Questions for you:
1. Do you know the name of a woman famous for having an illicit affair who was the inspiration for a character in two different novels, one by Jay McInerney, the other by Brett Easton Ellis?
2. What is the book most often stolen from public libraries?
3. And while we're at it, do you have any idea who Norman Mailer head-butted just before an appearance on the Dick Cavett show?
Yeah. Well. Maybe you know the answers. But I didn't.
Last night, I kicked off my book tour for Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven with an act of altruistic masochism. Slice, a fledgling new literary magazine, was holding a fundraiser. Their brilliant idea? Have teams of authors, editors, and agents go head-to-head in a "Literary Trivia Showdown" at an experimental theater space in lower Manhattan.
Sound good? As an author, I would be on a team with Jonathan Lethem, Chip Kidd, A.J. Jacobs, and Darin Strauss — amazing writers (and lovely human beings) all. We'd be going up against a team of crackerjack editors — two of whom, Les Pockell and Amy Einhorn — have edited me for years (and thus know just how little I know, especially in the world of spelling).
The third team would be a bunch of five agents.
I wasn't too worried about the agents, since I figured they'd need to kiss up to us authors and editors alike, seeing as we're their bread 'n' butter and all. It would be for them, I assumed, sort of like playing golf with the President of the United States. No matter how good you are, you want to make sure you don't win. It just ain't in your best interests.
But the editors? It's their job to know more than writers. And my current editor, Les Pockell, knows just about everything. And I mean everything. He's a guy who goes into a Japanese restaurant and orders in Japanese, and then converses casually with the wait staff in Japanese. And he isn't even trying to get laid. His daily functioning intelligence is slightly higher than that of, say, the entire nation of Sweden.
And another one of the editors, Amy Einhorn, was the first editor to buy my books and publish me — which means, of course, that she, too, is a genius.
And so I had to prepare to humiliate myself before the greatest minds in the business and an audience of at least a hundred that included some of my closest relatives.
A dirty little secret of mine is that although I'm an author, and I even do a monthly book review show on the English-language radio station in Switzerland (World Radio Switzerland, if you care), I actually know almost nothing about literature. Or trivia.
I'm not saying I'm not intelligent. Because I am, really. I refuse to do that horrid girlie number of playing a ditz. But my gorgeous brain also happens to be a sieve. I absorb much, but retain very little once I'm done using it. The quadratic equation? Poof! The name of the Nobel Laureate for Literature in 2001? Poof! What happens to Holden Caufield at the end of The Catcher in the Rye? Poof! again. And I've read that damn book six times.
I read roughly half a dozen books a month. I will love them. I will read them as if in a fever — in bed, oblivious to time, completely transported and enthralled. I will tell everyone who calls that they have to read these books; I will order copies for them.
But a few days after I finish and the book is replaced on the shelf, it's as if the fever breaks, and I remember nothing. I forget not only the main characters in the book, but the plot twists, the title, and even the name of the author.
I'm always amazed by people who say things like, "Oh, that's like that scene in Crime and Punishment, you know, when Raskolnikov runs into..."
And all I can think is: Crime and Punishment? That's Dostoyevski, right, not Tolstoy? And isn't that the one where the guy kills his landlord? Oh, wait, that's an Eddie Murphy sketch I'm thinking of...
The only trivia questions I might be able to answer correctly under duress would be those based on either astrology or Rolling Stones.
Needless to say, when the literary showdown finally took place, there were no questions on either of these two subjects. The house was packed, the mood was raucous, the teams were pumped, the rules kept changing, and the emcee kept mispronouncing names of literary figures and book quotes, which made for a particularly interesting twist.
The authors, editors, and agents were all seated at separate tables and supplied with an assortment of noise-making materials. We were supposed to wait for the question to be completed before pouncing, but that quickly fell by the wayside. And so the evening quickly took on an absurdist, Jeopardy-esque quality, in which the emcee would say, "Okay, in 1932, this novelist —" and before he could get any further, the editors would squeeze their car horn, the agents would blow their air-horn, and we writers would ring our reception bell, and everyone would begin shouting out not only the answers, but re-phrasing and completing the questions. It was like a literary showdown as conceived by Eugene Ionesco.
I sat there among four of the preeminent writers of my generation, plinging our bell in an adrenalin frenzy while shouting, "Camus! Harpers magazine!"
But instead of thinking, Wow, isn't this amazing that I'm here with Jonathan Lethem, Chip Kidd, AJ Jacobs, and Darin Strauss, putting our heads together for the sake of literature, all could really think was: Please don't let me fuck this up.
In the end, I'm relieved to report, I did answer a few questions correctly. I could identify immediately the opening line from Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and knew that Henry Miller and Anais Nin were lovers despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the emcee mispronounced Nin's name.
My real coup, however, was that I knew that the original title that Margaret Mitchell had considered for Gone with the Wind was Baa Baa Black Sheep. This impressed the hell out of my teammates, but I knew this answer because 20 minutes before the event, I'd scanned some literary trivia sites on the Internet in a panic.
No matter. In the end, we authors won the showdown by several hundred points. And I suppose this is how it should be, really. When it comes to literature, it is still the writers, not the editors or the agents, who must ultimately prevail. So: Yippee.
The crowd cheered, we received little golden trophies for our efforts, and all was right with the world.
But just in case you're wondering, it was Rielle Hunter who provided the inspiration for characters in both Jay McInernery and Brett Easton Ellis, it's the Guinness World Records that's most often stolen from libraries, and it was Gore Vidal whom Norman Mailer head-butted.
The things we do for literature.