Daniel Handler, Author of the Lemony Snicket Series, Gives Perspective on His Work

by Loolwa Khazzoom • November 28, 2010 • Writing and Editing Tips

Lemony Snicket — the narrator in Daniel Handler’s blockbuster bestselling Series of Unfortunate Events has no sense of perspective: He treats the grand tragedies and minor inconveniences of life as if they are equally important, and the grand triumphs and minor pleasures of life as if they are equally important as well. It’s something Daniel finds himself and others doing regularly, thus it became the central theme in this unique series of children’s books. A few years ago, at the peak of Snicket hype, I interviewed Daniel on his process of laughing at the absurdities of life and turning fact into fiction. Here are excerpts from that interview:

How does Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events carry out the theme of absurdity and lack of perspective in life in general and in your life in particular?

In the first book, Snicket spends considerable time describing how the Baudelaire orphans have found a fabulous Italian recipe. They have just been placed in the care of a violent, treacherous, greedy person — as if the Italian recipe is going to help! It won’t help, of course, but it feels like it will. In a real-life parallel, I think anyone who voted Democratic in 2004 spent the days following the election saying, “Well, at least I have friends,” or “Let’s go take a walk and look at this beautiful view over the hill,” or “Let’s make grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup and watch a movie.” How can any of those activities make things better, when an inept, corrupt political regime is in power for another four years? And yet, somehow they do make things better.

There’s a lot of Lemony Snicket narration where the only thing worse than murder is murder committed at some ungodly hour of the morning, when you’re really exhausted. I had parallel feelings as the father of a new child: When our son Otto was two months old, he was a very noisy sleeper. Sometimes my wife and I would wake up in the middle of the night, and Otto would be quiet. We’d hope he wasn’t dead, but decide it would be much better to check at 9:00 a.m. than at 3:00 a.m. At least later in the morning, if something terrible had happened, we’d have the wherewithal to deal with it. That was very Lemony Snicket of us.

In this country, where most things go pretty right for people, something like technology can be your enemy. For example, one of the worst moments of my life is fighting with my printer — having to Fed-Ex something by 5:00 pm, when it’s 4:30 pm, and my printer won’t work. It’s a level of anguish that has only been matched by someone dying. How can that be so? But it’s true.

Another example: When I drive, I always see these people honking, enraged, yelling at other drivers. I think, “How can this actually be freaking people out so much?” You see these horrific levels of anger and annoyance going one that should be reserved for bona fide tragedy. But it’s not. If you’re really hungry, but service takes forever in a restaurant, you begin to get all teary; you get this emotional catharsis that should be reserved for seeing your mother the first time in ten years.

Lemony Snicket narrates over-the-top tragic circumstances in each of the Series of Unfortunate Events books. Somehow their absurdity makes them funny. What about the human experience makes that the case?

There’s a quote by Oscar Wilde which I discovered in high school: “”One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell [in Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop] without laughing.” That always spoke to me, because it seems that tragedy can be so terrible it becomes exaggerated, then that exaggeration becomes funny.

That’s what high school felt like to me. I was always self-conscious. Even in my abject misery, even when I was dumped by some girl, I would think it’s hilarious. I would feel, “Oh my god, I’m going to be all alone for the rest of my life,” then think, “Well, you’re 15, maybe it’s too soon to give up.”

I’ve always liked melodramatic stories: There’s something really moving about them and something really funny about them. It’s like, can it get any worse? Of course it can! Ha ha ha.

To go back to the political example, you’d think that with President Bush heading up a war the way it’s going, he’d somehow deemphasize it, but for years it’s been a triumph for him. Every horrible thing becomes a triumph for him. It’s funny yet ghastly at the same time. I think the Snicket books are truly sad but also hilarious at the same time. They present a world view: This is absurd. It’s heartbreaking but also hilarious.

What is the core absurdity of Lemony Snicket and the Series of Unfortunate Events?

Lemony Snicket sets out to tell a story — which commands an obvious question: Who is Lemony Snicket, and why is he chronicling the story of these orphans? He never reveals that. He’s just so focused on telling the story, with all these hidden and possibly ridiculous secrets. In later books, Snicket is involved in a secret organization. The secrets of this organization are hidden so obscurely that whatever the organization is doing is irrelevant. Organization members spend so much time making feature films where they are hiding messages, that they never get anything done. t seems like life to me: We try to figure it all out, but as close as we get, we’re still clueless.

In life, particularly when you’re a child, pretty basic questions about the world occur to you, but these questions are never satisfactorily answered. For example, when we have enough food for everyone in the world, why do people go hungry? Why can’t we get that food out to everyone? If you examine that question, you can end up looking at all kinds of conflicting ideologies, without getting your basic question answered. I think that’s a really hilarious and heartbreaking “answer.”

On a related note, one of the big themes of the Snicket books is that if you’re good, you’re not necessarily rewarded, and if you’re bad, you’re not necessarily punished. In a lot of ways, your behavior does not determine your fate. Kids recognize injustice. You raise a child and make a big deal about fair play. Then that kid figures out that fair play is not what’s going on all the time, and gets really angry. But when you’re an adult, you’re immune to that reality.

There are a lot of books for children that preach that if you behave a certain way, you’ll be rewarded. It’s important to me to have to write books in which that is laid bare as an untruth and talks more about the importance of behaving well because you should behave well. It’s actually a very Jewish approach. Christianity is about the afterlife: This is all a rehearsal. But Judaism is all about what you’re doing now. Why don’t you murder people? Because we said so. Any questions? It’s not because you’ll live in an eternal fire during the afterlife.

What role do books play in the Lemony Snicket Series of Unfortunate Events, and how does that role reflect your thoughts on literature?

In the secret organization, we’re told that the crucial secrets of life can be found in hidden in books. If you read the right books, you become part of an organization of people with nobility and integrity. Even though that is circumstantially exaggerated in the books, it’s a truth I hold very dear. I think that people who read and contemplate a lot end up being part of a “club” of people who know more than people who don’t.

Lemony Snicket holds that truth dear as well. In the Snicket books, you can find the method of defeating the evil plot if you read the right books. In real life, it’s more slippery than that, but it’s also true. If you learn about history, for example, you can learn what works and what doesn’t.

In what ways does Lemony Snicket represent you laughing at yourself, and how do people generally respond to that aspect of your work?

Lemony Snicket takes himself seriously, and he has a noble quest: He will tell the story of the three children because if he doesn’t, who will? So he has made a solemn vow – which is a very self-serious idea. I am proud of the work that I do as a writer. So even though I am able to be self-conscious and laugh at the absurdity of, “Oh he is a mighty author and hopes he can defeat the evil of the world through writing books,” just because I’m not going to save the world doesn’t make it ridiculous that I write. As far as how people respond, in high school, some people thought I was a chatterbox asshole, but others got the joke of my laughing at absurdity all the time. It’s the same with Lemony Snicket: Some get the book, others don’t.

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Loolwa KhazzoomLoolwa Khazzoom has worked with leading media outlets, including The New York Times, CNN, Rolling Stone, and ABC News. In addition, she has published two books and has lectured at prestigious venues including Barnard Center for Research on Women, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Harvard University. Loolwa is passionate about health, music, dance, multiculturalism, and Judaism.

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Loolwa Khazzoom is a a public relations manager specializing in holistic media, holistic marketing, holistic public relations, and holistic promotions. Her services include branding and messaging development, image and communications management, website content development and optimization, social media management, traditional media campaign management, book development, and in-house writing and editing.

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