San Francisco author Daniel Handler has achieved worldwide fame writing under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket, whose 13 "A Series of Unfortunate Events" books for children have sold an astonishing 65 million copies. With Snicket on hiatus, Handler is boldly venturing out under his own name with Why We Broke Up, a novel for young readers that has already become an Internet phenomenon through a website that asks readers to share their own stories of romantic hardship.
The last time we saw you in these parts you were playing in an orchestral recreation of the Boris Karloff film, House of Frankenstein. How did that go?
It went very well, I thought. It was a very strange thing for me to do, and it was difficult, and I was pleased to have done it. For me it's part of a philosophy I have that goes, How hard can that be? People ask me sometimes to do things that I'm probably not qualified to do, but I always think, How hard can it be? Often, as in the case of Frankenstein, it turns out to be really hard. But it was fun.
Where else has that philosophy led you?
I'm currently leading exercises once a week at my son's elementary school. The budget got cut, so I teach go-go dancing at my son's school now.
Are you doing some more career-oriented things as well?
Are you saying that's not a career move? Is that what you're telling me?
Forgive my presumption. Let's talk about Why We Broke Up. It seems to have taken off as a website even before being published as a book. How did that happen?
Whenever I was at a dinner party as I wrote this book and someone would say, 'So what are you working on?' and I would say, 'A novel about two people breaking up in high school,' I would immediately get a story. It was like no other book I've ever worked on. Usually when you tell people what your new book is about they smile blankly. This time, they would interrupt me to tell their own stories. It felt to me that that might happen even more frequently when the book was published, so we quickly threw together a site where people could put up their own stories.
How is it doing?
It's doing fantastically. I'm told that the number of people who post stories and read stories is enormous. People seem so eager to tell their stories as a result of this book, I've become a much more gossipy person than I used to be. I'm far more interested in the personal lives of my readers than I used to be. I used to think it was none of my business and now I've decided I don't care if it's none of my business, I still want to hear all about it.
You started your career writing for adults. Are you surprised to be so successful as a writer for young people?
When I began the career it was very much a surprise. After the publication of my first novel, my editor Susan Rich asked if I would be interested in writing something that was not just about young people but for young people. I thought it was a terrible idea. I didn't think of myself as a children's writer at all. But I began to have a story appear in my head about terrible things happening to children over and over again, and I was certain that that made me absolutely inappropriate to write for children. But I turned out to be wrong, as I almost always am.
Why were you wrong? What is it about this 'inappropriate' attitude that is so appealing to young readers?
I think I was wrong because I hadn't thought very much about children's literature then. But children's literature is little more than terrible things happening to children over and over again.
These days adults seem to find children's literature equally appealing. Why is that?
I think the crossover's always been there. What happened with Harry Potter is that people started to admit it. Suddenly you could read children's books on the subway and not be embarrassed. But everyone I know likes to dig into the books they read as a child and certainly anyone with children likes to read what their children are reading.
You have a son in elementary school. What books are you discovering through him?
He seems to be interested in non-fiction, which is something I never thought about much in terms of children's literature. He's very interested in the sinking of the Titanic, and there are quite a few children's books just out now about it. That's an example of something I never would have picked up, either as a child or as an adult, and it's interesting to me.
Is he precocious or do you think he's typical of the new generation?
My child? He's a genius!
You tried to bring an end to Lemony Snicket but he seems to have acquired a life of his own.
Much like Frankenstein, as we were saying. Yes, there's a new Snicket series that starts this fall. I'm excited about that. And in case anybody is worried, the connection between Lemony Snicket and the nation of Canada remains strong.
What is the connection?
The Lemony Snicket books were first experienced by a large audience and with increased enthusiasm in Canada. I did some tours where there would be a small but respectable crowd in Milwaukee, then I would go to Vancouver and they would be lined up out the door. So I do think there's something about them that seems to appeal to a Canadian sensibility.
Do you ever feel burdened by the Lemony Snicket persona you have created? Are you overshadowed by your own Frankenstein?
No. Unlike Frankenstein, my monster didn't terrorize the populace. Or maybe it did, come to think of it. But I've been astonished and unbelievably grateful for what has happened. And it's all worked out quite nicely because I, in fact, can be Daniel Handler, not only as a writer but as a person. I can wander the streets and produce my credit card and receive not a whiff of recognition, for which I am quite grateful.
This interview has been condensed and edited.