My best teacher

I learned how to look at literature in such a way that I could enter it, pick out the techniques in works I admired and see why they worked

I was sent to a fancy private boys' school in San Francisco for my fifth grade (Year 9), a kind of Austere Academy (the grim school attended by the luckless Baudelaire children in Handler's "Lemony Snicket" books). It was a shock as I was used to a neighbourhood public school and I had always had more girls than boys as friends. It was there that I met my least favourite teacher, but I had a revelation in her classroom.

I had her for English at the beginning and end of every day. By the afternoon she would be frothing with anger because someone would have committed some minor infraction. I used to sit next to the shelves of books used by the older classes, and during her rants I would read.

I had already fallen foul of this teacher because she gave us a creative writing assignment to produce a story about leaves, and I wrote about a man who was gazing at leaves falling from a tree and thinking how beautiful they were, then a leaf attacked him and ate him. She thought it was terrible. I wonder what sort of story about leaves she'd have liked.

So I was reading Romeo and Juliet (with some difficulty as I was in fifth grade, but there were enough people stabbing one another to capture my interest). I was starting to understand that figuring out the difficult language was part of the pleasure of reading; that difficult reading was worth it. At this point the teacher said: "Someone is reading while I am speaking," and set off on a tirade. I realised at that moment that it was more important to carry on figuring out Romeo and Juliet than to listen to her, and that I could have a personal code of ethics that superseded the rules of the classroom. That's an important lesson - if you don't have a personal code of ethics you turn into a brownshirt.

Later, I found out that her son had died that semester, so her behaviour was forgivable, and you wonder who it was who wouldn't let her have the semester off; that's where the blame lies. I don't know where she is now.

At high school, I was a bratty, pretentious kid with all the trappings of wanting to be a writer, busy planning my Nobel acceptance speech. My poems were being published extensively in the local literary magazine due to the fact that I was one of its editors. At high school I had the English teacher I really needed, Flossie Lewis. She would sit me down with an essay that I'd thought was rather good and show me the sort of essay I should be writing, and what I should be reading, the difference between literary criticism and studying someone's work for your own advancement. I learned how to look at literature in such a way that I could enter it, pick out the techniques in works I admired and see why they worked. She introduced me to the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and taught me to appreciate Kafka.

The relationship in publishing I most treasure is with my editor, Susan Rich. She was dating my literary agent's assistant in New York while my agent was trying to find a publisher for my first novel for adults, The Basic Eight. Susan and the assistant, Josh, and I would hang out at literary parties where nobody wanted to talk to us, complaining that we were never going to be famous.

Susan encouraged me to write for young people because The Basic Eight is set in a high school. Because of the kind of friendship we had, I could share my half-formed idea for very dark, Gothic stories about unlucky children, which became A Series of Unfortunate Events. My taste in children's literature had always been on the dark side.

Taking half-formed ideas to editors is like telling your credit card company that you're short on cash; it's not something I would normally do. But I told Susan my idea at a bar, and she called me the next morning and said she still liked it. When the first Lemony Snicket book came out in the United States three years ago, we held the launch in Susan's apartment. The success of the books has been a surreal experience for both of us.

Daniel Handler, also known as children's author Lemony Snicket, was talking to Geraldine Brennan

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