Tuesday, May 3, 2011
A few years ago, 2005 to be precise, I must have had it in the back of my head to try some freelance writing. I don't know exactly what I had in mind, but one evening a little ad leapt out of the back page of our local free paper. Now normally the kind of thing you'd find here were ads for enlargements of the usual organs, and ways that you, yes, you could get into the movies and so on. So I didn't normally pay much attention to it, but for some reason a tiny ad saying something along the lines of 'Get paid to write trivia.' and then an email for Blue Bike Press.
Now this intrigued me. I thought how hard could that be? I'd been to a few pub quizzes, and thought I'd be up to the job of thinking up questions, if not of answering them. I think I was actually headed to a trivia night that night, as it happened.
Anyway, in typical style, I dilly dallied about it, until I noticed that the next week the ad was gone. I found the old issue of the paper and decided to respond anyway. Nothing much happened, but then a few weeks later, I got an email from Faye Boer asking me to let her know a convenient time to call. Eventually I spoke to this very kind and lovely person, and learned that it wasn't trivia quiz questions she was after. She wanted a co-author a trivia book. Blue Bike Books had already done a successful series on each of the Canadian provinces, and had decided to branch out south of the border. They already had a Canadian writer, Lisa Wojna, who was doing some of the more standard parts of each of these U.S. books, but as she lived in Canada, she was needing American cohorts who knew the states in question. Although this was a much bigger gig than I had originally had in mind, it didn't take me long to say that I was interested.
Although I had originally responded to the inquiry for a Northern California writer, I did mention in the interview that I had been born in the southern part of the state and had had connections there all my life. In the end, this was the part of the state they hired me to write about.
The way it worked was that they sent me a list of categories and some of the things they expected to be covered within those categories as well as the categories that Lisa was covering. I had to get in a bio, a photo and I'm sure some other stuff that I no longer remember. The photo was not going to be published in the book, but was to be used as the source of a caricature. Of this, more later.
In some ways, the book had a rocky beginning. A close friend died between my making the commitment and starting to fulfill it, and another friend tragically lost a young husband before the process was completed. It was an odd atmosphere for a book with the subtitle 'Weird, Wacky and Wild'. Add to that that my first attempt to get a handle on the material had to do with California's early history, which, to put it quite simply, was largely tragic. I sent it in to Faye Boer, and although she said it was good work, her after comment was, "You do know that this book is supposed to be humorous, don't you?" So much of that earlier material was scrapped.
Researching a trivia book, like researching anything, is a strange journey. Many things pop up that you wouldn't expect, and many of them are moving, especially when you are dealing with the landscape of your own childhood. I don't think much of that shows up in the book--if it did, I failed to complete the basic assignment.
As I'm posting this partly as information for others pursuing this kind of work, I think I should mention one major glitch that came up at the last minute. Blue Bike Press had sent me the list which I, sometimes agonizingly, was at pains to fulfill. One of my friends at work said in passing, Seana, if you need some sports trivia, I'm your guy. I said blithely, no, they didn't ask me for any of that. But when the manuscript went to the substance editor, she said, "You haven't included any sports trivia!" As it turned out, they had accidentally omitted it from the list. But that didn't let me off the hook, of course. What would a trivia book be without sports trivia? I felt embarrassed not to have realized that for myself. But instead I went through a mad dash through Southern California sports, and even though I am far from a sports fanatic, I found much that was interesting there as well. Of course.
When the whole project was completed, I felt a certain degree of satisfaction with it. Left to my own devices, I would probably have written a somewhat different book, but then, left to my own devices, I would certainly never have written anything at all. Writing something under deadline is a lot like being back in school, I discovered, and I didn't actually enjoy that part that much. It's maybe why I haven't gone on to do other assignments as I once thought I would. But digging deep into obscure pockets of knowledge proved to be somewhat addictive. One thing that I learned about trivia is that it is rarely, well, trivial. The word trivia comes from a Roman word meaning the place where three roads cross. It's what comes up at the crossroads, which is usually thought of as the vulgar, the commonplace. Almost by definition, though, it's what engages our human interest. It's what, when we meet strangers on the way, we find too interesting not to talk about, to gossip over, to linger on. It is also possibly fractal, a sliver of the whole. But that's another discussion.
How did that photo of me turn out when it became a caricature? Well, you'd have to buy the book to find out. But if you want to see me rendered as some sort of Alpine mountain climber, well, it might be worth the price of the ticket...You can order it direct from Lone Pine Press, through Bookshop Santa Cruz, or, uh, any of the usual suspects, should you so wish.