One of the best parts of working at a startup publisher is the insanely wide variety of projects. On any given day, I could be editing manuscripts, searching the Internet for dirty pictures (for book covers!), QA-ing our tech, or Googling the color of Adderall (for fact checking purposes!). But last fall Lisa dropped a doozie in my lap called the Rock Bottom Remainders. Could I product manage the book and co-edit it with Sam Barry? Absolutely not. Kidding! Hell yes, I could.

Nine months later, I am so proud of our book and all the collaboration that took place to make Hard Listening a reality. It turns out, I not only had the honor of spending time with the authors’ words but I also learned a few things along the way. Here is the short list…

1. It is scary as shit to edit bestselling authors.
I’ve been fortunate to work with some talented and amazing writers, but there are bestselling authors, and there are BESTSELLING AUTHORS. No matter who you’ve edited before, when the works of Stephen King, Scott Turow, Amy Tan, etc. cross your desk—all at once—it is scary as shit.

Stephen King’s essay was one of the first to arrive for editing. Oh. My. God, Stephen King sent me something! (Really that last sentence should be animated and in all caps). Sam, however, seemed largely unfazed…probably because he knew him so well, but I like to believe he reached for the flask hidden under his desk too.

But I soon remembered that the scariest moment is always just before you start.[1] Once I was appropriately fortified (with donuts and chips), I found that it was an unbelievable pleasure to read Stephen, and each and every author’s piece. They are bestsellers for a reason, and my job was to be an informed and helpful reader. I quickly realized that we could make a difference.

2. Sometimes you have to kill your darlings. Repeatedly.
When you’ve been given extensive access to faxes, emails, letters, photos, and videos of the Rock Bottom Remainders, you, tragically, have to leave some of your favorite clips on the cutting room floor even if the clips are—to work in as many metaphors as possible—music to your ears. Like this video of Mitch Albom, Dave Barry, Ridley Pearson, Greg Iles, and Stephen King rehearsing…


(Apologies in advance to anyone who gets “Surfin’ Bird” stuck in their head)

Or a letter that Dave sent to Tipper Gore inviting her to perform with the band.

So for the sake of narrative cohesion, you have to make cuts, even if you’re kicking, screaming, and crying as it happens, even when a little piece of you just dies along with it. And especially when FOX says you can only use one Simpsons image and so you have to lose this one and this one.

3. It takes at least 6-8 hours to think of a funny email reply to Dave Barry.
And by then, it’s way too late to act upon your witty genius. Take, for instance, when I emailed the band to say that advanced review copies for the iPad version of Hard Listening were available.


Dave Barry, Thursday, 5:49 PM
What about us Windows people?

[Mass panic ensues at Coliloquy headquarters. Is Dave joking? What if he’s serious? How does he not have an iPad? Quick email to Ridley confirms lack of iPad. Discuss solutions. Sit down to compose reply.]

Jennifer Lou, Thursday, 6:09 PM
If you have a Windows computer and an iPad, the transfer process should be the same. If you, however, don’t have an iPad, we’re happy to send a loaner.

Dave Barry, Friday, 11:51 AM
No, I can get an iPad. It’s just I’d rather not put iTunes on my computer, and then have it do all of its iTunes things.

Jennifer Lou, Friday, 12:09 PM (long reply sent)

Dave Barry, Friday, 12:17 PM
I think you just sent me an email, but I did something that sent it somewhere where I can’t find it. It’s not even (cue spooky music) in Trash. So if you did just send me an email, please re-send it. Thanks.

Jennifer Lou, Friday 12:22 PM (Forwarded email)
I have to confess, I *just* returned from the store and picked up an iPad. I was planning to ship it your way with the book preloaded on it (that’ll also get around having iTunes on your computer). Sorry to complicate this, we feel strongly that you should see the interactive version of the book.

Dave Barry, Friday, 12:27 PM
No! Sorry you did that! I was just being a whiner. I put the book onto my wife’s iPad and will read it this weekend.

Jennifer Lou, Friday 12:35 PM
It’s all good. I got some exercise up and down the SF hills, which is a nice break from being in front of the computer.

Jennifer Lou, Friday 12:37 PM
PS. I’m on crutches.

Pretty good, right? Except that I never sent that 12:37PM email because I only thought of a reply later, like 8:14 PM later, while recounting the story to my husband, who is required by marital law to laugh at my jokes.

4. I learned where my spleen is.

5. Enjoy the process.
When the Remainders and Coliloquy came up with book titles, it was one of the most no-holds-barred brainstorming sessions ever. Here are some of the utterly funny and ridiculous ideas that came up:

Stephen King and 11 Others Die in Fiery Crash (Not Really)
The Joy Suck Club
The Whom
I Know Why the Stephen King Sings
50 Shades of Gray Hair
Three Chords and a Bibliography
And Now, the E-Remainders
The True Reason Santa Lives At The North Pole
If I Remember the Chords I’ll Forget My Pants

Clearly, we ended up in a better place. But a little part of me wanted to keep brainstorming, just to see what Roy Blount Jr. came up with next. And sometimes, enjoying the process can also get you to the destination, even when you can’t quite picture where you’re headed.

6. Trying to encapsulate my experience with Hard Listening is like trying to fit an elephant into a Planters Cheez Balls container.
The Rock Bottom Remainders were beyond gracious in letting us into their lives and archives, even when we asked them for more, and more. Especially Sam Barry, my co-editor, who humored me when I was in fan-girl mode, and humbled me by entrusting me with boxes upon boxes of Kathi Kamen Goldmark’s treasured Remainder archives, not to mention access to his own email (which if you’re reading this, Sam, I never ended up needing to log in to…so your secrets are safe with the NSA).

For the duration of the project, one of my favorite pasttimes was holing up with Kathi’s archives and reading correspondence from the early days of the band. I was captivated by the literary greatness sitting in my very own apartment, within reach of my fingertips. I fell in love again with words and writing as I pored through faxes upon faxes between Remainders, notably the ones from one-time band member Robert Fulghum, whose talent was so obvious even in his most mundane communications. I’ll be relinquishing those archives soon, but will always cherish the time that they’ve been in my keep.

Wow, did I have fun working on this. But what will remain with me is more than just laughs. The Remainders impressed me with the fact that you can be famously talented yet still gracious and grounded (so long as you choose it); they reminded me that there is humor even when you hit rock bottom (or at least as you surface from it); that any interest that feeds your soul, no matter how big or small, is worth nurturing; and that it’s good to keep perspective and not lose your head too much over the small stuff because life is so, so short and there’s still so much to explore.

The Rock Bottom Remainders were together for 20 years, that’s well over a quarter-millennia of wisdom distilled into this one little book. This one little insightful book infused with a whole lot of humor and love.

They’ve clarified how it is that I want to be in this world. They taught me a thing or two on how to live life right, and more fully. And I hope that you’ll get that too as you rock out to their tales and tunes.

Personally, I can’t wait for the band to get back together. Until then just remember…

7. Everybody’s heard about the bird
Bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word ♫

 


[1] Stephen King, On Writing