Writers, like people in general, inflate their own significance, so I try to emphasize my complete lack of impact on the culture around me, since it happens to be true. The closest thing I ever did to being an innovator of anything was the "Shiver like rhesus monkeys" chapter of Complete & Utter Failure, which followed a girl through a year of the National Spelling Bee. Myna Goldberg was inspired by it to write "Bee Season," so she says in the book's acknowledgments, which kicked off the whole bee-as-literature genre, with the movies and plays and such that followed, all of which did better than my book, although it was reviewed, well, in the Washington Post, and landed me on "Oprah," so I shouldn't complain either.
My plan was to pick someone who had competed in the nationals the previous year, on the assumption that she had to be good to have gotten that far once and, having whiffed victory, would redouble her efforts this year.
I settled on a twelve-year old girl named Sruti Nadimpalli, basically because she lived close to Chicago and her last name did not present the phone book problems implicit in finding Gary Lee, the other local speller who had made it to the nationals the year before.
Even as I was leaving a message at the Nadimpalli house, I was nervous about explaining precisely what I had in mind. I couldn't lie and say I wanted to track Sruti's triumphant return to the nationals, culminating in victory this time.
But I couldn't say I wanted to document her second failure on the national stage either, to observe her humiliation and dissect it for my own particular purposes. "Hi! I'm a stranger writing a book on failure, and thought that I'd devote seventy-five pages to your young daughter, provided you give me access to her...."
What then to tell the mom? In my mind, I had conjured up a wildly protective, fictional mother for Sruti, someone who would share her daughter's bee compulsion. A fearsome image who would probably turn me down cold. And then what?
Even at the moment we were on the phone together—up to the point when Sruti's mother, in her charming, lilting accent, asked "And what is this book about?"— I wasn't sure what to say. Naturally, I fudged. I said that the book was about "success and failure," then slowly peeled away the success part.
As always, the reality was more interesting than what I had imagined before the fact. Dr. Nadimpalli didn't need me to soft-pedal at all—she quickly grasped, and even seemed to embrace, the idea of the spelling bee as a failure metaphor, and cheerfully agreed to present my proposal to her daughter. A week later I was at their home.
Photo atop blog: Tom Mansfield, a guard at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, standing before "Homage to Uccello #5" by Boston artist Anna Hepler.