Lonely Planet San Francisco author workshop, February ’08

Both LP people and sick voyeuristic bystanders have been asking when I’m going to write up a review of the author workshop I attended in rainy San Francisco two weeks ago. When vivid descriptions of impending physical deformities started arriving from the editor pool in Melbourne, I decided I’d better slap something together. Don’t mess with the Aussies.

Before I start with the sarcasm and the hilarious, libelous, semi-fabricated rumors for the sake of your entertainment, I have to honestly report that I love these workshops. Who wouldn’t? LP flies all of us in at their expense, puts us up in a hotel, feeds and waters us, all for the pleasure of productive information exchange and a strengthened sense of community. LP is still the only guidebook publisher that brings together its authors en masse like this. Keep in mind that we’re all a bunch of freelancers, working contract to contract – there are no payrolled authors at LP. Some authors work for LP year round, others [cough] only once a year, as expressly ordered by our federally-assigned team of therapists. There’s no guarantee that any of the authors they flew in and showered with swag and wine will ever work for them again, yet there we were, bonding, sharing, arguing, laughing, flirting and boinking.

(Whoops, the lawyers inform me that there was no boinking – none at all. We were under 24-hour anti-boinking surveillance by military-trained and equipped catholic nuns. There may have been lap-sitting, backrub giving and wholly unintentional boob grazing while reaching for our fourth glass of Chardonnay, but no boinking!)

LP holds author workshops three times a year (once at each office: San Fran, London and Melbourne) to chat, share work tips and feedback and of course party down like only comped journalists can. The strengthening of the author/in-house relationship, the networking and the chance for everyone to sharpen their guidebook research/writing skills is priceless.

So, needless to say we had a blast. And this time it was a very condensed blast. The usual three day workshop was boiled down to two, presumably in order to allow 50 authors to attend, rather than the usual 25-30. Despite one less night of debauchery, this workshop was more draining than average, but perhaps my perspective was tainted. I’d attended two previous LP workshops and both times I arrived in severely altered states, due to either insane travel demands persisting until 12 hours before the workshop opened or weeks of staggering work and sleeplessness. So seeing as how this was the first workshop I’ve attended where I was a) awake, b) lucid and c) remembered stuff, I don’t have a strong knowledge-base to work from. Nevertheless, after two days, I was so beat that I could barely stay conscious during the first unforgivably boring 57 minutes of the Super Bowl later that weekend.

We met and heard from our new BBC overlords who were totally awesome and hilarious. The situation, as it currently stands, is they intend to change nothing while creating a partnership that could be mutually advantageous for both organizations. LP could certainly enjoy their help in a few arenas and, though nothing concrete was laid out, there were insinuations put forth that the author pool would have access to more writing opportunities in the future with other BBC publications, an information bomb that even the most jaded author couldn’t help perking up over.

Debates over current issues were mostly cordial and productive. LP’s CEO, Judy Slater, was in attendance displaying the full range of the initiative, brilliance and good Aussie humor that brought LP out of the quagmire wrought by her predecessor. Her selective, but casual use of the f-word endeared me to her even further.

At night we ate and drank heartily. The food was less impressive than last year, but the wine glasses were constantly refilled, never getting below half mast, which enabled us to drink dangerous amounts with carefree abandon, never fully knowing how many glasses we’d actually consumed in total. Five? Twelve? Seriously, I have no idea.

The other authors were, as always, equally fabulous and dangerously eccentric. One of the best parts of these workshops is that I always come away secure in the knowledge that I’m not even close to being the nuttiest LP author out there.

Not. Even. Close.


Batshit crazy.

I can’t name names here or even describe affectations in detail without betraying identities, but yoinks! Shazam!! It’s no secret that a writer’s talent is usually directly proportional to how insane they are, but it’s still always a little disconcerting to see it live and unedited. You can’t help but ponder how these people can even pay their cable bill, much less author 150 pages of diligently researched guidebook text, but there you go. One of the unsolved mysteries of the universe continues.

By the same token, I met some authors that are so brilliant and insightful that they should be president of the whole planet. Five or six of these people placed in the right positions could probably bring about world peace and cider for all in under 18 months. I fall somewhere in the middle. I’m not quite presidential material, but I can get through a 15 minute conversation without recounting my most recent alien abduction, when I was flown to the royal moon of Dhgvjy’t to advise the Emperor’s chef on my shrimp ceviche recipe.

The day after the workshop, I taped two short travel guide videos (one on Minneapolis and one on Tuscany) that will be posted on lonelyplanet.com in March or so. Due to timing and logistics, I only had about an hour to prepare for the two hours of questioning under white-hot lights, so instead of being informative, animated and witty, there was a lot of scattered uming, ahing, repetition and eventually cheap dick jokes for lack of anything truly hilarious to say. But that’s why they have editors, right? I can’t be amazing 24 hours a day, can I? I mean, I already got looks, wit, parallel paring skills and a voice like an angel, so excuse me if I speak incoherently once in a while.

I stayed in San Fran over the weekend with one of my Italy colleagues, to whom I’m ever grateful even if she tried to ditch me in dodgy parts of town twice in six hours. Those failings aside, I slept in a comfortable bed, she drove me everywhere and I totally saw her boobies in an artistic picture that she forgot to hide before I arrived.

I returned home to three crushing writing gigs that I’d mostly ignored for a week and I’ve been playing catch up ever since. And what better time to barricade yourself in your apartment for two weeks of ball-busting writing than when it’s 40 below wind chill outside? It’s a good thing that I didn’t tape the Minneapolis travel video this week. Rather than “green spaces, theatre, food and music!” it would have been “[expletive], [expletive], [expletive] cold, [expletive], [expletive], [expletive] suicidal, [expletive], [expletive], [expletive], frozen testicles, [expletive], [expletive], [expletive] my pasty white ass!!”

In closing, on a totally non-workshop, LP rumor mill note, the Lonely Planet Italy guidebook that I co-authored a tiny little section of hit stores recently and the long-awaited Tuscany and Umbria guidebook, in which I wrote/updated 100 pages, should be released any day now. I’ll of course be posting far more substantially about these developments as soon as I’ve got a copy of T&U in my hands and have slept with it naked at least twice.