Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Interviews

Interview with Lemony Snicket,
(a.k.a. Daniel Handler)

Column for the ANG Newspapers run June 30, 2006 under headline, Snicket, Stookey responsible for symphonic murder

Could a funeral — or memorial service — be scheduled at San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall? Or some other sort of mayhem? What's going on?

"The Composer Is Dead" is the grim title of the program set for 2 p.m. July 8 in the San Francisco Symphony's laid-back "Summer in the City" series.

When you see the name "Lemony Snicket" listed on the program as both the writer of the text and its narrator, the fog starts to clear.

Since this seemed something that definitely merited investigation, I managed to have a phone chat with Snicket himself.

"So what's so strange about the title?" said the voice at the other end of the phone. "Most composers are, after all, dead."

It's true: Beethoven's been gone now for more than 150 years, Bach even longer, and composers as recent as Gershwin and Stravinsky have left the Earth for other domains.

"Nat, however, is still very much alive," Snicket hastily added, referring to Nathaniel Stookey, the composer responsible for the music scored to this latest of Snicket's writing forays.

Snicket, of course, is the author of the whole series of children's books with eyebrow-raising titles like titles like A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window, and so on. Even Snicket defines them as "a terrible collection of books concerning the lives of the three likable but luckless Baudelaire siblings."

Yet millions of children (and adults) worldwide have been snapping up these unfortunate books, thus turning Lemony into a dubious, but celebrated money-making machine. Even Hollywood jumped on the Snicket bandwagon, making last year's movie of A Series of Unfortunate Events starring Meryl Streep, Jim Carrey and Jude Law.

Since no mother I can imagine — including one with the last name "Snicket" — would willingly saddle her child with the name "Lemony," I asked the fellow on the phone if that was his real name.

"No. I'm Daniel Handler," he replied affably. "Years and years ago, after my book Basic 8, (which was for adults) had been published under my own name, I began to get a lot of calls from various religious groups."

He then explained that when one of these got a bit uppity and wanted him to verify his name, he replied with the first name that came to his mind: Lemony Snicket.

There was this silence on the other end of the phone.

"Then the guy finally spoke up and asked if the name was spelled the way it sounded. I told him yes — and I knew that I now had a great pseudonym."

Handler, it turns out, grew up right in San Francisco, where his mother was a dean at San Francisco City College. He attended Lowell High School and sang in the San Francisco Boy's Chorus before heading off for a degree at Wesleyan University, which he obtained in 1992. He is married, has a son, for whom he even got up for the 3 a.m. feedings and changed diapers. He also plays the accordion.

"I've played klezmer, tango, country, Irish, polkas and gypsy music and have been in a couple of bands," he said. "Classical music has made me weep uncontrollably ever since I was a kid. I hope The Composer Is Dead does the same thing for a new generation."

He then suggested I check with Stookey himself for a thorough description of the piece.

Stookey, a tall, blond, native San Franciscan who is married and also has a wife and son, has had a spate of successes with his music. He was a violinist and violist with the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra from 1986 to 1988 and has held a number of prestigious composer-in-residency programs, including with the Halle Orchestra in the U.K and the North Carolina Symphony.

Stookey and Handler/Snicket knew each other while at Lowell High School, although not well. Stookey went on to spend 20-some years in France, England,and North Carolina, where he continued to hone his musical and compositional skills. During that period he was awarded a couple of prestigious composer-in-residency appointments, including the Halle Orchestra in the U.K. with Kent Nagano and the North Carolina Symphony with Gerhardt Zimmermann. After marrying, he and his wife decided to move back to San Francisco.

"It turns out that both Dan and I returned to the city about the same time and for similar reasons — to raise families," he said.

He then explained that he and Dan met again quite by chance when Stookey, en route to pick up his son from school, saw Handler sitting at a sidewalk cafe. The friendship was renewed with gusto as the two found out how much they had in common.

Later, while chatting with Edwin Outwater, the resident conductor for the San Francisco Symphony and former director of the San Francisco Youth Orchestra, Stookey casually mentioned Lemony.

"YOU know Lemony Snicket?" Outwater responded — and immediately set out, with Stookey's help, to engage Snicket to serve as narrator for the symphony's Peter and the Wolf performance last December.

Soon, a commission to the two for The Composer Is Dead was solidified.

"So just what IS this tantalizingly titled piece?" I inquired.

Stookey explained that, like Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, it was primarily designed to teach children about the instruments and classical music. But whereas the Britten work is more or less a demonstration sort of piece, there's a definite plot line to the Stookey-Snicket piece.

"It's a murder mystery," said Stookey. "The instruments are interrogated by section about why they wanted to (finish) off the composer. Even Outwater, the conductor, is a suspect."

"While it's all ostensibly for children, it's really directed to the larger group of thirtysomethings who are a bit alienated from classical music," Stookey said.

He further described it as, unlike much contemporary music, "quite accessible to first-time listeners. It's fun, despite being sometimes sinister and even downright scary at times."

Cheryl North's interview with Nat Stookey from November 2004 is also on this website. Lemony Snicket's website has much additional information about him and his literary output.

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