Orphans have a universal appeal, says Daniel Handler, aka the dolorous writer, Lemony Snicket. And the more put-upon, apparently, the better, if book sales are any indication.
Mr. Handler is the author whose Gothic tales about a trio of deeply unfortunate, parentless siblings are being snapped up by Harry Potter, Book 5-deprived fans (as well as by many others) at a record clip.
The 13-part "A Series of Unfortunate Events," saga of the three Beaudelaire orphans, is flying off bookshelves into the hands of readers with a stomach for a darker, more sarcastic view of the world than the basically good world J.K. Rowling characters inhabit. Now, the books are being made into a movie.
Nickelodeon has purchased the rights, and Handler himself is working on the screenplay. Handler says working on a Hollywood script, particularly using the "smart" software that "the powers that be" insisted he use, couldn't be more different from his usual storytelling style. "[The software] tries to guess what's going on and offer suggestions," he says with a dark laugh. "I suppose that might explain a lot about some films."
Lemony Snicket's alter ego says he prefers to begin a story with an idea and see where that takes him. "I know major things that are going to happen, but I like to leave myself things to do as characters develop."
In the world the Beaudelaire children inhabit, adults are greedy and endings are not happy - all detailed with good, Gothic relish, of course. The ghoulish travails of Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Beaudelaire already have filled nine of the proposed 13 books, and the author has promised a faithful delivery of a book a year until the series is complete.
"I thought 13 volumes was perfect," says Handler, first because of the superstitions that surround the number. "But that also seemed plenty long and melodramatic enough, like a Russian novel, where many awful things happen over and over and only achieve their impact by their sheer volume." Like Harry Potter, the Snicket tomes have outsold their initial publication runs, going on to sell 3.6 million volumes since 1999.
Book 1, "The Bad Beginning," sets the tone immediately: "If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book."
Handler, whose own life is full of remarkably good fortune and happy endings (he is not, for example, an orphan), says children like to read about misfortune, if for no other reason than to reassure themselves about their own lives.
"When you are a child, you wonder about things like, what if I were all alone? And what would happen if that elevator glass broke? Children need stories to help resolve their questions," he says. "Reading about things in a book is like a rehearsal for your own life," he adds. "If you are given only simplistic stories you are going to think of life very simplistically."
It comes as no surprise to Handler that, just as they've adopted the Harry Potter books, adults have been known to read the Snicket series.
"I hope they're reading them because they're interesting," he says with a laugh. But, says Handler, this doesn't change the fact that they are children's literature. "My books come from a tradition of Gothic literature for children, where the adults are greedy and corrupt," he says.
He has no qualms about their being identified as such.
"What makes me saddest is people who think that being labeled a children's book is some sort of insult," says the author. "The fact that books like J.K. Rowling's and mine are being read by adults doesn't make them no longer children's books. The boundaries may be expanded, but they are not broken. Just because Louis Armstrong plays Carnegie Hall doesn't mean he's stopped playing jazz."