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The Man Behind Lemony Snicket Talks About Writing For Kids And His Childhood Fears


NEIL PATRICK HARRIS: (As Count Olaf, singing) Look away. Look away. Look away. Look away. The show will wreck your evening, your home life and your day. Every single episode is nothing but dismay so look away. Look away. Look away. Three children lose their home and go to live with someone awful. He tries to steal their fortune with a plot that's not quite lawful. It's hard to fathom how the orphans managed to live through it, but how a decent person like yourself would even want to view it - just look away. Look away...


A new TV version of "A Series Of Unfortunate Events" premieres today on Netflix. It's based on a series of satirical gothic novels for children by Lemony Snicket, the pen name of Daniel Handler. They tell the tales of three unlucky orphans who live lives filled with misery and woe. Terry Gross interviewed Daniel Handler in 2001.



Now, your book, as we heard, starts with a warning that readers might be better off with a more cheerful book. Why did you decide to start your book that way?

DANIEL HANDLER: Well, it seemed only fair to warn anyone who was seeking cheerfulness. And also I - when I sat down to just start writing for children, I really had no bearing in children's literature. I hadn't read a book for children since I was a youngster. And - but I remembered this overwhelmingly moralistic tone in all of my least favorite books, so I thought it might be good to sort of mock that from the outset and warn children away from a story instead of the sort of typical treacly beginning which is, you know, this is a very charming story, and you're just going to love the adorable hero.

GROSS: Now, why do you want to constantly create misery - comic misery (laughter), but misery in your books? I mean, the poor Baudelaire children - it's just like one horrible thing after another. And this is the eighth book, and they're still going through misery.

HANDLER: Oh, yes. Well, it really only gets worse as the books go on. It - that just seems more interesting to me. When I'm confronted with a blank page, and I want to think of something happening it just tends to be something terrible which I guess has a long tradition in literature. I mean, I'm always at a loss to think of a book in which only happy things happen - "Maybe Happy All The Time" by Laurie Colwin. But most books, it seems to me, have at least the threat of something dastardly happen. So that it just seems entirely natural to me that if you want a plot to be interesting, then terrible things have to be on the horizon.

GROSS: What are some of the terrible things that have happened to these orphans?

HANDLER: Well, I mean, it's such a depressing list. I hate to think of drivers listening to NPR driving off the road as I list them all. I mean, they meet Count Olaf who is a distant relative, who is only after the fortune that their parents have left behind. He's a terrible person who tries to marry the eldest Baudelaire, Violet, and locks up the baby in a bird cage and dangles it outside of his tower window.

They go to stay with their kindly Uncle Monty who is murdered. They go to stay with their Aunt Josephine who throws herself out of a window or at least so it appears. They're forced to work in a lumber mill. They've got a school. That's always a terrible thing. They stay with rich people and find themselves falling down an elevator shaft. They're driven out of town by an angry mob with, you know, with torches and barking dogs and then in the most recent volume, they find themselves prepared for unnecessary surgery in the hospital, so it's really quite a cornucopia of terrible things.

GROSS: It was a lot of literary jokes like little in references that only adult readers would get or at least teenage readers, you know, like the orphans are named the Baudelaire children. Their first names are Klaus and Sunny - two of them. You want to name some of the other, like, little references?

HANDLER: (Laughter) Well, they're cared for by Mr. Poe. They're - at one point, they're - they fall into the household of Jerome and Esme Squalor who are named after J.D. Salinger's story "For Esme With Love And Squalor." They attend Prufrock Preparatory School after the poem by T.S. Eliot. Yeah. They're pretty much surrounded by the world of books. I liked the idea of a universe that was governed entirely by books. The Baudelaires find the solutions or what appear to be the solution to their problems in libraries in each volume, and so there are sort of some heavy-handed or I hope mock heavy-handed propaganda saying that all of life's difficulties can be solved within the pages of the right book.

