STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Take a group of grade school kids and dangle just one thing they really want in front of them all.
(Soundbite of crowd noise)
INSKEEP: They say pick me when they see the manuscript of the new Lemony Snicket book. It is the 13th and final installment of A Series of Unfortunate Events. The series warns you on the first page that it will be terrible and depressing. It repeatedly urges you to stop reading, which is brilliant psychology since kids don't always do as they're told.
Unidentified Child #1: Can I read it all?
Unidentified Child #2: Whoa, this is the book!
Unidentified Child #2: Who else wants it next?
(Soundbite of crowd noise)
Unidentified Child #3: Claire, I got it. You guys, I still got it.
INSKEEP: The book is called The End. It completes the grim odyssey of the Baudelaire children who lose their parents in the first book and find a new kind of misery in each installment that follows.
This series is hugely popular. It has sold millions of copies. It's been the inspiration for a movie. All of which is a source of great amusement to its author, Lemony Snicket. That's his pen name. His real name is Daniel Handler.
Welcome to the program.
Mr. DANIEL HANDLER (Author, A Series of Unfortunate Events): Well, thank you very much, sir.
INSKEEP: And I want to warn you that we're going to turn over some of the questioning in this interview to some of the kids we just heard. In fact...
HANDLER: Most certainly. Why should you do all the work?
INSKEEP: Why should I when you can do a little child labor here. And let's turn it over here to Julia Rhodes Sutcliff(ph), who's going to give us a viewpoint on the kind of stories that she likes.
JULIA RHODES SUTCLIFF: I don't really like happy stories that much. Happy stories are really boring. When I was, like - actually, when I was, like, in preschool, the first book I read that was unhappy was the Gingerbread Man and I thought, hmmm, I want to be an unhappy book kind of person. So that's why I always got interested in the book of Unfortunate Events.
INSKEEP: Have you been aiming all these years for unhappy book people?
Mr. HANDLER: Well, I think I was also an unhappy book person. It's interesting that one would bring up the Gingerbread Man, because I always found that very satisfying. The Gingerbread Man is irritating and taunts people and then is finally devoured. It's a wonderful story and it was always exactly the kind of story I like.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HANDLER: It's difficult for me to think of a story that's interesting that has a bunch of happy things happening in it.
INSKEEP: You know, we were talking recently to Maurice Sendak, who does wonderful children's books in which terrible things also happen. He said this is natural; it's the truth. Childhood is terrible.
Mr. HANDLER: I guess I would differ with Mr. Sendak because I don't see much of a difference between childhood and adulthood. One of the differences is that when you're a child you're taught over and over that if you behave well, you'll be rewarded; and that if you behave badly, you'll be punished. And you already know that's not true if you've spent five minutes in a schoolyard. And by the time you're an adult, more or less everyone has admitted that that's not the way it goes.
INSKEEP: You've told people that your childhood was okay. Could it be that kids love disastrous stories because for the most part their childhoods are all right and this is the way to explore other alternatives in other worlds?
Mr. HANDLER: I used to think that, and then I began to hear from so many children whose lives are dreadful enough to be compared to the Baudelaires. So I actually think that it's inbred into like a story in which disastrous things are happening, whether or not you have disasters in your own life. It's almost as if one has no bearing on the other.
INSKEEP: Hmm. Now let's listen to another question from a Maryland grade school student.
SAM: This is Sam. I was wondering, whenever you say something funny, how you make it so funny every single time?
Mr. HANDLER: I just think there's something inherently close between misery and hilarity. But it was astonishing that even though there is a great deal of fun and wordplay to be found in the books, that as the series went on I did find myself quite emotionally upset by things that I was putting these poor characters through.
INSKEEP: You got upset?
Mr. HANDLER: I did. I would get upset. I would meet friends for dinner or something and they would say, gosh, you're quiet tonight, Daniel. And I would say, well, I wrote the scene today where the torch-wielding angry mob has cornered these three children in a distant town. I know how they're going to get out of it, but it's still not a very satisfying situation for them. And then I would look up from my glass of red wine and realize that I was being stared at in that peculiar way when people begin to talk about people who don't exist as if they do.
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: But in many people's minds they do. Let's listen to another question from kids about this book, which is called The End.
Unidentified Child: We already know this is the last book of the series, so why should you call it The End? I mean why can't you just name it like you've done in the other books? Why did it have to be The End?
INSKEEP: She's ready for Meet the Press.
Mr. HANDLER: I was more disturbed by that murmuring that was happening in the background. It sounded like she was perhaps smothering another child.
INSKEEP: It could have been a murmur of approval. You don't know that. Let's play that again. Let's listen to that again.
Mr. HANDLER: All right.
Unidentified Child: ...why can't you just name it like you've done in the other books? Why did it have to be The End?
(Soundbite of background murmuring)
Mr. HANDLER: That was a clear gasp behind electrical tape.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HANDLER: That's what I heard.
INSKEEP: Well, what's the answer? You're dodging the question, sir.
Mr. HANDLER: The title of the book is perfectly descriptive. I'm always reluctant to speak of grandiose themes, but certainly a theme that could be found in A Series of Unfortunate Events is that eventually one must stop wondering about one's parents and one's past as an explanation for one's present surroundings but instead must continue to move forward in life. And the Baudelaires end up realizing that they need to put aside what has happened to their parents and get on with their lives by the end of the sequence of novels.
INSKEEP: One more observation from a Maryland student, if we might.
CLAIRE(ph): This is Claire. I was wondering how you felt when you finished the end of the book. Did you feel disappointed that it was done with and were you going to totally stop writing?
Mr. HANDLER: Well, I hope I will never stop writing, Claire. I hope I will continue to write until the pen is taken out of my cold, dead fingers. But mostly I felt very surprised and aghast. I had announced that I would write 13 books in which dreadful things happen to small children, but it had never occurred to me that I would actually do what I said. That's just so unlike me.
INSKEEP: But I wonder if we can cast forward a little bit. If they were to grow up, these three orphans, what kind of adults do you think they would be after the horrible experiences they've had and the compromises they've had to make to survive?
Mr. HANDLER: Well, they seem to have enough integrity and stability that they would overcome what has certainly been a terrible childhood. And I think the Baudelaires have realized that their good behavior won't necessarily extend or diminish their life, and so that good behavior is its own reward and its own path. And that feels like a workable philosophy, so I wish them the best of luck.
INSKEEP: Daniel Handler, better known as Lemony Snicket, is the author of The End, the 13th and final installment of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Thanks for speaking with us.
Mr. HANDLER: Well, thank you very much for having me. Thank those people in Maryland as well.
INSKEEP: And those people in Maryland are 4th and 5th graders at Somerset Elementary in Chevy Chase.
Unidentified Child #4: I'm not leaving to go to school unless I have that book.
Unidentified Child #5: I'll be reading it in my desk during school.
Unidentified Child #6: I won't go to school until I have it and maybe read half of it.
Unidentified Child #7: I won't go to school until I've devoured it.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: And you should not begin The End without consulting our Gruesome Guide at npr.org. It involves a quiz, Virginia Woolf and raw onions.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.