Lemony Snicket on How ‘Unfortunate Events’ Make Great Fiction

Author says father’s escape from Nazi Germany taught him that great stories don’t always need a happy ending.

Lemony Snicket
Author Daniel Handler offered heartfelt and comedic insights into his life and work for the Jewish Literature Live event held last Thursday. (Zach Marin/GW Today)
February 20, 2015

By Brittney Dunkins

Daniel Handler—better known by the pen name Lemony Snicket—has never been interested in morals, explanations or neat, happy endings.

Unsurprisingly, the author of  “A Series of Unfortunate Events” has been more curious about the perilous, the macabre—in seeing “what might happen.”

“My father escaped from Germany in 1939 with some of his family—not all of them made it,” Mr. Handler told George Washington University students Thursday evening. “I grew up hearing stories at the dinner table in which terrible things happened with no real cause and effect—essentially Jewish stories.”

Mr. Handler said his father did not tell a story of  “bravery in the face of adversity,” but rather the more interesting tale of how his “young and plucky” grandmother negotiated their escape with a handful of diamonds hidden in the hollowed out heel of her shoe.

“That was the kind of lesson that I needed and the kind of fiction that I liked to read in which a wild and chaotic story cannot be fitted with a happy ending,” he said.  

Mr. Handler explored the link between his writing process and identity with trademark droll wit  for the Jewish Literature Live course taught by Faye Moskowitz, a professor of English in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. 

He captivated the audience of GW students and community members in the Elliott School of International Affairs’ City View Room for nearly an hour, punctuating his somewhat dark observations with tangential quips.

He became a writer, he said, because he wanted to make something happen.

To that end, he has built a career on writing characters into seemingly hopeless situations from his wildly popular children’s series to five novels, including the Michael L. Printz Award-winning “Why We Broke Up,” and his newest work “We Are Pirates.”

But the author said that at the heart of his work is a desire to capture the reality faced by the “disenchanted and disenfranchised.” 

Daniel Handler's newest novel, "We are Pirates" explores hijinks on the high seas as a modern day teenager and a band of senior citizens terrorize the San Francisco Bay.

“We live in a world where your parents can escape from Nazis and your school years can be filled with loathsome bullies, where terrible things can happen again and again and again,” Mr. Handler said. “Where one can take a mighty pen and scribe corrective, inspiring and chaotic stories in pursuit of brutal, glorious and inevitable truth.”

He encouraged young writers to read a book they love and “just jam on how awesome it is.” He also recounted the many inspirations behind his writing from his root beer-stained copy of Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s “The Egypt Game” to his father’s struggle with dementia and later death and memories of his younger sister’s unparalleled anger as a teenager.

Mr. Handler added that female characters have been central to his work since his first novel “The Basic Eight,” in which a teenage girl kills a boy over unrequited love. But the focus is not a way to “punch his feminist card.”

“Young women have the weight of many an expectation and the confinement of a much narrower reality because they are being told they can do anything when really they can do very little—I don’t think it’s irrational to be angry,” he said.

“I find the narrative more interesting. If a man is walking down the street, it might be a story, but if you decide she’s a 15-year-old girl, it’s a story already,” he deadpanned. 

He said that despite a strong commitment to justice—“not social justice, that makes it sound like we’re only equal at a party”—he avoids overtly giving books an ideological mission because it makes for boring, preachy fiction.

I don’t make a list of important things and put them in my novels. Interesting fiction tends to be critical and transformative,” Mr. Handler said. “There is not a lot of great fiction out there that says, ‘here’s the world, and I wouldn’t change a thing.’”

Before heading out to the lobby to sign books and speak with students, Mr. Handler fielded a final question from the audience: Did you ever have a time where you thought, “I don’t know how the story evolves from here?”

“When I have an idea for a story, I always know exactly where it’s going to end—but I don’t always know how I’ll get there,” he said.

“In some ways that feels like life. We all know that we are going to end, that we have a short time here, but it’s the path we take that makes it interesting.”