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"Indexer! Indexer!" —a standing ovation from the author

by Willowdean Vance

This article first appeared in Press Woman 55 (6), December 1992, and was reprinted by permission in The Indexer 19 (2), October 1994. Reprinted by permission

According to Rose Grant, "Cookbook indexing is not easy as ABC."

Her entertaining article with this title in the May/June 1991 issue of the American Society of Indexers Newsletter caught my eye as I completed the index to a rather unusual autobiography-cookbook combination called Cookin' with Queen Ida.

Rose began her article with the most common complaint from all indexers—"Author! author! Standing ovation, fame and fortune." No one, she wrote, calls "Indexer! Indexer!" That is, before Queen Ida changed things.

Ida Guillory's Creole recipes and colorful, down-home stories of growing up in Cajun country where good food and good music are a way of life, brought back the wonderful aromas of my grandmother's farm cooking. I was hooked.

If I had followed one of the indexing codes—never accept any phone call from publishers after 4 o'clock—I would have missed out on one of the main battles indexers fight. How to get credit for your work?

Not many people are aware that the US Copyright Office says an index is a creative work of art. The indexer is entitled to copyright the index as the author, unless they contract to work as hired help, because very few publishers credit indexers.

When I happily accepted my late afternoon call from a well-known book production firm, I was told to limit the index to eight pages of two columns each, due to a space problem. This is another no-no in the indexing bible. Try to avoid having publishers limit your work because it might spoil the quality.

There's only one problem with this logic. I used to be a publisher of monthly magazines, I had to beg, scream and threaten my typesetters, art department, etc to come within three weeks of my schedule. If I hadn't worn makeup, my face would have been blue with fear from deadline wars year in and year out. Now, I had to honor an old Indian proverb: "No chief should judge another until he has walked at least two weeks in his moccasins."

Ida's little book had a happy home even though problem number three meant burning the midnight oil, facing my IBM monster-monitor without break, to complete the book in four days!

A short index is like trying to stuff a size 10 foot into a size 5 shoe! There would be few See or See also's and each entry would be evaluated many times—main entrée, side dish, or . . . ?

By the day I handed the precious hard copy and disk to our Federal Express courier, Ida Guillory, also known as Queen Ida, was family to me.

I sat in her one-room schoolhouse. I worked barefoot by her side, in the farm fields. I sat on the floor at family gatherings and listened to her dad play the lively, foot-stomping, Zydeco music. I crouched down in her small bedroom trying to learn to play her brother's accordion by ear, without being caught. Girls are not allowed to play Zydeco music. Music is a man's work? I spent hours in the kitchen by her mother's side cooking up the tasty vittles farm hands eat so quickly. Last, but not least, I swelled with pride when Ida grew up, acquired her own band, and won a Grammy award for her talent and skill.

The first Creole woman to head a Zydeco band, and here she is—a famous international star, completely self-made—linked to me through the index.

I requested a copy of the little book just so I could reach out and touch Ida Guillory—my real Queen. It is a bright yellow book with splashes of green and red and a smiling, glowing picture of Ida squeezing the accordion in the middle of peppers, okra, and shrimp!

Indexer meets author

Then the surprise of all surprises happened. I picked up a copy of Saddleback News to digest with a late dinner. On the show business page I read in shock: "Queen Ida and her Zydeco Band appearing tonight." Our very own community college was playing host to my favorite queen at 8 p.m. It was already seven!

I looked at my black knit cotton pants, the long-sleeved pullover black sweater with huge orange, red, purples and gold cats dancing across the front, down at my black boots. I looked more ready for the Mardi Gras, than attending a concert.

Opportunity was calling me louder than my vanity! I picked up the copy of her book; my staff was away for the evening. I had to do the one extra thing against my rules. Drive the I-5 freeway south on a weekend!

When my van squealed into the parking lot, my watch read 7:45 p.m. Not a minute to waste in a dash to the ticket window. A smiling gentleman handed me the Queen Ida ticket with the unexpected good news, "You can have this at half price because it's the last one I have to sell tonight!"

Inside the huge auditorium music was already vibrating the entire hall. The sound of tapping feet and clapping hands surrounded me as I made my way all the way to the back of the room and directly across from the high stage. Ida Guillory was a vision in bright blue, dancing back and forth, hugging her beloved accordion that invited all the guests to dance with its lively tempo. While I picked my way to my seat, guests were climbing over me to dance, strangers reaching out to strangers across aisles like a Polish wedding reception!

In the midst of this Mardi Gras party I found one of my Index Plus flyers (one of our Mark Twain promoter's threatening to shoot the editor for changing his text)!

We hadn't changed any text, and Mark Twain would never know a stranger, so I used a pen to scribble a message across his handsome profile. "I indexed your book, Cookin' With Queen Ida."

In a short time, the old intuition whispered to me, "head for the stage." With her book and my flyer clutched in my hot little hand and the loud, pulsating music driving me, I made the side of the stage just as she reached down for a drink of water.

I held up the copy of her book, which brought her to the side of the stage, and she bent over to take the flyer I handed her. Her big dark brown eyes lit up; she smiled warmly and shook my hand before heading to the front of the stage and taking her mike in her hand.

"Ladies and gentlemen," she said, still smiling, as they greeter her return with thunderous applause, "earlier tonight, I told you my new book, Cookin' With Queen Ida, would be in the stores soon; now, I have learned my indexer, Willowdean Vance is here tonight. I want her to stand up so I can introduce her to you."

The many colored spotlights swung around the stage, following her hand, pointed to me, in a shocked daze. The author, my Queen Ida, was applauding to give me a hand and her captivated audience stood, applauding this surprised little indexer dressed in black who had come for the author's autograph.

Where credit is due

I didn't fill out the survey mailed to me by the American Society of Indexers asking if you want credit for your work. I had been busy at the time.

Back in the year 1970, I had vowed to add indexing to my writing career, after I had become known as columnist and author, to satisfy a gripe against my consumer publication, Money doctor.

The reviewing editor of the prestigious New York Library Journal began her review with the glowing words, "Here's one I recommend for just about any library, and it's bound to prove popular and useful . . . It is a common sense solution to financial and consumer problems . . . the clear down-to-earth style, usually well documented, leads the reader to think the editor is as involved with helping him as with helping herself . . . the good lady editor might do librarians and others a large favor by THOROUGHLY INDEXING each volume." (I had two out at the time.)

I waved the review under the nose of my publisher, who had insisted to of his staff handle the index while I stick to editing and writing the creative stuff!

I knew I would not rest until I had conquered the indexing field enough to help someone and wipe out this scar on my otherwise successful publication. An index needs much detail to be usable. It is like a map, and you need all the streets and the cross-intersections and the cul-de-sacs.

Now, in 1991, another author was sharing her much-deserved spotlight with me, her unknown but appreciated indexer. It was a little book as books go. I have a room full of credits, but the night of June 8 was for all indexers who couldn't be there to stand up, including my co-workers, Diane, Russ, and Rudy.

Some people say the indexer always gets the last word, but i can tell you, from how warm I feel when I read Queen Ida's autograph in my book, it's great to know the US Copyright Office is not the only source of credit.

Perhaps the best way for an indexer to get credit is to follow my example. Indexer! Indexer! Go out and meet the authors; the standing ovation could be yours as easy as ABC, author to author!

* * * *

Willowdean Vance has been a national consultant on constitutional rights and property rights while working on a book, Up To My Ass In Alligators. Among many other accomplishments, she has designed an index flyer with Barbara Bush, and is interested in the indexes of Thomas Jefferson.