A Week in Culture: Tom Nissley, Writer and Game-Show Contestant


The Culture Diaries


I am, in theory, living the dream: I made a lot of money on a game show and quit my job to write. In December, I won eight times on Jeopardy! and suddenly found myself the third-leading money winner in the history of the show (aside from tournaments and John Henry–style man-versus-machine battles). I left my job (as an editor on the Books store) in March, and ever since I’ve been trying to sort out how to get all the things done for which there still aren’t enough hours in the day: reading, working on a novel every day instead of once a week, blogging, umpiring Little League, writing another book that the world might want more than a weird novel about silent movies, saying hi to my wife more than I used to, and, crucially, preparing for the next Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions, which hasn’t been announced yet and which I haven’t yet been invited to, though it seems like a safe bet. For better or worse (better!), being a game-show contestant is now one of my jobs.

12:26 P.M. At a nearby café I open up Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I have a house full of books I’ve been dying to get to, and if I don’t now, when will I? Nevertheless, sitting down in the middle of the day and opening a Thomas Hardy novel seems a perverse flouting of modern productivity. But in this age of fictional implication and indirection, I’ve developed a taste for imperious, know-it-all narrators: there is a real pleasure in being told something once in a while—even, or especially, by someone who may not know everything they think they do.

1:26 P.M. A track by the late, great comic Mitch Hedberg on earphone shuffle: “I just said ‘snake eyes.’ It’s a gambling term. Oh, it’s an animal term too.”

1:28 P.M. Next on shuffle: “The Gift,” off the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat. I am unfailingly charmed by John Cale’s deadpan Welsh reading of the banal American chatter of Lou Reed’s story, which seems straight out of Lolita: “‘I’m supposed to be taking these salt pills but’—she wrinkled her nose—‘they make me feel like throwing up.’”

10:55 P.M. Tonight’s Jeopardy! (on TiVo, after watching lovable ex-Terp Greivis Vasquez play key triple-overtime minutes in the NBA playoffs) is the first semifinal in the inaugural Teacher’s Tournament. The J! discussion-board opinion is that the questions have been dumbed down a bit for the teachers (like they do for teens and celebrities), and it’s true that I’ve done a little better playing along than usual the past week. Today my Coryat score is 36,000, a little above my average. But I knew the Final Jeopardy category, “The Titanic,” would be a disaster (ha!) for me: “When the ship sank in 1912, among its cargo was 7 million pieces of this, in over 3,400 sacks.” All I can think of is “silver,” but I know it’s wrong.


10:25 A.M. Back to Tess. She’s a maiden no more.

11:40 A.M. This second section of Tess is melancholy and thrilling (two words that are more or less synonyms in my mind), in a way that makes the first section seem just some mechanical business to get us to this point of truth.

12:15 P.M. All I’ve done so far to prepare for a return to Jeopardy! is play along with the show every night and keep track of how I do. At some point I know I will get more systematic about figuring out my weak spots, but some are so glaring I don’t need a statistical analysis to reveal them. Today I open up The Great Composers, one of a stack of references (on chemistry, Latin roots, art history, etc.) I picked up last week, and start filling a spreadsheet with names, dates, and notable facts. Can I confess what an unalloyed pleasure this is? It’s a completely superficial exercise, but it hints at, and gives a structure to, a complex cultural history I’d love to immerse myself in.

9:40 P.M. My friend Josh and I go around the corner from his apartment to catch up with Bill Cunningham New York before it leaves town, and it’s at least as wonderful as everyone says. It’s pretty much impossible not to come out of it with your pretensions deflated and your desire to do good and personal work enlivened. The cot squeezed between his filing cabinets, the three dollar sandwiches, the monkish devotion to his craft: those are all voluptuously appealing (to me). What would fill me with despair is all the small talk he has to make at the society parties he shoots.