GROSS: Well, another thing you do in your books is you use kind of big words and then you define them for your readers. Let me read an example. This comes from the last page of your first Lemony Snicket book and the sentence is (reading) the car drove farther and farther away until Justice Strauss was merely a speck in the darkness. And it seemed to the children that they were moving in an aberant - the word aberant here means very, very wrong and causing much grief - into an aberant direction.

HANDLER: It makes me very happy to know that now - I mean, there are sort of millions of fourth graders who know what the word ersatz means and that's - or know what the expression casing the joint or understand dramatic irony - that really excites me. So I don't sit around pedagogically and think, well, what can I teach the little nippers? But I just love these words, and I just wanted to put them in my books. They're not enough books that have the word corpulent in my opinion.

GROSS: (Laughter) The Baudelaire children are orphans. Did you worry about becoming orphaned when you were a kid? Did you worry something terrible had happened to your parents?

HANDLER: I don't think it was really a worry (laughter). I think it was more just a basic fantasy that I think nearly every child and probably most adults have which is what if I were all alone in the world? From that very first moment that you're maybe at the zoo and you take your mother's hand and you look up and it's not your mother; it's just some other tall person, and you suddenly have this sense of what if I were all alone and what if no one was taking care of me?

GROSS: Were there are adults in your life you perceived as villains who you were afraid would take control of your life?

HANDLER: I suppose so. There are certainly a number of scary adults and, you know, vile teacher - yelling teachers and, you know, suspicious looking janitors, and, you know, of course, doctors - anyone in a doctor's office always seemed very sinister to me. I could never figure out why anybody would want to sit around in an office all day with a sharp needle just waiting for sick children to walk in so they can make them more miserable.

So that was definitely a concern of mine. And even the adults who were very nice, I think they're - I had a sense that the world was not in my control, that decisions were being made on my behalf by people much taller than me who are unlikely to pay attention no matter how many times I repeated my question. And I think that I'm not alone in that perception, and that's why there's so many evil and - and/or inept adults in my books.

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with Daniel Handler also known as Lemony Snicket. "A Series Of Unfortunate Events" based on his popular satirical children's novels premieres today on Netflix. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket. A new TV series based on his satirical children's books "A Series Of Unfortunate Events" premieres today on Netflix.


GROSS: Now, you write your "Series Of Unfortunate Events" novels under the pseudonym of Lemony Snicket. How did you come up with that name?

HANDLER: Well, first off, I should say that I'm not sure pseudonym name is exactly right because the character of Lemony Snicket, this man who speaks directly to the reader and also who is tangentially involved in the stories that he's telling is really more of a character. We just thought it would be fun to publish the books under the name of this character. But the name Lemony Snicket I actually had lying around before I had any desire to write for children. I was researching the first of two novels that I've published under my own name - the first novel, "The Basic Eight" - and I needed to contact for research purposes some right-wing political organizations and religious groups. And I wanted material mailed to me. But I didn't want to be on their mailing list for obvious reasons.

And so someone asked me, so what is your name? And I opened my mouth, and out popped the words Lemony Snicket. And it became among all of my friends, then, a joke. We would write letters to the paper and sign them Lemony Snicket, hoping they would be published, and reserve tables in restaurants under the name Lemony Snicket and all sorts of things like that. And so, for a small, select group of the population, the idea that the name Lemony Snicket has risen to such notoriety is particularly shocking.

GROSS: Have you run into any parents, teachers or librarians who object to either the tone or the content of your books?

HANDLER: Not nearly as many as I thought I would. I really (laughter) thought that there would just be an overwhelming wave of outrage. And instead, there've just been a few isolated complaints that I've heard. We were banned in one school district in Decatur, Ga. I'll always have that.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HANDLER: They can't take that away from me.

GROSS: On what grounds were you banned?

HANDLER: Well, I hate to get too catty about Decatur, Ga. But they were very concerned in "The Bad Beginning" that Count Olaf wants to marry Violet, who is a distant relative. And this strikes me as something that, without being too stereotypical about the South - that perhaps Decatur, Ga., has heard of before, let's just say.

