Persnickety views

With the Lemony Snicket books selling millions, and the Hollywood version soon to premiere, one overarching question remains: Is Snicket Jewish?

For the definitive answer, one must turn to Daniel Handler, Lemony Snicket’s “agent” and, some say, the actual author of “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”

Handler is currently on a book tour (which includes a stop in San Francisco) to promote the newly published 11th volume in the series, “The Grim Grotto.”

“Lemony is quite openly Jewish,” says Handler in a phone interview. “We’re not trying to pull a Madeleine Albright here. Like anyone with Jewish ancestry and an over-educated world view, Lemony’s life is rife with misfortune.”

Maybe so, but no so Daniel Handler’s. The Bay Area native has been enjoying the fruits of success, which in some ways rival those of Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling: author of a hugely popular children’s book series, a big-budget movie opening Dec. 17 and, as sure as the sun will rise, a Happy Meal-driven merchandising blizzard to come.

But Handler is no Rowling. He’s a droll Jewish Californian with an easy giggle and bemused attitude that impacts his neo-Gothic epic about the Baudelaire orphans and their endless struggles with the wicked Count Olaf (OK, enough pretense. Handler is the writer. No Virginia, there is no Lemony Snicket).

Set to play Olaf in the movie is Jim Carrey, who shares the billing with some top character actors, among them Cedric the Entertainer, Catherine O’Hara, Jennifer Coolidge and Luis Guzman (not to mention Meryl Streep). How does Handler feel about the cream of Hollywood royalty turning up in his story?

“It’s astonishing, really,” he says. “Luis Guzman had been planning to take a vacation, but his kids told him, ‘We’d rather have you in the Lemony Snicket movie then spend time with you.”

Just as amazing to him was witnessing firsthand the art of filmmaking in bringing his story to life. Says Handler: “Just to walk into an old Boeing hangar, and see that they built a lake with hundreds of people running around just because a couple of years ago I wrote the word ‘lake.’ My overall feeling is, it’s just a book.”

Of course, they’re more than just books to millions of Snicket fans around the world. Though ostensibly written for children, “A Series of Unfortunate Events” has appealed to readers of all ages. “I get letters from 5-year-olds and 10-year-olds,” he says. “I also get letters from 15- and 19-year-olds, but apparently for people over age 14 it’s called a cult audience.”

Handler grew up in San Francisco’s Balboa Terrace district near West Portal (his parents still live in the neighborhood) and is a graduate of Lowell High School. But his education began much earlier.

“My father left Germany when he was a boy,” says Handler, “so I grew up hearing stories about one’s parents whisking one away at the very last moment. My father’s side of the family was filled with stories of the Holocaust. So I had the feeling since I was young of watching the skies, looking for signs of whether it was time to leave. I

don’t want to over-dramatize it, but that was a worldview that shaped me.”

Hander’s family belonged to Congregation Sherith Israel, where he became bar mitzvah. “We lit candles every Shabbat,” he recalls, “we did seders and we believed very strongly that you didn’t ask questions as to what was contained in Chinese food.”

He attended Wesleyan University intent on a writing career, but after only modest success writing for adults, Handler’s agent suggested he convert an unfinished dark-themed novel into a children’s tale. Thus, in 1999 was born “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” Lemony Snicket and global fame.

At the upcoming in-store appearance, fans can expect the usual Handler hamfest. He plays the accordion, sings original songs and generally dazzles his audience. “I like the shtick,” he says. “I do what I can for the dying art of vaudeville.”

In addition to the Lemony Snicket movie, Handler also wrote the screenplay to another upcoming film, “Rick,” a retelling of the opera “Rigoletto” set in corporate America and starring Bill Pullman in the title role.

Today, despite the rigors of fame and fabulousness, Handler says he and his wife maintain a Jewish home. “On my current book tour, I took a break to spend Yom Kippur with my in-laws in Connecticut,” he says. “I must have a Jewish ethic if my idea of taking a break is fasting.”

And once he finishes the last of the Snicket series (No. 13, of course), Handler will have his hands full considering his next moves. As the father of an 11-month old, parenthood certainly rates highly, as does continuing to produce works of fiction. “I think I will keep writing for children,” he says, “assuming I won’t join the rabbinate.”

Daniel Handler will appear 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 16, at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, 601 Van Ness Ave., S.F. Information: (415) 441-6670.

“The Grim Grotto” by Daniel Handler (352 pages, HarperCollins, $11.99).

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.