1. While researching right-wing fringe groups for his first novel, Daniel Handler concocts a pseudonym for mailing lists: Lemony Snicket. The name—the stupidest fake name I could have thought of, he says now—becomes an in-joke with his friends, who use it on business cards and for dinner reservations.
2. In 1997, Handler’s editor, Susan Rich, persuades him to rework a half-finished Victorian novel as a book for kids. Handler writes The Bad Beginning: A Series of Unfortunate Events, under the name Lemony Snicket. Musician Stephin Merritt, of the Magnetic Fields, agrees to co-write a Lemony Snicket musical.
3. Published in fall 1999, A Series of Unfortunate Events enchants kids with a mix of Dickensian set pieces and Roald Dahl–style black humor. The publisher obscures the true identity of Snicket, and rumors as to the book’s actual author include Ian McEwan and David Foster Wallace.
4. Producer Scott Rudin (Clueless, The Truman Show) acquires the film rights, and taps Barry Sonnenfeld (The Addams Family, Men in Black) to direct. Jim Carrey is approached to star as the nefarious, infanticide-plotting Count Olaf. Handler moves from New York back to his native San Francisco, where he meets Dave Eggers and works on fund-raising for McSweeney’s-related literacy center 826 Valencia.
5. By May 2002, the enigmatic Snicket’s books are rivaled only by Harry Potter, and occupy five of the ten spots on the New York Times’ children’s best-seller list. Handler is routinely unmasked as Snicket in interviews, but continues to deny authorship.
6. Forced by the studio to slash $10 million from the film’s $96 million budget, Rudin quits. Later, so does Sonnenfeld. DreamWorks agrees to share the film’s costs, and hands the potential franchise to Spielberg protégé Brad Silberling (City of Angels, Casper). Handler is replaced as screenwriter, for which he expresses both sadness and relief.
7. December 2004: Lemony Snicket: A Series of Unfortunate Events arrives in theaters, starring Carrey and Meryl Streep. Snicket books have sold over 25 million copies worldwide; the thirteenth and final volume will appear in 2006. The musical, started before the first book was published, is “about half-done.”