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The living end

 

THE end is nigh. On Friday the 13th to be exact. At 12.01am. That's when The End, the much-anticipated 13th and final book in the mega-selling A Series of Unfortunate Events, goes on sale across the globe. In the world of children's literature, suspense has been building all year over the fate of the increasingly beleaguered Baudelaire orphans and whether the three will at last escape the depredations of their pitiless nemesis, that nasty master of disguise, Count Olaf. The final tale from the mysterious and misleading narrator Lemony Snicket promises to reveal all, but when your narrator is a character of dubious provenance, who do you trust?


The answer, for millions, is Daniel Handler. This fresh-faced San Francisco writer has created a world into which children (and their parents) everywhere have willingly stepped. His is a universe of uncontained possibilities and his tales are gothic and ghoulish, unpatronising, wordy, playful, always ironic, edged with absurdity and published with high production values.


It is an achievement brilliant in conception and execution. Handler is the kind of Mr Productive that mere mortal authors are perfectly justified in hating. His first book, the psychological schoolyard thriller The Basic Eight, was published in 1998, a year ahead of his operatic incest story, Watch Your Mouth. Both were novels for adults. Admittedly the first had been written in the early 1990s and had to survive 37 publisher rejections before finding a backer.


Neither novel sold well but once he'd found access to a printing press, Handler became hyperactive. In 1999 as his alter ego Snicket, a pseudonym he adopted originally to infiltrate right-wing mailing lists while researching The Basic Eight, he wrote the first Unfortunate Series book, The Bad Beginning. It and its sequel moved only moderate numbers but from the third sales skyrocketed, so much so that at one point Snicket tales held seven of the top 10 slots on The New York Times bestseller list for children's books.


Writing two bestsellers a year wasn't enough. A fandom sprung up around the series, with website enthusiasts dissecting everything Snicketian. Handler has fed this enthusiasm via "official'' correspondence, video snippets, playfully planted rumour and live guest appearances as Lemony Snicket's handler (geddit?).


Beyond that, there was his McSweeney's humour book last year, How to Dress for Every Occasion, By the Pope. In April this year came another adult novel, Adverbs. Last month he published The Beatrice Letters, a correspondence associated with Snicket's tragically lost love and muse, the late Beatrice Baudelaire. And now comes The End. Which tallies up to 18 editions published in just over seven years, with about 50 million units sold. But who's counting?


Besides, there's more. Such as the films. He has scripted two -- the modern opera Rick, based on Verdi's Rigoletto, and the screen adaptation of Joel Rose's novel Kill the Poor -- and watched his first three Snicket books become a movie starring Jim Carrey, Jude Law and Meryl Streep.


Then there's the music: Handler has played accordion with small ensembles and sat in with cult group the Magnetic Fields on their triple album, 69 Love Songs. In collaboration with composer Nathaniel Stookey, he recently wrote a piece for narrator and orchestra entitled The Composer is Dead, a murder mystery meets Peter and the Wolf amalgam that premiered in July with the San Francisco Symphony. And he has just directed a music video for Canadian indie-pop band Memphis.


Beyond all of this there's his family (he's married to his college sweetheart, graphic artist Lisa Brown, and they have a two-year-old son, Otto), his involvement with San Francisco's close and cuddly literary world (think Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers and the rest), and his commitment to LitPAC, a writers' political action committee created to assist liberal congressional candidates.


***


ANY visit to San Francisco has existential moments. But as I check I'm at the right address, I begin to wonder: have I stumbled into an audition for the Village People? At a side table sits the leather biker dude, glowering. Next to him is the cowboy. And over there is the construction worker. Actually, there are several construction workers: this cafe in San Francisco's boho Corso district is truly a dandy joint, with muchos pecs, flex and moustachioed men on display. Which makes it pretty easy to spot my man: he's the only one carrying a book and not packing attitude.


Handler also stands out for being casually preppy in his open-neck, pale-blue shirt and navy blazer. His short hair is patterned with grey flecks, and at 36 his boyish features and figure have matured with the good life. He looks more like Douglas Coupland's younger brother than a performer of Village People's anthemic YMCA.
We've met here because he lives "just a short walk away, in that direction'', he says, gesturing between Twin Peaks and Haight-Ashbury. Which seems apt, in a metaphorical way.


As we pull up chairs, he pulls out his notebook to jot down a conversational gambit he overheard on his way in. He's the kind of writer who is forever slinking around with pad and pen, making notes. Just about every line of dialogue in his most recent novel was eavesdropped, he says. He's a life-and-language magpie, and friends and family are on permanent notice that everything they say will be taken down. "If anything, they tend to tell me more,'' he says, laughing, "which is not to say that they don't complain about it.''


Handler is affable but slightly remote. There's hardly a question he hasn't been asked before, a thousand times, yet he's surprisingly tight-reined. He became wary of interviews, he explains, after he told one early questioner that his parents had met at the opera, which they had. "Was one of them appearing?' I was asked. 'Sure,' I laughed, 'my mother had the lead in Aida.' I was joking, but in the paper there it was and it has been quoted as fact in dozens of stories since from people who obviously write from Google. My mother thinks it's hilarious, considering she's tone deaf.''

We do name, rank and serial number over coffee. His mother comes from an established American family with claims to Pilgrim father ancestry; his father is an accountant who escaped Germany as a boy with his German-Jewish parents; his younger sister "has an unspeakable charm: her goal has pretty much always been raising money for non-profit organisations, which she is fantastically good at''.


He was a book-loving, sport-hating boy who appeared in operas and developed a fine line in droll asides as a survival strategy. He's always loved the melodramatic and morbid, he says, and gets fixated by minutiae.


