Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, Is Ready to Let You In

Meredith Heuer
Meredith Heuer

After more than 25 years of publishing novels for both adults and children, including the beloved A Series of Unfortunate Events as his alter ego Lemony Snicket, author Daniel Handler is taking readers into a new world—his own.

However, on the heels of releasing And Then? And Then? What Else? Handler tells The Daily Beast that he never set out to write a memoir. In fact, he had never wanted to write about his life at all.

“I had a reticence about it because I felt that I wasn’t ready to talk about some of these things,” he admits. He had an idea in his head of what a memoir was, and no interest in sticking to the formula. But when he started writing an introduction to a new translation of his favorite poet Charles Baudelaire, he found himself overwriting, sharing stories of encountering Baudelaire for the first time as a child and his “path through peculiar literature.” That exercise evolved into And Then? And Then? What Else?, the title itself a Baudelaire reference.

The memoir is a long time coming for Handler, 54, whose debut novel, the high school-set black comedy The Basic Eight, was released to little fanfare in 1998. He found more success after the release of The Bad Beginning under the name Lemony Snicket just a year later, the first in a series of dark books that are ostensibly for children but remain cherished by adults. Following a trio of orphans as they evade the clutches of the wicked Count Olaf, A Series of Unfortunate Events spoke to kids as if they were, well, people. Packed with literary allusions, the books paid homage to the literature that shaped Handler; references to Baudelaire, Poe, Nabokov, and so many more filled the pages, giving kids their own foothold in the literary world.

Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket

Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket

Meredith Heuer

Handler continued to release novels over the years, usually funny, empathetic explorations of human relationships: the Jewish incest opera Watch Your Mouth, the breakup postmortem Why We Broke Up, and Bottle Grove, a rumination on marriage. At the same time, he continued to publish books for children and young adults under the Snicket moniker, such as the short series All the Wrong Questions and the Hanukkah story The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming. He was prolific and his output was diverse, but, while many asked him if he would consider writing a memoir, he could never find a way in.

Eventually, he found it through literature. With the help of nods to the books and pop culture that has shaped him, Handler shares the story of his life in And Then? And Then? What Else?. Talking about other people’s writing becomes a lens through which to share and understand his own experiences, rather than a filter to hide behind.

“Only when I found a way in through writing about literature did it feel like I could write about some of these things that I haven’t talked about before,” he says, adding that though his work is sometimes seen as wry, detached, or veiled in irony, he was able to unlock a new layer of vulnerability in his latest book.

“My style is so mannered usually that it’s not necessarily what everyone sees, but I’m very attached emotionally to what I’m writing about and I wouldn’t know how to do it if I weren’t,” he explains. “If you can’t be vulnerable about whatever it is that you’re writing about, then you can’t really do it. Even my most fanciful stuff, I feel the vulnerability of the material. I really want to try to tell as much of the truth about it as I can.”

In particular, Handler exhibits that touching vulnerability when he writes about growing up in San Francisco, where he still lives. Woven throughout the book are tales of his formative brushes with queerness, like his early romantic experiences and the first time he met a trans person. It’s refreshing, I tell him, to read someone being so matter-of-fact about the LGBTQ+ community at a time of increased hostility in the U.S.

“I have not recognized a sudden explosion of queerness in recent years because I grew up in San Francisco in the ’80s,” he admits. “Sometimes people think, oh, here’s this square older man, I can shock him. I’m like, honey, before you were born…”

I note that, for many people who didn’t quite fit in, his books, particularly A Series of Unfortunate Events and the queer teen novel All The Dirty Parts, have provided a space to explore their own feelings of difference.

“A lot of people who claim one slice of identity or another are attached to my books,” he agrees. “I like that so many people have me on their team.”

In conversation, Handler is funny, warm, and generous. Despite having held off on writing about his own life for so many years, there is no topic he isn’t willing to talk about.

“These last few weeks, when I’ve been beginning to talk to people about [the memoir] and someone will say, ‘You already shared this with me,’ I think, ‘Oh, yeah, I forgot about that,’” he says. “When I’m writing, I’m so concerned with sentences. I like sentences, I like playing around with them. At a certain point, the visceral reaction to the subject matter begins to fade away because you’re just working.”

In And Then? And Then? What Else? he doesn’t hide behind form or literary references, instead using them as a vehicle to discuss painful experiences, including being assaulted by a stranger as a child and his experiences with recurrent hallucinations. However, he rejects the idea that writing about himself is “brave.”

“I never want to overstate it,” he says. “I know people who have been firefighters, so when people say, ‘He really took a risk with this book,’ I think, ‘What is the risk?’”

Even though we’re here to talk about his grown-up memoir, there’s a ghost present in the conversation: Lemony Snicket. This year marks 25 years since the release of The Bad Beginning, and Handler makes no attempt to avoid the topic. Throughout And Then? And Then? What Else?, there are thrilling threads for fans of A Series of Unfortunate Events to unravel, like gossipy tidbits about the controversial 2004 movie adaptation starring Jim Carrey, or grateful spiels about the impact the books have had on his life and so many others.

“I feel really lucky. I feel privileged in the best sense of the word to occupy some space in other people’s minds,” he says. “That they’re still thinking about it and they still want to say something about it and want to introduce it to their own children, that’s very moving to me.”

But does he ever resent being known to more people as Lemony than Daniel?

A Series of Unfortunate Events had such an enormous effect on my life. It still does. I don’t seek to distance myself from it,” he says. “I know so many writers and most of them are known for nothing. When any writer I know is resentful about what they’re known for because they’d rather be known for something else, it just seems so spoiled to me. Like, ‘They’re having a parade in my honor, but the balloons aren’t the color I wish they were.’ Relax, maybe.”

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