The Jewish Secrets of Lemony Snicket
Novelist Daniel Handler, better known by his pseudonym, Lemony Snicket, surfaced recently to talk with Moment editor Nadine Epstein from an undisclosed location about the troubled Dickensian world he crafted in A Series of Unfortunate Events. The series’ 13 books follow the misadventures of three smart, resourceful but unlucky orphans and have sold over 50 million copies in 41 languages, creating a stir in children’s literature second only to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. From The Bad Beginning, published in 1999, to The End, which came out on Friday the 13th last October, the Baudelaire children—Violet, Klaus and baby Sunny—have been forced to rely on their own prodigious talents to thwart the evil plans of the villainous Count Olaf, who is determined to get his hands on their fortune. Their progress is hampered by a succession of obtuse guardians who can’t seem to recognize evil even when it stands before them. The San Francisco-based Handler transforms himself into the well-mannered narrator of the Baudelaires’ search for an elusive organization comprised of the few adults who may (or may not) actually have a clue and for the truth behind the fire that may (or may not) have killed their parents. Answers don’t come easy, even in the final book in the series. In this rare interview, the normally tight-lipped author—called “the best dark humorist since Kurt Vonnegut” by Salon.com—reveals tantalizing details for readers looking for Jewish meaning in this world of unfortunate events.
Where did the pen name Lemony Snicket come from?
I was researching my first novel, Basic Eight (the story of a 12th grade girl in San Francisco, her seven close friends and a world turned upside down by revealed secrets, horrifying self-discoveries and satanic murder) and I was on the phone with a right-wing religious organization. I wanted them to mail me material that I could use in my research, but didn’t want to be permanently on their mailing list. They asked me what my name was and I opened my mouth and said “Lemony Snicket.” I thought that’s not a name that anyone would necessarily believe. But then the person on the other end of the phone said, “Is that spelled how it sounds?” Which may or may not prove something about right-wing religious organizations.
What inspired you to begin writing A Series of Unfortunate Events?
I thought it would be interesting if terrible things happened to three helpless children over and over again.
Why did you name your family of protagonists the Baudelaires?
Because I am fond of the poet Charles Baudelaire whose most famous work is The Flowers of Evil, a cycle of poems that discusses dreadful circumstances and finds beauty in them.
Where did you come up with the names—Violet, Klaus, Sunny and Olaf?
There are all sorts of antecedents for those names that people have picked up on, but I also thought it would be interesting to devise a setting for the book that is somewhat ambiguous. Violet is a fairly British name; Klaus is a fairly German name; Sunny is a fairly American name, and Olaf is a fairly Scandinavian name, and that creates a certain amount of confusion.
Why can’t adults in A Series of Unfortunate Events recognize evil even when it is right under their noses?
For the same reason that adults can’t recognize evil in real life: they are either corrupt or dim-witted.
Do children possess wisdom adults have forgotten?
I don’t think children really have a higher rate of nobility in A Series of Unfortunate Events and I certainly don’t think they have one in real life.
What children’s books and authors would you recommend to our readers?
When I was a child my absolute favorite book was The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily by Dino Buzzati. I also really liked books by Roald Dahl, Edward Gorey and Zilpha Keatley Snyder.
Did they influence your writing?
Yes, most certainly. I went back and reread those books before I wrote The Bad Beginning, so I’ve stolen a lot from [them]. And, in fact, when I was done writing The Bad Beginning and The Reptile Room, and we had early copies of them, I sent them to Edward Gorey with a note saying that I hoped that I would be forgiven for all that I had stolen from his works. Then he died a few weeks later. So I like to think that I killed him. I don’t have any proof, of course.
Has the series been influenced by Jewish history?
I think there is something naturally Jewish about unending misery, yes. I mean, I guess naturally but not exclusively Jewish. I’m Jewish so, by default, the characters I create are Jewish, I think. Then I think I have something of a Jewish sensibility shaped by having a Jewish upbringing and so, therefore, books that I produce would be somewhat Jewish in tone.
