December 21, 2006

Lisa: Huh. So, I guess smart books?

The Shelf Life newsletter with my Ken Jennings interview has finally been published!

Here's the interview as I submitted it:


Local Jeopardy champion and Brainiac author Ken Jennings took time out from his book tour to answer a few questions.

Do you have a memorable library experience you could share?

My mom is actually an elementary school librarian in Utah County. But my most memorable library experience probably happened in fourth grade. We had gym class before recess some days and after it on other days, and I got the schedules confused and accidentally skipped gym to sit in the library reading Encyclopedia Brown books, thinking it was recess. It took me about 45 minutes to realize that I was missing, not recess, but the fourth-grade mini-track meet out on the soccer field. My assigned partner for the three-legged race was ticked.

So, the only time I ever cut class in my life (well, until college), I wound up in the library. Nerd!

How many books do you read a week?

A week? Wow, that's ambitious. You guys do know that some people, like, have jobs and TVs and stuff, right?

Actually, I've been traveling a lot lately for the Brainiac book tour, which is a great chance to catch up on reading. I'll read five or six books in a week if there are enough cross-country flights in that week. If I'm home, I'm lucky to get through a book a week.

What book is on your nightstand right now?

Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. And in the same stack, also unfinished: that new Brian Wilson biography and a collection of old Little Lulu comics.

What is your favorite genre to read?

Novels, especially ones with that faintly literary sepia-photo cover you see on Vintage Books trade paperbacks. That way I look really highbrow when I'm reading on a plane.

Is there a book that has changed your life? How?

Monetarily, it's Mike Dupee's How to Get on Jeopardy!...and Win! by a mile. But more personally, I think back to the books that changed my sense of humor, like Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh or (especially) Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. I read that when I was fourteen and it blew my mind. I wrote and talked like Vonnegut for the next three years.

Who are your favorite authors?

Writing today, nobody's better than Ian McEwan or Haruki Murakami. Going a little further back, George Eliot. Dostoyevsky. Fitzgerald. Poe. Too many to name. It's like choosing between your children, if your children were only witty, insightful geniuses all the time.

Do you remember a favorite book from your childhood?

I remember every favorite book from my childhood. To this day I could draw you a diagram of Professor William Waterman Sherman's unique hot-air balloon gondola in The Twenty-One Balloons or tell you every secret entrance to the junkyard headquarters of the boy detectives in "The Three Investigators." But I was also the kind of information-sponge kid who would pore over The World Almanac when the new one came out every November, which is, admittedly, a little weird.

What product would you love to endorse if the opportunity should arise?

Not to toot my own horn too much or anything, but I'm pretty much a genius on the Etch-a-Sketch. Portraits, landscapes, abstracts...I can do it all. I think I should be the celebrity spokesperson for Etch-a-Sketch.

Will you be writing any more books?

Absolutely. I had such a great time traveling the country meeting trivia nuts and putting together their story in Brainiac...I definitely plan to keep writing. Probably a book of trivia, now that I've written the book about trivia. After that--well, part of the curse of being a trivia buff is that you find yourself interested in virtually everything, so that means there's no shortage of subjects I'd like to write about.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

I don't feel like I have any how-to-break-into-writing advice, except that a 75-game streak on a major syndicated quiz show is a pretty good way to get a book deal. But when it comes to process, I guess the lesson I learned from Brainiac is that almost any subject, no matter how abstruse, is fractal in nature: it becomes endlessly interesting if you just look close enough. If a book about American trivia culture, for crying out loud, can be successfully received, then anything can. So have the courage of your convictions, authors. The things that obsess you will also interest others--if you can just figure out the right way to present them.


I assume that when the printed version is posted online, it will be found here.

Posted by lisa at December 21, 2006 12:56 PM
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