Lemony Snicket

Photo Credit: Lexi Acevedo | Daily Texan Staff

Cupping her mouth with her hands, Gabriela Sugiaman tried hiding her gasp when she read a crude metaphor regarding a woman’s pearl necklace written by a beloved children’s author.

“Obviously, ‘semen’ is the only word that sticks out to me on the first page,” education sophomore Sugiaman said about “Watch Your Mouth,” a book by Daniel Handler published in 2000.

The novel was released a year after Handler debuted his hit “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” which was published under his alter-ego, “Lemony Snicket.” Handler will appear this weekend at the Texas Book Festival to debut another explicit novel, “All The Dirty Parts.”

Like many of Handler’s readers, Sugiaman grew up reading the author’s dark and adventurous “Unfortunate Events” novels about orphans evading their treacherous uncle. However, she struggles to comprehend the author’s presence in scandalous young adult fiction.

“It’s messed up,” Sugiaman said. “I’m very shocked and surprised.”

“Watch Your Mouth” is about a college boyfriend who visits his girlfriend’s family and discovers their bizarre secrets, such as their inclination for incest. Both satirical and sexually graphic, Handler plays the characters in front of a metaphoric opera, adding stage and orchestra directions to heighten the dirty drama.

In one scene, the protagonist Joseph asks his girlfriend’s father, Ben, if he is fixated on incest. The author then cites a theme in orchestra called The Unknown Dread: “‘Are you talking about incest,’ I asked, but Ben just turned and smiled at me like I hadn’t said anything. This is the first entrance of one of the orchestral leitmotifs that will keep popping up as the plot-knot is tied tighter: The Unknown Dread.”

And now this won’t be Handler’s only venture into crude content. “All The Dirty Parts” chronicles a teenage boy’s pursuit of a girl and his sexual quests.

“Let me put it this way: this is how much I think about sex,” said Cole, the 17-year-old protagonist. “Draw a number line, with zero is you never think about sex and 10 is, it’s all you think about, and while you are drawing the line, I am thinking about sex.”

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Handler said he wrote this book in part to encourage young men to read more. He dismissed worries of his younger audience discovering it.

“It’s funny, isn’t it, that we worry about young people reading about sex, instead of, say, people shooting each other with laser beams,” Handler said. “This anxiety is precisely what led to the novel.”

English senior Abby Adamo, a childhood fan of “Unfortunate Events,” said she wouldn’t be worried if a young reader was exposed to Handler’s graphic language.

“I think if I had a kid, sure, read it, because they gotta learn some time,” Adamo said. “I feel like it’s an effective way of getting kids comfortable with things they have to look forward to.”

Adamo said Handler shouldn’t be singled out for writing both children’s and young adult fiction. She compared him to author Judy Bloom, who is known for her coming-of-age novels.

“Her books were for kids, but they’re also for overcoming the leap from childhood to adulthood, and a lot of that is sexual,” Adamo said. “It’s pretty normal for children’s authors to expand into young adult fiction.”

For years, author Daniel Handler has been entertaining readers of all ages with his darkly humorous “A Series of Unfortunate Events” books, written under his more commonly known pen name: Lemony Snicket. To celebrate the release of his new book, “13 Words,” Mr. Snicket will be at BookPeople signing copies of his book.

The Daily Texan spoke with the man behind the melancholic Lemony Snicket about his new book, alternate identities and the state of children’s literature today.

The Daily Texan: Let me ask you about your alter ego, Lemony Snicket. What’s the protocol for managing the “Lemony identity?” When do you identify yourself as Lemony, and when do you go by Daniel Handler?

Daniel Handler: In my experience, it is never helpful for anyone, least of all me, to introduce themselves as Lemony Snicket. In the unlikely case that you are believed, you are immediately in trouble. It’s a similar situation when you introduce yourself as Daniel Handler, but in my case, it has the slim distinction of being the truth.

DT: To what degree do you take on Lemony’s character, and how separate is he from your everyday, “normal” self? Is there a difference in style and tone when you’re writing as Lemony, and does he have a separate voice?

DH: The central difference between myself and Mr. Snicket is not our voices or styles but in our circumstances. I am in almost fantastically lucky ones — circumstances in which my own digressionary and free-floating, off-the-cuff, over-read philosophizing does not necessarily make things worse. Mr. Snicket’s circumstances, on the other hand, are very desperate. I wish him luck.

DT: Your latest children’s book, “13 Words,” examines 13 very important words like “bird,” “cake” and “haberdashery.” How did you — or rather, Lemony — decide on what the 13 most important words are? The significance of the word “cake” is obvious, of course.

DH: I find it hard to believe that anyone who finds “obvious” the significance of cake is then suddenly mystified by “haberdashery.” I will add only that this book was written specifically for Ms. Kalman, the illustrator, so it was crucial to use words that are crucial to her.

DT: What kind of writing were you doing when you were in college, and how would you say your writing has changed since then?

DH: In college, I was mostly a poet. My poems kept getting longer and more prose-y. This evolution has continued. I would only add that a disproportionate number of poems concerned a young woman who is no longer in my ken.

DT: What do you feel about the current state of children’s literature, and how do you think children’s lit is shaping and has shaped the literary world?

DH: Children’s literature, at the moment, is quite inventive and yet has its feet on the ground. It is like many children in that way. I wouldn’t want all of literature to follow its example — I’d hate to see experimental fiction come down to earth, for example — but it seems like a good spot for the genre right now. Children’s literature has always had an enormous effect on readers and writers, though in the past decade or so, this effect has been made more public. As with anything made more public, there are advantages and disadvantages to this, but that’s a question best debated among children’s literature’s practitioners, preferably at a bar.

DT: Who are your biggest writing influences, in general and in terms of children’s authors? What kind of affect do those influences have on your writing style?

DH: I have stolen the most from Edward Gorey, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Roald Dahl, Lorrie Moore, Vladimir Nabokov, William Maxwell and Mary Robison, and I’m currently circling Raymond Chandler and Louis Couperus.

DT: So far, Lemony Snicket has written strictly children’s books. Do you think he may one day expand into books for adults or teenagers?

DH: I think teenagers and adults read enough Lemony Snicket without Mr. Snicket writing something specifically for them.

DT: Finally, I can’t let you go without asking a few questions about “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” How did it feel when you finally let “A Series of Unfortunate Events” go after 13 books? Did you feel sad, relieved, liberated?

DH: I knew from the start that the series would expire at Volume 13, so I saw the end coming with a mixture of sadness, joy, regret and enthusiasm, as I hope to greet my own expiration when it comes. As with anything close to you when it dies, one is haunted, by figures flickering on a screen and in one’s head.