You might feel sorrier for the orphaned Baudelaire siblings--Violet, Klaus and Sunny--if only they weren't so popular. But to date the 10 volumes of "A Series of Unfortunate Events" by Lemony Snicket (a.k.a. Daniel Handler, 34), in which the Baudelaires are forever fighting the evil Count Olaf's attempts to steal their fortune, have sold 25 million copies since the series began in 1999. In the 11th installment, "The Grim Grotto," the Baudelaires find shelter aboard the creaky submarine Queequeg, commanded by the kindly but garrulous Captain Widdershins, barely survive a caveful of poisonous mushrooms and, of course, fend off Count Olaf and his minions, including the brattiest little girl in the world, Carmelita Spats, the self-described "tap-dancing ballerina fairy princess veterinarian."

MALCOLM JONES: I've got good news and bad news. Which do you want first?

DANIEL HANDLER: I'll take the bad news.

I'll say right upfront that I didn't like Captain Widdershins. He bored me. He annoyed me. And while I realize that all the adults in this series are supposed to be hapless and feckless and unhelpful--

Or evil. Don't forget evil.

Or evil. Even so, he was one that I really had no use for.

You must've been overjoyed, then, to find him missing halfway through the book.

Yes! And Count Olaf's new laughing habit annoyed me, too.

I'd have to agree with you there. There's nothing more annoying than someone who's developed a new laugh.

The largest criticism I have is that the book just seemed to go on and on. It meandered. And maybe that's a fault of the fact that it's the 11th in a series. And in a series there's a certain formula. You can tinker with it, but at the end of the day you've got these three kids versus this evil guy, and that's what you're going to have every single time--


I don't want to say the series is running out of gas, because the 10th installment was one of my favorites. And there were certainly parts of this story that I enjoyed, particularly those poison mushrooms.

One doesn't often meet a literary critic who expresses an enthusiasm for mushrooms. Did you take any this afternoon?

Never when I'm working.

So far I don't have much in the way of rebuttal. The captain is indeed on the inept side. The villain is indeed on the irritating side. I would hope that you would not find any of Count Olaf's affectations endearing.

Then let me get to the good stuff, and maybe you'll disagree with that.

I'm sure I will.

One of the things I like most about the books is that you don't try to give us character development over the course of the series. We admire the Baudelaires. They're brave, loyal to each other and likable. But we don't have to endure a lot of drivel about their interior lives. It's as if you said, "These people's feelings are their own business. I'm just going to describe them from the outside."

It's interesting to me to keep the Baudelaires as heroes in which every reader could imagine themselves. One way to do that is to keep them fairly blank. Working from a tradition of Gothic storytelling, I find that the external drama and melodrama are just more interesting than interior landscape.

Your books operate on two levels. There's lot of adventure for young readers. And then there are loads of literary in-jokes in your books that only adults will catch. My children won't get your references to "The Crying of Lot 49" or J. D. Salinger, but I will. But where you really go out of your way to give both parents and kids a break is in your effort to avoid teaching moral lessons. There's nothing even faintly medicinal about your stories.

All books that are well written and well constructed and well thought out wind up being moral books. So if you want your children to have proper morality, you just need to seek the best in literature. It's never occurred to me to sit down and wonder, "What on earth can I teach the youth of the world?" I just follow a story that seems interesting. It's never occurred to me to wonder if I'm teaching some unsound lesson, because I just think those become unsound books. I do try not to write unsound books, and I don't think I have. But I'm young yet.

It is a constant on sitcoms for children--and in quite a few children's books, including yours--that adults are always stupid, teachers are always buffoons, parents are always clods. Speaking as a parent and an adult, I do wish just occasionally that we could meet a grown-up in these stories who is not only older but wiser as well.

I wish it myself when I walk around this planet. What is the number of really intelligent, imaginative, competent people? It's a very small number. And I'm not one of those romantic people who think that children are inherently more honest or in some way superior to the adult world. I don't think the children the Baudelaires meet are always good. It just reflects the level of intelligence and imagination one finds here in the world, which to my mind is a sad state of affairs. So when people complain about this in the books, I wonder, "Where do you live? Can I go to those dinner parties?"

I always think children's book authors are the luckiest writers in the world. Because no one takes books as seriously as a child does. When you love something as a child, you really love it. You read it over and over. No adult does this.

I honestly believe that that's a fairly sacred relationship between someone who's young and a book that they adore. It's emotionally overwhelming that there are quite a few people out there who have relationships like that with books that I made up. That is a rare pleasure. I'll bet Vladimir Nabokov never got a fan letter that closed with five exclamation points.

Join the Discussion