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Think Lemony, Write Locally

S.F.'s Daniel Handler talks about new espresso makers and other unfortunate events

Under his nom de plume Lemony Snicket, Daniel Handler has just released The Slippery Slope, the tenth installment (or in Snicket-speak, "Book The Tenth") of his wildly popular Series of Unfortunate Events. Between the Events, which chronicle the relentlessly tragic adventures of the Baudelaire children, Handler writes novels and plays accordion with the likes of Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields, who contributes the theme songs to the Snicket audio books.

We recently caught up with Handler and discussed his hometown, his alter-ego and his plans to write under his own name.

Q: What's your relationship to San Francisco?

I was born here in 1970 and lived here until I went to college at Wesleyan. I came back here after graduation, then abandoned S.F. during the Internet boom for New York in 1996. By the time we [Handler and his wife, Lisa Brown] came back here in 2000, it was all over. I wish a few more of my friends had jobs nowadays, but I like that S.F. is a low-key city. New York is constantly obsessed with itself as a center of culture.

Q: What's it like being a writer in the Bay Area?

I really like it here. The community is so small and there's such a strong writing presence, it seems like everyone is friendly. In New York, I only knew writers of my exact status, a couple of first novelists. Here, it's nice to see slam poets hanging out with Po Bronson, freelance 'zine editors hanging out with Pulitzer Prize winners and the like. Everyone recognizes we're all in the same boat.

Q: Are there any local literary organizations you're involved with or events that you often attend?

I hear people read at the Booksmith and at Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Books. I've been writing for The Believer and I sponsor a scholarship program at 826 Valencia.

Q: Lemony Snicket likely doesn't have the privilege, but does Daniel Handler get recognized here in his hometown?

Nothing deflates your ego faster than thinking you're recognized for being an international superstar, and then finding out that someone knows you from their high school English class, or from a summer job at a bookstore, or from frequenting a specific burrito place.

Q: Who are some of your favorite local writers?

One of my favorites is local children's author Zilpha Keatley Snyder. She wrote The Egypt Game and The Headless Cupid, and these were my all-time favorite books when I was young. She lives in Mill Valley. Many people who I loved when I was young are still alive, and it makes me feel amazing to have first enjoyed them when I was eight, and now we sit on a panel together.

I've also just read Andrew Sean Greer's The Path of Minor Planets. Let's see, who else should I plug? (Laughs.) I also like Michelle Tea and Daphne Gottleib. I keep on learning that people I admire live here. Did you know that Irvine Welsh lives in the Mission?

Q: Tell us about your writing process.

I get up around six, I'm writing by eight, and I'm finished around four. There's nothing that unusual about it. I work from home. I was planning to go off of coffee this year, but I received the gift of an excellent espresso machine, and now I probably drink twice as much. I always carry a notebook with me because I don't trust myself to remember anything. There is a danger in being the kind of writer who no longer needs a day job: There seems to be fewer opportunities for material to come to me. I don't want to be the kind of writer who writes about novelists just about my age with a name slightly different than my own.

Q: Did you ever think you'd grow up to be a writer?

I always wanted to be a writer, and I didn't think my chances were very good, but I just kept doing it. Everyone wrote in college, but afterward everyone else seemed to have stopped and moved on. Well, I hadn't been kidding. I honestly didn't know what else to do. It took six years to sell my first novel and there was no other career path I could imagine. I was in S.F., I got a crappy job, and I wrote.

Q: What sort of reaction did you receive from high school friends and teachers after the release of The Basic Eight? [Handler's first novel told a satirical tale of a murder at a San Francisco high school. Many of the fictional students and teachers closely resembled those at Handler's real-life high school, Lowell. Or so we've heard. - Ed.]

Lots and lots! I sometimes thought the book didn't completely flop because there was a surge in sales in San Francisco. I've heard from nearly everyone I went to high school with, all of whom insist they were in the pages of the book. It continues to cast a shadow over Lowell. I meet people from my high school all the time and all over the country who graduated from there two years ago or thirty years ago. The people who think like me like the book, and the people who didn't like me, or who don't like people like me, don't like it. Some teachers were tickled pink, and some were outraged. People say The Basic Eight was either their high school experience or the farthest thing from it.

Q: Lemony Snicket seems to be doing quite well in the children's arena, but when can we expect to see a new Daniel Handler title?

I'm just finishing it now, and it will be out next year. It's called Adverbs and it's a book about a bunch of different types of people in different types of love. Most of them are miserable.