And, also, I'm at a loss for how to construct a villain who isn't doing villainous things. If Count Olaf were only doing things that no one would object to, then he really wouldn't be much of a villain. So I'm somewhat nonplussed by that kind of criticism - that, boy, Count Olaf is sure a terrible person. And so I always have to write back and say, well, yes. Yes, he is (laughter). He sure is. Let's catch him.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HANDLER: And a woman once in in Oregon came up to me at a bookstore and said, you know, in one of your books, you teach that it is sometimes necessary to lie. And that seems like a very disturbing lesson to me. Can you name one time when it would be absolutely necessary to lie? And I was so happy that the answer came to me right away, instead of, you know, as it usually does when people say something to you. And then you think three days later, that's what I should've said. Instead, it came right away. And I was able just to turn to her and say, nice sweater.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HANDLER: I'm just really proud of that.

GROSS: (Laughter) What was her reaction?

HANDLER: I think she said thank you.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HANDLER: I'm not sure that the lesson was taught. But at least I was able to sleep at night, knowing that (laughter) I'd been able to say something in response. I mean, of course, you have to lie. And I can't imagine that you would want to teach your child never to lie under any circumstances. That's not going to serve the child well when the child goes to a birthday party and is forced to say whether or not he or she had a nice time.

GROSS: What books did you particularly love when you were growing up?

HANDLER: Oh. I really loved the books by Edward Gorey. I really loved the books of Roald Dahl. And I really - I just adore the books by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, who is not as well-known but is just a terrific writer. She wrote "The Egypt Game" and "The Headless Cupid" and a bunch of really interesting books where children are forced to negotiate difficult but nonsupernatural circumstances more or less all by themselves. And those are the sort of stories that appeal to me.

I didn't like stories where people ran off to summer camp, and everybody just had a grand, old time or tried to join the soccer team. I think it's always depressing to me that there's so many books marketed for young boys who want to read that are about sports. I mean, I was always - I could never play any sports. And I always wanted to go and read a book. And to be offered a book in which boys played sports seemed to be the very opposite of what I wanted.

GROSS: (Laughter) Well, did your parents ever give you mixed messages about reading? On the one hand, say it's really important to read. And on the other hand, if you were sitting home on a sunny day while a lot of other boys were playing baseball, would your parents say, it's a beautiful day out? You should be outside.

HANDLER: Well, my parents were always very avid readers - are very avid readers. And so I never got the sense that they really meant what they said when they said, you really ought to be outside playing baseball because my parents are - neither of them are very athletic, either. And so even though they would say that, it never really rang true.

One thing that they did that I just thought was fantastic was that they would read to me when I was very young and stop at a suspenseful moment. And then they would say, well, it's now time for bed. And, you know, under no circumstances should you read with this light over here that we're placing near your bed. Under no circumstances should you turn this on and read it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HANDLER: And then, of course, I would. And then the next day, when the bookmark was in a different place in the book, they would read as if nothing had happened. And that, to me, seemed particularly effective. And, perhaps, that's the root of Mr. Snicket's don't read this book. You'll only end up in bad trouble.

DAVIES: Daniel Handler, who, under the pen name Lemony Snicket, is the author of "A Series of Unfortunate Events," the popular children's series of mock-gothic novels. A new TV version of the series premieres today on Netflix. We'll be back with an excerpt of another interview with Daniel Handler. And fair warning - he brought his accordion. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Today, Netflix premieres a new TV version of the mock children's gothic novels "A Series Of Unfortunate Events," written by Lemony Snicket, the pen name of Daniel Handler. Handler's an executive producer of the series, which stars Neil Patrick Harris. We heard some of Terry's 2001 interview with Handler a few moments ago. They spoke again in 2012. And Terry asked him to bring his accordion and sing a Snicket song or two. But first, they began by talking about Handler's background.


GROSS: I read that your father fled Germany during Hitler's regime. I don't know whether it was...


GROSS: ...Like, what point...


GROSS: '38. OK.


GROSS: So...

HANDLER: A good time to leave (laughter).

