” he wrote. “When children write to me asking if Count Olaf is a terrorist, if the Baudelaires were anywhere near the World Trade Center… it is clear they are struggling with the same issues as the rest of us.”
The All The Wrong Questions series seems, from its first book, to take a lighter tone than A Series of Unfortunate Events. There are no villains hanging infants out of windows in birdcages or threatening children with knives — all of which happen in the first and arguably scariest book of the older series.
But Handler still confronts childhood in his trademark way. The story has foolish adults who give children unhelpful information. Young Snicket participates in activities that would make most parents cringe, like dropping from a hawser into a tree or riding around in a car driven by two small children, one who works the pedals and one who steers.
In an early scene, Snicket narrowly avoids drinking tea laced with a sedative given to him by two adults who may or may not be his parents.
When Gross asked him if this might deter people shopping for children’s books, Handler answered with his usual dry sense of humor.
“As a parent… I think if anything, ‘Who Could That Be At This Hour?’ makes a powerful case for not drugging children,” he told her. “Other children’s authors have expressed no opinion on this. Where’s Beverly Cleary on this issue, I wonder?”
Humor is what makes the books less scary, which is a valuable lesson for youngsters. It’s frightening that people in the town of Stain’d-by-the-Sea, the setting for “Who Could That Be At This Hour” have to wear masks sometimes to protect themselves from salt lung. But it’s funny that the masks look like underwater equipment even though the sea around the town dried up years ago.
Handler hopes his books, after all, ultimately reassure children. He told Gross that he had his own fears as a child, specifically of being kidnapped. His mother told him the family didn’t have enough money to be targets for that.
At book events, he makes small talk with children by asking them if they have ever been kidnapped and about how much money their parents would pay for their safe return
“It’s under the guise of whether I’m calculating it enough, so if it seems like enough money for me to kidnap them,” he said. “But I hope it’s also reassuring when they realize they probably won’t be kidnapped.”
Childhood involves various types of frightening events. Handler’s unique way of dealing with them is a pleasant reminder that everything will be all right.