Lemony Snicket is the new Harry Potter. Daniel Handler's zesty kid-lit series has broken the spell of the boy wizard

By Daniel Fierman
Updated May 24, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT
Daniel Handle Photograph by Sanjay Kothari

If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.
–”Book the First: The Bad Beginning”

Daniel Handler would like to dispel a virulent — a word that here means ”rather nasty” — rumor: He is not Lemony Snicket.

This should be apparent to all but the most visually impaired of readers, he argues. Mr. Snicket is a tall man with brown eyes who is almost always cloaked in shadow or obscured by some large object. Like an elephant or, say, a coatrack. He is also widely rumored to be dead. Mr. Handler, on the other hand, has green eyes and doesn’t at all seem the sort to have had intimate contact with the villainous elements and grievous tragedy that Mr. Snicket chronicles in his books, ”A Series of Unfortunate Events.”

”I understand the confusion,” deadpans the definitely not-dead 32-year-old author. ”But my primary occupation is as the literary, legal, and social representative of Lemony Snicket. Not writing the books.”

He’s lying, of course. No matter what wild story Daniel Handler may spin, or how many glass-encased poison spiders he may unveil and claim nearly killed Lemony Snicket, he is indeed the devilish wit behind the biggest children’s publishing sensation since ”Harry Potter.” Eight installments into a planned 13-part series, his beautifully bound novels have sold over 4 million copies, sparked a movie deal with Nickelodeon and producer Scott Rudin, and made a mockery of the New York Times Children’s Chapter best-seller list. ”As of May 5, seven of the eight books were on the list, and that’s before we released ‘Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography,”’ says Handler’s HarperCollins editor, Susan Rich. ”The one not there was the fifth, ‘The Austere Academy.’ I e-mailed Daniel immediately and said, ‘Well, I never liked that one anyway.”’

To think that it started as a sophomoric prank. A large man with a quick mind and a rolling, staccato laugh, Daniel Handler — the son of Sandra Handler, the dean of behavioral sciences at the City College of San Francisco, and Lou Handler, a CPA — was researching his first novel when Lemony Snicket appeared in his life. ”I was calling right-wing organizations and religious groups, anybody that would send free brochures of weird conservative thought,” he explains, over a soda in a sleepy Bay Area coffee shop. ”But I was paranoid. What would happen in two years, if I’m a major novelist, and I’m exposed as a member of the John Birch Society? So I was on the phone with some organization and they said, ‘What’s your name?’ And I said, Lemony Snicket. I have no idea where it came from.” (The book — a high-school-set comic drama titled ”The Basic Eight” — was published to largely positive reviews in 1999.)

It snowballed from there. Soon, when Handler and his friends made a dinner reservation, it was under the name Lemony Snicket. Business cards? Lemony Snicket. Cranky letters to the editor? Lemony Snicket. (They even invented an alcoholic drink: The Lemony Snicket has white rum, mint, powdered sugar, and — of course — lemon juice; it’s quite similar to a Mojito.) And so when, at the urging of his friend and editor, Rich, he decided to rework a failed neo-Victorian novel for adults into a kids book, the name surfaced again.