Are the Baudelaires Jewish?
Oh yeah! Yes. The Baudelaires are Jewish! I guess we would not know for sure but we would strongly suspect it, not only from their manner but from the occasional mention of a rabbi or bar mitzvah or synagogue. The careful reader will find quite a few rabbis.
Can you tell me where?
No, I don’t think I should. I think the rabbis should be for people to find.
Is there some other Jewish angle to the series that I missed?
If you read the book backwards, it makes Hebrew quotes…
No! I can tell you anything. (Laughs)
Were you brought up in an observant Jewish home?
(Laughs) Observant is sort of a comparative term. We didn’t have a kosher kitchen. It was a sort of typical Jewish household that hovered between Reform and Conservative Judaism. All major holidays and rituals were kept up but we occasionally lapsed on Sukkot and could never remember what Sh’imini Atzeret was for.
How did being brought up Jewish affect you as a writer?
I always think it’s funny when people talk about what influenced them as a child, because you would have no basis of comparison. Certainly it would have been really surprising if I grew up to be a cardinal, with my Jewish upbringing. But I think there’s a certain sensibility that that kind of Jewish household can exhibit, and that probably shows up in my writing. There’s a great deal of guilt and wringing of hands in a A Series of Unfortunate Events. That’s very Jewish.
Was there was a lot of guilt and wringing of hands when you were growing up?
There weren’t any major catastrophes in my family while I was a child, but there was the usual Jewish angst that pervades even the healthiest households.
Is the world in A Series of Unfortunate Events a world without God?
God is not a character in A Series of Unfortunate Events. The narrator mentions at one point that the characters often felt as if there was something powerful over them, which made no move to help them and was perhaps even laughing at their misfortune. But whether that person was God or the author is up for grabs.
Is there an ultimate message you want readers to take away from the series?
That’s not really how I operate. I think perhaps the books posit that one should behave well in dire circumstances—not because it will help you, but for its own rewards. But it’s not as if I sat down and thought, “What important message can I bestow on the youth of the world?” I think that’s sort of Jewish too. I prefer the model of Talmudic thought in which people can spend a lifetime arguing over a single paragraph of Talmudic text, compared to the Catholic model in which a text is explained for you by someone on high.
What does it mean to you to be Jewish today in the world?
As an American Jew today, I view it with the nervousness of so many of my ancestors, who wondered when it was time to leave.
What’s making you nervous?
As a Jew who has taken refuge for one generation so far in a secular country, I’m troubled by a secular country getting less secular.
Are you raising your son Otto as a Jew?
I expect him back from preschool at the Jewish Community Center at any moment.
When will you read A Series of Unfortunate Events to him?
I guess whenever he seems like he would be interested in that sort of thing. Right now he’s three, so not now.
Why do you think the series was so successful?
I have no idea. I am astonished. Pleasantly surprised would be a very, very mild understatement. I never thought such stories would be read by very many people and they have been. I used to have a half-baked philosophy as to why they reached such a large readership, but then I read this interview with [conservative television host] Bill O’Reilly where he gave more or less the same line of reasoning for his success. But obviously he’s wrong, because he’s an immoral idiot. And so I concluded that I must be wrong as well. His argument—well, I don’t even want to give him any more publicity than he already has, but suffice it to say he was wrong, and so I was wrong, so I’m not repeating the philosophy and neither should he.
Will you be writing a prequel or sequel to the series to tell us more?
I’m sure there’ll be more from Lemony Snicket, but people who are hoping to have all their questions answered shouldn’t hold their breath.
Nadine Epstein is editor of Moment. She’s never been able to “give up” reading children’s literature. For this issue she also interviewed Dov Krulwich, author of Harry Potter and the Torah.
Originally Published in the January/February 2007 issue of Moment.