By Richard Jerome
May 27, 2002 12:00 PM

At Cody’s Bookstore in Berkeley, Calif., 400 boys and girls fidget in folding chairs, awaiting a literary legend—Lemony Snicket, shadowy author of A Series of Unfortunate Events, the most popular cycle of books for preteens this side of Harry Potter. Suddenly a tall man in a dark suit appears and addresses them in a sepulchral monotone. “I am very sorry if you were told Lemony Snicket was going to be here,” he says, after identifying himself as Daniel Handler. “Something terrible has happened. Lemony Snicket was swimming across the bay and was bitten by a shark.”

At that, the room explodes in laughter. The kids know that Snicket and the speaker are one and the same. But at public readings Handler, 32, claims to be Snicket’s “representative” and announces that the author has met some ghastly fate. All in line with his mock-gothic Series, which recounts the horrid lives of the Baudelaire orphans Violet, Klaus and Sunny. Readers aged 8 to 12 devour Handler’s gloomily humorous tales: A recent New York Times children’s-chapter-book bestseller list included six of the eight Series titles. A memoir of Handler’s alter ego, Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography, came out May 7.

“It’s been an amazing and delightful sort of success because I feel I’m doing good work,” says Handler. “It’s literally beyond my wildest dreams.” And seemingly fueled by his nightmares. His oeuvre’s tone is set in the opening lines of volume one, 1999’s The Bad Beginning: “In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few things happy in between.” After the Baudelaires’ parents die in a fire, the children (all under age 14) are sent to live with a succession of inept relatives. A distant cousin, the evil Count Olaf, tries to steal their inheritance, dangles toddler Sunny from a tower and pursues the orphans for the next seven books. The heroes always escape, though, and the horror is leavened with drollery. “Daniel gets it that children like to be scared,” says mystery novelist Ayelet Waldman. “He also knows when to stop.”

The Autobiography—a hodgepodge of memos, old snapshots, news clippings and musical scores—only thickens the mystery around Snicket, an author so secretive he won’t let his face be photographed. Handler’s own bio is fairly straightforward. He grew up in San Francisco, the older child of Louis, 70, a CPA, and Sandra, 65, a dean at City College of San Francisco. (Sister Rebecca, 28, is a University of San Francisco business student.) Handler began writing stories at age 7. “He could see the humor in everything,” says his mother. Watching bullies go unpunished in school, he recalls, he also developed “a sense of unfairness in the world.”

In high school Handler edited the literary magazine, played tuba in the band and graduated as valedictorian. Moving on to Wesleyan University, he earned a B.A. in American studies and met his future wife, Lisa Brown, now 30 and a graphic artist and illustrator. Their meeting was aptly Snicketesque: At the time Handler suffered periodic blackouts (the cause was never determined), and one day in Chaucer class he collapsed on Brown. “It was sort of romantic,” she says. “For Daniel, the unusual is par for the course.”

The pair moved to San Francisco in 1993 and married five years later, working survival jobs while Handler wrote The Basic Eight, an adult murder mystery about a group of high school students. (He coined his pseudonym while researching right-wing militant groups for that book.) The novel impressed agent Charlotte Sheedy, who got it published in 1999—after 35 rejections. Watch Your Mouth, a tale of incest (also for adults), appeared in 2000. By then Handler had moved to Manhattan, where Lisa was in grad school. At a party he met HarperCollins editor Susan Rich, who suggested he try children’s books. Half-joking, he says, he pitched a story in which three orphans “find themselves in a confusing and hostile world and there are no visible signs of hope.”

He landed a deal—and, at last count, some $4 million in sales. Living again in San Francisco, Handler delights in his readings. As Snicket’s stand-in, he asks his audience to make sound effects as he reads, plays accordion and has stayed until midnight to sign copies. “The satisfying thing about writing for children is you never love a book the way you do when you are 10,” he says. “To be in that place in a reader’s head is almost a sacred experience.”

Richard Jerome

Frances Dinkelspiel in San Francisco