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Lemony Snicket romances the enigma of writing for sophisticated children of all ages
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

No one writes in the inimitable style of Lemony Snicket, aka San Francisco native Daniel Handler. His prose is dry, but never barren of meaning. His humor is dry, too, so much so that you find yourself, surprisingly, slurping it off the floor.

No other author titles or markets books in such a relentlessly dark manner, either. Plenty of authors have assumed pen names over the history of literature — think Mark Twain or George Orwell and etcetera — but few have created such charming alter egos in the spirit of Snicket. The consternated writer, forever on the run from law enforcement and other nemeses, has a way of writing that, while vexing, is also compulsively readable, funny and charming.

It takes a special talent to issue a sequence of 13 books, call them all A Series of Unfortunate Events, then gather them all up in a boxed set titled The Complete Wreck. The books, ostensibly written for children, are intended for a wider audience. Perhaps the brightest spot in the Snicket oeuvre is 13 Words, which ends with everyone eating cake.

His latest book, All the Wrong Questions: Who Could That Be at This Hour?, is first in a series of four. With the young Snicket as central character, and in hot pursuit of a mystery with all sorts of loose ends tightening into literary bon mots, it takes the author's wry humor to new and novel extremes.

The author spoke by phone from his San Francisco home, answering each question with aplomb — even if all the questions were wrong.

You must be the most successful children's author ever to employ a dry, sarcastic, even pessimistically ironic tone to your writing. What mix of ages attend your readings?

It's most certainly mixed. Children as young as 5 and 6 are having my books read to them. Children's literature has come such a distance that there used to be adults who felt obliged [to bring children] to come to the readings. Now they come by themselves. For a few years I'd meet people who'd say, "This is my co-worker's niece." People would bring children of quite distant relation along with them. It was almost a ticket. Now, that sort of shame has fallen by the wayside. The upper age range is bound only by mortality. I'm not aware of anyone reading me after they've died.

Do you think adults tend to underestimate the intelligence of young readers?

They probably underestimate children's abilities, and perhaps overestimate adults' ability to appreciate literature. A few years ago, when the Penultimate Peril [Book 12 in A Series of Unfortunate Events] was released, I learned that some people knew what "penultimate" meant, and some didn't. It wasn't as if children didn't know the word, and adults always did.

Many of your books contain either 13 in the title, end after 13 chapters, feature characters 13 years of age or are released on the 13th day of the calendar. What's your fascination with this number?

I was hoping you'd have 13 items in that list of 13. That would be very impressive! It just seems like a nice round number to me. Books just end up with 13 chapters — without a prior plan.

You're on record as supporting the Occupy protestors, but your books seem devoid of overt politics. Do you feel political messages or contexts are out of place in books?

Well, I'd say most of my books are about disenfranchised people trying to make their way into a corrupt world. I guess that's a political point. Of course, I wouldn't want to use this interview to cast aspersions on any of the good people in Utah running for political office one day.

You're somewhat famous in independent music circles as the accordionist for Stephin Merritt on his album "69 Love Songs." Do you have any more music projects or recordings up your sleeve?

I'm still unpacking the phrase "somewhat famous in indie-rock circles." That's like being the world's tallest midget. I'm working on a stage musical with Mr. Merritt, and Mr. Merritt has written a song for a new Snicket series that I will be performing on various stops along the tour.

Your new book "Who Could That Be at This Hour? All the Wrong Questions" is an especially enigmatic read. It's like a mix of Raymond Chandler and Lewis Carroll.

I've always been interested in noir literature, and it occurred to me that a detective's journey of discovering moral corruption at every turn, all in attempts to find a clear moral path, matched the journey of childhood. I thought it would be an interesting idea for a series.

After more than 50 pages, a friend of mine said she still couldn't tell me what the book was "about." I read about that much and found myself scratching my head and laughing at the same time.

Laughing while you're scratching your head? That's remarkably coordinated. Well done!

Where do you see yourself in the continuum of children's literature? In one sense, given that so much classic children's lit involves children under dire threats or circumstances, you could be seen as a traditionalist à la Brothers Grimm.

There's a proud tradition of darkness in children's lit. I'm certainly a part of that. I don't know where I fall on the spectrum, but not as good as Brothers Grimm. I like "The White Snake." That's a good one. It has a very strange universe. If you help animals, they will help you. It's shaped in a strange way. All Grimm is good. The strange, fragmentary ones are great.

I'm waiting for the right time to read them to my daughter.

There probably isn't one.

You wrote a 2006 preface to one of Herman Melville's more obscure novels, "The Confidence Man."

In fact, the 12th book of A Series of Unfortunate Events is modeled after The Confidence-Man. I like Mardi and Pierre, also. And Moby-Dick, of course. What appealed to me about The Confidence-Man is its essential strangeness. I like to be startled when I'm reading. The Confidence-Man is an unknowable mystery, and an easy read. It's not a mystery like Agatha Christie, where all the loose ends are tied up by the end. It remains a mystery, which is appealing to me.

bfulton@sltrib.com

Twitter: @Artsalt —

Lemony Snicket

When • Saturday, Nov. 17, 6 p.m.

Where • Rowland Hall, upper school campus, 843 S. Lincoln St., Salt Lake City

Admission • Free ticket for customers who purchase Snicket's book from The King's English; add-on tickets for additional guests are $5 and available at the time of initial purchase.

Info • Call 801-484-9100 or visit http://www.kingsenglish.com

Visiting author • Droll and distinctive, but never dull, the San Francisco author with a double ego answers for himself.
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