I took my seat in Campbell Hall on the night of Monday, Feb. 23, next to a girl with a black ribbon in her hair in the spirit of Violet Baudelaire. As this stranger and I sat awaiting Daniel Handler’s lecture on his Lemony Snicket alter ego, an intense wave of nostalgia for the brilliant series of young adult novels that my dad had read to me as a child came rushing back.
Despite the less than upbeat title, A Series of Unfortunate Events has ironically inspired fond memories for millions of children over the years. Daniel Handler is now making the circuit to promote his new novel, We Are Pirates, which came out this month; it’s the quirky story of teenage girls partnering up with retirement home escapees to man a pirate ship. Handler’s dry sense of humor and nonchalant manner of speaking was the source of some great comedy as he lectured on his works, and he had Campbell Hall echoing with laughter.
In drawing inspiration for his Series, Handler looked to his own childhood, saying that when he was a child he would grow incredibly frustrated with certain books to the point of chucking them at the wall, because the books he was being exposed to all ended happily with the triumph of the good guys and the comeuppance of the bad characters. These stories made him lonely; not because they didn’t mimic life, because, as he said, “I don’t think someone responsible for a book in which an infant climbs up an elevator shaft using only her teeth then gets to stand in a podium and demand realistic fiction.” Rather, it’s because they presented a false idea of the dark aspects of life that he was beginning to experience. He learned that exclusion from social circles is a harsh reality, that bullies don’t always get their comeuppance, and that bad things do happen to good people.
It was because he felt that “the most interesting stories cannot be fitted with a ridiculous happy ending” that he began to write stories for himself. He reminds himself that not every story must have a moral lesson, but that it must be worth our curiosity as readers. He was inspired by reading an “unpleasant thing” many years back, in which a mother recounted the story of how she had fallen down 14 hardwood stairs while holding her baby and her cell phone, in the hopes that her experience would help other busy mothers. This ridiculous statement in which a moral was haphazardly tacked onto a tragic story lead Handler to question the nature of moral lessons. A young girl named Brandi provided him the answer by stating, “I am always curious when something happens.” This phrase inspires Handler to this day, because to him, good literature is so because it inspires curiosity.
For those like me, for whom Mr. Snicket’s true “identity,” if you will, has remained a mystery over the years, here is the origin of Mr. Handler’s pen name. While working as a young man for a computer science office, Handler read all of the local newspapers sent to his location. He would find the most harmless articles in them and compose on a typewriter outraged letters to the editor. These letters always began with “How dare you!”, a phrase chosen to “command respect and encourage an open dialogue,” according to Handler. While researching a novel of his, he called a “ridiculous conservative group” to ask for their materials in order to mock them, and he stumbled across the pseudonym Lemony Snicket to avoid being placed on a mailing list. He has used it ever since, not only to write his gripping stories, but also to masquerade as a Yacht lawyer (one who “protects the interests of the yacht, not the owner”).
In between the laughter and the stories, Handler also gave his five imperative life lessons that he has learned over the years, and that he believes everyone should follow: Be lonely, read upsetting things, join a secret organization, ask all the wrong questions, and leave suddenly.
In his closing, Handler told the audience that he gets innumerable letters asking if Lemony Snicket is actually a part of a secret organization, to which he answers: “Of course.” Snicket is a part of a secret organization of literature in which we all participate when we open one of his books. And with that, he left suddenly, leaving us all momentarily lonely, and longing to join a secret organization. If you’re ever feeling like me, I suggest you go out there and check out We Are Pirates or one of Handler’s (and Snicket’s) other amazing works and join a secret organization for yourself.