A not-so-unfortunate visit from Lemony Snicket

Oct. 28, 2011, 3:00 a.m.
A not-so-unfortunate visit from Lemony Snicket
Courtesy of Maira Kalman

San Jose’s not exactly the first place you would think to head to for a book reading, especially given the plethora of literary events happening right here on campus. Daniel Handler, however, reading from his 2006 book “Adverbs” and introducing his forthcoming novel, “Why We Broke Up,” was well worth the trip. He is better known as Lemony Snicket, the narrator of the internationally bestselling “A Series of Unfortunate Events”–and the darkly humorous voice for which Snicket is known translates wonderfully to Handler’s other works, his stage presence and his conversation.

Bookending the talk by reading passages from the aforementioned books, Handler began with an excerpt from a chapter of “Adverbs” entitled “Immediately.” The book is comprised of 17 interconnected vignettes, each featuring a different take on love as described by its title adjective. In this particular story, the protagonist breaks up with his girlfriend after the reading of a will, gets into a cab and promptly becomes infatuated with the increasingly nonplussed driver, whom he propositions over coffee. Handler closed with a passage from “Why We Broke Up,” written as an extended break-up letter from the protagonist Min to her erstwhile boyfriend, Ed. It was chock-full of awkward teenage disillusionment and the casual, mindless cruelty that’s characteristic of young adults everywhere, proof that Handler can capture equally well the nuances of children, adults and everyone in between. One could see the audience–a good mix of college students, faculty and community members–alternately cringe and chuckle nervously as particularly apt turns of phrase and exquisitely unvarnished details struck a little too close to home.

Both passages showcased Handler’s unique perspective on human interaction, as filtered through a hilariously unreliable narrator and spiced with what he calls “volcanic imagery.” His vivid writing style is, by his own estimation, influenced by having begun his career as a poet.

“I studied poetry in college, and the poems I wrote kept getting longer and longer” he said. “So eventually, one of my professors said to me, ‘You know, there’s actually a name for what you’re doing–it’s called prose, and you might want to try it.'” He is a voracious and omnivorous reader and retains a special fondness for poetry; he keeps poems in his wallet (partially, he admits, “because [he is] married”). When pressed for a particular favorite, he pulled out his wallet and read a Robin Robertson poem entitled “Hammersmith Winter.” For all that Handler’s default voice is dry wit, his range extends effortlessly to understated poignancy.

The body of the talk consisted of a question and answer session, well suited to the small lecture hall that hosted the event. Handler discussed everything from “A Series of Unfortunate Events” to the inspiration for his varied body of work and the writing life. He fielded several questions about his apparent pessimism and the endless misfortunes that happen to his characters. He explained that, when writing the series, he “knew how it would end, and some of the things that happened in between, but I didn’t really know how I’d get there. So I carried around this list of terrible things that could happen to [the protagonists].”

“I’m not a pessimist, but interesting stories are usually about bad things happening, so it’s fun to think about,” he added.

When Handler chatted with Intermission earlier this week, the author admitted he didn’t have a particularly unfortunate childhood; he merely “has the kind of brain that imagines terrible things happening.” It’s even worse, he says, now that he has a son; Handler admits to “brainstorming about all the ways he can get hurt.”

“The house suddenly looks much more dangerous: there are stairs, plugs, kitchen knives–it’s like a bonus list of terrible things,” he added.

Near the end of the event, Handler was asked to impart a few words of wisdom to young writers. His short answer was “carry a notebook.” In contemplating craft, however, he returned to his first love, poetry.

“Poetry is good for the brain,” he said, “especially for writers. It’s the details–poets work on sentences, and that’s what novels are made of.” He is conscious of sound and of rhythm.

“I read everything I write aloud,” he said. He admits that reading to oneself, and writing, can “make you feel like a crazy person, talking and thinking obsessively about something that nobody else is thinking.”

“It’s not lonely,” Handler continued, “but it’s odd.”

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