11:55 P.M. I stop at Dick’s for a shake on my way home, and feel like I’m still under the spell of the movie. The other customers are three young guys who have, with pride, parked a tricked-out custom Dodge that Cunningham, if he gave a damn about cars, would appreciate: purple paint job, bright yellow rims, and butterfly doors. I do my best to stay true to the film by taking a (poorly lit) snap with my phone.


9:05 A.M. Every morning when we walk past this extremely shallow pile of dirt on our block labeled, generously, “FREE,” I am happily reminded of the scene in Kicking and Screaming (the Noah Baumbach post-college movie, not the Will Ferrell soccer-dad one) when the great Chris Eigeman puts a homemade BROKEN GLASS sign on his floor rather than actually cleaning his broken glass up. And then I’m further reminded of Eigeman’s story from the commentary track about a fan who came up to him at a restaurant and silently placed a BROKEN GLASS sign at his feet, which ever since has been my Platonic ideal for fan-celeb interaction.

2:10 P.M. Only one previous Culture Diary (Richard Brody, Part II) has the “Werner Heisenberg” tag, but in the time leading up to my diary week I kept thinking of the uncertainty principle. Brody used it to describe the way that his daily habits were being warped by the necessity of recording them for the diary, but I wondered about a similar distortion: Would I do things just so I could write about them in the diary? I even devised a notation system: I would mark such staged events with an (H) for Heisenberg. In practice, though, I’ve ended up mostly doing what I probably would have done anyway, at least until now, when instead of reading a magazine with my lunch I put in The Spirit of the Beehive to finish a viewing I started on a plane trip a few weeks ago (H). The movie, which I’d been wanting to see for years, feels like a benign Iberian cousin of The Shining—and then suddenly maybe not so benign. Meanwhile, after saying on day one how much I enjoyed Hardy’s pushy telling, here I relish how very little telling there is at all.

4:35 P.M. I’m pretty good about not going on the Web when I’m writing, but I’m stuck in a scene for my silent-movie novel about the staging of a battle, and I idly go online to see where I can find a copy of Cabiria, the 1914 Italian picture that is probably the closest real film to the pretend one in my story, though I’ve never seen it. I expect I’ll be lucky to find it at Scarecrow, my miraculously encyclopedic local video store, but—crazy world—Netflix has it available for streaming and a minute later I’m watching it.

7:55 P.M. Catching up with the Jeopardy! teachers’ semis from yesterday and today: I’m still doing better than usual, with Coryats of 41,800 and 37,400. Immediate payoff for my new study regimen: a day after taking notes on the Baroque composers, there’s a “Going for Baroque” category. I get all five right, although I’m not sure any are from the studying. Meanwhile, I feel terrible for John, who lost yesterday’s game because he left off a “1” and bet $7,001 instead of $17,001. He looks mortified.

8:50 P.M. A quick dose of bedtime reading with Peter, my eleven-year-old: We’re working our way through the complete Sherlock Holmes. (It’s the only Kindle reading I do, aside from thumbing through Stieg Larsson on my phone.) I love that, along the way, he’s acquired a working knowledge of the transportation options of late Victorian London, from dogcarts to hansoms.

11:25 P.M. I fall into a classic Net rabbit hole: via a Facebook link from a writer friend, I dive into the video recordings of two cops interrogating a fellow LAPD detective about a cold-case murder of the wife of an old boyfriend of hers. I follow up with Mike McGough’s Atlantic piece about the case.  The article’s interesting, but the videos are can’t-miss stuff, if only for the experience of watching someone (allegedly—the case hasn’t come to trial yet) comprehend—and deny—that the jig is up after twenty-three years. Meanwhile, back on Facebook, in the comments another writer (who’s also a cop) argues that taping interrogations like this has knocked down homicide resolution in Chicago to all-time lows. Hmm: bad for law enforcement, good for defendants and voyeurs of human nature?

Tom Nissley was a Books editor for for ten years, before he won a lot of money on Jeopardy!. He lives in Seattle and now blogs, mostly on books, at Ephemeral Firmament. Check back tomorrow for his second installment.