"At university I was obsessed by pop music from New Zealand, which really has no plausible basis, but I was thrilled when the Bats, titans on the NZ pop music scene, came here recently.''


And so it goes, a staccato smorgasbord. Yes, he met his wife at university. "The story goes that I met her after I suffered a seizure and woke up lying in her lap. That's pretty true but we weren't complete strangers, we'd been flirting for a little while.'' The seizures? A blood sugar thing to do with growing up. All gone now. And, yes, he does play accordion but calling him "an accordionist would be a grandiose term for my skill. Hardly anyone plays the instrument, which means if a band needs an accordion player, I'm there''. He was "an adjunct member'' of the Magnetic Fields just as fame struck both of them. "Several articles appeared which said 'and he has this band also': they were relegated to a secondary role, where it was actually I who sat in on three numbers and drank cognac for the rest of the evening.''


Being a musician is a miserable life, he says. "The best-case scenario is terrible, the worst-case scenario even worse. And then there's that endless testing of the microphone ... but that's how I feel about every other art form. I consider myself very lucky I ended up making my way towards an area where the technical requirements are quite limited.''


He always wanted to be a writer and his post-university "goal was to find jobs that paid the most amount of money for the least amount of time so I could focus on writing''. He starved a lot, he says: his CV includes 18 months in an office "answering the phone to tell a dying man's callers he was not going back to work''; a stint writing radio scripts in San Francisco for "a show that was mostly music''; and a stint in New York as a freelance writer on "commuter newspapers that have just enough text to separate the ads''.


It was a miserable career, he laughs, "and then The Basic Eight sold for the lowest amount of money my literary agent had ever negotiated. It would have been a better deal if I'd paid the publisher to buy the book, especially since I ended up recently having to buy the rights back.''


But publication made him "think differently of the literary community, in that I was amazed they would take me. Still, I couldn't think of anything else to do, so I wrote this miserable book about a family that can't stop having sex with each other; not my family, I might add.


"I'd always thought I might become a professor and teach people about books, but in New York I knew professors and their jobs were worse: worse money, more misery, even more drinking -- and I was drinking plenty -- so I saw no option.'' Most writers he knows had similar troubles. "They ended up writing because they were useless at everything else. If we look at the apocalyptic fantasy, when they come to ask: 'And what can you provide our new society?', I will have to say: 'Nothing, actually, I'm a writer.'''


He laughs uproariously. "Writing's important in some ways but when the mutants are at the door I really want someone who knows how to work on a crowbar, not someone who says: 'This is almost Nabokovian.'''


He wrote the first Snicket book just to get a pushy publisher off his back. "She thought I could write children's books, I didn't, and I didn't want to, so I made the story dark and disagreeable. And they still published it.'' Soon after, he says, "everything just took off in an astonishing way. And I have to tell you, rich is better. It was such a steep change from having no money whatsoever to having far too much.''


Was the 13-book series an accident or a clever marketing ploy? "It turned out to be one,'' he smiles. "But I always thought that the only thing funnier than a book where miserable things happen over and over to orphans was a 13-volume set where miserable things happen over and over to orphans.'' And he laughs again in happy contemplation of this mass of misery.


If J. K. Rowling had not rewritten the kids lit agenda entirely, Handler would be considered a sales phenomenon. As it is, he is admired for his imagination and criticised by some for his macabre world view. Having a child has changed his attitudes towards children's book writing, he admits, "but not in the way people would expect. Having a very young child is a constant brainstorming on what can go wrong.


"Now Otto is two, and instantly when I walk into an outdoor cafe I see the heat lamps and the chairs that tip over and the table that doesn't: I'm casing the joint in a way you never do when you don't have a small child. If you get to use those potentially life-threatening situations in your professional capacity, it's a huge boon: I wish he'd been born earlier, in a way, because the number of troubles I have thought of since his birth just never occurred to me when I was doing the Snicket books.''


Thinking these troubles are funny hasn't stopped either, he says, "which is probably sort of bizarre. But the other part of having a two-year-old is that there's so much slapstick that ends in tears. So you have to pick up a screaming child and comfort him while not making eye contact with your wife because, if you do, you'll both laugh loudly, and he's old enough to know you're laughing at him.'' And then there's "the lies you tell them just to get by ... our son won't eat grapes but he loves baby apples: the small, squishy kind. And I think that's psychotic behaviour on our part.''


We walk a few blocks to his favourite oyster bar and chow down on chowder before tag-teaming to demolish a platter of fish salad and a rainy day-cheering fish stew. The "off-duty'' Handler remains a jack-in-the-chatterbox but the clowning edginess ebbs as he displays an enthusiast's fervour for books he is reading, books he has loved and the delights of a well-turned tale.


So how does The End end? I can't tell you because all copies have been locked away in secret warehouses, under Harry Potter-like stringent security. And Handler's not giving any clues, either, although he is spreading disinformation with hee-hee glee.


The book will be "shrouded with ambiguity and mystery, as life is'' he told a trade magazine last month. A week or so earlier, Newsweek reported him as saying at least two characters would die in the final book. A month before that, he told another industry magazine that "I'm not sure if you can call it a happy ending or not: 'happy' is such a comparative term.'' As for the book's editor, she has promised a suitably "unhappily ever after'' finale.


But is final truly final or is there life after Lemony? As it happens, there may still be life in Lemony. "It's very possible that Mr Snicket may take an interest in other cases,'' Handler says, "but in terms of the Baudelaire orphans, well, their fate is pretty well established. And 13 volumes was just sort of perfect for the series: the 13th volume launched on Friday the 13th, you can't top that. As a Spanish woman whose grasp of English is quite liquid once told me: 'Nothing lasts forever sometimes.' I hold to that.''
And he smiles. Enigmatically.

 


This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian, 7 October 2006. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren

 


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