Ken Jennings


September 9, 2006

nontrivial.jpgThree days until Brainiac! My copy of EW showed up in the mail yesterday so I got to wave my B+ proudly around the room. (Though I gotta say: Ken Tucker, I love you as a music and TV reviewer, but if a few measly pages on Thomas Edison’s love of trivia is enough to bore you, you might want to stay far, far away from book revewing.) Mindy was most excited (in a Mike Wazowski, “I was on TV!” kind of way) by her microscopic photo credit hidden in the binding of the review page. Check it out! She’s famous!

Book titles like Brainiac might seen effortless, but this one was a nightmarish six-month ordeal. Literally nightmarish, not in the sense of “like a nightmare” but more like “I was having nightmares about it at the time.”

The original title on the pitch (when it was a little more autobio, a little less trivia exegesis) was The Smartest Man in Syndication. The focus of the book changed while I was writing it, and I needed a title that took the spotlight off of me and onto trivia culture, so I turned in the first few chapters under the title Nontrivial. (Even then I was going for one of those gimmicky one-word nonfiction titles. Pop!: A History of the World Told Via Balloon Animals. Receiver: The Secret Life of Telephone Psychics. You’ve seen these things, right?)

My editor hated Nontrivial (and my plan B, Trivialized) calling it “boring and flat.” So the finished first draft was called Things Not Generally Known, at his suggestion. (This is also the name of a Victorian trivia book that I describe in Chapter 4). It grew on me.

But wait! Higher-up at Random House were skeptical about Things Not Generally Known (the title…they liked the manuscript), calling it unobvious and precious. Then the room suggested the (unobvious and precious) Elephants Can’t Jump: And Other Encounters in the Madcap World of Trivia. You can’t blame Random House, since they’d just had a big hit with Why Men Have Nipples, but I really didn’t want a title of the one-sample-fact kind. To me it sounded like a book of trivia, not a book about trivia. (Plus David Feldman had got there first.)

So bad titles flew back and forth for months. All the Answers. Trivia Nation. Matters of Fact. The Secret Life of Trivia Geeks. For a while, I really liked the paradox and Wildean homage in The Importance of Being Trivial, but Random House, it turned out, didn’t want any title with “trivia” in the name, since they said it (a) sounded like an ’80s throwback, and (b) made the book sound unimportant.

It started to remind me, and not pleasantly, of trying to come up with 75 interview anecdotes for Jeopardy!…the e-mails would just keep coming, months after I was all out of ideas. I found myself wandering through bookstore nonfiction suggestions looking for title templates to steal.

Finally, in mid-January, the editor next door to mine suggested Brainiac and it immediately struck my editor as the perfect title. When he told me I did have an “Aha!” moment. It wasn’t “Aha! This is perfect!” but it was “Aha! This is the catchy, easy-to-market title they will talk me into!” I’m wasn’t crazy about having spent a year and a half coming right back around to the autobio-style title. I still worry that it sounds like I’m calling myself a brainiac, which might strike people as ego as often as it strikes them as charming self-deprecation. But it was pithy and it was a Superman reference, and that goes a long way with me.

The relief that followed reminded me, again, of losing on Jeopardy! “Thank goodness I don’t have to come up with any more of those @#$% interview anecdotes!”

Posted by Ken at 10:22 am