‘Lemony Snicket’ back in Seattle with a tale of loss, love — and goldfish
The last time Daniel Handler was in Seattle, he found a seat in the children’s section of the Central Library and started writing.
The librarian approached and asked him to leave.
“It was because I didn’t have a child with me,” Handler remembered. “I was just sitting, hunched over a legal pad. I was just kind of surprised.”
He complied, but not before leaving a business card on the librarian’s desk. “Thank you for the use of the hall.” The name on it: Lemony Snicket.
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Indeed, the man whose “A Series of Unfortunate Events” series has sold more than 50 million copies was booted from the same room where his books never get to sit for very long, either. Which makes a weird kind of sense.
Handler will return to Seattle on Tuesday, this time with his wife, the illustrator Lisa Brown, to promote their new children’s book, “Goldfish Ghost.” (Brown also illustrated Marcus Ewert’s “Mummy Cat,” which won the Washington State Children’s Book Award this year.)
“Goldfish Ghost” is a pretty self-explanatory title. A goldfish is “born on the surface of the water in a bowl in the dresser in a boy’s room.” He sets off in search of company, letting the breeze carry him over the pier, the center and the beach of a seaside town before finding the perfect home with the perfect friend.
The story was inspired by their son, Otto, now 13, and his own personal series of unfortunate events: the death of one goldfish after another.
“The part that he loved best of all is, when they died, he got to have little burials and funerals,” Brown said during a conference call with her husband the other day.
Added Handler: “Everyone loves a funeral.”
The family buried each in the backyard, tucked into a jewelry box — something their son now refers to as “a goldfish coffin.”
“It’s kind of nice to think that if he ever proposes to someone, he will say, ‘Please, open this goldfish coffin,’ ” Handler said. “It’s probably the best way to see if someone is suited for you.”
The book isn’t really about the loss of a pet, Brown said, but the goldfish itself, and his search for companionship.
“It can be hard to find the company you are looking for,” Handler writes, a line that sinks like an anchor in a reader’s heart.
Handler and Brown found each other in a Chaucer class at Wesleyan University.
“Daniel didn’t like the class, and I liked the class, and then we had an epiphany that we were meant to be together,” Brown said.
“You left out the dramatic part of how we met,” he said.
“I was being kind,” she said.
He had a seizure in class one day, he explained, and passed out in her lap.
“When I woke from the seizure, we were forced into having a conversation,” he said. “That forced us to socialize.”
And that was that.
Brown, who also teaches a class on picture books at the California College of the Arts, wanted the book to look friendly, despite its quiet sadness.
“It is about death and loneliness and I wanted to mitigate that by having a warm and friendly feeling,” she said of her illustrations. “I wanted children to understand that this isn’t a sad story. It’s a wistful story.”
She thinks children can handle a lot more darkness than we give them credit for.
“The wonderful thing about picture books is that you have the illustrations to help them understand what is going on,” she said, “and there is an adult there helping them along. But it’s always kid by kid.”
Handler is often asked what is the “proper age” for his macabre series.
“I always think it’s not actually about the age but about whether a certain kind of irony has appeared in the brain,” he said. “So if you look at the back of a Lemony Snicket book that says, ‘Don’t read this thing — it’s really dreadful,’ and you understand that there is something at play there, then you’re old enough to start thinking about those things.”
Handler, an accomplished accordion player, is known for bringing more than books to his readings.
“We will say that we have purchased not one, but two goldfish bowls that can withstand travel,” he said. “So the reading will feature death, loneliness and a portable fishbowl.”
But no solo visits to the Central Library. You understand why.