Daniel Handler (l.) has teamed up with high school friend Nathaniel Stookey.
Photo: Jack Huynh.
The Baudelaire orphans' sad story may be over but, like a post-apocalyptic cockroach, Lemony Snicket persists—to the great delight of booksellers, children, HarperCollins and Daniel Handler himself.
“I miss them,” Handler admits of Violet, Klaus and Sunny, whose adventures concluded in 2006 with The End—60 million copies from his Unfortunate Events series have sold worldwide. “Every so often I instinctively jot down notes about more bad things happening to them before I remember, 'Oh, that series is over.' It's disorienting.”
Never fear, readers. This fall Snicket returns with A Lump of Coal (HarperCollins), a companion title to last year's Hanukkah-themed picture book, The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming. In his trademark glass-almost-completely-empty fashion, Handler writes about Christmas by anthropomorphizing the traditional gift left by Santa for very bad children. He'll visit eight cities, as Snicket's representative of course, but Handler terms this tour “unplugged.”
“The last few tours have been quite elaborate, traveling with musicians and orchestras, but this will be relatively muted,” he says. “I will be signing books and confronting children on an individual rather than a mass level.”
These “interim” books, as Handler calls them, keep Snicket's persona alive. He has another series idea (still under wraps) simmering, but up next is the February 2009 release of The Composer Is Dead (HarperCollins), a picture book-cum-police procedural that uses a murder investigation to explain the orchestra to children.
Classical music was a huge part of Handler's San Francisco childhood. He was a boy soprano with the opera, and his parents have had season tickets for longer than he's been alive. He regularly sends publicists scurrying on tour stops to rent an accordion for bookstore appearances.
But pure chance produced The Composer Is Dead. A few years ago, sitting outdoors for an interview, he was telling a reporter that one of the best things about having returned home to California from New York was running into people he hadn't seen since school days. “And right then, Nathaniel Stookey, who I went to high school with and hadn't seen for 20 years, walked by,” Handler says. “The interviewer thought it was staged.”
The serendipity continued: the next day, Edwin Outwater, conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, read the resulting article in his morning Chronicle. He recognized that the long-lost friend, identified only as “Nat, a composer,” was Stookey, who was working as a composer-in-residence with the orchestra's youth symphony. He asked Stookey to ask Handler if he'd be willing to narrate Peter and the Wolf for the orchestra, and Handler agreed.
“He changed it pretty extensively, making it very Snicket-y,” Stookey says. “Everyone loved it, so much so that we proposed he record Peter and the Wolf with us.” An offer that Handler (who found he didn't much care for Peter or his wolf) found utterly refusable. “I thought we could do better,” he says. The symphony then commissioned the pair to write a new musical work, with narration. Since its premiere in July 2006, more than 40 symphonies have performed Composer, with Handler performing the Inspector role a dozen times.
The picture book version carries illustrations by Carson Ellis and will be packaged with a CD recording by the San Francisco Symphony, with Handler narrating, and Outwater conducting. A national tour will begin with a performance at Carnegie Hall on March 7.
As for other projects, Handler says he is close to finishing a novel for adults (“there is a secret, tentative title,” he allows, but won't say anything more than it's about pirates), and is serving as a judge for this year's National Book Award, in the young people's literature category, a duty that he considers daunting. “I'm not accustomed to evaluating a book by comparing it to every other book I've just read,” he says.
And he has an idea for a new series for young readers which, like all his children's books, will carry the Lemony Snicket nom de plume. Also like his other children's books, it will be edited by Susan Rich, who became friends with Handler, a fellow “pity invite” to literary cocktail parties, back when she was unemployed and he was unpublished. Though she moved to Toronto eight years ago where she works out of HarperCollins Canada's offices, Handler says, “It is a rare day when I don't talk to Susan.”
Presumably those conversations are about what comes after The End, but Handler remains close-lipped. “If it were a pregnancy, I wouldn't yet be talking about it, that's how delicate and fetal it is,” he says.