GROSS: Yeah, I'll say. I'll say. Did he have to, like, sneak out? Was it still acceptable for Jews to emigrate? - assuming he was Jewish. That might not be true.

HANDLER: Yes, he was Jewish. He was a child. And so his recollection of it is somewhat lost to the sands of time. But he - yeah. He got out just in time and was raised by his mother. And my extended family - growing up, when I went to family events with my extended family, the stories passed around the dinner table were all stories of who got out and who didn't and daring escapes and lucky rescues and the whole chaotic tumble of living through that era.

And I think that also had a huge effect on "A Series Of Unfortunate Events" - that just the notion that terrible things can happen at any reason and not - they're not punishments for bad behavior, just as good things happening are not rewards for good behavior.

GROSS: And that sense of - you know, I grew up with so many World War II movies and movies about, like, getting out just in time, like you were describing - actually happened to your father. Thankfully - that he got out just in time. But it brings a sense of relief. Like, oh, boy. They got out just in time - but also the sense of constant fear. Like, how do you know when just in time is? How do you know if you're waiting too long or doing it just in time? How do you know when it's - your time is up? And did you grow up with this constant fear that maybe you wouldn't know, and you wouldn't get out just in time?

HANDLER: I definitely have a slice of that Jewish paranoia. On this book tour that I just finished, I was recently in Vancouver. And I always have this feeling of Vancouver. That's my fantasy city for when the United States has gone completely mad, and I must flee for the border. Part of my fantasy is that. Well, then I'll live in one of these beautiful condos in Vancouver and eat sushi.


HANDLER: So - but, I mean, I don't think to other - I think when other people fantasize about living someplace else, it's not because they're fleeing from a fascist government.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HANDLER: But I think if you're raised Jewish, that paranoia comes with the territory.

GROSS: What scared you as a child?

HANDLER: Oh, everything. Tall trees. Yeah. People in tall trees climbing up to the top of them and leaping upon my window - that was a large source of concern for me. Kidnapping - I remember when my mother finally explained to me that it would be extremely unlikely I would get kidnapped because they didn't really have any money. But kidnappers were after money. And so the idea that you would be kidnapped was very rare if you didn't have money - that was just such a relief to me. I wish that had been explained to me years previously.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HANDLER: But she said, oh, you know, no one - we don't have enough money. We couldn't possibly pay ransom for you that would be rewarding for a kidnapper. So you probably won't be snatched up. That was intense relief.

GROSS: That's great.

HANDLER: And so, sometimes, when children are standing in line at a Snicket event, while I'm making small talk with them, I ask if they've ever been kidnapped. And they never have. And then I say, well, do you have parents who would pay a lot of money for your safe return? And we try to figure out exactly what sum of money that is. And, you know, it's under the guise of whether I'm calculating enough - so if it seems like enough money for me to kidnap them. But I hope that it's also reassuring...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HANDLER: ...When they realize they probably won't be kidnapped. There's probably just not enough money at stake.

GROSS: What if you're talking to a wealthy kid, and you scare the heck out of him (laughter) because his parents would have enough money?

HANDLER: Well, I always say, have you been kidnapped? And then I often say, have you ever been locked in the trunk of a car?

GROSS: (Laughter).

HANDLER: And then do you like trying new things? Those are kind of the three questions.

GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, gosh.

HANDLER: You know, one thing that is different since the last time we spoke is that I now have a child.

GROSS: Who is how old?

HANDLER: And so I'm now forced - he's 9. He's just turned 9. And I'm forced to explain the world to him all the time. And I'm aghast at my own complete failure.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HANDLER: I just can't - yeah (laughter). My wife and I tell this story a lot.

GROSS: Are you an unreliable narrator?


HANDLER: I just realize I have hardly any explanation for anything at all. We were listening to this song by Kraftwerk, "We Are The Robots." And he said to me, are they pretending to be robots? And I said, yes, they are. And then he said, are the Beatles pretending to be Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band? And I said, I think they are.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HANDLER: And he said, but aren't they pretending to be beetles? And I felt, suddenly, the knowledge of the world just absolutely slipping out of my brain. I thought, why did they call themselves The Beatles? That doesn't make any sense at all.

