Daniel 'Lemony Snicket' Handler On Orphans, Writing And Chatham

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Local authors

Daniel Handler and his wife, illustrator Lisa Brown, at a signing for Brown's latest book last summer at Chatham Airport. DEBRA LAWLESS PHOTO

In Daniel Handler's view, stories with happy endings are just no fun.

A prime example is the series of novels Handler wrote under the pen name Lemony Snicket. In “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” bad things happen to three orphans over and over and over again.

“It's hard for me to think of a story that doesn't have a threat involved,” Handler, a Chatham summer resident, said last week in a telephone interview from his San Francisco home. “Maybe it's my Jewish upbringing. If I have to think of a story right away, the idea of somebody being thrown down an elevator shaft sounds more entrancing than, say, a meadow.”

Handler was in the midst of a long string of interviews following the debut of a new Netflix series based on the 13 “Series of Unfortunate Events” books, which were written between 1999 and 2006. The series, which stars Neil Patrick Harris as the villainous Count Olaf, has garnered largely positive reviews and was initiated by Netflix.

“They convinced me it would be a good fit between the books and the kind of narrative series television they do,” Handler said.

Handler grew up in San Francisco, but his wife, illustrator Lisa Brown, whom he met when they were both attending Wesleyan University, is from Connecticut. When he was growing up he had cousins “on the other coast” whom he rarely saw; when the couple's son Otto was born in 2003, they wanted to find a spot where the extended family could gather on a regular basis so the same thing didn't happen to the next generation. They rented a summer place in Chatham for a few years before deciding to buy a house in West Chatham.

“We had a serious talk and listed the pros and cons and decided not to buy,” he said. “And then my wife bought it. The moral of the story is to always talk things out.”

Chatham, Handler said, “is a town that charms me.”

“It seems equally welcoming to summer people and to have its own kind of local identity,” he said.

Back to “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” which was also made into a film starring Jim Carrey in 2004 that didn't excite critics. However, in typically understated fashion, Handler said he was “not unsatisfied” with that treatment of his work. “I have a strict policy about saying anything catty about a movie that bought me a house,” he explained.

He'd worked on the screenplay of that film and Barry Sonnenfeld was supposed to direct but was let go from the project (“fired” is the way Handler put it); before Handler agreed to do the Netflix version, he made sure Sonnenfeld was OK with it. The director ended up coming on board as executive producer and even directed the first few episodes.

Handler said he also wanted a diverse cast for the show, though he left most of those decisions in Sonnenfeld's hands. “I just kept suggesting actors from the '30s and '40s who are all dead,” he quipped. He does take credit for bringing Neil Patrick Harris on board. “I'd watched his performance at the Tony Awards that both celebrates and made fun of musical numbers. I thought here's someone who could simultaneously be villainous and make fun of villains.” Harris ended up as a producer and also sung the title song, to which Handler wrote the lyrics.

The author also lauded the casting of Patrick Warburton as alter ego Lemony Snicket, who narrates both the book and show and adds to the sense of deadpan mystery. “It's like I'm looking in a mirror,” Handler said of Warburton, who was cast based on a trailer for his film “The Woman Chaser.”

“One of them is so Snickety,” Handler said. “It was kind of the perfect audition.”

With its mix of darkness, eye-popping colors and highly stylized sets – all but a few scenes were filmed in a warehouse in Vancouver, he said – the show is visually dazzling, which Handler credits to production designer Bo Welsh, who was also responsible for the look of “Edward Scissorhands.” And from Count Olaf's looming, decaying mansion to the sterile bank office with filing cabinets for walls, “the idea in our heads was that it was the world from the point of view of a child,” he said.

Adapting the books to the small screen was “fairly straightforward,” said Handler, who wrote five of the first season's eight episodes – which cover the first four novels in the series – and is working on several other episodes for the second season. Because the shows, together, are longer than a standard film, there was more opportunity to pack them full of the fun ideas and nonsense in the books, including asides about the definition of words as well as obscure clues about the story's core mystery. Some of the ideas that didn't make it into the previous film for various reasons found their way into the new series, he added.

“We were happy to kind of dig into our brains and try to remember what excited us and new things popped out instead,” Handler said.

A prolific author, Handler has written five books for adults as well as a variety of books as Lemony Snicket, including a new collaboration with his wife called “Goldfish Ghost” due out on May featuring “settings inspired by Chatham.” In August he'll publish “All the Dirty Parts,” a novel, ostensibly in the young adult category, that's already generated some controversy due to its frank treatment of sex. He'd dealt with similar subjects in his other books, but this particular treatment originated when he was asked to give a speech encouraging adolescent boys to read. “I didn't have an idea of what to say,” he recalled, until his mother cleaned out her house and sent him a stack of his books from his young adult years.

“They were all filthy,” he said. While the books were serious novels by acclaimed authors, they had an undertone of sex, and he realized that while the content was “terrifying,” it was also the topic most adolescent boys are interested in.

“The publisher had to think about this book before they decided to publish it,” he said. “Meanwhile, they're publishing dystopian fiction with kids killing each other.”

Now that the initial publicity rush for season one of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is over, Handler said he'll be “neck deep” in planning and writing season two.

“People keep saying what's my next project,” he said. “Hopefully it's getting all of these scripts off my desk.”