GROSS: Well, one story is that it was a play on Buddy Holly and The Crickets. And they were The Beatles.

HANDLER: Right. But when did musicians start calling themselves things that they weren't?

GROSS: Yes, exactly.


HANDLER: When did that happen, and how do I explain that to my child...

GROSS: Good luck (laughter).

HANDLER: ...In such a way that it makes sense? - let alone, you know, explaining the horrors of the world or anything.

GROSS: I'm going to ask you now - you've brought your accordion with you.


HANDLER: Because I was asked, I want to add.

GROSS: I asked you. Yes, we asked you 'cause I love accordion. And it's...

HANDLER: But I have a policy that I only bring it when someone asks me because the question - why haven't you brought your accordion? - is charming...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HANDLER: ...And the question - why have you brought your accordion? - is alarming.

GROSS: (Laughter) So how did you start playing accordion?

HANDLER: Well, I played piano my whole life. And when I got to college, I wanted to be in a band. And it was during a strange moment in American pop music when no keyboard instruments were cool. If I'd lugged around a synthesizer, I would've been scorned. And so I took up the accordion. So i like to say that I'm one of the few people who in the history of the world to take up the accordion, basically, in order to meet women.

GROSS: (Laughter) Did it work?

HANDLER: I did, in fact, meet my wife in college. So there you go.

GROSS: Because of the accordion?

HANDLER: No. But, in fact, I think the accordion was probably a drawback. But (laughter) all's well that ends well. Yeah. And the accordion is - I mean, one nice thing is that if you play the accordion, you're probably the best accordion player anybody knows. And so I've had opportunities as a result of playing the accordion despite not being very good. That never would've come my way if I played some more ordinary instrument.

GROSS: So did you ever play accordion favorites like "Lady Of Spain" and "Beer Barrel Polka?" Or, since you were already a musician, could you, like, skip right past that to stuff you really wanted to play?

HANDLER: I skipped right past most of the beginning accordion tunes. But, I mean, I was in a band that played a lot of polkas. I was in a tango band, a klezmer band, a kind of country-western band. And, I mean, if you play the accordion, you can really play almost any kind of music.

GROSS: And to prove that (laughter), I'm now going to ask you...

HANDLER: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Something that is very un-accordion.

HANDLER: Is this Stump the Author? What is this?

GROSS: This is Stump the Author.

GROSS: Yes, I'm going to ask you to play something that we would never think of as being perfect for accordion, but you have made it work.

HANDLER: Let's see. Well, I have this song about Count Olaf. I really don't have a lot I can do offhand 'cause I'm usually sitting in with other people.

GROSS: OK. Excuse accepted.

HANDLER: Oh, man.

GROSS: So Count Olaf...

HANDLER: Gross plays hardball. Excuse accepted. (Laughter).

GROSS: Count Olaf is from Daniel Handler - Lemony Snicket's gothic novel series for children, "A Series Of Unfortunate Events."

HANDLER: (Playing accordion, singing) The count has an eye on his ankle and lives in a horrible place. He wants all your money. He's never at all funny. He wants to remove your face. And you might be thinking what a romp this is. But wait till you meet his accomplices. When you see Count Olaf, you're suddenly full of disgust and despair and dismay. In the hole of soul of Count Olaf, there's no love. When you see Count Olaf count to zero, then scream and run away.

Scream, scream, scream, and run away. Run, run, run, run, run, run, run or die, die, die, die, die, die, die. Run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run or die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die.

GROSS: Oh, that's so enjoyable. (Laughter) Thank you so much.

HANDLER: You're quite welcome. My delight.

DAVIES: Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, author of the satirical children's novels "A Series Of Unfortunate Events," speaking and singing with Terry Gross there recorded in 2012. Handler's also executive producer of the new Netflix show based on the series which premieres today.

Coming up, we remember Indian actor Om Puri. This is FRESH AIR.